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Reports about Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford being unhappy about his contract began to surface in late April right around the 2024 NFL Draft that took place April 25 through April 27. Rams head coach Sean McVay reluctantly acknowledged that the reports of Stafford looking for additional contract guarantees were true.

Stafford has three years worth $94 million remaining on the four-year, $160 million contract extension he signed in March 2022. He is making $31 million this year, which is entirely a fully guaranteed base salary, on a $49.5 million salary cap number. The $49.5 million is the NFL's third-largest 2024 cap figure.

Stafford's 2025 salary is $32 million consisting of a $27 million base salary, of which $10 million became fully guaranteed in March and a $5 million third day of the 2024 league year roster bonus that became fully guaranteed last March. The total amount guaranteed in 2025 is $15 million. Stafford is scheduled to make $31 million in 2026, composed of a $26 million base salary and a $5 million third day of the 2026 league year roster bonus due next March 14. All of the money in 2026 is unsecured.

The Detroit Lions recently signing Jared Goff -- the quarterback McVay felt he needed to replace by acquiring Stafford three offseasons ago -- to a four-year, $212 million extension that made him the NFL's second-highest paid player at $53 million per year likely only compounded the problem. Goff's deal contains $170,611,832 in guarantees where $113,611,832 was fully guaranteed at signing. The $113,611,832 includes an NFL-record $73 million signing bonus. It wouldn't be surprising if more contract security and additional money are now being sought.

Stafford's contract dissatisfaction prompted speculation that he wouldn't attend the Rams' organized team activities, which started on Monday May 20. The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback is participating in the voluntary OTAs. On Tuesday, McVay said he prefers to keep matters about Stafford's contract in-house.

Stafford's role in his contract unhappiness

Stafford has no one to blame but himself for his contract predicament. He probably had enough leverage to practically name his own price in a 2022 contract extension because of his acquisition cost from the Lions and the Rams won the Super Bowl during his first season in Los Angeles. The Lions dealt Stafford to the Rams for Goff, a 2022 first-round pick, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick. Instead of fully exploiting his substantial contract leverage, Stafford made a conscious decision to leave money on the table in a team-friendly deal that tied him with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as the league's fourth-highest paid player upon signing at $40 million per year.

Stafford did this knowing that Aaron Rodgers just had reset the pay scale for quarterbacks a few days earlier by becoming the NFL's first $50 million-per-year player. The Green Bay Packers signed Rodgers to a contract widely considered to be $150.815 million over three years averaging $50,271,667 per year although there were two additional below-market years (2025 and 2026) in the deal. New benchmarks for guaranteed money in football contracts with $150.665 million in total guarantees and $101.515 million fully guaranteed at signing were established. The Rams probably wouldn't have balked if Stafford had been adamant about being at the top of the NFL salary hierarchy on a four-year extension averaging $50.5 million per year with record-setting guarantees.

The quarterback market started changing days after Stafford signed. The Cleveland Browns surprisingly gave Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal averaging $46 million per year in connection with his trade from the Houston Texas despite there being four years left on his contract. Kyler Murray signed a five-year, $230.5 million extension (worth up to $238 million through salary escalators) averaging $46.1 million per year with the Arizona Cardinals in July 2022 at the start of training camp. Russell Wilson received a five-year, $245 million extension averaging $49 million per year in early September several days before the 2022 regular season began.

The top of the quarterback market went to another level in 2023. Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert each took turns atop the NFL salary hierarchy by signing contracts averaging $51 million, $52 million and $52.5 million per year respectively with the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers, before Joe Burrow became the standard bearer in early September as the start of the regular season was approaching.

The Cincinnati Bengals signed Burrow to a five-year, $275 million extension averaging $55 million per year. The deal is worth up to $281.25 million, thanks to $1.25 million of annual incentives in the extension years (2025 through 2029). Burrow has $219.01 million of salary guarantees in which $146.51 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

Rodgers dropped out of the $50 million-per-year club when he unexpectedly took a hefty pay cut to allow the New York Jets to build a more competitive roster after his trade from the Packers. He reduced his 2023 and 2024 compensation by $33.765 million to $75.05 million.

