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When a Guarantee Isn’t Guaranteed

NFL free agency is in full swing, which means big multiyear deals are flying around. Most savvy fans know that those contracts aren’t set in stone. But just how fluid are they? We analyzed five years’ worth of free-agent agreements to see how long they really last—and how much they really pay.

Ringer illustration

Eric Winston was not surprised when the Kansas City Chiefs released him one year into a four-year contract. The offensive tackle signed the $22 million deal with Kansas City on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, but the team went 2-14 that year and had its eyes on a left tackle with the no. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Winston knew that if the Chiefs drafted a tackle, he could be gone. And on March 6, 2013, six weeks before Kansas City drafted Eric Fisher and just 354 days and $5.5 million into Winston’s contract, he was cut.

“Looking back, would I have done something else? Yeah, maybe,” Winston said. “But I knew going into that exactly what the downfalls possibly could be.”

Winston has been the president of the NFL Players Association since 2014, so he understood just how little of the face value he might receive. But he is not confident that many other players signing deals in free agency understand how precarious their situations are, even after signing a so-called long-term deal.

“You have to understand how this contract is going to play out at every single point,” Winston said.

The best lies are interwoven with truth, and NFL contracts are some of the best lies in sports. This free-agency period, which kicked off on Wednesday, has seen contracts with eye-popping total money figures for Trey Flowers, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, C.J. Mosley, Lamarcus Joyner, and many other players, but both the sticker price and number of years in headlines are usually a farce. NFL contracts are playing cards held at the right angle to look like bricks. For anyone familiar with the league, it’s not jolting to hear that football players get released often or don’t always earn the total value of their deals, which, unlike NBA or MLB contracts, are nonguaranteed. We know NFL contracts are lying to us, and now we finally can see how big of a lie they are.

The Ringer studied every multiyear free-agent contract in Spotrac’s database signed from 2011, the start of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, to 2015—a total of 663 deals. This data focuses solely on contracts signed during free agency, so it doesn’t account for rookie contracts, contract extensions, or players who re-signed with their team before becoming unrestricted free agents. It also excludes one-year free-agent deals.

The results were staggering: A player who signs a five-year deal has better odds of lasting one year (14.7 percent) than he does of lasting five years (13.7 percent). Players who sign four-year contracts in free agency have the exact same odds of lasting one year on the deal (23.1 percent) as lasting four years. Players on three-year contracts have roughly the same odds of the deal ending in one full season or less (34.3 percent) as they do of lasting the full term (36.2 percent). Less than half of players who sign two-year deals last two years (45.8 percent), and one-sixth don’t even make it through the first year. If time is money, in the NFL both are relative.

The first and fundamental lie of NFL contracts is that the number of years matters. In reality, the length listed has little relation to how long a player will be on a team. Depending on the agreement and how much guaranteed money is involved, teams can cut players with little or no ramification as soon as one or two years into the deal.

“The contracts become suggestions after the first year,” said Andrew Brandt, the host of the Business of Sports podcast and the Green Bay Packers’ vice president of player finance and chief negotiator from 1999 to 2008. “The number of years doesn’t really matter.”

A look at how deep free agents make it into their deals confirms that NFL contracts aren’t commitments.

How Long Long-Term Deals Really Last

Years 0 1 2 3 4 5 Total Deals Signed
Years 0 1 2 3 4 5 Total Deals Signed
2Y Deals 16.4% 37.8% 45.8% 299
3Y Deals 5.5% 28.8% 29.4% 36.2% 163
4Y Deals 23.1% 31.9% 22.0% 23.1% 91
5Y Deals 14.7% 26.3% 27.4% 17.9% 13.7% 95
Grand Total 58 195 239 105 38 13 648

In the far-left column are the various contract lengths; five-year deals are represented as “5Y Deals” in the first column on the left, and the total number of five-year deals signed is listed in the “Total Deals Signed” column. On top are the possible numbers of years the deals lasted before players retired, were released, or finished the contract. (Retirements are not a big factor: 96.5 percent of the time a deal ended early because a player was cut, the deal was voided, or the team declined an option year.) The numbers on top count for full seasons, so if a player was released in October of the second season, that counts as one year, not two. If a player signed a contract extension during the deal, they were credited as having made it to the final year of the contract—although they technically didn’t finish the original contract, the team thought they were worth retaining. Two of the 17 players who signed five-year deals as free agents in 2015—Bengals guard Clint Boling and Raiders center Rodney Hudson—are going into the final year of their deals and have been removed from the data set.

