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A cap expert’s take on the Darius Slay, Damon Harrison holdouts

Why are they holding out? What’s fair deal they could expect? How does the CBA factor in?

NFL: New England Patriots at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

As frustrations and debates boils over the Detroit Lions fanbase, many are still trying to come to terms with the fact that two of the best Lions defensive players are holding out for new contracts and skipping mandatory practice this week.

Darius Slay and Damon Harrison Sr. have been bombarded with hate over the past few days, with many calling for their trade and others threatening to discard of their jersey or—even worse—unfollow them on Twitter (GASP).

Contract negotiations can be messy and misunderstood. The minute details of contracts are still not well understood by the general public, so to help clear up some misconceptions and get a better understanding of why Slay and Harrison are holding out, we reached out to our friends at Over The Cap. If you aren’t aware of OTC, they’re an essential resource for contract details, salary rankings, cap space breakdowns and anything else money related in the NFL.

Brad Spielberger at OTC (@BradOTC on Twitter) was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Lions’ conundrums.

1. If you had to guess, what do you think Slay and Harrison are seeking in new contracts? Do they have a good case?

What Darius Slay and Damon Harrison are truly looking for is not a dollar value, but rather assurances. Slay signed a four-year, $48 million extension with the Lions prior to the 2016 season that made him one of the league’s highest paid cornerbacks based on APY (average per year). However, total contract value and APY are often misleading figures, and with Slay’s contract we can see why.

Slay’s cap hit in 2019 is set to be $15,934,375 and in 2020 it could be $13,400,000. His deal was heavily back-loaded, and now that the big cap hits have arrived one may think he should be happy to have reached the golden years. One small problem though; none of the remaining base salary is guaranteed. Slay’s extension had a $14.5 million signing bonus with $23.1 million overall guaranteed money. The remaining $8.6 million included guaranteed base salary in the earlier years as well as a 2017 Roster Bonus of $3.5 million.

The $14.5 million signing bonus gets prorated over the four new years from the extension in addition to the 2016 season which was Slay’s final year of his rookie deal. That equates to $2.9 million per year over five years. In terms of cap accounting, there are still $2.9 million cap hits for Slay in 2019 and 2020. However, Slay already received the cash from his signing bonus years ago. From his perspective, there is no guaranteed money remaining whatsoever through the end of his contract.

Slay is coming off of yet another season of elite cornerback play, but at 28 he has to be thinking of his future. The cornerback position is infamous for its steep decline, and there is a chance that the next big contract Slay signs is the last deal of any considerable amount. Slay is looking for financial assurances by way of upfront guaranteed money, essentially a new “signing bonus” through a restructure/extension. This way he gets some cash payments in the near future and will have been compensated to some degree were anything bad to happen. Additionally, Slay presumably wants to add a few more years onto his deal now when he is performing at his peak and can start negotiations with a high asking price as opposed to in two years when he may not be playing at such an elite level.

Harrison, who is now 30, signed a five-year, $46.2 million contract with the New York Giants prior to the 2016 season. This means that just like Slay, Harrison’s deal is set to expire right before the potential 2021 lockout. Unlike Slay, because Harrison was traded from the Giants there is no signing bonus proration on the books for the Lions. This is great for the Lions, but can also be troublesome for a player like Harrison. A perfect example of why it can be troublesome just played itself out with Gerald McCoy in Tampa Bay.

When a player with guaranteed money remaining on their contract is cut/released from their team, that guaranteed money will still be counted against the team’s salary cap. This is referred to as “dead money.” Often the risk of the team taking on dead money can act as protection for a player, because a team may not think the cap savings that come from a cut are worth taking on the dead money (effectively, paying money on the salary cap for a player that is no longer on the roster). The dead money acts as a deterrent for the team from cutting the player. Gerald McCoy had no remaining guaranteed money of any kind on his contract, thus the Bucs will take on $0 dead money following his release. Damon Harrison is in the same situation with the Lions, he can be let go at any time with no downside for Detroit. Harrison likely wants all of the things I listed above for the same reasons as Darius Slay, and also has the added issue of being totally expendable currently. If it can happen to Gerald McCoy, it can happen to Damon Harrison.

I think Slay has the better case of the two. He is a career Lion and he has totally outperformed his contract the past several years. He deserves a restructure to build in some assurances for himself as he gets into the later stages of his career. He also plays at one of the most important positions in football.

