Sean McVay can enjoy his honeymoon. And Kevin Demoff, Les Snead and Tony Pastoors can put their phones down for vacation.
The Super Bowl champions sent their players on their way Thursday, having, over the course of the last week, effectively closed for business for the summer. Matthew Stafford got his deal in March, Aaron Donald’s came Monday and Cooper Kupp’s was signed midweek. Thus the three heroes of Feb. 13 can go, like the brain trust, away in peace.
That’s, of course, because all three of those guys got paid, becoming the first trio of teammates in NFL history to cross the $25 million per year threshold together (there are only 18 players total among the other 31 teams making that much). It’s also because, on the other end, an offseason-long process is complete. But just as much, it’s because it happened with everyone together taking ownership in extending the team’s championship window.
“There was a lot of trust involved at the end of the day,” Kupp said as he drove home on Thursday, with his offseason program complete. “There was a lot of trust involved on each side, that we wouldn’t come to this place and treat it like a negotiation at all. We tried to have a conversation and figure out what it looks like for them, balancing the things that were important for them and the things that were important for us.
“And how can we get to a place where we’re, at the end, both shaking hands and feeling good, both feeling good about what we have ahead of us? We were able to have that conversation, and it’s not writing a number on a piece of paper and just passing it back and forth until you whittle each other down. The collaborative approach, to me, just allowed us to fully understand it and find that place.”
Which, in turn, leaves the Rams in a great place as they ready to open their title defense.
In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll take a closer look at how Demoff, McVay, Pastoors and Snead got there, and how Donald, Kupp and Stafford played their parts.
This story for the Rams started with the COO (Demoff), GM (Snead), chief negotiator (Pastoors) and coach (McVay) having their annual offsite, days after winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl in two decades. It took place at the Westlake Four Seasons, 10 miles southeast of the team’s facility, and, as is always the case, just about everything was on the agenda—from airline charters to buses to training camp to community and sponsorship commitments to the football stuff—to review 2021 and plan on for ’22.
At the top of the list was one item they’d been charting a course on for more than a year and two more they were less prepared for.
The Rams knew Stafford’s deal would have to be addressed this offseason pretty much the second they dealt for him in January 2021. The brass also thought, by then, it was possible that Donald might want a bump in ’22. Kupp’s contract, on the other hand, wasn’t really on the radar, with a three-year extension having been done less than two years earlier.
The Super Bowl changed things. Stafford still needed his deal and now was cemented in the upper echelon at the most important position in sports. The three-time DPOY Donald’s career had its capstone (a ring and the biggest play made on the biggest stage) and, at 31, the idea he could walk away had become real. And Kupp’s record 145-catch, 1,947-yard, 16-touchdown season and starring role in the fourth quarter of February’s dramatic win over the Bengals necessitated a market correction of his deal.
Perception has held that the Rams handed those guys blank checks. The truth is closer to this—they tried to ascertain each player’s priorities, then worked around those to allow for enough flexibility to keep building as aggressively as L.A. has over the last few years.
“To me, there’s an element of what I knew,” Kupp said. “As you’re going forward, and you’re planning, you have a family and you’re planning financially going forward for how our family’s gonna operate, knowing what was going to be there. So for me, the guarantee, the structure of how that was going to be done was what was important to me, so that I felt like I knew I could provide some stability for my family in terms of where we’re gonna be and what the future was going to look like for us going forward.
“And this being in an industry and a sport where there’s a lot of turnover and there’s a lot of instability, that’s what was most important.”
With that knowledge, and finding out what Stafford and Donald wanted, deals were built.
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Stafford’s situation might’ve been the simplest one. He wanted a fair market deal without much concern about topping the previous market rate. The fact that Deshaun Watson signed his fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million deal as Stafford’s was coming down the stretch, to be sure, could’ve poisoned the Rams’ talks with their quarterback. It didn’t. Stafford’s four-year, $160 million extension was completed 48 hours later.
Donald’s might’ve been the most complex of the three. Through the offseason, he and McVay were in close contact, with McVay’s message straightforward: If you have a burning desire to play and want to do this, we’re going to figure it out. If you’re not sure your heart’s in it, we’ll have a different discussion. Ultimately, Donald wound up telling McVay he wanted back in, and he got a groundbreaking $40 million raise on the three years he had left on his existing deal, without having to add any term to the contract, for his troubles.
Kupp’s deal might’ve been most interesting, because of what he knew. He’ll play it off now. “It’s not research as much as Bleacher Report pops up, and you see what guys are getting,” he said. “I’m really happy for these guys. I think I touched on it before. I’m really glad that there are guys that have worked for a long time that are getting paid. I think that’s a great thing, taking care of their families, securing their children, their children’s children; I think that’s just such a cool thing. There wasn’t a whole lot of knowledge I needed to have.”
