Nothing simple about RB negotiations

Position's limited shelf life, players' urgency can make things tricky; see below

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

There's no position in the NFL with a shorter shelf life than running back. That reality creates natural tension at the bargaining table, with agents and teams knowing decline can come quickly.

Players and agents want to get the second or third contract as soon as possible, but teams resist sinking large amounts of guaranteed money into the position, especially for players past certain ages.

Tag tandem

Ray Rice and Matt Forte have received the franchise tag from their respective teams. The Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are saying all the right things about wanting their stars long term, how important they are to the franchise's future, etc. As with everything, though, actions speak louder than words.

The Bears then signed free agent Michael Bush to a contract with $7 million guaranteed, merely $700,000 less than Forte's guarantee (assuming he plays under the tag). Time will tell whether the Bears and the Ravens prefer to go year to year with these players rather than commit to long-term marriages.

An intriguing question regarding Rice and Forte must be asked: Is their impressive workload and high production helping their drives for long-term contracts or, because of the subsequent wear and tear, hurting their causes?

While Rice and Forte sit indefinitely with their tags, two running backs were rewarded.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireWhile other big-name backs got tagged, Marshawn Lynch struck pay dirt in Seattle.

Love for Lynch

The Seattle Seahawks gave Marshawn Lynch a four-year, $32 million extension with $18 million guaranteed, an impressive commitment to a player who was traded for a fourth-round pick and a conditional sixth-rounder by the Buffalo Bills in 2010.

I vividly remember Lynch coming through the Green Bay Packers' offices before the 2007 draft, as he was a serious candidate for our top pick. His primary champion -- besides our backup quarterback at the time, Aaron Rodgers, a former teammate at Cal -- was John Schneider, now the Seahawks' general manager. There was a palpable groan from Schneider when the Bills selected Lynch a few picks ahead of our selection. Now, Schneider has Lynch long term.

Foster cashes in early

Unlike Lynch, Rice and Forte, Arian Foster was scheduled to become a restricted free agent, with the Houston Texans having the right to match any offer sheet he received. The Texans, however, made a pre-emptive strike, signing him to a five-year contract worth $43.5 million with $20.75 million guaranteed.

Foster's deal is strikingly similar to last year's contract between the Carolina Panthers and DeAngelo Williams (five years, $43 million with $21 million guaranteed). Williams was an unrestricted free agent who returned to his original team. Foster was a year behind Williams in terms of service.

The RB ceiling

The running back market had been stagnant since LaDanian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis signed contracts eight years ago and Steven Jackson four years ago.

That changed this past August, when Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans) and Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings) burst past the established market with guarantees exceeding $30 million. A new paradigm for the running back market was set.

Foster could have pursued that type of guarantee with continued high performance into another season. However, with limited leverage as an restricted free agent, he took a deal that puts him at the top of the running back market, save for Johnson and Peterson.

Whither Rice and Forte?

For these two superstar players, questions remain. Will they continue as tag players, perhaps facing the same fate next year, or will the Ravens and/or Bears commit to them long term?

My sense is the Ravens and Bears would be willing to commit to the level of contract Lynch and Foster commanded. But if Rice and Forte are intent on reaching the level of the Johnson and Peterson deals, the tag might persist.

And a new market might be set. With reports of preliminary negotiations between the Philadelphia Eagles and LeSean McCoy -- who's entering the last year of his rookie contract -- we might see a fresh data point for the Rice and Forte negotiations, if there are to be any.

Of course, there's a lot of room between $21 million and $30 million guaranteed, which means there's plenty of room for negotiation. Stay tuned.

From the inbox

Q: What is behind punishing the Redskins and Cowboys for overpaying players during the uncapped year?

Ivan in Atlanta

A: Some clarification: The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins did not have disproportionate cash spending in the uncapped year; they had disproportionate cap spending that year, in part because of restructuring 2009 contracts to dump future cap hits into 2010.

In the upcoming arbitration, the Cowboys/Redskins will argue that there were no written warnings. The NFL will argue that there were repeated verbal warnings as far back as three years before the uncapped year.

The Cowboys/Redskins will argue that the NFL approved these contracts, thus tacitly consenting to their structure. The NFL will argue the approval is irrelevant; there was no cap and therefore no cap rules.

The arbitration will be an intriguing study of the interplay and coalitions among NFL owners and the league office.

Q: In your breakdown of Peyton Manning's new contract, it seemed like you thought it was a good deal for the Broncos. Can you elaborate?

Thomas in Denver

A: When players say, "It's not about the money," the translation is usually "It's all about the money." With Manning's deal, however, I don't think it was.

Titans owner Bud Adams was willing to "do what it took" to sign Manning. The Seahawks sent a private plane to Denver to -- unsuccessfully -- try to woo Manning. I sense both teams would have paid more.

The Manning contract is, for now, a one-year, $18 million deal. All other money is tied to Manning's neck healing properly and not having complications. I have little doubt Manning could have received (1) more money and (2) less money tied to physicals and waivers from other teams.

Q: Should the Steelers be worried about an offer sheet for Mike Wallace?

Dave in Pittsburgh

A: Restricted free-agent offer sheets are allowed through April 20. Until then, yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot exhale.

A cap-rich team such as the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seahawks or Cleveland Browns can structure -- through the use of a salary and/or roster bonus rather than a signing bonus -- a contract with a first-year cap number that would debilitate the Steelers. This would not be a "poison pill," rather simply taking advantage of a compromised cap situation.

The Steelers have -- in 2011 and 2012 --- mortgaged most of, if not all, the available large contracts to squeeze out more cap room. They remain vulnerable.