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Making sense of Jabrill Peppers’ contract status

The Cleveland Browns’ second of three first-round draft picks, Jabrill Peppers, still has yet to sign his rookie contract. So, what’s going on and why? And what might it take to cool the impasse?

NFL: Cleveland Browns-Press Conference Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Only two non top-10 players taken in the first round of the 2017 draft are unsigned with training camps opening at the end of July. One of those is Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers, who was selected with the 25th-overall pick.

Initially, it was reported that Peppers’ current holdout was the result of a dispute over offset language, with Peppers’ camp (represented by agent Todd France, who also oversees Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, he of the protracted contract stare-down a year ago) wanting none included. Offset language is a way that teams can prevent first-round draft picks from double-dipping on their rookie deal.

While a very common thing in today’s NFL it would make logical sense that Peppers would try to avoid it, given that the Browns in recent years have been more than willing to part ways with Round 1 draft picks before their first contracts have expired.

But, a new report by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio says that the offset language is in fact not the sticking point between Peppers and the Browns, but rather the amount of guaranteed money and how it is structured.

Though there are basic salary guidelines ruling what the full amount of drafted rookies’ contracts are worth—in Peppers’ case, $10,341,989 as projected by Spotrac—how that money is paid out in the form of guarantees can vary widely. As Florio wrote:

“A fairly broad range has been set by the players taken at No. 26 (Falcons defensive end Tak McKinley) and at No. 23 (Giants tight end Evan Engram), with full guarantees for the first three years and a fourth-year guarantee of $655,000 for McKinley and $1.55 million for Engram. That’s a $900,000 spread in fourth-year guaranteed money over three picks.”

Also complicating matters is that the 24th-overall pick, Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley, is also still unsigned pending the results of a sexual assault investigation. With that $900,000 hanging in the balance and one player standing somewhere within it, Peppers’ camp does not have a clear gauge of how his guarantees should be paid out, or how much they should be worth.

Another factor is precedent. A year ago, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns, also selected at No. 25, forewent the partial salary guarantee in the fourth year of his rookie contract in favor of a roster bonus, worth $800,000, to be paid out on the third day of training camp in 2019. This could be the arrangement Peppers is seeking, even though, as Florio points out, “the players taken directly ahead of Burns and directly behind Burns didn’t get [bonus instead of salary guarantees].”

Something else to keep in mind is the fifth-year option. Though Florio did not mention it as a point of contention between Peppers and the Browns, it’s possible that it could be among the remaining sticking points. The fifth-year option, available to players selected in Round 1, entitles teams to hold onto their first-rounders for a fifth season given that they are willing to pay them a fully-guaranteed payout that equates to the average salaries of the 10 highest-paid players at their position.

While Peppers is billed as a safety, he is also capable of playing inside linebacker and is a proven asset as a returner in the special teams game, all of which affect the valuation of his fifth-year option. For example, the average salaries of the current 10 highest-paid safeties is $9.87 million. For inside linebackers, it’s $8.93 million. And neither of those numbers factors in what impact Peppers could have as a returner, nor reflect the what the averages at either linebacker or safety may rise to in the three years Cleveland has to decide whether they will pick up Peppers’ option. And in a world where careers can be brutally short, haggling over $1 million or even $100,000 can make a major difference.

The good news, of course, is that the Browns and Peppers still have more than two weeks before camp starts and even longer than that to come to an agreement. And while the reports have been scattershot and rumor-filled, the only true resemblance to Bosa’s holdout a year ago and Peppers’ current situation is that they are both represented by France. Things do not appear to be getting anything close to ugly just yet. The most interesting tidbit likely to come from this impasse is once the contract is finalized; Peppers’ compensation structure should be one to watch, simply because it could have an effect on rookies’ contracts in the future.