But those in the room say he was savvy as an agent, with a keen understanding of the funding rules that would wind up being a driving factor in the negotiations. And ultimately, as he said, it helped him work in collaboration with the Rams on a three-year, $80 million extension that paid as one of the game’s best at his position, which he so clearly proved he is over the last 12 months.
On paper, you can add this up and ask where the compromise was on the player’s side.
Let’s explain that.
On the surface, the contracts look like market-topping deals for two guys in their 30s and another for one who’s 12 months away from turning 30, the kind that might handcuff a team for years if the players wind up going the wrong way. But digging into the details on them, you’ll see that the way they were structured allows for the Rams to continue to build at a breakneck neck pace around those three and Jalen Ramsey. Here are the keys to them.
• Stafford’s deal had $63 million fully guaranteed, a number that falls far short of, of course, Watson, but also Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen and Dak Prescott, who did deals in the last year with at or close to $100 million guaranteed. Kupp’s deal has $35 million fully guaranteed, short of what Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, D.J. Moore, Chris Godwin, Amari Cooper and even Christian Kirk got. Even Donald’s deal had just $46.5 million fully guaranteed.
Why does that matter? Because every full guaranteed dollar that isn’t paid by next March would, at that point, have to go into an escrow account with the league. That would affect the Rams’ cash flow in 2023. So getting creative with the guarantees and minimizing what has to be funded next spring opens the Rams up for spending come March, and allows them to keep working like they did this year to get guys like Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner.
• Another trade-off in the Stafford and Kupp deals: The players worked collaboratively with the team to stay from the very top of the market with each player. Stafford signed after Rodgers and is making more than $10 million per year less than his old NFC North rival. Kupp’s APY ($26.67 million) falls short of Hill’s, Adams’s and Hopkins’s, and beats out A.J. Brown’s and Diggs’s.
Donald’s deal is another animal, because, well, Donald’s different from the rest. The Rams were O.K. doing his that way for two reasons. One, if Donald was truly willing to walk away (the Rams did believe he was actually torn on coming back earlier in the offseason), holding precedent wasn’t worth losing a player the team is built around. And two, very few players could use that precedent against the Rams.
In fact, at one point last week, an exec from a rival team asked a Rams official about that. The Rams official’s response, roughly: “For a seven-time All-Pro, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers, we have absolutely changed our precedent. And the next time we have one of those, we’ll treat him the exact same way.”
• The players get theirs too, with logical things, the things Kupp mentioned, emphasized in these deals. Cash flow is the first thing. Over the next three years, Stafford, Donald and Kupp will pull down a total of $285 million. Stafford was going to make $23 million on the last year of his old contract. He’ll now make $120 million over the next three years, meaning he’s adding $97 million in new money over two new contractual years. Donald gets $95 million the next three years. Kupp get $70 million between now and 2024, which beats the cash flow of Adams and is just short of Hill (who was in a contract year).
And in place of guarantees at signing, Stafford and Kupp have future years with guarantees that vest early, basically locking in the team to the player, from a practical standpoint, while skirting the funding rule.
• What does this mean for the salary cap? It’s possible, in a few years, the Rams might have to take a reset year of cap reckoning, like the Bills did in 2018 or the Falcons are taking this year. And if that’s the cost for competing for Lombardi trophies with the current core, they’re totally fine with that.
But the tone McVay’s set in his five years, with his stated goal of contending for a title every year, is one where constant evolution is necessary. This is apparent in how the Rams have managed turnover on his staff, and tinkered with it plenty on their own, and also how the roster is always changing. (Only 12 players were on both the Super Bowl LIII and LVI rosters for the Rams; and just three of those guys, Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein and Donald, started both games.) Similar evolution happens with the team’s cap management.
So how Pastoors, one of the NFL’s best in his role, worked with Ryan Tollner on the Kupp deal, Todd France on the Donald deal, or Jimmy Sexton and Tom Condon on the Stafford deal, might be different than how he handled, say, Jared Goff’s contract in 2019. And that the players worked with their agents to allow for them is not a small thing.
• How Snead’s staff has worked with McVay on building the roster shouldn’t be undersold, either. Drafting, developing and starting guys like David Edwards, Brian Allen, Darious Williams and Jordan Fuller on rookie deals creates financial flexibility for stars. And having a Nick Scott to step in for Fuller or a Kendall Blanton to step in for Tyler Higbee in the Super Bowl keeps spending under control, too, and that sort of depth allows the team to let guys like Williams walk, with comp picks coming back in return to keep the cycle going.
The “Eff Them Picks” meme? It works nicely if you’re filling out your roster with a lot of guys outside of the first round. And if there are holes thereafter, now, the lure of getting to play for McVay, and in L.A., and maybe getting a gravy-train ring while you’re at it can allow for veteran bargains like Odell Beckham Jr. to happen.
The totality of this whole situation is players like Stafford, Donald and Kupp feeling like partners in the pursuit of more titles, “which,” one club official pointed out this week, “they are.”