Stafford is no longer one of the NFL's 10 highest-paid players because of Goff's deal. He is tied for 11th in average yearly salary with New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and Prescott. Stafford could continue to drop down the quarterback salary totem pole with Jordan Love, Trevor Lawrence, Prescott and/or Tua Tagovailoa respectively getting new deals from the Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

The Aaron Donald approach

Ordinarily, NFL teams don't revisit contracts with three years remaining. The Rams are likely going to have to address Stafford's contract in some manner before the 2024 regular season starts in early September. A new contractual precedent wouldn't be set for the Rams because of how recently retired Aaron Donald's contract unhappiness was handled in 2022.

The Rams did something for Donald that almost never happens in the NFL. His contract with three years worth $55 million was essentially ripped up and replaced with a three-year, $95 million deal making him the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback at $31,666,667 per year rather than giving him a contract extension where new years were included.

Donald got a $40 million raise over his existing three contract years in his new deal. His 2022 compensation went from $14.25 million to $46.25 million because of the renegotiation. Donald made $60 million over 2022 and 2023 instead of the originally slated $33.25 million.

The Rams would be justified in contending that Donald was a unique circumstance since the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was a generational defensive talent. Should the Rams decide to treat Stafford similar to Donald, it wouldn't be making him the league's highest-paid player with in excess of $165 million over the existing years (2024 through 2026) to beat Burrow's $55 million per year.

One approach would be for the Rams to acknowledge that Stafford could have become the league's highest-paid player on a $202 million extension with more aggressive negotiating tactics and add the $42 million difference to his actual $160 million extension. Since Stafford has $94 million left on his contract, he would be making $136 million over the three years (2024 through 2026).

The cash flow of Goff's deal would probably be an important benchmark for Stafford. Goff's actual cash from 2024 through 2026 in his new deal is $148,611,832. The amount of $54.75 million would need to be added for Stafford to make $148.75 million over the three years to barely top Goff.

Obviously, Stafford's $49.5 million 2024 cap number would be lowered in process by some of his $31 million base salary and his 2024 raise in the form of a signing bonus if the Rams go this route. Presumably, Stafford's 2024 and 2025 compensation would be fully guaranteed at signing. His renegotiated contract would average $49,583,333 per year.

The A.J. Brown model

Contract extensions after playing just one of the new years with three years remaining are just as rare as what the Rams did for Donald. The Rams haven't done this before, but the Eagles recently extended Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown's contract under these circumstances. He was given a three-year, $96 million extension averaging $32 million per year to become the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver and second-highest paid non-quarterback. Brown has a wide receiver-record $84 million in guarantees. The $51 million fully guaranteed at signing is the second most ever for a wide receiver.

Brown's 2024 compensation remains the same at $21 million. There's $14 million (or 14.58%) of new money through 2025. The new money through the remaining three contract years is $12 million (or 12.5%).

Brown has 34.38% of new money through the first new contract year of 2027. It's 67.71% of new money through 2028.  

Giving a three-year contract extension to a 36-year-old Stafford may not make the most sense for the Rams. Stafford would be 42 when the deal expired after the 2029 season. The 15-year veteran had said that he intends to keep playing as long as he continues to play at a high level and can stay healthy. Stafford was sidelined for eight games in 2022 because of a concussion and spinal bruise. A thumb injury cost him one game in 2023. He also played through torn rib cartilage late last season.

Under the Brown model where Stafford becomes the NFL's second-highest paid player ahead of Goff on a three-year, $159.75 million extension averaging $53.25 million per year, Stafford would be getting $20 million (or 12.52%) of new money through 2026, the remainder of his current contract, to bring his three-year cash to $114 million. He would have $55 million (or 34.43%) and $108.25 million (or 67.76%) of new money after the first and second new contract years (2027 and 2028).

Stafford's $86.25 million of total cash in the first two years (2024 and 2025) would be fully guaranteed at signing. There would be $125 million in overall guarantees because Stafford's $27.75 million of 2026 compensation and $11 million of his $35 million in 2027 compensation would be guaranteed for injury at signing. This $38.75 million would become fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2026 league year.

A majority of Stafford's $55.25 million of 2025 compensation would likely be in an option bonus since he wouldn't be getting a raise in 2024. The option bonus would be prorated on the salary cap from 2025 through 2029. It could be as much as $53.995 million given Stafford's league minimum base salary for 2025 is $1.255 million.

Additional contract security

The easiest thing for the Rams to do would be to fully guarantee the $48 million of Stafford's $63 million in 2025 and 2026 compensation that isn't already secure. Not-likely-to-be-earned incentives and base-salary escalators could be inserted into Stafford's reworked contract to give him the ability to earn additional money since he is underpaid.

The performance bonuses in Goff's 2019 extension with the Rams could be used as a guide for Stafford. The thresholds during a season in Goff's first escalator were: (1) 4,500 or more passing yards, (2) 64.5% or greater completion percentage (minimum of 238 pass attempts), (3) 30 or more touchdown passes, (4), 100.0 or greater passing rating (minimum of 238 pass attempts) and (5) Pro Bowl on the original ballot. Stafford didn't accomplish any of these things in 2023.

With $1 million for achieving each incentive, Stafford could earn a maximum of $5 million in each of the remaining three contract years for a total of $15 million. Any incentives earned in a season would also increase the next season's base salary by a corresponding amount. This would mean Stafford could earn up to $10 million under the base salary escalator. The maximum Stafford could earn from both the incentives and salary escalators would be $25 million.

Goff's second escalator was primarily based on awards won in a season. The categories were (1) NFL MVP, (2) NFL Offensive Player of the Year, (3) Super Bowl MVP, (4) first team All-Pro by the Associated Press and (5) participating in at least 1% of the Rams' offensive plays in a Super Bowl win. If these categories were each worth $2 million, Stafford could earn up to $10 million a year for a total of $30 million. With an escalator operating the same way as in the other performance bonus, Stafford could earn a maximum of $20 million base salary increases over the last two years (2025 and 2026). Up to $50 million could be earned from this performance bonus.

Stafford would have the opportunity to make a maximum of $75 million between the two performance bonuses. He would have to consistently perform at an elite level without getting hurt to significantly increase his compensation over these three years.

Final thoughts

What approach the Rams ultimately take with Stafford's contract remains to be seen. Any leverage Stafford might have will come from the Rams not having another quarterback on the roster who could adequately replace him. Jimmy Garoppolo signed a one-year contract with a base value just under $3.05 million after the Raiders released him in March. He was benched eight games into the 2023 season because of poor performance. Garoppolo is going to miss the first two games of the 2024 regular season serving a suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing substances policy.

The other quarterbacks on the Rams' roster, Stetson Bennett and Dresser Winn, are unproven commodities. Neither has taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game. Bennett, a 2023 fourth-round pick, spent his rookie season on the non-football illness list.

A contract stalemate leading to a training camp holdout would quickly become an expensive proposition for Stafford. He would be fined $50,000 for each day of training camp he missed. The fine is mandatory and can't be rescinded or reduced.

The Rams have a history of taking a hardline stance with training camp holdouts. The Rams won a contest of wills with Donald during the 2017 preseason. Donald ended his lengthy holdout right before the regular season began without getting a new contract. It took a second holdout in 2018 lasting until the end of the preseason before Donald became the league's first $20 million-per-year non-quarterback. During the second holdout, the Rams dramatically reset the running back market with Todd Gurley when he had only played three NFL seasons. A new contract heading in the fourth year of an NFL career didn't happen for Donald. Stafford shouldn't ignore these dynamics from the past if his situation becomes acrimonious.