Saturday, March 25

Agent’s Take: As Joe Burrow and Bengals gear up for extension, QB has shot to become NFL’s highest-paid player

NFL Media reported prior to a divisional playoff game against the Bills that the Bengals are targeting quarterback Joe Burrow, 2020’s first overall pick, for a contract extension this offseason. As a 2020 draft pick, Burrow became eligible for a new deal on Jan. 9, the day after his third regular season ended.

“Yeah, I think that starts now internally,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said in Monday’s season-ending press conference when asked about a new Burrow contract. The Bengals lost 23-20 to the Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Burrow is scheduled to make $5,545,018 in 2023 on an $11,515,043 salary cap number. The Bengals will surely pick up their fifth-year option on Burrow for a fully guaranteed $29.504 million in 2024 prior to the May 2 deadline.

Fully guaranteed contract prospects

A fully guaranteed contract has been a big sticking point in AFC North division rival Lamar Jackson’s negotiations with the Ravens. Jackson played on a fifth-year option this season due to his insistence of a completely secure deal similar to Deshaun Watson’s.
The Browns, another AFC North rival, gave Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract in connection with his trade from the Texans last March. The Watson contract is an anomaly as subsequent high-end quarterback deals, particularly Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson’s respective five-year extensions with the Cardinals and Broncos, weren’t fully guaranteed.

Burrow will likely encounter heavy resistance to a fully guaranteed contract, just like Jackson. The Bengals are in the dark ages when it comes to structuring contracts for veteran players. The only guaranteed money in Cincinnati veteran contracts is a signing bonus and a roster bonus payable within a few days of signing.

The bigger deals contain a third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second and third years. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. The overall guarantees in Cincinnati contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams.

Adherence to a longstanding preferred contract structure will be problematic. It’s hard to imagine Burrow accepting a new deal where the only true guaranteed money is in the first year when Murray and Wilson, the latest two quarterback data points, have $103.3 million and $124 million fully guaranteed at signing. The respective overall guarantees in their contracts are $160 million and $161 million, whereas the largest signing bonus ever for an NFL player is Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s $66 million.

Expect the Bengals to establish a new contract precedent with Burrow as the Steelers did with edge rusher T.J. Watt in 2021 on a four-year extension that made him the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback. The Steelers also refused to have traditional salary guarantees in veteran contracts until Watt’s. His $80 million fully guaranteed at signing was a record for non-quarterbacks.

The Packers structure contracts the same way as the Bengals. The only exception has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers. For example, Rodgers became the NFL’s first $50 million per year player last March with a contract widely considered to be $150.815 million over three years although there are two additional below-market years (2025 and 2026) in the deal. He established new standards for guaranteed money in football contracts with $150.665 million in total guarantees and $101.515 million fully guaranteed at signing until Watson’s fully guaranteed contract a couple of weeks later.

The Bengals seemingly have been preparing to give Burrow a contract with a conventional structure. The naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium were sold to Paycor, a Cincinnati-based company specializing in human resources software last August. The agreement is for 16 years. Additional team sponsors have also been added. 

These moves will make it easier for the Bengals to comply with the NFL’s archaic funding requirements that should come into play for a Burrow contract. Teams are essentially required to put into an escrow account the amount of any guarantees in a contract other than those just for injury, including ones in future contract years.

Becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player

Burrow becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player should be a different story than a fully guaranteed contract. The Bengals put 2003 first overall pick Carson Palmer at the top of the league’s salary hierarchy when he signed a six-year extension averaging $16,166,167 per year right before the end of his third regular season in 2005. Rookie contracts could be extended after two years back then.

Burrow has a better case for being the league’s highest-paid player than Palmer did. Palmer was completing a breakout season in which he earned Pro Bowl honors by leading the NFL in completion percentage (67.8%) and with 32 touchdown passes. His 101.2 passer rating was second in the league. The Bengals snapped a playoff drought dating back to the 1990 season by winning the AFC North with an 11-5 record.

Burrow has put himself in the league’s best quarterback conversation with his consistent play over the last two seasons. He led the NFL with a 70.4 completion percentage while throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns to post a 108.3 passer rating in 2021. The Bengals ended a 31-year postseason victory drought before losing to the Rams in Super Bowl LVI.

Burrow garnered his first Pro Bowl selection this season while throwing a career-high 35 touchdown passes. He had 4,475 passing yards and a 100.8 passer rating. Cincinnati’s five playoff wins over the last two seasons with Burrow under center are as many as the 55-year-old franchise had in the first 52 seasons.

Burrow should consider insisting on an extension no longer than four years to be best positioned for the expected significant salary cap growth in the coming years, thanks to new media rights deals reportedly worth $113 billion over 11 years and an influx of gambling revenue. Four new years was the most common length for high-end quarterback contracts, especially with first-round pick extensions, before the Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to a 10-year extension in 2020 when he had two years remaining on his rookie contract. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz signed four-year extensions respectively with the Rams and Eagles in 2019 when there were two years remaining on their rookie deals. The first big quarterback deal after Mahomes was Watson’s four-year extension with the Texans when he also had two years to go on his rookie contract.

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Burrow should make having the second-most guarantees behind Watson’s $230 million a requirement in a contract that adds at least four new years. Wilson is currently second with $124 million fully guaranteed at signing and $161 million in overall guarantees. Murray had $160 million guaranteed for injury at signing that can become fully guaranteed at various dates during the contract. An additional $29.5 million in latter years of Murray’s contract, which isn’t guaranteed for injury at signing, can also become completely secure to bring the total amount that can be guaranteed to $189.5 million. The reported $133 million fully guaranteed in the offer Jackson rejected before cutting off negotiations shortly before the regular season started may also factor into the equation.

It’s a matter of when, not if, Burrow will be the league’s highest-paid player provided he is willing to exploit his leverage. As long as Rodgers’ $50,271,667 per year is still the standard, it wouldn’t be surprising for Burrow’s new deal to exceed $52.5 million per year. A $52.5 million average yearly salary would be less than a five percent increase over Rodgers.

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