Last week Clay Matthews III signed a new 5-year extension with the Packers that made him the highest paid linebacker in the history of the NFL. The press release announced that Matthews was awarded a $66 million extension that averages $13.2 million yearly, which just barely eclipses Dallas Cowboy outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s 2009 extension that averaged $13 million yearly. However, as the title has mentioned I personally don’t feel that the contract signed by Matthews is worth it. Furthermore, I’m a little surprised that so many Packers fans are okay with the deal.
What Packers fans should be doing is jumping up and down with joy.
For all intents and purposes, the Packers just got away with “grand theft Matthews”. While initially it looks like Matthews was rewarded handsomely for his services and now can claim to be the highest paid linebacker in NFL history, if you dive deeper into the structure of the deal, it’s pretty obvious that general manager Ted Thompson and lead contract negotiator Russ Ball really got the better end of the bargain.
Point 1 – Look at the guaranteed money: Most football fans recognize that they should take the value of a contract with a grain of salt. Case in point, Donovan McNabb showed exactly how an agent and team can cook the numbers in order to make a terrible contract look like a spectacular one. McNabb’s extension with the Redskins in 2010 was first reported to be worth $70 million ($40 million guaranteed) with escalators pushing it to $85 million. However, as it ultimately turned out, most of the guaranteed money was “not likely to be earned” (as I recall it involved McNabb’s field goal percentage and winning the Super Bowl every year), which in essence meant that McNabb’s actual guaranteed money was worth a piddling $3.5 million if he wasn’t on the Redskins roster past 2010 (naturally he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings before the end of the season). Perhaps the most important point I want to make is that a team’s true interest in a player is best represented by the amount of guaranteed money they offer; players almost always don’t see all the money in their contract and can only count on seeing their guaranteed money.
With that in mind let’s compare Clay Matthews’ guaranteed money with DeMarcus Ware, the linebacker he supplanted to become the highest paid linebacker and Mario Williams, another premier pass rusher (who was/is sort of an outside linebacker), assuming each plays out the first 6 years of their contract.
Matthew’s $32.9 million guarantee pales in comparison to $41.19 million guaranteed to DeMarcus Ware and $59 million guaranteed to Mario Williams. Furthermore it’s important to note the structure of the proration; both Williams and Ware have bonus money coming in throughout the life of their current contracts, however it is interesting to note that the last year of Matthews’ extension only contains guaranteed money should he be on the team (and even then it’s only $1 million), so the Packers could cut Matthews with zero penalty in 2018. Also interesting is that both Ware and Williams managed to get the first two years of their base salary guaranteed as well while Matthews did not.
Point 2 – Look at the 2 year totals: Football is a young man’s sport and nothing drives down the value of a player than age. Just look at the current market; Heisman trophy winner, Super Bowl captain and defensive MVP Charles Woodson is still looking for some interest, let alone a decent contract. It’s therefore logical then that many agents structure their players’ contracts where they get as much money as early as they can. Again this idea boils down to how likely a player is going to earn his money (i.e. not get cut or traded): players are far more likely to get cut near the end of their contract than in the beginning (with one big reason being age), so big dollar amounts early are far more important than big dollar amounts late.
With that in mind lets compare the 2-year cap totals for Matthews, Ware and Williams. Cap numbers are a simple way to measure the value of a player since boils down the complexity and variability of a NFL contract into one number that is vitally important to the all NFL teams. Matthew’s 2-year cap total of $17.8 million is significantly lower than Ware’s $19.7 cap total and pales in comparison to William’s $22.2 million 2-year cap total. And this is perhaps the most important part of the contract, Matthews only catches up to Ware’s contract in the last two years of the contract, where he makes around $10 million yearly, which brings me to my next point.
Point 3 – Predict the contract life: One more complexity of NFL contracts is that often times teams and agents tack on extraneous years in order to boost up the total numbers and make the contract look better than it really is. Take for instance the Packers cutting AJ Hawk in 2011 only to resign him minutes later. The reason for this was that the last year of Hawk’s contract was worth $10 million, which was put in place to force the Packers to either cut or extend Hawk. Obviously, Hawk never lived up to his selection as the 5th overall pick in 2006 draft and the plan backfired a little, but nevertheless it does show that sometimes neither the team, the agent nor the player really expect to play under that year’s contract.
The same could be said about Clay Matthews; I would argue that Matthews shouldn’t expect to see either his 2017 or 2018 salary at it’s current rate. He’ll be over 30 by then and presumably near the tail end of his career. Furthermore, most of his guaranteed money will be paid for which essentially gives him no leverage in the event that the Packers ask him to restructure. I would more realistically peg Matthews’s contract as a 3-year extension worth $44.2 million, which averages to about $11 million yearly with the option to restructure should Matthew’s play continue at a high level.
One other distinct disadvantage is that Matthews plays for a team that actually knows how to control its finances; DeMarcus Ware has now restructured his contract seemingly every year in order to provide some relief from the dumpster fire that is the Cowboys salary cap. The only downside is that by converting his base salary into a prorate bonus is that each year it becomes harder and harder to cut, trade or reduce Ware’s salary because more and more of his contract is guaranteed and would accelerate to the current year should Ware not be on the team. Realistically, Ware will be with the Cowboys for the next couple year no matter what because the Cowboys can’t afford for him not be on the team. The same can’t be said for Matthews, just like AJ Hawk taking a massive pay cut to stay on the team this year, if Matthew’s play begins to dip, Matthews will also likely be asked to take a pay cut in order to stay with the team.
Conclusion: Now with all that being said, I don’t think Clay Matthews is worth his contract, he’s worth more. Hopefully, he stays productive through his career to the point where he ultimately sees every cent of his contract. He’s the foundation of the Packers defense and a player you can build a squad around. The Packers had to have him and they now have him through his prime. Matthews is arguably better than Demarcus Ware and is definitely better than Mario Williams (at least in Buffalo) but isn’t being paid better than either, which brings up an interesting question: the Packers aren’t known to be penny pinchers when it comes to retaining their own star players, so why did Matthews get such a raw deal?
My only explanation is that the relatively flat cap has forced agents and players to take deals considerably lower than what could have gotten in the old CBA. Case in point, while Darrelle Revis getting traded to Tampa Bay made big headlines, what I think was an even bigger story was the fact that no part of Revis’ $96 million salary is guaranteed, so the Buccaneers could cut Revis at any time without any penalty (furthermore, Revis can’t hold out since the Buccaneers can hold his rights without paying him anything indefinitely). My personal feeling is that as long as the cap stays relatively flat, more and more star players are likely to come out with contracts not as rich as they were before, except of course when it comes to quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers knows quarterbacks are in their own world when it comes to contracts, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Thompson and Ball come out battered and beaten when they finally lock up the best player in the NFL.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.