This breakdown shows that more than half of five-year contracts lasted just two or three seasons and more than half of four-year contracts lasted for either one or two seasons. Free agents who signed deals of three years or longer from 2011 to 2015 were more than three times as likely to be released (72 percent) as they were to finish the deal (21 percent). The odds of signing a contract extension (5 percent) are only marginally higher than the odds of retiring before the deal ends (2 percent). The following chart shows players who signed either four- or five-year deals but were off the team after one full season.

Players Released a Year Into Four- and Five-Year Deals

YEAR POSITION PLAYER Current Age (2/15/19) Old Team New Team Contract Length (Years) Actual Length (Years) Total Money Actual Money Earned Percent of Total Money earned AAV Total Guaranteed Guaranteed at signing Cap Hit in Year Signed Signing Bonus? Finish Contract? Reason Restructured to Reduce Salary? Year Finished Years Accelerated
YEAR POSITION PLAYER Current Age (2/15/19) Old Team New Team Contract Length (Years) Actual Length (Years) Total Money Actual Money Earned Percent of Total Money earned AAV Total Guaranteed Guaranteed at signing Cap Hit in Year Signed Signing Bonus? Finish Contract? Reason Restructured to Reduce Salary? Year Finished Years Accelerated
2011 DE Ray Edwards 33 MIN ATL 5 1 $27,500,000 $12,000,000 43.6% $18,000,000 - - - No Released No 2012 4
2011 CB Chris Carr 35 BAL BAL 4 1 $15,200,000 $3,800,000 25.0% $6,000,000 - - - No Released No 2012 4
2011 QB Peyton Manning 42 IND IND 5 1 $90,000,000 $26,400,000 29.3% $5,600,000 - - - No Released No 2012 4
2011 LB Clint Session 33 IND JAC 5 1 $30,000,000 $11,500,000 38.3% $5,500,000 - - - No Released No 2012 4
2011 K Ryan Longwell 43 MIN MIN 4 1 $12,000,000 $5,000,000 41.7% $3,800,000 - - - No Released No 2012 3
2011 DE Jason Babin 38 TEN PHI 5 1 $28,000,000 $11,000,000 39.3% $3,000,000 - - - No Released No 2012 3
2011 WR Jacoby Jones 33 HOU HOU 3 1 $10,500,000 $3,500,000 33.3% $3,500,000 - - - No Released No 2012 2
2011 CB Drayton Florence 37 BUF BUF 3 1 $15,000,000 $5,000,000 33.3% $5,000,000 - - - No Released No 2012 2
2011 G Kyle Kosier 39 DAL DAL 3 1 $6,500,000 $2,300,000 35.4% $2,166,667 - - - No Released No 2012 2
2012 G Adam Snyder 36 SF ARI 5 1 $17,500,000 $6,000,000 34.3% $7,000,000 - - - No Released No 2013 4
2012 DE Mark Anderson 35 NE BUF 4 1 $27,500,000 $8,000,000 29.1% $7,500,000 - - - No Released No 2013 4
2012 DT Frostee Rucker 34 CIN CLE 5 1 $20,500,000 $6,000,000 29.3% $4,100,000 $8,000,000 - - $5,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 4
2012 WR Laurent Robinson 33 DAL JAC 5 1 $32,500,000 $14,000,000 43.1% $3,500,000 - - - $5,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 4
2012 FS Dwight Lowery 32 JAC JAC 4 1 $13,600,000 $4,000,000 29.4% $6,500,000 - - - No Released No 2013 4
2012 RT Eric Winston 34 HOU KC 4 1 $22,000,000 $5,500,000 25.0% $7,000,000 $13,500,000 - - $4,250,000.00 No Released No 2013 4
2012 RT Demetress Bell 34 BUF PHI 5 1 $35,000,000 $3,250,000 9.3% $5,500,000 $4,000,000 - - $4,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 3
2012 WR Robert Meachem 33 NO SD 4 1 $25,900,000 $9,000,000 34.7% $6,875,000 - - - $6,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 3
2012 T Jared Gaither 32 SD SD 4 1 $24,600,000 $9,000,000 36.6% $3,400,000 - - - $3,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 3
2012 CB Eric Wright 32 DET TB 5 1 $37,500,000 $6,044,000 16.1% $6,475,000 - - - $7,500,000.00 No Released No 2013 3
2012 OLB Kamerion Wimbley 34 OAK TEN 5 1 $35,000,000 $15,500,000 44.3% $6,150,000 - - - $8,000,000.00 No Released No 2013 3
2012 CB Aaron Ross 35 NYG JAC 3 1 $9,750,000 $2,200,000 22.6% $3,250,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 DT C.J. Mosley 34 JAC JAC 3 1 $7,425,000 $1,975,000 26.6% $2,475,000 $1,000,000 - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 TE Kevin Boss 34 OAK KC 3 1 $9,000,000 $2,531,250 28.1% $3,000,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 CB Richard Marshall 33 ARI MIA 3 1 $16,000,000 $5,112,500 32.0% $5,333,333 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 S Tom Zbikowski 33 BAL IND 3 1 $5,685,001 $1,875,001 33.0% $1,895,000 $1,175,001 - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 OLB John Abraham 40 ATL ATL 3 1 $17,718,000 $5,906,000 33.3% $5,906,000 $2,250,000 - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 OLB Tim Shaw 34 TEN TEN 3 1 $3,300,000 $1,130,000 34.2% $1,100,000 $300,000 - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 C Matt Birk 41 BAL BAL 3 1 $8,525,000 $3,025,000 35.5% $2,841,667 - - - No Retired No 2013 2
2012 TE Daniel Fells 34 DEN NE 3 1 $5,250,000 $2,000,000 38.1% $1,750,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 ILB Joe Mays 32 DEN DEN 3 1 $12,000,000 $4,794,117 40.0% $4,000,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 G Steve Hutchinson 40 MIN TEN 3 1 $16,000,000 $6,500,000 40.6% $5,333,333 - - - No Retired No 2013 2
2012 LB Brendon Ayanbadejo 41 BAL BAL 3 1 $3,210,000 $1,325,000 41.3% $1,070,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 WR Weslye Saunders 29 PIT IND 3 1 $1,660,000 $758,823 45.7% $553,333 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 WR Brandon Lloyd 36 STL NE 3 1 $12,000,000 $5,500,000 45.8% $4,000,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 ILB Chris Chamberlain 32 STL NO 3 1 $4,050,000 $1,900,000 46.9% $1,350,000 - - - No Released No 2013 2
2012 QB Matt Flynn 33 GB SEA 3 1 $19,000,000 $14,920,588 78.5% $6,333,333 - - - No Released Yes 2013 2
2013 OLB Antwan Barnes 33 SD NYJ 3 1 $4,050,000 $2,850,000 70.4% $1,350,000 $900,000 - - No Released No 2014 2
2013 S Adrian Wilson 38 ARI NE 3 1 $5,000,000 $2,666,667 53.3% $1,666,667 1,000,000 - - No Released No 2014 2
2013 CB Brice McCain 31 HOU HOU 3 1 $5,250,000 $2,250,000 42.9% $1,750,000 $2,250,000 - - No Released No 2014 2
2013 ILB Kaluka Maiava 31 CLE OAK 3 1 $6,000,000 $4,400,000 73.3% $2,000,000 $2,035,000 - - No Released No 2014 2
2013 RB Mike Goodson 31 OAK NYJ 3 1 $6,900,000 $1,331,941 19.3% $2,300,000 $1,000,000 - - No Released Yes 2014 2
2013 SS Patrick Chung 30 NE PHI 3 1 $10,000,000 $4,000,000 40.0% $3,333,333 $3,000,000 - - No Released No 2014 2
2013 DT Isaac Sopoaga 36 SF PHI 3 1 $11,000,000 $3,750,000 34.1% $3,666,667 $3,750,000 - - No Released Traded 2014 2
2013 CB Chris Houston 33 DET DET 5 1 $25,000,000 $7,500,000 30.0% $5,000,000 $6,000,000 - - No Released No 2014 3
2013 CB Derek Cox 31 JAC SD 4 1 $20,000,000 $6,000,000 30.0% $5,000,000 $7,500,000 - - $6,500,000.00 No Released No 2014 4
2014 P Jake Schum 25 TB NYJ 3 1 $1,530,000 ? 0.0% $510,000 - - - No Released No 2015 2
2014 RB Maurice Jones-Drew 29 JAC OAK 3 1 $7,500,000 $2,500,000 33.3% $2,500,000 $1,200,000 - - No Retired No 2015 2
2014 WR Ted Ginn Jr. 29 CAR ARI 3 1 $9,750,000 $3,750,000 38.5% $3,250,000 $3,250,000 - - No Released No 2015 2
2014 WR James Jones 30 GB OAK 3 1 $10,000,000 $3,800,000 38.0% $3,333,333 $3,650,000 $3,650,000 - No Released No 2015 2
2014 DE Vance Walker 27 OAK KC 3 1 $10,020,000 $3,750,000 37.4% $3,340,000 $3,750,000 - - No Released No 2015 2
2014 RB Donald Brown 27 IND SD 3 1 $10,500,000 $7,000,000 66.7% $3,500,000 $4,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 2
2014 CB Brandon Browner 30 SEA NE 3 1 $12,350,000 $2,950,000 23.9% $4,116,667 $1,000,000 - - No Declined No 2015 2
2014 G Jon Asamoah 26 KC ATL 5 1 $22,500,000 $6,000,000 26.7% $6,875,250 $1,000,000 - - No Declined No 2015 3
2014 WR Jacoby Jones 30 BAL BAL 4 1 $12,000,000 $4,500,000 37.5% $5,000,000 $9,350,000 - - No Released No 2015 3
2014 G Chris Williams 29 STL BUF 4 1 $13,150,000 $5,025,000 38.2% $4,000,000 $4,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 3