And that, as they go away for about a month, has all three pretty excited for what’ll be waiting for them when they get back.
“You get that itch to come back, the challenge that this presents, it’s an incredible thing,” Kupp said. “And there’s no time to settle in. There’s no time to be complacent. It didn’t feel like there was even too much time really to even celebrate. It was, We gotta get our bodies turned over and get ready for another round of this thing. We know there’s so much we could do better, and that’s a beautiful thing to have, when you’ve got a bunch of guys that, no matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how good you were able to be, there’s always more.
“Being able to have and understand that is a pretty special thing.”
And it puts everyone in L.A. in a pretty great place, with a camp six weeks away.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1) We’re obviously going to have more on the Watson case when we get to Monday, but for now, what will be vital from a league standpoint, is whether the Browns’ quarterback was forthright with the team and league on what surfaced this week in the 24th lawsuit and the New York Times report. If he was, and the NFL and Cleveland have a thorough explanation of these details, then that’s one thing. If he wasn’t, we’re talking about another thing completely—and the NFL has shown in the past that it will come down harder on players who aren’t fully cooperative during investigations (which is important, since, absent subpoena power, the league needs parties involved to be honest and forthright).
2) The Jets’ hosting Riley Reiff on a visit is interesting. New York was connected to NC State OT Ickey Ekwonu in the lead-up to the draft, and there were murmurs then that ownership really didn’t want the team taking an offensive lineman in the first round for the third straight year. The Jets wound up with Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson but still needing some tackle insurance, given how uneven Mekhi Becton’s first two years in the league were. And I think that’s where the Reiff interest is coming from. If Becton stalls out, or gets hurt again, having Reiff would allow New York the flexibility to flip George Fant from right tackle to left tackle and slide Reiff in on the right side. Which would at least give the Jets experience at those spots, if not the talent that Becton brings to the table.
3) As a follow-up to Monday’s column on Commanders QB Carson Wentz, I’m told Wentz is planning to get teammates together in California during the late June/early July break in the NFL calendar. It’s not the most significant thing in the world, of course—Wentz did the same thing last summer in Texas with his Colts teammates. But it does add another piece of relationship-building to the puzzle for the embattled quarterback as he tries to position himself for a resurgent season.
4) That soon-to-be Broncos owner Rob Walton is looking to carve out an executive role for Peyton Manning in Denver is worth keeping an eye on. The Mannings, to be sure, have flirted with the idea of team ownership, even if the price point for outright ownership of a team may be rich for their blood. But beyond just that, Peyton Manning’s expressed thoughts of taking a top football executive role with a team in the past and was pretty inquisitive as a player on what the role would entail and active in learning more about working in a front office. The trouble in Denver would be that you have a GM, in George Paton, who’s off to a really nice start, and a first-year coach, in Nathaniel Hackett. Could Manning be a resource to them as part of an ownership group? Absolutely. Would he want to be more than that? That part remains to be seen.
5) The DK Metcalf holdout has to be looked at as an investment. The number of receivers making $20 million per year bulged this offseason, going from four to 10 (with Julio Jones exiting the club and seven new members joining it). And five of the six highest-paid wideouts in football, all making $24 million per year or more in new money, are on deals signed over the last four months. So Metcalf should be asking for a lot. And because the new holdout rules mean that skipping even just the first day of camp would cost Metcalf his unrestricted free agent status in 2023, it made sense for him, like it did a lot of players, to make his point in the spring rather than the summer. So now Seattle can dock him up to $96,877 for missing this week’s three-day minicamp. That’s pennies compared to what he’ll land in a long-term deal, and the fines, unlike training camp fines, can be forgiven by the team. Which is to say Metcalf’s absence was logical, and I don’t think it’ll have any effect on talks.
6) You could make the same argument on Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson next week, but, of course, a quarterback sitting out is a little different, just because of the effect it has on everyone’s ability to get meaningful work done.
AND ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
The end of next week marks an important checkpoint in the sagas of Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo—with teams wrapping up their offseason programs.
After nine weeks of work through the spring—on the field, in the weight room and in meeting rooms—teams have a better idea of where their rosters stand. And, the thought goes, teams like the Seahawks and Panthers will be in a place where they’re doing less guessing on how things will play out in camp with their quarterback situations.
Maybe the Seahawks, with Drew Lock and Geno Smith, and Panthers, with Sam Darnold and Matt Corral, will come out of it feeling O.K. at the position. Maybe they won’t. Either way, the picture should be a little clearer for the Browns and Niners soon. After that, I believe a lot of this will come down to finances—and, in the case of Garoppolo, health—for two quarterbacks I still believe can help teams in a significant way in 2022.
More NFL Coverage:
• NFL Needs to Bench Deshaun Watson
• The Aaron Donald Deal: How the Rams Do It
• How the NFL Should Feel About the Broncos Sale
• Six Turnaround Candidates Most Likely to Reach Playoffs