Harrison is a much tougher call. He is elite at what he does, which is stuffing the run, but what he does is not all that important in 2019. Furthermore, it is much easier to find a quality run-stuffing nose tackle than it is to find a quality cornerback. Harrison is simply replaceable and already 30 years old. The Lions didn’t invest a fifth-round pick in acquiring Harrison for no reason though, and his agent is likely using that as leverage and rightfully so.

2. What are your thoughts on players seeking a new deal with two years left remaining on their contract? Would this set a dangerous precedent for Detroit?

I do not mean to avoid the question with this answer, but it really must be looked at on a case-by-case basis. I should preface that more often than not I will side with the player—probably 99 percent of the time. My reasoning is very simplified for the sake of brevity, but my view is that second and third contracts in professional sports should be slight overpays to make up for the exploitation of a player’s prime years spent on a rookie contract.

Particularly with respect to football, as I just illustrated above, the later years in contracts can often be facades. If there is not any guaranteed money, the player is taking a huge risk both in the present and in their future. I believe we will see a shift to more short-term deals with larger guarantees like what Kirk Cousins negotiated in Minnesota to combat this problem.

For now, it does not surprise me at all that elite players are unwilling to report to camp with completely non-guaranteed contracts. Gerald McCoy just got cut in the middle of the offseason with most teams well into OTAs. That is not a situation any person wants to find themselves in; uprooting their family and looking for a new job where they have to learn a whole new system in a shortened timeframe.

A situation like Antonio Brown’s I am less sympathetic towards strictly from a compensation perspective. I won’t pretend to know what other factors were going on there.

I really don’t think there should be much fear of setting a dangerous precedent. If the player is worth it, the new deal will get done. If they aren’t, it won’t. I don’t think there will be a significant increase in holdouts as a result, eventually most players will report. Albeit unhappily.

3. You mentioned on Twitter that the upcoming CBA negotiations may cause more scenarios like Slay’s. Why is that?

With the uncertainty of CBA negotiations looming in 2021 and the very real possibility of there being a lockout, veteran players will want to do everything in their power to be under contract through 2021. For example, a player that is 31 years old now and still capable of contributing will be 33 in 2021 with his contract expiring. If a whole season is missed, he will be 34 years old with nothing to show for that lost season but more grey hairs on his head. Perhaps he will land a deal, but it may not be a great one. Players are always in a position of greater leverage when they are negotiating at a younger age closer to their prime, and with there being no questions about their ability to still perform at a high level.

4. People look at Slay’s cap hit of $15.9 and $13.4 million over the next two seasons (first and 11th among NFL CBs, respectively) and don’t understand why he’s unhappy with his deal. What specific parts of his contract are not player-friendly?

I believe I covered this in more detail above in Question 1. To put it simply, if the money is not guaranteed that cap hit number is just that, a number. It really doesn’t mean much of anything. Do I think the Lions will cut Slay in the next two years? Absolutely not. But who knows what could happen from now until then. He’s probably not unhappy with the figure itself, but is not confident in the structure and complete lack of financial security.

5. What are realistic solutions to both contract situations that the players and the team may be happy with?

Darius Slay and his agent, perhaps because they knew something, were very smart to wait for Xavien Howard to negotiate his five-year, $75.25 million extension. Howard is three years younger than Slay at only 25 and was negotiating his first extension following his rookie deal, but nevertheless, his contract will impact the current cornerback market.

Josh Norman was 28 years old like Slay is now when he negotiated his five-year, $75 million extension all the way back in 2016. There was a bit of a lull in the cornerback market since then, but Howard may have provided it with a jolt of life. I think Darius Slay and his agent will argue, and have a pretty strong case, that he should top them both. The Lions will likely counter that a shutdown corner like Slay may lose a step faster than a zone corner like Norman, and he is not worth that large or long of a commitment at 28 years old.

I think a fair deal for both sides is a four-year extension with an average per year of $15 million if not a little more, with 60 percent of the money guaranteed.

4 years / $62 million, with $38 million guaranteed at signing.

With Harrison I think a pay raise or a short-term extension is probably the best solution for the Lions. Much like Chris Harris Jr. successfully argued this offseason in Denver, Harrison undoubtedly deserves a good bit more than $7 million this season. A two-year extension, which puts him on the books through the 2021 CBA negotiation, would be fair for both sides.

2 years / $21 million, with $10.5 million guaranteed at signing.

Thanks to Brad and Over The Cap for helping us untangle the Slay and Snacks situation. I highly recommend checking out Over The Cap to get a better understanding of the financial side of football.