2014 DT Henry Melton 27 CHI DAL 4 1 $27,501,000 $3,286,157 11.9% $3,287,500 $3,500,000 - - No Released No 2015 3
2014 DE Evander Hood 27 PIT JAC 4 1 $16,000,000 $8,000,000 50.0% $3,000,000 $3,500,000 - - No Released No 2015 3
2014 FB Erik Lorig 27 TB NO 4 1 $4,800,000 $1,900,000 39.6% $1,200,000 $1,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 3
2014 DE Michael Johnson 27 CIN TB 5 1 $43,750,000 $14,962,500 34.2% $8,750,000 $18,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 4
2014 LT Anthony Collins 28 CIN TB 5 1 $30,000,000 $6,000,000 20.0% $6,000,000 $9,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 4
2014 RT Michael Oher 28 BAL TEN 4 1 $20,000,000 $6,000,000 30.0% $4,500,000 $6,000,000 - - No Released No 2015 4
2015 LS Clint Gresham 29 SEA SEA 3 1 $2,705,000 $1,070,441 39.6% $901,667 $300,000 $300,000 $845,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 G Michael Person 27 STL ATL 3 1 $3,650,000 $1,804,181 49.4% $1,216,667 $500,000 $500,000 $911,666 No Released No 2016 2
2015 G Paul Fanaika 29 ARI KC 3 1 $6,150,000 $2,550,000 41.5% $2,050,000 $1,750,000 $1,750,000 $1,383,333 No Released No 2016 2
2015 FS Sergio Brown 27 IND JAC 3 1 $7,000,000 $2,500,000 35.7% $2,333,333 $250,000 $250,000 $2,500,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 ILB Nate Irving 27 DEN IND 3 1 $7,250,000 $1,750,000 24.1% $2,416,667 $1,500,000 $1,500,000 $1,250,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 RB Justin Forsett 29 BAL BAL 3 1 $9,000,000 $6,000,000 66.7% $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $1,600,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 OLB Justin Durant 29 DAL ATL 3 1 $10,800,000 $3,539,869 32.8% $3,600,000 $1,250,000 $1,250,000 $2,210,416 No Released No 2016 2
2015 SS Antrel Rolle 32 NYG CHI 3 1 $11,250,000 $5,009,220 44.5% $3,750,000 $4,900,000 $4,900,000 $5,000,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 FS Rahim Moore 25 DEN HOU 3 1 $12,000,000 $5,000,000 41.7% $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $3,000,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 TE Owen Daniels 32 BAL DEN 3 1 $12,250,000 $4,750,000 38.8% $4,083,333 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $2,750,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 CB Brandon Browner 31 NE NO 3 1 $15,000,000 $2,950,000 19.7% $5,000,000 $7,750,000 $7,750,000 $2,400,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 CB Perrish Cox 28 SF TEN 3 1 $15,000,000 $10,033,542 66.9% $5,000,000 $2,500,000 $2,500,000 $3,333,333 No Released No 2016 2
2015 ILB Curtis Lofton 29 NO OAK 3 1 $18,000,000 $10,013,678 55.6% $6,000,000 $6,500,000 $6,500,000 $6,600,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 WR Andre Johnson 34 HOU IND 3 1 $21,000,000 $10,000,000 47.6% $7,000,000 $10,000,000 $10,000,000 $7,500,000 No Released No 2016 2
2015 FB Jerome Felton 29 MIN BUF 4 1 $9,200,000 $3,900,000 42.4% $8,000,000 $7,000,000 $7,000,000 $7,000,000 No Released No 2016 3
2015 RB C.J. Spiller 28 BUF NO 4 1 $16,000,000 $9,013,471 56.3% $8,000,000 $16,000,000 $16,000,000 $4,073,529 No Released No 2016 3
2015 CB Antonio Cromartie 31 ARI NYJ 4 1 $32,000,000 $7,027,926 22.0% $5,750,000 $11,800,000 $6,900,000 $7,000,000 No Released No 2016 3
2015 FS Nate Allen 27 PHI OAK 4 1 $23,000,000 $7,004,713 30.5% $5,250,000 $7,850,000 $7,850,000 $4,250,000 No Released No 2016 3
2015 ILB Bruce Carter 27 DAL TB 4 1 $17,000,000 $4,266,389 25.1% $4,250,000 $4,250,000 $4,250,000 $4,250,000 No Released No 2016 3
2015 CB Chris Culliver 27 SF WAS 4 1 $32,000,000 $7,833,948 24.5% $4,000,000 $9,000,000 $5,750,000 $2,000,000 No Released No 2016 3
2015 DT Stephen Paea 27 CHI WAS 4 1 $21,000,000 $8,007,249 38.1% $2,300,000 $3,600,000 $3,600,000 $1,750,000 No Released No 2016 3
2016 LT Kelvin Beachum 26 PIT JAC 5 1 $45,000,000 $4,937,500 11.0% $9,000,000 $5,500,000 $1,500,000 $4,375,000 No Declined No 2017 4
TOTAL 36 $924,201,000 $277,158,853 30.0%

