When the Cleveland Browns announced the signing of free agent quarterback Robert Griffin III on Thursday, the first questions were for how much, and for how long. It didn’t take much time to find that information out: It’s a two-year deal worth $15 million in maximum face value with the ability for as much as $22 million in earnings over the 2016 through 2018 span of the contract. But as we know very well in the NFL, the full contract value matters much less than how the deal is actually structured. It is that structure that we will be taking a closer look at here.
It may seem like a lucrative deal on the surface, but even the base deal’s $7.5 million average per year is right in line for a backup quarterback in today’s NFL. But the ability for that salary to go up significantly aligns perfectly with how the Browns see Griffin: One of the participants in the eventual quarterback competition that will take place later in the spring and summer, who could either wind up the starter—and be compensated relatively close to that amount should it happen—or a backup, where his money currently stands and is appropriate. It’s essentially a prove-it deal for a player who certainly needs to prove himself, while at the same time being structured in a very modern way. It is, on the negotiation level, a sign that this Browns front office is far different from those of the past. They know how to build contracts in a 2016 way. It should be a comfort.
Griffin’s contract includes $6.75 million in guaranteed money. This guarantee includes the entirety of his $3.25 million salary for 2016 as well as a prorated $3.5 million roster bonus (or $1.75 million per year) and another $1.5 million in prorated roster bonuses ($750,000 per year). This gives him a cap hit of a perfectly reasonable $5 million for 2016 as it stands now. But that number can go up. He has up to $3.5 million he can earn per year in incentives, including up to $750,000 in playing time bonuses (a.k.a. he will get $46,875 for each game he appears or starts in—it’s unclear at this time which it is). These incentives are of the Not Likely To Be Earned variety, meaning they do not currently count against Cleveland’s salary cap; when and/or if he earns any of them, that is when they will be cap charges. The remaining $2.75 million per year that Griffin can earn via incentives are for passing yardage and passer rating benchmarks, according to The National Football Post’s Aaron Wilson. https://twitter.com/AaronWilson_NFL/status/713078998243217408
These incentives are a good thing, in a sense. Griffin earning them—especially if he earns every penny of them—means Griffin has not just established himself as the Browns’ starting quarterback, but also a productive one, given that the money is tied not just to playing time but also performance. And it makes their decision easier for 2017. None of Griffin’s $6 million salary next season is guaranteed—all that is, presently, is his $1.75 million portion of the prorated signing bonus. That means if Griffin underperforms or gets hurt or the Browns simply do not need him, they can move on next year for under $2 million in dead money charges.
If the Browns want to keep him, though, it will cost them $9.25 million. Another $750,000 in roster bonuses will count on his cap hit if he is on the roster on the third day of the 2017 league year and though the salary is not guaranteed by any particular date, it can be assumed he will earn that $6 million if he does remain in Cleveland past that third-day date. Again, though, this would be a sign of Griffin’s career seeing a revitalization in Cleveland and not a bad thing—it’s a marker of a potential franchise quarterback. But it should also be noted that there is another $3.5 million he can earn next year through the same playing time and performance-based incentives he has this season. Therefore, Griffin has the potential for a cap hit as high as $8.5 million this year and $12.75 million in 2017. At $8.5 million in cap hit, it’s just under Nick Foles’ earnings for 2016; at $12.75 million, it is in the Sam Bradford-Brock Osweiler range.
This is money, as we know, the Browns can afford to spend. But the fact that they don’t necessarily have to—this isn’t a face-value deal at those yearly amounts—makes this contract extremely fair to both Griffin and the Browns. Griffin wants to rebuild his career but understands what has befallen it since his stellar 2012 debut, hence his willingness to make as “little” as $5 million this season with the potential to be released right afterward. But he also has built-in rewards in the contract that, if he can in fact rebuild his career successfully in 2016, will give him money he’s worthy of earning. In turn, the Browns can have either a good quarterback for a reasonable price for both 2016 or 2017 or the ability to move on in 2017 for a pittance. While it’s perfectly acceptable to hate the Griffin signing or question his fit with the Browns, there’s no reason to include the terms of his contract as ammunition in the argument. Hate him, be proven right and the Browns are, financially, no worse for wear; hate him, be proven wrong and the Browns are, financially, in a very sweet spot when it comes to Griffin’s deal.