The Rams have signed two massive long-term contracts in as many weeks, and neither one of them locked up Aaron Donald. One of them was even for a (gasp) running back. These facts have too many people irrationally upset after Todd Gurley's market-moving four-year, $60 million extension, with $45 million in guarantees, was reported Tuesday.
Here are four takeaways, all with the subtext that folks need to calm down:
1) Gurley is helping to speed up an inevitable reset of the RB market
As Le'Veon Bellwill be happy to point out, a running back contract like this was overdue, and it was only a matter of time before we saw one. There has been a renaissance at the position over the last few years, something that Bucky Brooks wrote about last week, and which I noted in my recent running back rankings. Hybrid playmakers like Gurley, the Steelers' Bell, the Cardinals' David Johnson, the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and the Saints' Alvin Kamara tilt the field on all three downs, excelling in every phase of the game. They can run with power, and they can run away from defenders as wideouts. There hasn't been a crop of game-changing running backs like this since LaDainian Tomlinson's peak, and the money was bound to catch up as the members of this group reached second contracts. Running backs weren't getting this kind of money earlier in the decade largely because there weren't running backs this dynamic.
As salaries across the league have otherwise exploded since the last collective bargaining agreement, running backs watched their salaries contract. Big deals for one-dimensional backs never made sense, and neither do lifetime achievement award deals, like the one Shaun Alexander once received from Seattle. But these are young players squarely in their prime who are among the most valuable non-quarterbacks in football. Is it really that hard to imagine a world in which guys like Gurley and Bell receive contracts approaching the dollars that the Giants pay defensive end Olivier Vernon or tackle Nate Solder? Does anyone believe that wideouts Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, who both earned similar deals to Gurley's extension, are more valuable to their new teams (the Chiefs and Bears, respectively)?
Bell is set to play under the franchise tag for the second straight year after failing to come to an agreement with Pittsburgh on a long-term deal before the deadline to do so for tagged players. As Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, pointed out, the Steelers have tried to pay the position, not the player. I'd agree, although it's worth noting that the Steelers will have paid Bell $26.7 million over the two-year period of 2017 and '18. He hasn't received the long-term money that he'll get as a free agent in 2019 if he stays healthy, but Bell is already getting paid like a top-five player at any position other than quarterback.
2) It's $45 million in guarantees, NOT guaranteed
The same routine happens every time a big contract is handed out. The initial figures appear to be massive, and every amateur capologist grows indignant about money that strangers are spending without even knowing the real numbers. And then, a day or three later, the actual terms turn out to be far more flexible and team-friendly than expected.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport was careful to note that Gurley is receiving $45 million in guarantees, not fully guaranteed money. That indicates the Rams will have some sort of contractual out based on Gurley's performance, injury status or some other structural detail of the contract.
Here's what we know: Gurley, 23, is under contract for six more years. In exchange for receiving more money up front (presumably), Gurley is giving up the ability to hit the market again until 2024. By paying the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year two years earlier than they had to, the Rams get to hold the financial cards for the rest of Gurley's prime. That's a win-win.
3) Fear not for Aaron Donald
General manager Les Snead said repeatedly this offseason that the Rams will be able to handle all the big contracts coming down the pike over the next few years. I believe him. Receiver Brandin Cooks (the April trade acquisition who was handed a five-year, $81 million extension earlier this month) and Gurley are now out of the way. Quarterback Jared Goff, whose rookie contract will carry him through 2020 (presuming the team picks up his fifth-year option), is off in the distance, and veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is very unlikely to get a long-term contract in Los Angeles. Cornerback Marcus Peters, currently under contract through 2019, is likely in an extended tryout.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is in the last year of his rookie deal, should eventually sign a contract with money that dwarfs the deals Gurley and Cooks signed, because of Donald's incredible talent and the market for star defensive players.
"Each situation is different," Snead said Tuesday. "You work on everything simultaneously, but you don't know when you are going to get something done or not."
That's not always an easy message to get across. Many of the Rams fans on the team Periscope of Tuesday's press conference focused on how upset they'd be if Donald isn't signed, rather than celebrating Gurley's deal. But remember that Donald is under contract for this year, and the franchise tag looms. It's not like the team is going to let a Hall of Fame talent just walk away. When Donald eventually does sign that deal, which could certainly come before this season, all of this agita will be forgotten.
4) The Rams are built to last
Today's NFL franchises are built for seasonal change and ever-evolving rosters. A team's true core is ultimately going to be somewhat small, and the Rams have a young core of players that is as good as any in football. Some of the supporting players, like safety Lamarcus Joyner and linebacker Mark Barron, could be changed out over the years, but Goff, Gurley and Donald should remain. More importantly, the Rams have perhaps the brightest young coach in football and a general manager aligned with him.
This year's squad is making a push for the Super Bowl, but there's no reason to believe it's 2018 or bust. This contract for Gurley is a reminder that these Rams are building an identity to last. Resetting the running back market before another team could is just another way they are staying ahead of the curve.