Fully guaranteed contracts will never be standard operating procedure in the NFL.
Nor should they be, which is something I think a lot of people have missed amidst all of the hoopla surrounding the contracts that have been doled out to NBA free agents in recent days. The huge dollars being given to mediocre NBA players has set off a firestorm of sorts regarding compensation for professional athletes in general and the relative paltry NFL contracts by comparison.
One of the biggest criticisms of NFL player contracts is that, unlike their brethren in other pro sports, they are not guaranteed. When an NBA or MLB player signs a five-year contract for $100 million, they are going to receive every dollar of it. A five-year deal in the NFL likely means a year or two of guarantees and then the team being able to take a year-by-year approach as to whether or not they think the player is still worthy of that money in subsequent years.
The first thing a lot of people fail to realize is that there actually are a decent number of fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL. In fact, more than half of the first-round draft picks every year get a four-year deal that is totally guaranteed, which makes very little sense given the fact that they have accomplished nothing in the NFL.
More importantly, NFL players could get fully guaranteed contracts if they chose to, and I'm not talking about labor negotiations between the NFLPA and the NFL. I'm talking about individual players in their negotiations with teams. You don't think a marquee free agent like Ndamukong Suh or a franchise quarterback like Andrew Luck, who recently signed a monster new deal with the Colts, could've gotten fully guaranteed contracts if that was their priority?
Of course they could have. The problem is that the contracts would've been for less money because of the risk that the teams would have been taking on. That would be the same across the board for all NFL players whether they or the fans realize that or not. You want a fully guaranteed deal? If you are good enough, you'll get one, but it won't be for as much money as you'd like. The injury rate is so high in the NFL that teams simply can't, or at least won't, take on that kind of financial risk.
As it stands currently, players are getting more and more of their contracts guaranteed as part of their negotiations with clubs without sacrificing the average per year that they are looking for. Just look at the defensive line for example: Suh ($60 million), Marcell Dareus ($43 million), and Olivier Vernon ($40 million) have all signed contracts recently that guarantee them over 40 percent of the total value of the contract.
Not only is the aforementioned injury risk the reason why teams are so hesitant to dole out big guarantees, it is also why the popularity of the sport would suffer greatly if it ever got to that point.
As an example, in 2004 I played the last four games of the season for the Buffalo Bills knowing I had a herniated disc in my back. I did it because of a sense of duty to my teammates, because we were winning and, most importantly, because I had a substantial playing time bonus if I were to play over 80 percent of the offensive snaps, which I fortunately was able to hit.
I was also in the first year of a three-year contract extension I had signed as a restricted free agent in February. Would I have played those last four games if I had two more seasons after that one already fully guaranteed? Perhaps, because my mentality was to always play if there were any way that I could, but it wouldn't have been a smart move for both my future health and career. Really, from a business standpoint, why would you play with a significant ailment if you had multiple future years fully guaranteed after that? It doesn't make a lot of sense to do that kind of damage to your body if you have at least two more seasons to get healthy and perform at a high level before the next contract.
More importantly, what if my back and subsequent surgery were so bad that I really couldn't or didn't want to play the next two years of the deal? I would've been dead weight and simply been taking up space on the Bills salary cap.
Therein lies the problem. There are so many injuries like that and, without the ability for teams to move on in those situations, the entire complexion of the NFL -- or at least a number of unlucky teams -- could look very different with fully guaranteed contracts. That could hurt the popularity of the league and everybody from team owner to the 53rd guy on the roster would suffer if that happened.
What would be the financial motivation for any player that knows he is on his last contract to play with a serious injury? Yes, there is a sense of responsibility to teammates, but what about the sense of responsibility to your wife and kids to be able to be a healthy functioning father for years to come?
My guess is a lot of players on their third and maybe even second contracts would choose the latter group over the former and rightfully so.
Plus, I haven't even mentioned the issues with CTE and head trauma. We already are seeing a bunch of players step away from the game in their late 20s or early 30s in part because of these concerns. What happens if your middle linebacker signs a five-year fully guaranteed deal and then suffers a serious concussion in the first game? You think he's playing football again?
I don't and I wouldn't, which is why NFL contracts will never be fully guaranteed on a regular basis.
And rightfully so.