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Why Richard Sherman’s contract may be a ticking time bomb

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NFL: Houston Texans at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks since the Seattle Seahawks released cornerback Richard Sherman and allowed him to leave in free agency, there has been a lot of hand wringing by fans and the media alike, as opinions are offered on the quality of the contract Sherman signed. Many observers have been quick to point out that the contract is bad for Sherman because it comes with minimal guaranteed money, and no guaranteed money in future seasons, making it easy for the team to move on from Sherman without too much trouble.

However, there is one aspect of the contract that has been overlooked by may, and that is that while the contract starts off team friendly, it has the potential to transform into a contract that could prove unforgiving to the San Francisco 49ers. To give a bit more detail on this, let me simply pull something I wrote in the comments section of the Century Links post on Friday.

The contract is team friendly in that it allows the Niners to move on from Sherman with minimal dead money if he doesn’t perform, but it could hit them hard if he comes back and performs at an All Pro level.

Say for example he comes back this season and is okay, but not All Pro or Pro Bowl worthy. Comes back in 2018 at the modest $7M contract with $2M in roster bonuses because SF still has tons of cap space. Then, in 2018 he’s out of this world good and makes the All Pro team. Well, at that point all his incentives kick in, and there’s $4M in incentives that get added to his 2019 cap number. That’s on top of the fact that all those incentives that were NLTBE in 2018 then become LTBE in 2019, meaning all of a sudden Sherman is set to be a 32 year old cornerback with a $17M cap hit and $5M dead money if they cut him. $17M is the second highest cap hit of any corner across the entire NFL over the next three seasons. Is a 32 year old likely to warrant the second highest cap hit for the position?

So the question becomes how can the team justify cutting a player coming off an All Pro season? On the flip side, however, in the last 40 years there’s only been one corner who recorded back to back All Pro seasons after age 30, so how can the team justify keeping him at that cost?

And that’s the risk to the Niners. The worst case scenario for the 49ers would be for Sherman to play just well enough in 2018 to warrant keeping him in 2019, and then to play at an All Pro level in 2019. In that scenario, in 2020 the Niners would face the options of either retaining a cornerback whose best by date has likely passed or taking a $5M cap charge to a player who is no longer on the team. Now, teams have certainly made worse decisions in the past, and the Niners currently have more than enough cap space to eat a $5M cap charge, however, if they continue to add to pay players both when signing extensions and through free agent acquisitions, the space they have left could begin to dissipate quickly.

It’s obviously not an urgent issue, and they have significant amounts of flexibility built into many of the contracts that have been handed out, but it’s one thing to keep in mind as we wait to see how well Sherman performs in his return from his Achilles injury.