It’s been nearly a year since the Seattle Seahawks made the surprise move of cutting All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman following his Achilles injury during the 2017 season, and Sherman’s subsequent quick signing with the division rival San Francisco 49ers. Immediately following the signing there was a lot of amusement from outsiders, who pointed to the small amount of guaranteed money that Sherman received, as well as the overall structure of the contract. So, now that Sherman is a year into that contract and looking at coming into 2019 as a healthier, but even older cornerback, let’s take a look at the contract and see how it stacks up.
In order to look at his contract with the benefit of a year of hindsight, let’s go ahead and take a look at where his contract stacks up compared to other cornerbacks in terms of cash flow.
2018 NFL CBs by cash flow
Now, obviously, Sherman likely doesn’t see himself as the 20th best cornerback in the NFL, but that’s where his cash flow for the 2018 season ranked him compared to other cornerbacks. However, of note is the simple fact that Sherman played the 2018 season at 30 years of age, and is slated to turn 31 at the end of March. Thus, with cornerbacks often seeing their performance take a nose dive after age 30, let’s compare Sherman’s contract in 2018 and 2019 to only those cornerbacks who are 30 or older.
The reason to use cash flow instead of cap hits is the simple fact that at Sherman’s age cash flow is king. Sherman is most likely far closer to the end of his playing days than the beginning, so his goal is to make as much money as possible in however many years of playing in the NFL he has left. Thus, the best measure for how much money he makes is obviously cash flow.
That said, the table above doesn’t really paint a fair picture for Sherman because it is comparing him to every other cornerback in the league. To get a clearer picture of where Sherman’s contract stacks up to others in his position, we should whittle the sample down to players who are most similar to him. That means looking at the geriatric division of NFL cornerbacks, and for that I’ll simply use the post-30 shelf.
Thus, if we do that, we can get remove all the cornerbacks on the list who are in their twenties. That leaves us with the following.
2018 Cash flow for over 30 CBs
A top five cash flow for his age is not all that bad. Actually, the fact that he had a top five cash flow for his age group coming off of a devastating injury like a torn Achilles is actually rather impressive. But how does his contract stack up for 2019? Using the same cash flow metric, here is where things currently stand.
2019 cash flow for NFL CBs
Obviously, with Sherman coming in at seventeenth, that would seem to make him a middle of the road CB1, but let’s go ahead and see where he stacks up in the old man division.
2019 cash flow for over 30 CBs
So, before free agency he is slated to have the sixth highest cash flow of any over 30 cornerback in the NFL next year. Not too shabby, so that brings us to the question of whether any of the free agent cornerbacks slated to be 30 or over could land a big contract in the offseason and bump Sherman down the list a little. A quick glance at the list of available free agents shows a couple of guys that could potentially do so, but in all likelihood Sherman will hold on to his spot in sixth place.
Then the question moves to Sherman’s upside. Sherman’s contract is heavily incentive laden, and there are several ways Sherman could actually move up the list. If he is active in every game and plays at least 90% of the defensive snaps for the Niners, he’ll make an additional $1.25M. That would bump his cash flow up to $10.05M, which would put him top three in the over 30 group. That may or may not be possible at 31, we’ll have to wait and see, but he played well in 2018 and Niners fans likely believe he’ll be even better with another year of recovery under his belt. And, if he is able to recover to the point where he continues to improve, he still has the outside chance of earning an additional $3M in incentives between the Pro Bowl or the All Pro team.
In any case, that brings us to the question about how his contract was looked at as being such a bad deal when it was signed if it is providing him top five or top six cash flow for those his age. The reason for that is simple - structure. Sherman’s contract appears to be working out well, but that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to him when he signed it. The contract had very little in terms of guarantees, and Sherman likely could have earned similar cash flow with better guarantee protections had he used an agent.
Effectively, instead of taking guarantees, Sherman bet on himself. He didn’t bet on himself at the blackjack table when the count was in his favor, he bet on himself at the craps table where the risk was far greater. So far the contract has turned out okay for him, and if the Niners don’t cut him, then he’s in line to make decent money again in 2019. It is certainly not great money, unless he manages to make both the Pro Bowl and is an All Pro, but it’s likely not much less than he could have made with an agent.
That then brings the discussion to the question of whether it is the process or the result that is more important. Sherman is among the highest paid over-30 cornerbacks as the result of a less than ideal process, so should his contract be applauded or mocked? Is the actual outcome more important than the expected outcome, or should it still be looked at as a success even though arrived at through a manner which introduced unnecessary uncertainty?