Six-year contracts have a much smaller sample size—just 10 were signed in free agency from 2011 to 2015. Six of those 10 deals lasted for either two, three, or four seasons; one lasted five seasons; one player finished the contract but was traded (then–Titans guard Andy Levitre); one player signed a contract extension (then–Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny); and one player, Aqib Talib, is entering the final year of his deal in 2019 after being traded last year. The only seven-year contract handed out in free agency since 2011 went to Buccaneers guard Davin Joseph in 2011, and Tampa Bay released him in 2014. Of the 2,007 combined years of multiyear contracts handed out from 2011 to 2015 in free agency, 1,249 (62 percent) were actually served.

The length of the contract is the first lie of NFL contracts, but it informs the second and much bigger lie: the money paid on the deal. When agreements are reported, the total value is the number most commonly thrown around. Take Tyrann Mathieu’s three-year, $42 million deal agreed to on Monday.

That total figure sounds high, but it is rarely reached. From 2011 to 2015, the total stated value on free-agent contracts for three or more years totaled $7.2 billion. But the amount actually paid on those deals was $4.6 billion, or 64.1 percent of the sticker price. This average figure aligns with the median for the same group, which is 64.0 percent of the deal’s total stated value. (For those who guessed the median would fall between Samson Satele’s and Will Blackmon’s contracts, take a bow.) A third of players earn 50 percent or less of their contract’s total value, while less than a quarter of players earn 90 percent or more (23.5 percent). Here is the total money those free agents signed for versus the percentage they actually earned on a scatter plot:

This chart features 348 player contracts from 2011 to 2015. The percentages that go above 100 percent represent players who received either incentives or contract extensions, effectively giving them raises. The chart excludes two-year deals because Spotrac’s data on how much money players were paid on two-year deals is less comprehensive than deals for three years or longer. It also does not include 12 players who signed extensions and made more than 125 percent of the amount they signed for on their original contract because, frankly, including Tyrod Taylor’s 751 percent earnings increase over the amount he signed for in 2015 would have made the graph look weird.

Now, as for how Mathieu’s Chiefs contract could play out, we need to look no further than … Tyrann Mathieu. In 2016, he signed a contract extension with the Cardinals that would start in 2017 season for “five” years worth $62.5 million, with $40 million “guaranteed.” Examining the guaranteed money gets us closer to a contract’s true value, but even “guaranteed” money isn’t always always a sure thing. Mathieu’s extension was supposed to make him a free agent in 2022, but the Cardinals cut him one year into the new contract, and he was a free agent in 2018 after earning $21.7 million. That’s a third of the total money portrayed on his deal and roughly half of his supposedly “guaranteed” money.

