The structure of the new $29 million four year Brian Winters contract has some interesting features which may hint at what to expect from the Jets the rest of the 2017 offseason.
The most expensive year of the Winters contract is the first year, at $8 million fully guaranteed. The next three years are at $7 million, fully guaranteed, $6.5 million, not guaranteed, and $7.5 million, not guaranteed. All figures are identical for both cash compensation and salary cap purposes.
Making the first year of the deal the most expensive is fairly unusual, particularly in the case of a young player whom you might expect to grow into higher numbers as the deal progresses. Before the details of the structure became available I expected the first year to come in as the lowest cap number out of the four years of the contract. NFL deals are often structured with low upfront costs to allow more cap flexibility in the year of the signing. This is particularly true in the case of young players who may have some upside to justify higher cap hits in later years and are less likely to decline. The odd structure presented by this contract hints at a restrained approach to the 2017 offseason by general manager Mike Maccagnan. It suggests he may be feeling more secure in his position and may be more interested in long term roster building than his current contract would appear to warrant. A general manager feeling the pressure to win now or be fired would likely not structure a contract this way. Rather he would load up on deals that are cheap in year one, when winning is imperative to remain employed, and worry about the long term cap implications later. The fact that the Winters contract is front loaded is a positive sign for Jets fans in that, for better or worse, Mike Maccagnan is the general manager, and it is better for the team if he feels free to build the Jets for the long term rather than pull out all stops to win now.
The Winters contract represents a departure for Maccagnan in the way he structures contracts. In 2015 when Maccagnan took advantage of lots of cap space to load up on free agents there was a difference in the way he approached younger players and older players. With older players like Darrelle Revis nearly all guaranteed money was paid out in fully guaranteed salary for as many years as it took to get the contract done. Very little was paid in signing bonuses to players like Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Signing bonuses are prorated over the life of the contract, up to a maximum of five years. The result is a large signing bonus will have the effect of minimizing the cap hit for the first year of a contract while making the rest of the years inordinately expensive, with significant amounts of dead money on the books if a player is cut or traded before his contract expires.
In contrast structuring deals with guaranteed base salary (or in the case of Winters, a large first year roster bonus, which is not prorated) makes the first year of the deal relatively expensive compared to a deal with a large signing bonus, and leaves zero dead money on the books as soon as the years with guaranteed money expire. This makes a player easier to cut in later years, with no dead money to deal with.
Most teams struggling with salary cap issues and trying to win now opt to structure their contracts with relatively large signing bonuses, minimizing cap hits in the first year of the deal at the expense of more dead money later. Mike Maccagnan in 2015 structured older free agent deals with very little in signing bonus money, allowing him to cut older players with little dead money after one or two years (depending on the player) if performance declined. With younger players like Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist in 2015 and Muhammad Wilkerson in 2016 Maccagnan took a different approach. Younger players got deals with substantial signing bonuses, presumably because they were less likely to decline and saddle the team with dead money after their useful playing days were over. These contracts were less expensive in year one, allowing the team to spend more that year, while having the drawback of becoming more expensive in later years and being saddled with dead money.
The interesting thing about the Winters deal is that it kind of breaks the mold. With zero in signing bonus money despite a very substantial contract for a guard this deal is most expensive in its first year, something you almost never see in the NFL. It is least expensive in year three, when Winters' salary declines to $6.5 million. Again, this is something you rarely see. The structure of this contract hints perhaps at how the 2017 Jets offseason may play out. Structuring a fairly substantial deal as a front loaded deal, particularly in a situation where the Jets are currently over the 2017 cap, is, I think, significant. It hints that despite speculation to the contrary, Mike Maccagnan does not feel a lot of pressure to go for broke and pull out all stops to win immediately. If that was his objective the $7 million roster bonus Winters got in 2017 would have been a $7 million pro-rated signing bonus, thus lowering his 2017 cap hit to less than $3 million, at the expense of adding more than $5 million in dead money over the last three years of the deal. Signing a bunch of guys to contracts with large signing bonuses would have been the perfect way to bring in a large infusion of new talent in 2017, at the expense of burdening the Jets' cap over subsequent years. If Maccagnan is feeling the heat to win now, the Winters contract is a strange way to show it.
If the Winters contract is not just an anomaly and actually hints at Mike Maccagnan's priorities for 2017 and beyond, I would expect to see a restrained approach to free agency in 2017. It would appear that signing one of the most expensive options at quarterback, like a Tony Romo if he were to become available, is not all that likely. If Maccagnan anticipated making an expensive acquisition at quarterback in the hopes of competing immediately then why would he structure the Winters deal with 2017 being its most expensive year? Wouldn't it make more sense, if the object is to win now, to surround an expensive quarterback with as much talent as possible on deals with cheap 2017 cap hits? Instead an easy $5 million that could have been saved on Winters' 2017 cap hit and deferred for later years has been taken in 2017, making 2017 the most expensive year of Winters' deal. The flip side, of course, is that Winters' deal becomes least expensive in 2019, presumably a reasonable timetable for the Jets to actually compete for a championship, if they draft well and somehow find a quarterback. If, as has always happened in the past, the salary cap continues to increase, by 2019 Winters' deal will look much better than it does today, with salaries overall increasing while Winters' salary decreases.
The Winters deal is just one deal, and drawing definitive conclusions based on one deal is folly. However, there is a hint in the Winters deal that maybe Mike Maccagnan is building for the long term, and 2017 will see a restrained approach in free agency. Even if that turns out not to be the case, the Winters deal may signal a new pay as you go strategy for Maccagnan, with a corresponding reluctance to saddle the team with dead money hits even for young players like Winters. If so, I am all for that approach.
I was not a fan of the Winters deal when it was announced. I think he was overpaid. However, whatever you or I may think about the overall dollar figures for Winters, I am a big fan of the structure of the deal. Front loading a contract for a team not likely to compete for a championship next year is exactly the right approach. If the Jets follow this contract up with a restrained approach to free agency, perhaps even managing to pick up a compensatory pick or two, while avoiding overpaying for a stopgap quarterback, I will be ecstatic. For better or for worse the Jets will need at least a couple of years to rebuild this team into a perennial winner. Structuring the Winters deal with a front loaded package and zero dead money is a promising start.