Comparing NFL and NBA contracts

There are a few flashpoint dates in the NFL calendar when teams pay retail or above in guaranteed money to secure the services of players with contracts that set new levels. The most prominent time for this luxury shopping are the first days of free agency at the end of February and beginning of March.

Another time when the guaranteed money stood out was last week around the July 15 deadline for teams to come to terms on long-term deals with players designated as franchise players within the free agency system. Certain teams and players tried unsuccessfully to come to terms – Julius Peppers with the Panthers, Karlos Dansby with the Cardinals – while others were able to agree on lengthy deals with eye-popping numbers. These numbers are startling, but compared to another sport having its free agency dance this time of year, perhaps not so much.

With Wednesday’s mega-deals for Matt Cassel and Terrell Suggs – both topping out at $63 million in total value -- it got me thinking about how the best of the best deals compare to the NBA, another sport now going through its free agency ritual.

Here are some of the top guaranteed deals in the NFL – all but Peyton Manning in the last year -- including the much-discussed rookie contracts of Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez:

Matthew Stafford, Lions, $41.7M
Albert Haynesworth, Redskins, $41M
Terrell Suggs, Ravens, $38M
Peyton Manning, Colts, $34.5M
Matt Ryan, Falcons, $34M
Dwight Freeney, Colts, $31M
Jake Long, Dolphins, $30M
Chris Long, Rams, $29M
Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders, $28.5M
Matt Cassel, Chiefs, $28M
Mark Sanchez, Jets, $28M

These are the cream of the crop of NFL contracts in the all-important category of guaranteed money, meaning that regardless of injury or a downturn in performance and skill, the players will make their money (there’s still the question of forfeiture of these monies for bad behavior, although the players seem to be winning most of the cases).

Let’s compare these numbers to the NBA, which is in the middle of its free agency period, admittedly amidst tough times and economic concerns for the future. The NBA did not expect a robust free agency period this year. We’ve also heard about the “Summer of Love” a year from now as owners are keeping their hands in their pockets in 2009 for a possible seat at the table when the auction for LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade and others begins on July 1, 2010. And, more importantly, we’ve learned that the salary cap in the NBA for 2009-10 will go down $1 million from 2008-2009 – from $58.7M to $57.7M – with a corresponding drop in the luxury tax number and predictions of further dips in the uncertain economic future.

Keep in mind, the NFL salary cap went up from $116M to $123M, with another $5M in a CAM adjustment to make it $128M.

With all the gloom and doom of the NBA’s financial picture presented above, and with a relatively lackluster group of free agents on the market, here are some of the contracts that have been given out in the first weeks of the NBA’s shopping season (all contracts are for five years):

Ben Gordon, Pistons, $55M
Hedo Turkoglu, Raptors, $53M
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers, $50M
Shawn Marion, Mavericks, $39M
Charlie Villanueva, Pistons, $35M
Martin Gortat, Magic, $34M
Paul Millsap, Jazz, $32M

Hardly a bunch of household names. More important, the numbers above are the amounts of the entire contracts, although the amounts of the entire contracts and the amount of the guaranteed portion in most NBA contracts is the same. Therefore, every dollar above is guaranteed money, unlike virtually all NFL contracts.

All of these players have more guaranteed money than all but three or four NFL players. Varejao, a role player with the LeBronairres, makes more guaranteed money – by almost 25 percent -- than any player in football. Gortat, a backup center to Dwight Howard, who doesn’t come out of the game that often, makes about the same guaranteed money as one of the two or three best players in the NFL, Peyton Manning.

I know the arguments, and have made them myself: There’s only a fraction of the players in the NBA compared to the NFL, many more games, only five players playing at one time compared to eleven in football, etc. The stark reality is that the players above are not recognized “stars” – with the possible exceptions of Gordon and Turkoglu – while NFL stars are unlikely to receive anywhere close to these amounts of guaranteed money.

Like the situations of Cassel and Suggs, timing is everything, and the timing of the NBA players above, even with the economic forces in the NBA working against them, is fortunate. I have always said that free agency is like the Wild West; anything can happen, good or bad. It’s been all good for the NBA players above, players whose equals in football would not be looking at nearly the numbers these players are getting.

Whenever I discuss these facts with NFL players, I always get the same response: “I should have been taller!”

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