For the last two offseasons, Darrelle Revis has been a top commodity, and both times he has gone against conventional wisdom. Last year, Revis was traded to the Buccaneers for a first-round pick and negotiated a six-year, $96 million deal that, like many NFL contracts, was a giant red herring. When the Buccaneers cut Revis on Wednesday, that mega-contract became, in retrospect, a one-year deal worth $16 million (each additional year was merely a club option for another year at the same rate). Hours after his release, Revis came to terms with the Patriots, this time for a one-year deal worth $12 million (with an unlikely second-year option for $20 million), prompting some people to ask: What in the hell is Revis doing?
Assuming Revis is purposefully scorning the big guaranteed-money approach to free agency for a series of one-year contracts, it is a brilliant strategy. By renegotiating terms every year, Revis can constantly force teams to consider his present value rather than being restricted by the terms of a multi-year deal. Some might think this is a risky move, since injuries or a loss of form can diminish his value. But this is unlikely to happen with Revis, given that he is held in such high regard that he was offered a $16 million per year deal coming off ACL surgery (not to mention the value of the first-round pick). That is almost beside the point: People tend to be risk-averse and have what economists call a high time preference, maximizing what they have now versus later. This means free agents focus too much on how much they can get right now.
In almost every way, NFL contracts aren't really contracts. Teams can cut players whenever they desire, yet players have no recourse if their value exceeds their pay (see: Wilson, Russell). All the uncertainties that accompany being a professional athlete have typically mandated prized free agents jump at the opportunity to cash in. Year after year, we see players accepting massive deals, often from the Redskins. Headlines such as "The Billion Dollar Day" sensationalize the sum total of raw dollars involved in free-agent contracts, but these figures are largely made of Monopoly money, where the last few years of the contract are imaginary dollars unlikely to ever see the light of day. Multi-year free-agent contracts are almost always restructured or the players are released altogether.
This is precisely how it has played out for the most recent big-name cornerback free agents. In 2008, Asante Samuel signed a massive free-agent deal with the Eagles: six years, $59.74 million. (All figures in this article are via Sportrac.com and include signing bonuses.) Samuel played out four years and $36 million of that deal before getting traded to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick, and then restructured with the Falcons for three years and $14.7 million. After two years and $8.7 million of that contract, he was cut again, and is now a free agent. Since 2008, Samuel's total earnings are approximately $44.7 million, or about $7.45 million per year as a free agent.
In 2010, Dunta Robinson signed a six-year, $57 million deal with the Falcons; he saw $27.5 million of that deal before being cut three years later. Last year, he signed a three-year pact with the Chiefs for $13.75 million, who cut him after one year and paid out $4.75 million. All told, Robinson made approximately $32.25 million since he entered free agency in 2010, or about $8.06 million per year as a free agent. Robinson is a free agent for the second time since he signed the original six-year contract with the Falcons that was set to expire next year.
For comparison's sake, Revis has already made $28 million between his renegotiated Bucs contract and now his Patriots deal, or an average of $14 million per year. Neither Samuel nor Robinson ever made $14 million in any given year of his free-agent contract.
There are obvious caveats to this breakdown, not the least of which is Revis is better than Samuel and Robinson. Particularly in Robinson's case, many analysts recognized that contract as a reach. Perhaps Champ Bailey is a closer analogue to Revis. Bailey saw every cent from the seven-year, $63 million contract he signed with the Broncos in 2004 despite it being heavily back-loaded. That contract averaged $9 million per year; Revis will almost certainly beat that average if he maintains any modicum of his current self over a seven-year period, although it's worth noting that salaries have grown since then, and Bailey was just cut three years into a four-year, $43 million deal he signed in 2011. If Revis doesn't top that, Samuel and Robinson have proven that an NFL contract provides no insurance whatsoever in the event of consistent injuries or a loss of form.
The idea that a large free-agent deal is "insurance" against future misfortunes or bad play is simply false. There are two ways a promising free agent's career can play out: He can either be as good as advertised, in which case going on the market year after year to force teams to bid against each other will maximize his career earnings, or he will not be as good as advertised, in which case his contract will be essentially meaningless and he will be cut. In effect, there's no downside to doing what Revis has done, even if he hasn't done it purposely.
It's entirely possible Revis wants that massive payout, but due to the ACL surgery and a good but not great season with the Bucs, no team has been willing to provide it. Even if this is the case, Revis is still coming out in great financial shape from these series of one-offs. He has one more season before he turns 30, and another year at $12 million will put him at the $40 million mark between these three negotiated one-year deals. (Remember, Asante Samuel cracked the $40 million mark after six years.) The only non-quarterback with a current contract of $40 million or more guaranteed is Calvin Johnson. Whether Revis knows it or not, he may have found the perfect free-agent strategy.