Agent’s Take: Deshaun Watson’s suspension decision headlines unfinished business ahead of NFL training camps

The NFL typically goes on hiatus when mandatory minicamps end in the middle of June. Things don’t start picking back up until the week following the fourth of July. There isn’t much NFL business conducted during the lull.

Here’s a look at some key outstanding offseason business matters, some of which should be completed prior to training camps opening later this month.

A three-day disciplinary hearing to determine whether Watson violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy because of alleged inappropriate sexual conduct during numerous massage sessions was held in late June. Post-hearing briefs were due July 12. A ruling from disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, a retired U.S. District Court judge, could come at any time but is expected before the Browns open training camp on July 27.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Browns quarterback will be suspended for as much as one year. As long as Robinson finds a policy violation, both sides have three business days to file an appeal because of the discipline imposed. Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he appoints as his designee would preside over the appeal, with the latitude to increase, decrease or affirm Robinson’s punishment.

The fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract Watson signed as a part of his March trade from the Texans will toll with a suspension that causes him to miss the 2022 regular season or is longer. Essentially, Watson’s contract would be frozen and resume in 2023 with tolling. This means his 2022 contract year would become his 2023 contract year and additional years in the contract would also get pushed back one year. Instead of Watson’s contract expiring after the 2026 season, it would end after the 2027 season.

There wouldn’t be tolling with a shorter suspension. Since Watson’s 2022 base salary is $1.035 million, he will lose $57,500 (or one-eighteenth of the $1.035 million) for each week he is suspended. Suspensions are without pay, but that pertains to base salary.

In either scenario, the $44.965 million signing bonus Watson got in the deal won’t be in jeopardy because of the way the contract is structured. Watson’s salary guarantees won’t void in either case as well.

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Jackson has played his cards close to vest publicly when it comes to a new contract. He is scheduled to play the 2022 season under a $23.016 million fifth year option. Jackson was a little more forthcoming at his annual Funday with LJ event in South Florida over the weekend. He told USA Today’s Safid Deen he was hopeful for a new deal before training camp and that a holdout wasn’t on his mind.

Jackson, who represents himself, raised eyebrows by adding an image to his social media accounts with the words “I need $.” He denied it was a message to the Ravens about his contract. Instead, he indicated it was from the movie “How High,” which he likes, and thought the picture was funny.

Regardless, Jackson would be justified in insisting on a fully guaranteed contract comparable to Watson’s. Jackson is more accomplished than Watson. He established a new single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards on the ground and led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes in 2019 when he was league MVP. Watson has never been a first-team All-Pro, let alone NFL MVP. There also aren’t any concerns about Jackson’s behavior off-the-field.

Jackson is the greatest dual-threat quarterback in NFL history. He was the first player to have at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season when he won MVP.

A franchise tag in 2023 is a certainty if Jackson plays this season on his fifth-year option. The exclusive franchise designation is most likely because Jackson would be prohibited from soliciting an offer sheet from other teams. It currently projects to $45.648 million. This number is subject to change depending on new quarterback deals, contract restructures, pay cuts and/or releases between now and then.

A second franchise tag in 2024 at a NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20% increase over Jackson’s projected 2023 exclusive number would be just over $54.775 million. Baltimore designating Jackson as a franchise player in 2025 for a third consecutive year would be cost prohibitive. A third and final franchise tag with a 44% increase over the 2024 figure would be just under $79 million.

Jackson would be positioned to test the open market in 2025 after making a little more than $100 million on two franchise tags. If things get to this point, Jackson’s expectation that he’ll play his entire career in Baltimore could go out the window.

Franchise Player Negotiating Deadline

Eight players were designated as franchise players this year. Four of the eight have already signed long-term deals (wide receiver Davante Adams, wide receiver Chris Godwin, tight end David Njoku and offensive tackle Cam Robinson).

Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown, Jr., Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki and Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz have until 4 pm eastern time on Friday, July 15 to sign multi-year contracts. After the deadline passes, these players are prohibited from signing long-term deals until the end of the regular season on Jan. 8, 2022.

A long-term deal with Bates, who hasn’t signed his $12.911 million franchise tender, is extremely unlikely. Bates reportedly has no intention of playing under his franchise tag. It’s probably just an idle threat. Franchise players rarely sit out a season. The last time it happened before Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell in 2018 was with Chiefs defensive lineman Dan Williams in 1998.

The tight ends quickly signed their respective $10.931 million tenders in March after being made franchise players. The Dolphins and Gesicki reportedly haven’t really engaged in contract talks. Negotiations between Schultz and the Cowboys haven’t been fruitful. The two sides reportedly aren’t close to reaching a deal. Any deal for the tight ends would undoubtedly top the four-year deal averaging $13,687,650 per year the Browns gave Njoku in June. Both players have easily outperformed Njoku over the last couple of seasons.

Brown had expressed optimism about his signing, but the sides are reportedly nowhere close on a long-term deal. That’s probably because Brown is looking for a top-of-the-market deal. Trent Williams, David Bakhtiari and Laremy Tunsil are the NFL’s three highest-paid offensive tackles on deals averaging $23.01 million, $23 million and $22 million per year, respectively, with the 49ers, Packers and Texans.

