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How the Steelers can construct a sensible Justin Fields contract extension

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This offseason, the QB room at the Pittsburgh Steelers underwent a comprehensive renovation. The fact that none of the three new quarterbacks have contracts that expire beyond 2024 is a point of contention, even if the team is better off with three new faces than it was in 2023. Russell Wilson has an amazing one-year prove-it contract.

He may not receive another opportunity to start at age 35 unless he performs well, as the Steelers were the only team willing to give it to him. Young Justin Fields and journeyman Kyle Allen, who will be playing for his fifth team in seven years, will provide Wilson some support. Fields is the person with whom to discuss a contract extension till the end of the season.

The NFL book on him isn’t yet completed, but it’s off to a good start with 38 starts at age 25. However, a few of the book’s chapters advise teams not to depend on Fields for anything more than backup coverage. It should be appealing to all parties to have Fields under contract with the correct deal moving forward, regardless of how 2024 turns out.

Fields was obtained by trade for a conditional sixth-round pick in 2025, which, with playing time, could become a fourth pick. It is crucial to remember that trade value is based on many factors than only a player’s skill, history, and potential, despite some claims that his cheap cost was the league’s way of informing supporters he is almost useless. In the NFL, the acquiring team gets the player’s current contract in addition to the player itself.

Fields has a $3.2 million deal through 2024, with a $25.7 million fifth-year option through 2025. Six clubs reportedly held talks with the Bears, but none of them was prepared to give Chicago a high enough draft pick to guarantee Fields a starting position for the $28.9 million over two years that his deal demanded. Some teams refrained from making the move because of that fifth-year option. For a fairly affordable fee in 2024, the Steelers can have Fields back up Wilson if they decide not to exercise the costly 2025 option.

However, what about that book that is yet unfinished? What if a few chapters are published this year to relieve Wilson and argue Fields deserves more time in the Steel City? Fields’ current career trajectory is very comparable to that of quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall choice in 2015. With their powerful arms and agility, both possess astoundingly raw skills. For a quarterback on a franchise, both give up too many interceptions. Entering his tenth season in the NFL, Winston will earn $4 million in salary serving as the Browns’ backup quarterback. At an annual salary of $14 million, he served as the quarterback bridge in New Orleans between Derek Carr and Drew Brees. All parties should be satisfied with an incentive-laden contract that pays Fields backup money as a base and bridge money as a starter.

The NFL permits contracts to include incentive bonuses. Likely To Be Earned (LTBE) and Not Likely To Be Earned (NLTBE) are the two categories into which incentives are divided for the purposes of the wage ceiling. Only when a player meets the incentive levels from the previous season is an incentive considered LTBE. If not, NLTBE applies to the incentive. The only things that affect the pay cap for this year are LTBE incentives. The cap impact occurs in the subsequent year if a player achieves an NLTBE incentive level.

Fields and Pittsburgh were in a similar predicament to Geno Smith and Seattle in 2022. After trading Russell Wilson, the Seahawks were uncertain about their starting lineup. Smith hadn’t been a starter in six years, so they weren’t sure what to anticipate, but they offered him incentive bonuses to encourage him to perform above pay expectations.In addition to his base pay of $3.5 million, Smith would receive $3.5 million in bonuses if he could revive his career.

$1 million depending on the number of photos
$1 million for exceeding 4,000 passing yards
The playoffs are worth $1 million.
$500,000 for completing the double-bill of 20 touchdown passes and Pro Bowl selection.

See what Smith could have received in bonuses for 2023 if he had beaten his 2022 performance figures for some ideas of additional inducements.

$2 million for 4,282 throwing yards
$2 million for TDs older than 30
$2 million for a completion rate higher than 69.755
$2 million for a pass rate higher than 100.874
$2 million for winning ten games or qualifying for the playoffs
$5 million additional for completing all five incentives

I’ll go with a straightforward design by using round numbers for my Fields contract extension template. Fields should receive more from the contract than what is already guaranteed in order to entice him to sign it. As an experienced backup, it should pay out in the low end. The incentives should raise it to mid-level startup money on the high end. With base pay of $2 million, $2 million, and $6 million, plus a $5 million signing bonus, a three-year $15 million contract would put $7 million in Fields’ bank account today and deliver cap hits of $3.7 million, $3.7 million, and $7.7 million. At the age of 28, Fields would be a free agent.

Fields’ signing is financially encouraged because he will receive nearly $4 million more in guaranteed money than his present salary of $3.2 million. It is now time to incorporate some performance-based incentives so that, should he play like a starter, Fields would receive a starter’s salary. Recall that NLTBE incentives are not subject to the cap until they are earned, thus unless his play was exceptional enough to qualify for the bonuses, there wouldn’t be any cap stress associated with these incentives. To keep things simple, I propose a $5 million bonus for Fields tossing over 3,800 yards and an additional $5 million for tossing over 22 touchdowns; both would be considered NLTBE. With average NFL starter stats, those figures would have placed No. 15 in each category in 2023. If all incentives are met, his average total salary of $15 million would place him in the 18th place in terms of money paid. In essence, Fields would receive average starting salary under this contract—that is, IF he posts average starter numbers. If not, he receives veteran backup salary comparable to that of Andy Dalton, Drew Locke, and Jarrett Stidham. Fields will receive $30 million if he starts and meets these incentives in the first two years of his contract. This is somewhat more than the $28.9 million he would have received if his 2025 option been exercised.

After an extension like this, the Steelers would have a quarterback—possibly even a quarterback—on a highly team-friendly contract that would last until 2026. If the Steelers decide to cut or trade Fields this season, their dead cap hit would be an easy $7 million; if they wait until 2024 or 2025, it would be $3.4 million and $1.7 million, respectively. Although there are easy ways out of the deal for the team, Fields will still receive enough money if he adds some exciting new chapters to his NFL book.

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