After his release from the St. Louis Rams, Cortland Finnegan took the unusual step of representing himself in negotiations with teams rather than involving an agent. When Finnegan agreed to a 2-year deal with the Miami Dolphins worth "up to $11 million," fans were left wondering how team friendly or player friendly the contract structure was.
The contract details have finally come out, and based on what has been reported, the deal appears to be a favorable one for Finnegan.
Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald reports:
The contract Finnegan signed Friday was indeed for two years and worth $11 million. The deal includes a $2 million signing bonus and a $3.5 million base salary for 2014 that is guaranteed.
The deal's second year is for $5.45 million in base.
Deal also includes $25,000 in workout bonsuses in both '14 and '15.
Taking a step back - contracts in the NFL often have a lot of "make-believe" money that's unguaranteed. When a team pays a player money in any form (bonus, salary, etc.), that money has to be counted against the team's salary cap eventually. If the money was paid in the form of a signing bonus, the salary cap hits are "pro-rated" over the length of the contract unless the player is cut early.
For example, if a player signs a 5-year deal with a $5 million signing bonus, that signing bonus counts $1 million per year against the salary cap for 5 years, even though the player receives all that money up front. However, if the player is cut after 3 years, all of the remaining cap hits from that bonus ($2 million) counts against the salary cap in year 4.
If money is paid out to a player in the form of a "salary," then that money all counts against the salary cap in the year the player received that salary.
That's why money guaranteed at the time of signing a contract is what is most important. "Guaranteed at signing" money is what determines "dead money" cap hits, which are salary cap charges that result from cutting a player before his deal is finished. A player with more money guaranteed to him at the time of signing his contract is safer from cuts because the team is committed to paying him millions of dollars whether they keep him or cut him, and that money will count against the salary cap. Therefore, teams almost always choose to keep the player when the player has a lot of guaranteed money since the player is eating up cap space either way.
Because nothing about NFL contracts is straightforward, there are of course multiple types of "guaranteed at signing" money, but the 2 important types are money "guaranteed for skill" and money "guaranteed for injury."
"Guaranteed for injury" money only is guaranteed if the player is injured.
"Guaranteed for skill" money is guaranteed even if the player is cut for, frankly, "lacking skill."
In addition to money "guaranteed at signing," salaries for veteran players become fully guaranteed if they're kept at the end of training camp and are listed on the week 1 regular season roster. So a player whose salary is either unguaranteed or only partially guaranteed becomes fully guaranteed if he's on the week 1 roster. That's why teams sometimes cut veterans at the end of training camp and re-sign them during week 2 of the regular season. If teams due that to a player, the player's season salary is not guaranteed, and he instead only receives a weekly paycheck for however long he's on the team.
Salguero adds later in his blog post that:
The sides did agree to a skill/injury provision to the base salary guarantee to mitigate but not totally alleviate damage if things don't go as planned.
Salguero doesn't mention how much of the first year's "guaranteed salary" is guaranteed for injury versus how much is guaranteed for skill. Therefore, it's impossible to say for sure how much dead money the Dolphins would absorb if Finnegan were cut at the end of training camp for poor play, which is something many skeptics of Finnegan believe will happen.
Looking at this deal, the Dolphins have already paid $2 million to Finnegan as a signing bonus for the contract, so that's the minimum dead money cap hit for cutting him early. That money is already in Finnegan's bank account, so it has to count against the Dolphins' salary cap eventually. Right now, it's counting $1 million against the 2014 cap and $1 million against the 2015 salary cap because bonus money is pro-rated over the length of the deal (2 years).
Based on what Salguero wrote, it appears that Finnegan's first year's salary is guaranteed partially for injury and partially for skill. Thus, at the end of the final week of training camp, the Dolphins will have a choice.
If they keep Finnegan on the week 1 roster, his 2014 salary becomes fully guaranteed. However, the Dolphins can only cut Finnegan at the end of training camp if they'd rather absorb up to $5.5 million dead cap hit rather than keep him on the roster. My "guess" is Finnegan has a total of $3 million guaranteed as part of his signing bonus and "guaranteed for skill" salary, even if he's cut due to poor play by the end of training camp, but that's a complete guess without an exact breakdown. The maximum potential dead money cost is $5.5 million, but that's assuming all of the guaranteed money is guaranteed for skill, so it's likely lower than that.
And to editorialize - Yes, it's a significant amount of money. He's not very cheap to cut before the season due to poor play because at a minimum, he'll cost $2 million, and it's likely to be more than that. If he's on the week 1 roster, his total 2014 salary of $3.5 million becomes fully guaranteed, so he ends up earning $5.5 million this year and counting $4.5 million against the cap. $5.5 million is equivalent to #2 cornerback money. He doesn't have to fully return to his Pro Bowl form to justify this year's salary because #1 CBs are getting paid in the $8-12 million per year range, and his contract falls well short of that. However, Finnegan does have to be a good #2 cornerback to live up to the deal.