Word Of Caution: Signing Bonuses And Agent Spin

An interesting and unexpected storyline came out of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ undrafted free agent class following their the conclusion of Saturday’s draft. In recent years, Pittsburgh’s classes have been underwhelming. But this year, the team made at least one signing that caught my attention, inking Duke RB Mataeo Durant to a UDFA deal. The signing itself isn’t that surprising. Kevin Colbert might have been the only GM to attend his Pro Day where Durant blazed a high 4.3’s-low 4.4’s 40. He had a strong Blue Devils’ career and can catch the ball out of the backfield, making him an attractive option.

Shortly after Durant’s deal was announced, we got details on the contract. A $15,000 signing bonus which as Aaron Wilson tweeted out, is the largest to a Steelers’ UDFA RB in franchise history.

As you can probably easily tell, that information came from Durant’s agency. And Wilson received that info to spread the word of the “record” deal.

So what do we make of it? Less than what’s being made of it.

As a factual matter, yes, it appears Durant’s contract is the largest of any Steelers’ RB UDFA. On the surface, it seems notable. An initial reaction of, woah, they must REALLY like the guy. But in reality, it’s at best, a quirky stat of the weird.

Some things to know:

1. Pittsburgh conservatively structures its UDFA deals

The NFL caps the amount of signing bonus money that can be handed out to UDFAs. It sits just under $168,000 for 2022 and slightly increases as the cap goes up. In theory, that will prevent teams who have plenty of cap space to hoard al the top talent over the teams who are cap-strapped, and it helps keep the UDFAs salaries in check compared to late round draft picks. The focus should be on the player finding the best fit, not chasing money.

But teams have figured out a workaround. To bypass the bonus cap, teams are often guaranteeing all or part of the player’s first year base salary, allowing it to function like a signing bonus since it’s fully guaranteed. You’ll see that with the top UDFAs in the class as teams try to entice prospects to sign with them. Look at how the Eagles structure their deals.

QB Carson Strong, one of the most sought after UDFAs, received $320,000 guaranteed. $300,000 of that coming as a partial base salary guarantee with the other $20k – just $5,000 more than Durant – in the form of a signing bonus since the Eagles have to deal with the bonus ceiling.

Right or wrong, that’s not how Pittsburgh operates. So any “record” contract is still relatively small amounts of money. A $15,000 signing bonus prorated over a three-year deal (all UDFA sign the same three-year contracts) is a rounding error in the Steelers’ cap space.

2. Durant’s bonus is not out of the norm for a Steelers’ UDFA

Is Durant’s signing bonus a record for a Steelers’ UDFA RB? As far as I can tell, yes it is. But that’s one of those highly specific stats like “Ke’Bryan Hayes is hitting .347 with two outs, man on, in the bottom of the inning during a waning crescent moon.” It’s true but it really doesn’t carry much weight.

A $15,000 bonus to a Steelers’ UDFA is slightly on the high end of things but it’s in-line with the norm. In virtually every class, at least one UDFA is getting that much or more in the form of their signing bonus. Some examples:

Shakur Brown/CB – $25k
Donovan Stiner/S – $25k
Mark Gilbert/CB – $18k
Greg Gilmore/DL – $15k
Jamar Watson/EDGE – $15k
Ola Adeniyi/EDGE – $15k
Lamont Wade/S – $15k

Heck, from the 2022 UDFA pool, North Carolina OT Jordan Tucker also received a $15,000 signing bonus. There’s no headlines being written about him.

Durant’s bonus is far from the most of a Steelers’ undrafted player. Brown and Stiner each got much larger bonuses last year while Gilbert also edged him out. And because the overall money is still light, $25,000 isn’t much either, there’s really no correlation between money doled out and the player making the roster. Brown didn’t make the team, 53 or practice squad. Stiner and Gilbert made the practice squad. Gilmore didn’t make either. Ditto with Watson and Wade while Adeniyi made the initial roster but was placed on IR before Week One.

It’s also worth mentioning fellow UDFA running back Jaylen Warren received a $12,000 signing bonus. So he nearly matched what Durant got. But there’s no “celebration” over Warren having the second-highest bonus by a RB in Steelers’ history. Nor should there be.

3. Numbers Are Naturally Going Up

Just like the overall salary cap, these numbers are slightly trending upwards year-after-year. As the salary cap rises, so does the UDFA signing bonus pool. And so naturally, the bonus numbers are going up little-by-little. Here’s how the pool has looked in snapshots of time.

2022 – $167,944
2018 – $103,856
2014 – $80,362

Since 2014, the pool money has more than doubled. Five years from now, you’ll probably routinely see bonuses higher than $15,000 as the salary cap rises more and more. Numbers are relative to the cap and based on a cap percentage, I’m not sure if Durant’s is actually the largest deal.

4. Why Does This Matter?

So why I am dedicating a 1000 word article to Mataeo Durant’s signing bonus? It’s nothing against the player. He was one of the UDFAs I immediately geeked about before we knew numbers on the “record” deal.

Durant is a talented player with a shot to make the roster or at least the practice squad. He brings a different skillset than the bigger plodders on the roster, something that should separate him from the pack.

This speaks to a broader conversation. I’ve seen articles and tweets that have focused on Durant’s signing bonus and how important it must be. It’s not. It’s agent spin. Not mad at the agent for it, that’s their job. Spin and make their client look good (and by extension, make themselves look good for future clients).

But these commentaries have to be more closely evaluated. Just as in the same way the “monster” deals we see during free agency’s first wave require further examination An overall deal versus what’s actually guaranteed and likely to be earned are two different things. The words “potential to earn up to” doing the heavy lifting in a lot of free agency tweets, which is almost entirely driven by the agent market to the point where, like Wilson’s tweet, reporters don’t even hide it anymore.

Durant’s bonus is no slight against him. It’s an exercise in critically evaluating a situation and seeing it for what it is. Durant got a medium-sized signing bonus from the stingiest bonus team in the NFL And like every other UDFA, he’ll have to earn every bit of his spot this summer.

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