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Garoppolo’s days in San Francisco have seemed numbered ever since the 49ers moved up to the third-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to select quarterback Trey Lance. San Francisco’s plan to trade Garoppolo this offseason was thrown for a loop because an injury to his throwing shoulder during the NFC Championship required surgery in March.

No team was going to trade for Garoppolo while he was rehabbing his right shoulder. Garoppolo started throwing a football within the last couple of the weeks. The problem is the team with the most obvious need for a starting quarterback after the Browns dealt Baker Mayfield to the Panthers is the Seahawks, who are also in the NFC West with the 49ers. Typically, teams don’t trade starting-caliber quarterbacks to division rivals. A lengthy suspension for Watson might spur some interest from the Browns.

Garoppolo is scheduled to make $25.6 million on a $26.95 million salary cap number this year. There won’t be any takers at this point without Garoppolo taking or pay cut and/or the 49ers absorbing some of his salary to help facilitate a trade. Some NFL team executives are anticipating that Garoppolo will eventually be released. The 49ers would pick up $25.55 million of cap space by cutting him.

There’s been some speculation that the 49ers could keep Garoppolo if a trade market doesn’t materialize. It’s hard to imagine Garoppolo remaining in San Francisco without accepting a pay cut. The 49ers would easily have the NFL’s most awkward quarterback scenario with Garoppolo, who has been San Francisco’s starting quarterback since acquiring him from the Patriots in a 2017 midseason trade, still around given the intention to play Lance.

Other Veteran Contract Extensions

Every year, signings during the summer and leading up to the start of the regular season change the complexion of the following year’s free agency. There are other potential notable contract extensions besides Jackson’s.

First-round picks receiving new deals after three NFL seasons is a rarity. On average, three such players won’t play a fourth season under a rookie contract because of signing an extension. So far, none of the 2019 first-round picks have gotten new deals.

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2019 first-overall pick Kyler Murray has been angling for a new deal practically ever since the Cardinals lost to the Rams in the wild card playoff round. A new contract for the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback is definitely on the Cardinals’ radar screen.

Murray should be the beneficiary of the Cardinals not operating on his timetable. There were only three quarterbacks (Josh Allen-Bills, Patrick Mahomes-Chiefs and Dak Prescott-Cowboys) making at least $40 million per year when the offseason began. The number has grown to seven after Derek Carr, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson’s respective deals with the Raiders, Packers, Rams and Browns. Nobody envisioned Watson getting a fully guaranteed five-year contract averaging $46 million per year.

A fully guaranteed contract could be problematic because of the NFL’s archaic funding rules, and the Cardinals aren’t considered a cash rich team. Teams are 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. The Cardinals didn’t pay Murray’s signing bonus in a lump like 2019 second-overall pick Nick Bosa got from the 49ers. Nonetheless, Murray should be the next member of the $40 million per year quarterback club.

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The wide receiver market has exploded in a way that wasn’t anticipated. There were four $20 million per year wideouts (Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones) when the offseason began. Twelve wide receivers have hit the mark even with the Titans releasing Jones.

The number could continue to grow because 2019 second-round picks DK Metcalf (Seahawks) and Deebo Samuel (49ers) are in contract years. The most relevant data point in the marketplace probably is the four-year, $100 million extension containing $57,220,471 of guarantees the Eagles gave fellow 2019 second-round pick A.J. Brown in connection with his draft day trade from Titans. All three players are represented by Creative Artists Agency’s Tory Dandy.

Samuel’s situation is complicated by him asking for a trade in the weeks leading up to April’s draft. 49ers general manager John Lynch has been adamant that Samuel won’t be traded. Samuel attending San Francisco’s mandatory June minicamp has been construed as a softening of his stance.

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Three positional markets (offensive guard, off-ball linebacker and safety) have the potential to be reset. It’s just a matter of time before the Colts make Quenton Nelson, 2018’s sixth-overall pick, the NFL’s highest paid offensive guard. Brandon Scherff leads the way with the three-year, $49.5 million deal averaging $16.5 million per year and worth as much as $52.5 million through incentives he received from the Jaguars in this year’s free agency.

Nelson probably has sights set a lot a higher than Scherff’s deal. The three-time first-team All-Pro is clearly Indianapolis’ best offensive lineman, if not the team’s best non-quarterback. In order to become the Colts’ highest paid non-quarterback, Nelson would have to sign a contract averaging more than the $19.7 million per year linebacker Darius Leonard, also a three-time first-team All-Pro, got last preseason. Leonard signed a five-year, $98.5 million extension with $52.5 million of guarantees where $33 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

The Leonard deal is probably the benchmark Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, 2018’s eight-overall pick, is looking to eclipse. New general manager Ryan Poles has publicly stated his intention to sign Smith to an extension.

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The Chargers and Derwin James have reportedly started preliminary discussions about a long-term deal. 2018’s 17th-overall pick surely took notice of Minkah Fitzpatrick becoming the NFL’s highest-paid safety last month with a four-year extension from the Steelers averaging $18.247 million per year and containing $36 million fully guaranteed.

There are durability concerns with James, which don’t exist with Fitzpatrick. James didn’t miss a beat in 2021 after injuries limited him to five games over the previous two seasons. He regained the form that made him a Pro Bowler and first team All-Pro as a rookie. James is currently rehabbing from offseason left shoulder surgery but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

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