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This month, two NBA players with zero All-Star Game appearances signed free-agent contracts that guaranteed them more money than any player in NFL history. DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers) and Reggie Jackson (Detroit Pistons) will each receive $80 million, rain or shine, in their new deals.
No NFL player has been guaranteed more than $64 million, and even that number carries qualifiers, for reasons that are no secret. The NFL employs nearly four times the number of players as the NBA, with higher injury rates and decades of financial precedent on the side of the owners. Public discussion briefly focused on a standard-changing posture for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but if any player is in position to reset the market in this area, it should be Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck is entering the fourth season of a five-year deal that will pay him $3.405 million in 2015 and, for the moment, $16.155 million in 2016. Colts owner Jim Irsay has targeted this winter for contract talks, a point where Luck would have the opportunity to bet on his future and ultimately sign a deal that helps himself, his fellow players and even -- yes -- the Colts.
Here's how it could work.
Luck and the Colts have another winning season in 2015, which, if history is our guide, really means that Luck carries the Colts to another winning season. Afterward, he decides to play 2016 at that $16.155 million salary -- a hefty raise but still below market value for an elite quarterback. That decision would give the Colts a reasonable cap number to work with in 2016 while also stripping them of leverage in 2017 negotiations.
At that point, the Colts would have two options: use a franchise tag projected at close to $25 million in 2017, or come closer to Luck's demands than they would have in 2016. By then, conventional negotiations would call for a five-year deal worth about $125 million, with more than $70 million in various forms of guarantees. If it's anything like the contract Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signed this spring -- the current benchmark for "guarantees" -- up to half of that $70 million would be guaranteed for injury only.
However, Luck could pursue a deal that is fully guaranteed or close to it while sacrificing some of the nonguaranteed money that otherwise would inflate the paper value of the deal. What if Luck "settled" for an average of $20 million -- $100 million over five years -- but insisted on $90 million fully guaranteed?
Luck would have taken some risk to get there, having tabled an earlier long-term deal to play out his current deal, and the Colts' options would be limited. They could pay him in 2017 at his franchise value, leading to a higher cap number that season and returning them to the same place in 2018, or they could work with Luck's request.
And other than forcing greater cash flow from Irsay -- the NFL requires fully guaranteed money to be placed in escrow up front -- there would be no damage to the team. In fact, Luck could argue that he was helping the cause by taking a lower annual average, reducing his yearly salary cap hit. Irsay would be pressured to return the sentiment via escrow.
Luck is in prime position to push this envelope, if he chooses, based on his uniquely central role in the Colts' recent success. The Colts went 11-5 in each of his first three seasons, admittedly in a weak AFC South division, rebounding from a 2-14 record in 2011 the year before he arrived. The team has also advanced a step in the playoffs each year. Since Luck's career began in 2012, he has posted the NFL's sixth-best Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) in the fourth quarter, when quarterbacks presumably exert their greatest influence on an average team.
Luck's instant success has covered a number of questionable management decisions, from the 2013 trade for tailback Trent Richardson to the free-agent acquisition of safety LaRon Landry. Pointedly, Irsay has not extended the contracts of general manager Ryan Grigson or coach Chuck Pagano, a telling hesitation after a 33-15 run.
Luck, of course, remains on the outside of any list of the NFL's absolute top quarterbacks. His 22 turnovers last season were the big reason he didn't crack the top 10 in QBR. But unlike the case of Wilson and the Seahawks' strong defense, it's difficult to imagine the Colts as a winning team without Luck.
Let's be clear. A near-fully guaranteed contract for Andrew Luck wouldn't immediately reverse the principle dynamic for the other 1,695 players on NFL rosters when the 2017 season begins. And it's certainly possible Luck would have to make a more significant tradeoff in total cash than what we've proposed.
But a fully or near-fully guaranteed contract wouldn't just be a windfall for Luck. It would be a creative, if expensive, solution for a Colts team that frankly needs to preserve cap space to surround Luck with a better roster. Think of it as a house on your street selling for $1 million. That doesn't mean your place is now worth seven figures, but you'll see the bump on your next Zillow report. It's worth considering, if not for the DeAndre Jordans and Reggie Jacksons of the NFL, then at least for the LeBron Jameses and Stephen Currys.