$6 million-a-year contracts in decline
Hernandez release was special case, but tight cap is forcing teams' hands
Before free agency started, I began charting the number of $6 million-a-year contracts. Why $6 million? That's a starting point for Pro Bowl-caliber position players.
The 2012 season ended with 197 $6 million-a-year players. The release of Aaron Hernandez cut the current number to 180. Although Hernandez's situation was unrelated to anything that has happened around the league this offseason, it's not surprising to see a contract worth more than $6 million a year adjusted or terminated. With a $123 million salary cap, big contracts are targeted every day.
You have to figure the Houston Texans will find a way to give Brian Cushing a contract extension. Sometime before training camp opens, Matt Ryan, who is making $11.25 million on his rookie contract, should get an extension to stay with the Atlanta Falcons.
But how many more will hit the $6 million-a-year mark? Don't be surprised if the number is small. From June 2012 through the end of the 2012 regular season, a dozen players received $6 million-plus deals. The Pats gave Hernandez $7.5 million and Rob Gronkowski $9 million a year in August. The Texans gave Matt Schaub $15.5 million a year and left tackle Duane Brown $8.9 million in late summer.
The Tennessee Titans extended the contract of cornerback Jason McCourty for $8.6 million a year. The Seahawks gave defensive end Chris Clemons a $9 million-a-year extension and center Max Unger $6.46 million. The St. Louis Rams locked up two of their top young players -- defensive end Chris Long ($12.047 million a year) and linebacker James Laurinaitis ($8.3 million). Toward the end of the regular season, the San Francisco 49ers gave NaVorro Bowman $8.911 million a year.
As 2012 training camp started, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the conclusion that their $10 million-a-year offer wasn't going to satisfy pending free-agent receiver Mike Wallace, so they gave $8.392 million a year to wide receiver Antonio Brown.
It seems unlikely that 17 $6 million-a-year deals can be made between now and the end of the regular season to reach last year's number of 197. There might be only a handful.
Based on the trends over the past couple of seasons, it's hard for franchises to have more than eight $6 million-a-year contracts on their books when the salary cap is in the low $120 million range. There are a few exceptions. The Seahawks currently have 10 after adding Percy Harvin and Cliff Avril during the offseason, but the organization knows adjustments have to be made in the future.
The Seahawks can get away with 10 this year because some of their best players -- Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and others -- are still on their rookie contracts. Adjustments will be made when the team tries to extend left tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas and others.
The Seahawks currently have 11 starters on their roster with Pro Bowl trips on their résumés. Keeping them all long term won't be easy. Highly paid players such as Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and Red Bryant -- all making more than $6 million a year -- need to have good seasons to keep their salaries at that level.
Playoff-caliber teams have been juggling the books since February. To bring back tight end Tony Gonzalez and extend left tackle Sam Baker and safety William Moore, the Falcons had to release defensive end John Abraham, right tackle Tyson Clabo, running back Michael Turner and cornerback Dunta Robinson.
The 49ers have done of great job of keeping together one of the best starting lineups in football. They have 13 position players with Pro Bowl experience. They were at eight $6 million-a-year players, but the number dropped to seven when defensive end Justin Smith, who was making $7.5 million, did a two-year extension at $4.35 million a year.
The Oakland Raiders went from eight $6 million-plus players last year to three.
It's been interesting to follow the trends at positions. Last year there were 24 cornerbacks making more than $6 million. Brent Grimes, Robinson, Chris Gamble, Antoine Winfield, Corey Webster, Nnamdi Asomugha and DeAngelo Hall all watched their numbers or situations change.
So when you hear that contract talks are heating up for a top player, remember the $6 million-a-year mark. Getting a player signed at that level forces adjustments to fit that contract into the current and future cap of a team.