Before the start of the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season, the Arizona Cardinals opened their checkbook and “made it rain” on their newly acquired receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. After joining his new organization, Hopkins immediately got to work with his new quarterback, Kyler Murray, and the Cardinals front office. So far, this move has boded well for both parties. Hopkins, a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection, entered this last offseason as one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. He spent his first seven seasons with the Houston Texans and joined the Cardinals after a seemingly lopsided trade. The Texans traded Hopkins—along with a fourth-round draft pick—in exchange for running back David Johnson, and a 2020 second-round draft pick as well as a 2021 fourth-round pick. Johnson, a one-time Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selection, has not rushed for more than 1,000 yards since 2016. The trade by the Texans has been described as an “astonishingly bad move” and has drawn extensive criticism after the exact same transaction could not be completed in the Madden video game (FORTHEW!N). To the dismay of Texans fans but luckily for Cardinals fans everywhere, Hopkins came to Arizona under a team-friendly contract, adding another premier weapon on offense for the 2019 NFL Draft’s number-one pick, QB Kyler Murray.
Making It Rain in Phoenix
In 2019, Hopkins ranked fourth among the NFL’s highest-paid wide receivers making an average of $16.2 million per year (AZ Central). The Cardinals quickly changed Hopkins’s position on that list. After essentially robbing the Texans in the trade for Hopkins, the Cardinals rewarded Hopkins by agreeing to a two-year contract extension, worth $54.4 million in new money ($27.5 million per year), with $42.75 million guaranteed at signing. (Cardswire). Not only did the extension make Hopkins the highest-paid wide receiver ever in the NFL, but it also made him the NFL’s highest-paid player outside of the quarterback position (CBSSports).
Being the highest-paid receiver in the NFL is undoubtedly an accomplishment. Arguably, even more impressive than the amount written on the check to Hopkins was the fact that he negotiated the entire deal by himself. (Id.) Hopkins’s decision to represent himself—while not unprecedented—shocked the entire NFL community. How could a player negotiate himself such a lucrative deal?
Most NFL players seek representation from agents to facilitate contract negotiations (CNBC). Although several players (such as Russell Okung, Laremy Tunsil, Richard Sherman, and Bobby Wagner, to name a few) have recently represented themselves, none have achieved the same level of success as Hopkins in doing so. In 2016, offensive lineman Russell Okung represented himself in his contract negotiations with the Denver Broncos. Okung and the Broncos agreed to a five-year contract, consisting of a one-year, $5 million deal, and an additional four-year $48 million team option (USA Today). The agreement contained $0 guaranteed at signing. Okung essentially bet on himself to meet—or exceed—the Broncos standards, making them more likely to exercise the four-year team option – a perilous move. By negotiating the deal himself, Okung saved a maximum of $150,000 of agent fees (outside of previous fees paid to his former agent). (Id.) Subsequently, the Broncos declined Okung’s team option, making him a free agent after just one year. Okung made only $8 million total (base salary plus incentive bonuses) of the $53 million in the original contract (NFL.com).
Conversely, other athletes, besides Hopkins, have achieved favorable outcomes after representing themselves. Bobby Wagner, a middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, became the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker after representing himself in a 2019 contract extension (ESPN). Wagner agreed to a three-year, $54 million extension, including $40.2 million fully guaranteed. (Id.) His decision to forgo outside representation was “about challenging myself and showing players that there’s another option…” (Id.)
Does this mark the beginning of the end?
Could these success stories pave the way for future athletes forgoing outside representation, or are they simply anomalies? Both Hopkins and Wagner became the highest-paid players in their respective positions, all without the assistance of an agent. However, it is undisputed that Hopkins has been one of the most productive receivers in football since entering the league in 2013. Likewise, Wagner has been described as “undoubtedly one of the best linebackers of this era,” and has made six Pro Bowls and five First-Team All-Pro selections through his first eight seasons (Rams Wire). Their impressive resumes speak for themselves, making it more difficult to decipher what role their solo negotiations played in the outcome of their contracts. For now, it seems the role of a sports agent will continue to remain solidified in the NFL’s contract negotiation process. Sports agents continue to make headlines and shatter contract records for their clients, making it hard to envision a large portion of the NFL’s players representing themselves. This past offseason, Berkeley Law’s own Leigh Steinberg represented Patrick Mahomes’ historic contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. The 10-year extension, worth up to $503 million, included $477 million in guaranteed mechanisms, making it the richest deal in sports history (Fox News). Even though Mahomes is arguably one of the best quarterbacks currently playing in the NFL, his decision to use an agent likely paid off. On the other hand, there is no way to determine what the outcomes would have been for Hopkins or Wagner if they had hired agents. But, after seeing the Mahomes megadeal, one can only wonder if their contracts truly reflected all of their talent and value.