When the news broke Kansas City Chiefs were signing former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster For a one-year deal worth $10.75 million, the numbers made sense. Although relatively tight, chiefs could free up needed space with Patrick Mahomes’ procedural restructuring, the nearly $11 million one-year deal was no shock to Smith-Schuster in a one-year deal.
A few hours after the original news, Mike Garavolo NFL network Tweet an update.
“The #Chiefs deal for WR JuJu Smith-Schuster comes in at about $3 million on base value with the remainder of the top value of $10.75 million reported by RapSheet to come in the form of incentives, sources say.”
Incentives are common in NFL contracts, as they reward players for good performance and give teams some protection from a player who might disappoint in a new deal. But Smith-Schuster’s specific stance may have created a unique wrinkle in the Chiefs’ deal with the new receiver.
First, a quick disclaimer: This is my guess. From now on, we connect the dots without a complete picture, as of the publication of this article. But, if my tin hat theory is any merit, the heads up did something fun (yes, Hazar!) with a Smith-Schuster contract.
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There are two types of incentives in NFL contracts: “likely to be earned” and “unlikely to be earned.” As summarized by NFL.com:
Player incentives are considered “Likely to Earn” (LTBE) or “Not Likely to Earn” (NLTBE) based on the player’s or team’s performance in the previous year. For example, if a player had an incentive of $500,000 for stacking 10 bags in the next season and had 10 bags in the previous season, the incentive is considered LTBE. If he did not score 10 sacks in the previous season, the incentive is considered NLTBE.
Why is this important? If a player has a “likely to win” incentive, the team has to calculate that incentive money into the current year’s salary cap. If a player has an incentive that is “unlikely to be won”, that money – if earned – will apply to next year’s cap.
In 2021, Smith-Schuster suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the season early in the year. In the end, he only had 15 passes for 129 yards and didn’t land. So, if the bosses wanted to offer Smith-Schuster a deal packed with NLTBE incentives, they could do so with comically low numbers.
Perhaps — again, to guess and exaggerate — Chiefs would give Smith Schuster $2 million for catching one touchdown, $2 million for hitting 130 yards, and $1 million for catching 16 passes. Those numbers seem pretty low and this whole exercise feels like exploiting a loophole in the NFL, but these are all technically going to be the NLTBE incentives, which means the presidents won’t “pay” Smith Schuster $7 million up to the 2023 salary cap, on the Although both the Chiefs and Smith-Schuster consider these incentives very likely on a practical level.
Even assuming the chiefs might not have gone quite that far and could have put incentives somewhere around the 40-catch/500-yard/5-touchdown mark (or even higher, in the form of more traditional incentives), it’s hard to imagine Smith Schuster would have any incentives in his new deal that would count as LTBE, based on his season shortening injuries and corresponding stats. Of course, there’s no guarantee that all incentives are feasible, but for a heavily designated free agent to agree to a deal over two-thirds of incentives, it seems likely that the bosses were at least somewhat creative, helping them save a great deal of cover space in 2022.