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Latavius Murray’s deal with Minnesota Vikings could play out several ways

Latavius Murray's contract with the Minnesota Vikings sounds pretty straightforward, but in the NFL that's not always the case.

When is a contract not as it seems? When it’s an NFL contract – even a freshly minted one.

One of the interesting parts of this year’s free agency has been some of the moves that don’t quite make sense. Free agent wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor could have signed long-term deals for big money on the open market and allegedly had suitors offering those to them. But both opted to take one-year “prove it” contracts in hopes of maximizing their drawing power a year from now with a motivated season behind them.

The reality of NFL contracts is that they are written up in such a way that they rarely seem to come to fruition on long-term deals. Just ask Adrian Peterson. He’s not getting the $18 million in the final year of his most recent contract.

But, how about the new guy who replaced Peterson as the presumptive featured back for the Minnesota Vikings – former Raiders lead dog Latavius Murray.

His contract seems pretty straightforward – three years, $15 million, $1.8 million of it put into his bank account when he signed and $8.55 million guaranteed. But, in the NFL, contracts are never simple and likely never will be unless there is some sort of contract reform.

If the Vikings like what they get from Murray, then the contract will be what it stipulates. He’ll get his 15-large and a decision will be made in March of 2020 to determine where his role stands with the team.

If things don’t go as planned, the Vikings could actually get rid of him after the 2017 season with as little as $1.2 million in a dead money cap hit.

That isn’t saying the Vikings are concerned that Murray will be a bust, but, as is often the case in contract signings in the NFL, the devil is in the details.

Twins fans have lamented for the past three years – and still have a couple more to go – on paying Joe Mauer $23 million a year when he is likely the fourth- or fifth-best player on the team. The same goes for the NBA and NHL. When you sign a deal, you get almost every dime you signed up for if you don’t go to jail.

In the NFL, it’s much different. Murray’s contract is a good case study in those complexities.

Murray’s contract for 2017 is broken down into several sub-categories for the purpose of working the salary cap. His $1.8 million signing bonus is spread over three years - $600,000 against the cap each year. If the Vikings opt out after this season, they would end up paying Murray $8.55 million for one year. But, how the deal is structured is the key to it from the money standpoint.

Murray got his $1.8 million up front, but has a base salary of just $900,000. However he gets a $100,000 workout bonus, although it would seem unlikely he’ll cash that in because he just had ankle surgery. Other than that, his pay is all based on production and availability when he returns from rehabbing his ankle.

He is also due a roster bonus of $656,250 if he makes the team – why wouldn’t he? – and has a per-game roster bonus of $46,875 for each game he is on the active game-day roster. If it’s all 16, he pockets $750,000. If it’s 12, he takes home $562,500. If it’s eight, he makes $375,000. It all depends on how much he plays.

It’s after this season that things will change. In 2018, he will be due $6 million – $5.15 million in base salary, a $750,000 roster bonus and a $100,000 workout bonus. If he’s on the roster the third business day of the 2018 season, that is when the Vikings will have their commitment question answered.

Because of the way his contract is structured, if the Vikings don’t keep Murray when the clock strikes midnight on Day 3 of the 2018 league year, the cap hit would be just $1.2 million.

His $15 million deal includes a total of $1.75 million in per-game roster bonuses and escalators are in place if he makes the Pro Bowl or hits rushing yardage milestones.

The third year of his contract as it is currently written would call for him to make less in base salary ($4.4 million) and less in cap-hit money ($5.85 million), so if Murray becomes the player the Vikings hope he will be, the team would have no impetus to walk away from the deal.

On its surface, it looks like a three-year deal for $15 million. But it could end up being a one-year deal that wouldn’t leave the Vikings holding the salary-cap bag like the Texans did when they had to sweeten a deal with Cleveland to throw in a second-round draft pick to get out from under Brock Osweiler and his contract.

In the other sports, contracts pretty much mean what they say. In the NFL, it’s the fine print that matters and Murray’s deal is just the most recent example of that trend.

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