How Kyler Murray and the Cardinals agreed on a contract extension
The statement sounded wild at the time, and it was.
The all-caps missive from agent Erik Burkhardt, on behalf of Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, made clear the 24-year-old wanted the franchise to more aggressively put together a championship roster, and that he wanted the franchise to commit to him personally long-term. It came the morning most of the league arrived at the scouting combine. It landed like a neutron bomb and, eventually, it served its purpose.
Or, more specifically, two purposes.
First, it was in part in response to reports following Arizona’s unsightly wild-card round loss to the rival Rams, one of which came from ESPN on Super Bowl Sunday, that the team had serious questions about Murray’s maturity and accountability. Whether that was from the locker room, the coaching staff or the front office, it was taken by Murray’s camp, just as Murray became eligible for a new contract, as questioning his place as the team’s leader.
Second, it was a response to the slow early pace of negotiations, with Murray’s camp having been informed that the Cardinals would get to his extension in the summer after other team business had been conducted. Simply put, Murray’s side felt urgency was needed.
Five months later, Murray has his deal. After a furious sprint over the final 24-hour period, from early Wednesday into Thursday, to cross one last divide, Arizona and Murray agreed to a five-year, $230.5 million extension that ties him to the team that took him No. 1 in 2019 through 2028, his 10th NFL season.
As the uniqueness of that statement illustrated, the two sides didn’t get there without going through a lot. And in the end? They traded vows. For the foreseeable future, Murray’s success will be tied to the Cardinals’ ability to facilitate it for him, and vice versa.
In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll break down how they got there—and what it means for everyone involved moving forward.
Sometimes, these things are academic. Two years ago, there was little consternation about whether the Chiefs would get a deal done with Patrick Mahomes. Last year’s negotiation between the Bills and Josh Allen was, more or less, the same.
Both were a matter of not if, but when.
This one wasn’t that way. General manager Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury weren’t extended until combine week and, after the way last season ended, there was at least perception floating around that everyone would be on notice in 2022. Murray, for his part, had just seen his college teammate, Baker Mayfield, exhibit patience with the Browns through his fourth season only to have the pot of gold he expected in the offseason evaporate. And after the dirty laundry of Arizona’s season was aired, there was more reason for insecurity.
In the backdrop of all of it for the Cardinals was the reality that signing a franchise quarterback is really a yes-or-no proposition. There’s no ‘B’ level contract for a quarterback taken in the first round. You’re either all-in, or you’re not.
So the risk for Murray in waiting would’ve been getting to the summer, the Cardinals falling short of that mark, and the only recourse being a holdout that would cost Murray an enormous amount of money (plus the accrued season). Ultimately, that would have threatened to put him in a place not unlike the one that Mayfield was in with the Browns after ‘21.
And that’s why the statement was aimed at trying to get the Cardinals to do a new contract before the draft, because that’s when Murray’s strongest leverage point was, and asking for a trade with teams still in market for quarterbacks would then be weakened significantly. As the team and Murray got closer to that, the questions got more pointed—Will you trade him? Can we get permission to seek a trade?
Eventually, trust had to be formed, and that a deal, a real one, and a yes to that yes-or-no question, would be attainable. Murray and the Cardinals ended up getting there.
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The Cardinals could tell Murray how much they believed in him, and they did, until they were blue in the face. In the end, the money, and metrics, were what mattered.
So how did the Cardinals earn Murray’s trust in April? Even if a deal wasn’t done then, they showed him they were at least willing to play ball in the park where you’d find guys such as Allen and Mahomes, which was proven with the contract the Cardinals ended up doing.
Here’s the proof:
• Murray will get $30 million, fronted by a $29.035 million signing bonus, in the first season of the deal. Allen got $20.03 million in the first year of his deal. Mahomes was at $10.93 million.
• Murray will get $107.85 million over the first three years of his extension. Allen’s getting $97 million, and Mahomes is at $63.18 million.
• Murray will get $105 million fully guaranteed at signing, besting Allen ($100 million) and Mahomes ($63.08 million).
• Murray’s $161.7 million injury guarantee reflected a similar bump for inflation that Allen received ($150 million) over Mahomes ($141.18 million).
Now every deal is different. Mahomes’s lag in some metrics came, in part, with the trade-off that his contract is structured to tie the team to its quarterback for a longer period of the deal, through rolling guarantees, making it more like a baseball contract. Contracts for Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers were, without question, the groundbreakers of the offseason, and done in a far-less-conventional way.
But Murray’s goal, from the jump, and after that statement, was always to get the team to commit to him long-term, and show him what the Bills did to Allen, and the Chiefs did to Mahomes. That goal was achieved this week.