This is possible because a “guaranteed” figure includes the money guaranteed at signing—signing bonuses and guaranteed salaries, which are legit—as well as “rolling guarantees,” which as you can probably tell from the name, are not legit. A rolling guarantee means the player’s salary in a given year becomes guaranteed by a certain date, usually mid-March, and gives teams a few weeks to decide whether they want to keep the player at the salary or release them at no cost. This essentially describes a team option in the NBA or a club option in MLB, but in the NFL, this is lumped in with guaranteed money.

Even players who don’t get cut could be asked to restructure their deals. This kind of move happens when a team asks a player to help it clear cap room, which often means the player must pick between taking a pay cut or being released. Of the 362 players who signed deals of three years or longer from 2011 to 2015, roughly one in six restructured their deals by reducing their compensation. And restructuring doesn’t always save you. Of the 362 players who signed deals for three or more years from 2011 to 2015, 56, or roughly 15 percent, restructured their deals for a pay cut, and 39, or 10.8 percent, were cut anyway.

Danny Amendola is an excellent example of a player restructuring his deal. In 2013, he signed a five-year, $28.5 million deal with the Patriots, but he restructured his contract in each of his final three seasons with the team. Amendola restructured his deal three separate times from 2015 to 2017 and earned $3.75 million during a period in which he was originally scheduled to earn $15 million. By the end of Amendola’s five-year, $28.5 million deal, he had played five years for the Patriots but earned $17.4 million. From the length of deals, to the total money, to guarantees that aren’t guarantees, to contracts that can be renegotiated on a whim, NFL contracts are fool’s gold.

“It really is amazingly illusory contract value,” Brandt said. “This time of year, the waiver wire is full of tens of millions of dollars being spiked away where they have no value. They turn to dust. All these veteran contracts which suppose they are worth all this money, it just goes away like it is not there.”

Defensive end Jared Odrick understands the illusory nature of contracts. A first-round draft pick by the Dolphins in 2010, he signed with the Jaguars for five years and $42.5 million, with $22.5 million guaranteed, in 2015. Jacksonville cut him two years and $17 million later.

Odrick said in an interview this month that players often don’t realize the downsides of what they are signing.

“If you have a good agent, they’ll break that down to you in terms of the intricacies of the percentages of how many years into a contract you’re likely to get cut,” said Odrick, who declined to discuss the specifics of his release because of a pending grievance against the Jaguars. “Now, some agents speak like that in these matter-of-fact ways, but a lot of agents like to not tell their client the bad part of the contract before they even get to the good part.”

When asked why player contracts are so often misrepresented, the people interviewed for this piece pointed at agents more than anyone else. Agents often want to be seen as winning a negotiation, both to recruit other players and make it seem like their client won big—even if they didn’t.

Agents are “the stakeholders that have incentive to report certain numbers a certain way,” said Winston, the president of the NFLPA. “And you start getting into the gritty details of the contract, and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not really what it is, is it?’”

Mike Ginnitti, the managing editor of Spotrac, the website we pulled this data from, said agents misrepresent the numbers on deals.

“The agent always wants to come forward and say, ‘I’ve got this guy five years at $40 million,’ and the player for sure wants to be able to say that,” Ginnitti said. “But we’re for sure trying to shed light on the fact that five for $40 [million] in the NFL is usually two for $18 [million].”

Jacksonville Jaguars v New York Jets
Jared Odrick
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

But the frenetic pace of free agency does not help communication, Winston said, especially when many of the pieces that determine whether a signing works—coaches, schemes, surrounding talent, depth at the position—are written in chalk, not ink.

“It’s happening so quickly that I think, in fairness to the agents and the players, it’s hard to have these conversations,” Winston said. “Because the team’s saying, ‘Hey, listen, if you’re not going to sign this deal in the next hour, I got another guy I gotta sign.’”

Players also want to appear to have won a negotiation, even if they haven’t. Odrick said that much of a football player’s career is about passing certain mile markers, and signing a second contract is often the biggest earning opportunity of their lifetime. As players approach that point, they may want to see only the positives before they sign and not look for the negatives until afterward.

