As it turns out, the NFLPA had no reason to sweat it. With big contracts continuing to balloon, sucking up more and more of a salary cap that has inflated at a slower rate, GMs around the league have been increasingly willing to hand out guaranteed money in order to mitigate the salary cap hit in a given year.
Signing bonuses are no longer the lone bastion of guaranteed money in the NFL. With the new CBA limiting the proration of signing bonuses to five years, GMs have resorted to an assortment of other bonuses, often guaranteed, in order to manage their salary cap.
Last offseason, with surprisingly little fanfare, the first largely guaranteed contract in NFL history was signed by Calvin Johnson. The gluttonous and foolhardy eight-year, $132 million deal included $60 million in guaranteed money with only a $16 million signing bonus. The majority of the guaranteed portion was actually the salaries in the first five years of the contract. Once these guarantees dry up in 2016 and Johnson’s base salary dramatically increases, the Lions will likely trash the contract and hand out more bonuses, ala Tom Brady.
While these guarantees help keep Johnson’s cap hit under $13 million until 2015, they also allow Megatron to be the Paulie to the Lions’ Goodfellas. Johnson can decide to join a commune with Smokey Williams and smoke junk all day, and the Lions still have to pay him his salary until 2017.
Joe Flacco’s newly-signed monstrosity provides the blueprint for all rich contracts to follow, likely including those for Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Though widely known as a six-year, $120 million deal, a closer inspection of the deal shows it is more realistically a three-year deal worth $63 million, with $52 million in guaranteed greenbacks.
For the honor of having Flacco acquiesce to sign on the dotted line, the Ravens are giving him $29 million this year. Next year, he is guaranteed another $15 million bonus and in 2015, he is contracted to received a $7 million bonus. In these three years, Flacco’s cap hit never exceeds $15 million.
Ultimately, teams’ luck with this factor may determine whether they remain competitive or not.