The lengthy and lucrative fully guaranteed contract Deshaun Watson signed with the Cleveland Browns this summer looked like it would revolutionize the quarterback market. But no other QB who signed an extension this offseason earned close to the guaranteed money Watson received, which signaled that his and Kirk Cousins' deals were more anomalies than anything else.
Well, the NFL Players Association disagrees.
The union filed a claim last month that alleged NFL franchise owners and the league colluded to prevent clubs from offering similar deals to the ones Watson and Cousins earned, according to a memo obtained by The Athletic.
Jeff Pash, the NFL's attorney, wrote in the memo to club owners, presidents, general managers and lawyers, that the NFLPA's claims are based "on the fact that no other quarterback or high-profile player has signed a fully-guaranteed contract" following Watson's deal with the Browns.
"The NFLPA argues that '[t]he expectation was that fully-guaranteed contracts would now become the competition driven norm for the top players in the League, including quarterbacks, negotiating new contracts,'" Pash wrote. "The pleading fails to explain the basis of their alleged expectation. The NFLPA further contends that, before and during the August 9 ownership meeting, NFL owners and/or League executives discussed not agreeing to any additional player contracts with fully-guaranteed salaries."
NFLPA seeks punitive damages
Pash added that the NFLPA isn't looking to terminate the current iteration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement but "has asked the arbitrator to award damages and permit certain quarterbacks who have been adversely affected by the collusive agreement to terminate their current player contracts." The quarterbacks in question likely include those who signed new contracts this offseason: Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of this allegation are the quarterbacks who haven't signed new deals yet. Namely, Lamar Jackson.
The Baltimore Ravens star sought but eventually did not receive a contract extension this offseason. Though Jackson refused to say if Watson's contract would influence his own contract demands, it stands to reason Jackson would target a similar number to the one the Browns handed Watson. It should be noted that Ravens owner Steve Biscotti also said this spring he wished the Browns hadn't signed Watson to that contract: “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract.”
Before the memo was filed in mid-October, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith hinted in an interview with Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio that the union might take action against the league after no other quarterback signed a deal similar to Watson's.
"Anytime we see what has been occurring in the market and we hear comments that validate those concerns, as you know from the past we have never shied away from exercising both our legal rights and our collective bargaining rights to protect our players," Smith said, "and people shouldn’t be surprised if something happens in the near future.”
An anonymous executive told The Athletic — albeit, perhaps in jest — that the owners didn't need to collude with regards to blocking fully guaranteed contracts after Watson because “the Browns are the only team willing to do that. Everybody else knows that it was a terrible contract.” The executive did add, though, that this subject is something "owners have always been adamant about. They do not want fully guaranteed contracts like baseball and basketball have.”
Jackson's contract will likely be one of the biggest talking points of the 2023 offseason, and this issue won't go away until it's settled one way or another.