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Jesse James contract details: Very team-friendly deal for Detroit Lions... in 2019

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The Lions are developing a very clear pattern with their contract structures.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When it was first announced the Detroit Lions agreed to contract terms with tight end Jesse James, there was some concern that the Lions overpaid for him. With mid-tier tight end Tyler Kroft inking a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Bills, James was expected to eclipse that.

Tuesday we found out that James’ deal actually had an identical average per year: a four-year, $25 million signing with Detroit. But late on Tuesday night, we got the full breakdown of James’ contract and it’s actually a little more team friendly than it looks, at least early in the contract.

There’s a lot to break down here, but let’s start with the most interesting things.

Low cap hit up front

Once again, the Lions appear to have back-loaded the contract. With the multiple year spread of the signing bonus ($7,145,000) over the life of the full deal and just $805,000 base salary in 2019, James’ cap hit is a mere $2,284,000 in the first year.

However, that cap hit jumps up fairly quickly:

  • 2020: $5.3 million
  • 2021: $6.4 million
  • 2022: $7.2 milion

It’s clear the Lions are trying to preserve some significant cap space this year. Remember, Trey Flowers’ gigantic $18 million per year contract is only going to cost the Lions $6.4 million in cap space in 2019.

Another voided year

Last week, we made note of Detroit’s odd decision to give Romeo Okwara an additional year on his contract that is automatically voided. In short, the purpose there is to spread out the signing bonus’ cap effects over an additional phantom year. That frees up cap space immediately while having to pay for it down the line.

Similarly, James has a fifth year on his deal that will automatically void five days after the 2022 Super Bowl. So James’ signing bonus of $7.145 million gets divided by five instead of four, immediately saving Detroit $357,2500 in 2019. Of course, that cash doesn’t just evaporate. They’ll be on the hook for that in 2023, even though James isn’t likely to be on the team anymore.

It’s an interesting tactic for a couple of reasons. First, it shows the Lions are going to continue to be aggressive this year, as they clearly believe now is the time for action. Additionally, the Lions may be anticipating something major in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. It can be a dangerous practice to continue to kick the can down the road with cap hits—as we saw with Martin Mayhew—but the current NFL CBA expires after the 2020 season. Perhaps they expect big changes to the salary cap are coming soon.

Of course, it’s pretty standard practice in the NFL to back load contracts. “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” With the salary cap expected to jump around $10 million every year, it’s obviously easier to take on identical cap hits in later years. But continuing this practice may clog up your cap space and prevent spending sprees like the Lions are taking part in this year.

Here’s a full look at the James contract, courtesy of Over The Cap: