Moneyball: Can the Chargers Afford Marcus McNeill?

I'm going to try not to get too deep into my own perspective on this Marcus McNeill situation. Should the Chargers sign him? Should MM just sign the original tender? Should Dean Spanos step in? The one question that has yet to be asked, at least that I've seen, is this: Can the San Diego Chargers afford to pay Marcus McNeill the money that he wants?

Everything I've heard says that Marcus is looking for Top 5 OL type money. He wants to be paid as one of the best offensive linemen in the game, and that's his prerogative. Let's start by looking at those Top 5 salaries and who's raking in all that cash.

Comparables

 

For the sake of sanity and consistency, we're going to ignore everything but the 2009 base salary of these players.

  1. Jason Peters - $10.5m. Yikes. I know Andy Reid thinks Peters is the "greatest LT in football", but I'm not sure I agree. I know he's been to two straight Pro Bowls now, but the guy gives up a ton of sacks and isn't that great at run-blocker either.
  2. Alan Faneca - $7m. Last year with the Jets, he was the 2nd highest paid offensive lineman in the game. This year the Cardinals are paying him $2.5m. Hmmmm.....
  3. Jake Long - $6.5m. Prototype LT. Two years younger than MM. Also been to two Pro Bowls. This might actually be the best comparison for Marcus.
  4. Walters Jones - $6.2m. Is somebody really paying this much money to a 36 year old offensive tackle? Yeesh.
  5. Damien Woody - $5.6m. This is actually a pretty good value for the Jets. 5 years, $25m for a guy who will be 35 when the contract is over.

The obvious one left off, who just got paid, is D'Brickashaw Ferguson. As soon as he got his contract, every freaking hyena in the world started screaming "JUST GIVE MARCUS THAT DEAL! HE'LL SIGN!" A few things that are not being accounted for in this argument....

  • D'Brickashaw is two years younger than Marcus McNeill.
  • D-Brick (they probably call him that) is still playing on his rookie contract. As a matter of fact, he will continue to play on it for 2 more years until his new 6-year extension kicks in (although he probably collected a signing bonus). This means that what the Jets are really banking on is that the contract will be a good value in two years, not that it's necessarily a good value now.
  • In a move that has "CBA!" written all over it, Ferguson's contract is pretty much the exact opposite of what McNeill wants. I'll like Mike Florio explain:

The contract constitutes, as a practical matter, a one-year, $5.3225 million arrangement with no other guaranteed money earned or vested through the end of the 2010 season.

No other guarantees trigger unless and until Ferguson makes it through the 2010 season displaying adequate skill and, more importantly, not suffering serious injury.

If Ferguson endures a career-ending injury at any point this year, Ferguson gets none of the rest of the money.  If Ferguson simply suffers a serious but not career-ending injury at any point this year, the Jets likely will terminate the contract and then try to re-sign Ferguson for a lesser amount.

Hell, I can pretty much guarantee the Chargers would be okay with giving Marcus McNeill a 1-year deal for $5.3m. That's pretty much what Ferguson got, with the rest being "If you stay healthy and continue to play at a Pro Bowl level, we'll agree to pay you this much." That's not a long-term deal, that's an incentive-based contract. Almost 100%. That is not what Marcus McNeill wants, but that's all Pro Bowl offensive linemen are going to get right now because nobody knows what's happening with the CBA.

 

"Salary Cap"

 

We all know that this year, there is no salary cap. Obviously, this has not turned the NFL into the Wild West show that a lot of fans thought it would for a couple of reasons. The biggest one being the economy that is hurting each and every NFL team/owner. For the Chargers, they also have to consider saving money to help with the "new stadium" project that they've promised to pay a bunch for. Not to mention, unlike a lot of NFL teams, the Chargers have to pay for maintenance/upkeep to Qualcomm Stadium and I believe they're also renting the land the stadium is on from the city. That's a lot of expenses.

Even though A.J. Smith is notoriously thrifty, and even though San Diego is not considered a "large market" area and therefore the team probably takes in less than say the Washington Redskins, the Chargers are near the top of the league in overall payroll for their players. In 2009 they had the 9th highest payroll, just ahead of the Green Bay Packers and putting them behind only the Giants, Dolphins, Texans, Saints, Bears, Jets, Steelers and Cardinals. In a nutshell, there's not a ton of room in the budget to be throwing out huge contracts.

Last year McNeill made less than $1m. Underpaid? Absolutely. Nobody's arguing that, but if he's going to get $7-10m a year you have to figure that money has to come out of somewhere...right? Here are the Chargers' top 5 base salaries from 2009:

  1. Darren Sproles - $6.6m
  2. Philip Rivers - $6m
  3. Kris Dielman - $5.5m
  4. Jamal Williams - $3.9m
  5. LaDainian Tomlinson - $3.8m

I just saw that lightbulb go on above your head. "Jamal and LT are gone! We can give their money to Marcus! All of problems are solved!" Not so fast, my friend. Here are some of the 2010 salaries:

  • Darren Sproles - $7.2m
  • Ryan Mathews - $320k (+$911k roster bonus + $3m signing bonus)
  • Antonio Gates - $755k (+$4.5m signing bonus), which in total is $2m more than he made last year

So, at least in 2010, Mathews is making about what LT made in 2009. Antonio Gates is making $2m more than he did last year. Darren Sproles is making about a half-mil more.

Everyone is very quick to spend the Spanos' money, but nobody wants to actually do the books and figure out where the money is coming from. "They must be making tons of money! They own an NFL team!" Yes, and they have costs associated with that team, it's players, the staff and the stadium. The $115m player payroll probably can't randomly jump up $10m (for MM, which would give the Chargers the 2nd highest payroll in the league) or $20mil (for Vincent Jackson, which would probably tie the Chargers with the Giants for the highest payroll) easily.

So....where's the money going to come from to pay these guys?

 

The Future

 

I'm not saying let these guys walk because they're going to cost a bunch of money. Far from it. I'm saying that fans have to look at more than just the product on the field, but also the situation in the front office. If Shawne Merriman has a great year, Charger fans will scream that the team should pay him too. Same with Darren Sproles, Malcom Floyd, Eric Weddle and any other starter playing on the final year of their deal. This money does not come out of thin air, and for a team that is promising to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to get a new stadium in San Diego it's an even tighter line to walk.

Imagine, for a second, the Bolts give in. "Here, VJ, you're one of the top paid WRs." "Here, MM, take Jake Long's contract. Who knows what will happen next year, but who cares?" First off, that sets a terrible precedent, but that's almost besides the point. When Eric Weddle is asking to be the top paid Safety next year and the team has pushed the limits of the owner's wallet....what do they do then? Should they say "this is the year, we don't care who we can't afford next year"? That's how good teams end up suddenly becoming terrible, through bad contracts.

Would I prefer to have those guys on the field? Of course, who wouldn't? However, I can see the Chargers looking at their situation (upcoming new stadium, uncertain CBA future, guys like Merriman and Sproles in the final year of their contracts, already one of the higher payrolls in the league) and saying "Well, NFL rules state that we can wait until next year to sort all of this out. Let's do that, and save ourselves some money at the same time." It's the wisest business move, and what's the phrase we football fans hear on an almost-daily basis from players, coaches and front office members? "It's a business."

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