“I think people really underestimate the mind of a football player in how much it operates off of the validation that they get from everybody else seeing what they do and how much money they make and the number that runs across the screen of ESPN,” Odrick said. “I mean, it’s the same way we wait for the applause of the touchdown or the sack or the charity event. It’s all a matter of applause, with a sense of vanity.”

When Ian Rapoport joined the NFL Network in 2012, agents had an outsize control over the reported numbers, he said. But the process has changed since then.

“Five years ago, I probably would have taken like whatever number I got first, verified that it was accurate in some form or fashion, and reported it,” Rapoport said. “Now it’s like, ‘OK, hang on, hang on, what’s the real [value], what’s the full injury guarantee? What’s the base value?’”

Outlets like Pro Football Talk and fans on social media beat the drum on misleading contracts so loudly that, Rapoport said, “Reporters—like me—would end up feeling dumb” when they were called out. But Rapoport said that as the bar has been raised for reporting standards, sources have become more forthcoming.

“A lot of times, contract numbers will come from agents,” Rapoport said. “I think agents, now that a lot of people are doing it, they take some pride in [giving] the real numbers.”

Of course, even if agents share more details than they did a few years ago, they are still trying to generate positive PR for their clients. That can make it challenging for reporters to get a version of a deal that realistically portrays the precariousness of a player’s long-term job prospects, especially when news is breaking faster than ever before. ESPN’s Adam Schefter, widely considered the most well-sourced reporter covering the NFL, said that in the fast-paced reporting environment of free agency, he thinks the main thing that fans want to know is where players are going to play, and that while issues like guaranteed money fill in the picture, most fans simply don’t care.

“Agents can dress up numbers whatever they want,” Schefter said. “So I’m going to do the best job I can to get the most accurate information I can, and I’m not going to worry too much about the specific contract terms. I want to be as accurate and informative as possible. But there’s only so much you can do certain times.”

Still, when history says that six out of every seven five-year deals won’t last five years, it might be worth rethinking the language we use when discussing these deals. Players and agents are the ones shaping the initial narratives around these signings, but teams are clearly the ones in control. Approaching contracts from the same perspective that teams do might be a more informative approach.

“The real issue teams go through when they sign contracts is, at least from my viewpoint, was: ‘Worst-case scenario, when can we get out of this?’” Brandt said.

Spotrac offers this worst-case scenario information on its player pages by showing a “potential out” year. It’s a line inserted into the contract table that delineates when the team can end the deal at a reasonable cap cost. The best example is Jimmy Garoppolo’s page. Last year, Garoppolo was widely described (including by yours truly) as having signed a five-year, $137.5 million deal with $74.1 million guaranteed that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time. But the 49ers could cut Garoppolo after this season and he’d have earned roughly $60 million over two years—less than half of the total money described, less than half of the years described, and roughly $15 million shy of the “guaranteed” figure. In reality, Garoppolo signed a two-year, $60 million deal followed by three consecutive team options worth roughly $25 million each.

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Jimmy Garoppolo
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“Actually seeing the thing broken down in a table format like we do, or in an article format with actual descriptions, that’s really the way to interpret these contracts, especially in the NFL,” Ginnitti said.

The amount of money on Jimmy G’s deal may be rare, but the structure is common. The potential out years on player contracts are surprisingly uniform. For most players, it’s after one year. For the more coveted talent, like Garoppolo, it’s after two years. And for the best of the best—usually starting quarterbacks—it’s three years. Neither Brandt nor Ginnitti could think of a single player who has gotten a fully guaranteed salary in the fourth season of their deal. Like ice cream on a hot dog, it’s just not done.

“That’s why Kirk Cousins getting three years [guaranteed] wasn’t that big of a deal to guys like me who study it,” said Ginnitti. “Most lead quarterbacks get three years fully guaranteed. We all wanted to see him get four or five, so to me that’s the next big step.”

From Todd Gurley to Russell Okung to Antonio Brown, there is growing sentiment among NFL players that their contracts should be fully guaranteed like they are in the NBA and MLB. Football players work in the most dangerous sport but get the least financial protection in case of injury, plus the players at the bottom of the food chain—the ones who aren’t making the ESPN ticker—are at the whims of teams who have all the leverage. Many have pointed to the NFL CBA’s expiration after 2020 as the time when players should push for guaranteed deals.

But as Winston pointed out, the flip side is that in exchange for the transparency of fully guaranteed contracts, each contract will have less total money.

“That’s not to say that that’s not a good thing,” Winston said. “I’m just saying it would be a different landscape than what’s currently presented.”

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