When the Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner reported to the team facility to begin preparations for next season, he was surely to be pulled aside by one of his teammates and asked a direct question: So how did you do it?
The 29-year-old Wagner recently became one of the rare pro athletes to successfully negotiate his own contract without an agent. By most accounts, Wagner didn’t need a silk-suited Jerry Maguire-type at the negotiating table.
On his own, the first-team All-Pro arranged a massive three-year, $54 million extension that includes $40.2 million in guaranteed money. At $18 million a season, the five-time Pro Bowler will be the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL. Wagner’s new contract beats out the $17 million annual salary of New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed an $85million deal to move to Gang Green from the Baltimore Ravens – and who is represented by Jimmy Sexton, co-head of CAA Football.
With the deal, Wagner has effectively “reset” the market for inside linebackers, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The former 2nd round draft pick out of Utah State did it without having to give an agent their cut.
“He did a really good job for himself,” said Heitner. “It’s hard to detract from what he was able to accomplish — no matter who you ask.”
Success breeds imitation. Agents typically earn about 2% of a player’s contract. That adds up when you’re talking tens of millions of dollars. That’s why Heitner expects more players to pull a Wagner and try to negotiate their deals going forward.
Whether they succeed is another matter. We don’t know whether Wagner himself had somebody behind the scenes helping him out, noted Heitner.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a discussion in the locker rooms, at least during training camp. I’m sure there’s going to be more discussion in the Seahawks locker room than any other. I’m sure a lot of his colleagues are going to be asking him about it. But it’s important that players understand this is a case-by-case type of thing. Just because Bobby Wagner may have been in a position to excel, that’s not necessarily going to be the case for everyone else,” Heitner said.
Speaking to reporters on July 28 at Seahawks training camp, Wagner said that part of his decision to represent himself was that he wanted to gain some “real-world experience” while still in the NFL. He also cited Michael Jordan as one of the people he sought out advice from. Wagner signed a deal with Jordan brand in 2018.
Every year a handful of players bet on themselves by negotiating their own deals, say experts.
Cornerback Richard Sherman worked out a three-year $39 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers in 2018. Offensive tackle Russell Okung negotiated his own contract with the Denver Broncos in 2016. Although billed as a five-year contract, it was essentially a one-year deal with a four-year option, according to ESPN. It was a bad deal and Okung was gone after one season.
The next year, Okung took another swing at cutting his own deal, this time with the Los Angeles Chargers. His gamble paid off with a four-year, $53 million contract, including $25 million in guaranteed money.
While Wagner will spur some players to cut their own deals, experts do not expect a sea change shift.
For one thing, Wagner is regarded as the best in the league at his position. In other words, he had leverage. Would a lesser player have been able to command such a deal? No way, say experts.
Second, the best agents don’t just draw up contracts. They talk to all of the different teams to determine salary ceilings, according to Mark Heligman, a former sports marketing agent at CAA turned president of Y Axis Sports. They maximize all their contacts, experience and negotiating skills on a player’s behalf.
When they finally sit down across the table from an NFL general manager, they’ve forgotten more about the market than their client can ever hope to know. In the best case scenario, everybody does what they do best. The player plays, the agent negotiates, the team pays up. And everybody is happy.
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“I think Bobby Wagner did a nice job and did a nice deal. But I do think there is a significant need for agents to handle negotiations for players. There’s a reason why agents, at least the good agents, do what they do. They’ve put in the time and effort and have the resources at their disposal,” Heligman said. “Yes, players can negotiate their own deals. But I don’t think, in the long term, it’s a wise move for the vast majority of players.”
If players go the solo route, and decide not to have an agent negotiate directly with their team, Heitner suggests they at least retain an attorney or agent to review the deal beforehand.
As Heitner notes: “It never hurts to have another set of eyes on the documents.”