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NFLPA Accuses Teams of Collusion Over QB Contracts

No starting QB has received a fully guaranteed deal since the Browns handed one to Deshaun Watson. Now, the NFL Players Association is crying foul.

NFL teams tend to only go as far as their quarterbacks take them; that’s why they’re the highest-paid players in the game. On the flip, teams remain hesitant about offering heaping amounts of guaranteed money to their offensive captains — and the NFLPA has seen enough.

On Tuesday, Kalyn Kahler of The Athletic was first to report that the NFL Players Association sent a formal memo around the league on Oct. 20 accusing several teams, as well as the NFL itself, of colluding to refrain from offering fully guaranteed contracts to “certain quarterbacks.” The union suggested that owners and NFL executives held discussions during the NFL owners’ meeting held in Minneapolis on Aug. 9 and subsequently agreed to stop offering such deals.

The Browns awarded the last fully-guaranteed QB deal to Deshaun Watson in September. Since then, several star quarterbacks have signed for less than 100% guaranteed at signing, while other extension candidates have been unable to come to terms at all.

“The NFLPA argues that ‘[t]he expectation was that fully-guaranteed contracts would now become the competition-driven norm for the top players in the League, including quarterbacks, negotiating new contracts,'” NFL attorney Jeff Pash wrote to NFL owners, as noted by Kahler. “The pleading fails to explain the basis of their alleged expectation. The NFLPA further contends that, before and during the Aug. 9 ownership meeting, NFL owners and/or League executives discussed not agreeing to any additional player contracts with fully-guaranteed salaries.”

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The NFLPA asked the arbitrator to award damages to “certain quarterbacks” that were affected by the “collusive agreement.” It’s worth noting that all this comes after the Browns didn’t just hand Watson a fully-guaranteed deal amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations against him, but one worth $230 million — the fifth-largest contract in NFL history by total value and the fourth-largest by average annual value.

Watson, who hasn’t played since January of 2021, is nearing the end of an 11-game suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

In late March, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti echoed a sentiment other league executives reportedly felt in regard to Watson’s $230 million deal. “It’s like, ‘damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed the whole contract,'” Bisciotti said at the time. “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract.”

In the big picture, Bisciotti has his own questions to answer when it comes to the cases of the following players:

Lamar Jackson

Before the season began, Lamar Jackson turned down a reported $250 million extension offer from the Baltimore Ravens that included $133 million guaranteed, casting a murky cloud over another season in which the team could use a little reassurance that he can win games come playoff time.

Jackson, who serves as his own agent, was reportedly advised by the NFLPA that he was justified to demand a contract with 100% of compensation guaranteed at signing like Watson’s.

Kyler Murray & Russell Wilson

After Watson signed his deal, players like Kyler Murray signed enormous contracts of their own; the Cardinals signal-caller received five years and $230.5 million, but only $103.3 million was guaranteed. This is part of the union’s argument here — the big deals by total value are fine and dandy, but they feel long-term signees like Murray and Russell Wilson should have gotten more guaranteed money once the Browns ostensibly reset the QB market with Watson.

Wilson signed a five-year, $242.8 million deal with Denver, but only $124 million was guaranteed at signing. Sure, it hasn’t paid off this season on the field, but it’s a long-term business commitment that impacts younger players like Jackson in the very near future. Furthermore, the union might be getting in front of a potentially major issue with other impending extension candidates like Justin HerbertJoe BurrowTua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts who all become eligible for the first time after the current season.

“Anytime we see what has been occurring in the market and we hear comments that validate those concerns, as you know from the past we have never shied away from exercising both our legal rights and our collective bargaining rights to protect our players,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told Pro Football Talk in October. “People shouldn’t be surprised if something happens in the near future.”

Like Jackson’s stalled contract talks in Baltimore, this will be an ongoing conversation entering the 2023 offseason, and no resolved should be expected without a sustainable sort of understanding between these opposing parties, perhaps of the legal variety. All told, it appears the Browns set a bad and/or unsustainable precedent by fully guaranteeing the $230 million they handed to Watson, but no one can strictly blame them for how other clubs have behaved since then, whether or not impropriety in violation of the CBA was involved as alleged.

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