Now we’ll see if the Cardinals get a champion built around him.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1) When I asked around in 2018, after Kirk Cousins did his landmark, fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings, on whether that contract was a harbinger of things to come, I was told to wait on the next few. Then, Matt Ryan did a conventional quarterback deal, and Aaron Rodgers did a conventional quarterback deal, and that was that. So in the aftermath of Deshaun Watson inking a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal, I had similar questions and got the same answer. We’ve had two quarterback contracts land since then—Derek Carr’s in Vegas and Murray’s—and both are, well, what we’re used to seeing at the position. It’s tough to blame Carr or Murray for taking the money they did. But it’s also a sign that Watson’s deal will probably remain an outlier, and it’s tough to imagine that Lamar Jackson’s contract, whenever it comes, won’t further prove it.
2) Georgia coach Kirby Smart landed a reported 10-year, $112.5 million deal this week. Why is that relevant in the NFL world? Over the past few years, the demands of coaching in college, because of the transfer portal and NIL legislation, have led to a belief that a raft of coaches at that level would try and flee for the pros—and some have certainly tried. But the money Smart is making is instructive, too. Georgia isn’t the only big-time college program paying its coach that way. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson USC, Michigan State and Penn State are too, and at a level that’s well above what’s typical for a first-time NFL coach. And in most of those cases (with USC being the obvious exception) those coaches are living in places where the cost of living is substantially more affordable than it is many NFL markets. So with all the growing demands, what keeps those coaches the NFL may desire in college? The answer to that is one most people would be able to relate with.
3) If there’s anything to read into the Browns sniffing around Josh Rosen and A.J. McCarron this week, and then signing Rosen, to me it’s this—they’re looking for depth, not for guys who can start. And that tells me that, at this point, the Browns are not yet working with the idea that Watson’s suspension will be for the full season. Bottom line: If he’s out for six or eight or 10 games, well, that is why Jacoby Brissett is making nearly $5 million. And in that circumstance, they’d be looking for an extra hand for the duration of Watson’s suspension, one like Rosen to work alongside Josh Dobbs, and behind Brissett. But if the suspension is for the whole year? My guess is then you’d see the Browns at least explore some other options.
Right now, they’re sitting on just over $48 million in cap space, more than double the number of any other team. It’s there, in large part, to be rolled over to 2023, to deal with what’s trending to be a serious bottleneck of cap numbers. And still, some could be used to look at another quarterback if Watson’s gone for the year, one that’d be a couple levels up from Rosen.
4) Said it before, and I will say it again—the trickiest part of the 49ers trading Jimmy Garoppolo will be the $24.2 million base he’s due. Garoppolo could wait for San Francisco to cut him, of course, and they’d have to by Week 1 to avoid all the money from becoming guaranteed. The trouble is, then, Garoppolo could wind up costing himself a lot of money, and the chance to get time in camp with a new team. On the flip side, the 49ers cutting Garoppolo would mean getting no return for him, so it behooves the team to help Garoppolo find a team that’s willing to work with him financially. Which is why the 49ers have, for some time, allowed for Garoppolo’s camp to talk contract with other teams. Anyway, that’s how we got to the standstill we’re at, with the shoulder injury having precipitated it (eating up time in which teams filled their quarterback openings and spent their cash and cap budgets).
5) The Patriots had kicked the tires on tight end Kyle Rudolph over the years in part because of his background in their offense (he played for Charlie Weis in college), and so it makes sense that he’d now land with Tom Brady in Tampa. What does it mean for Rob Gronkowski’s potential comeback? Well, it’s insurance for the Bucs, moving forward with an experienced guy to pair with Cam Brate at the position. But I’m not sure it eliminates the possibility Gronk comes back, either. Remember, the Bucs went into the past two seasons with Brate, Gronkowski and O.J. Howard (who’s now in Buffalo) at tight end. So you wouldn’t be out of bounds to think there’s still room on the roster for the greatest tight end of all-time. And the logic I’ve mentioned on why Gronk would wait (if the Bucs won’t give him, say, $10 million for the year then maybe he’d rather come back for a percentage of the season at a lower rate) to return still applies.
6) The Patriots finally announced coaching staff titles Thursday and, as expected, they won’t have coordinators. The defensive situation is relatively static (Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick are the top two and had their titles both tweaked to linebackers coach, rather than specifying inside and outside). On offense, questions remain. Matt Patricia (senior football advisor/offensive line) and Joe Judge (offensive assistant/quarterbacks) spent the spring directing the run game and pass game, respectively, despite not having much experience coaching offense. Tight ends coach Nick Caley, who’s in a contract year (which may explain why he wouldn’t be a playcaller) and is highly thought of, worked alongside Patricia and Judge. Who’ll be in Mac Jones’s ear on gameday? Could it be Bill Belichick? Hopefully, we’ll have more answers soon. But at least on paper that’s a lot of moving parts at the critical early juncture of your young quarterback’s career.
AND ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
Since we’ve got a lot of Murray content in this column, I figured this was a good place to reprise his high school highlight tape—because it’s right up there with that old, grainy Reggie Bush video from the aughts as one of the most impressive reels of plays from a kid that age I’ve ever seen.
Remember, he’s doing this at the highest classification of high school football in Texas, which might be (probably is?) the highest level of competition in the county. Enjoy.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.