Jacksonville's Options for Blake Bortles
Through six weeks of football, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is leading the NFL in interceptions with eight. His AY/A of 6.3 is only better than one player with 200-plus pass attempts this season. Among the 32 quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 passes since his rookie season of 2014, Bortles ranks 30th (ahead of just Brock Osweiler and Joe Flacco) in AY/A.
The writing is on the wall. Bortles should not be counted on as Jacksonville's future.
Where can we go from here?
Last offseason, Bortles signed an extension that is slated to keep him on the Jaguars' roster until 2020, but most Jacksonville fans know that NFL contracts aren't ironclad. This is absolutely true, but Bortles' deal also can't be shaken off easily this offseason, either. To help better explain what we are likely to see this offseason, let's take a look at the Jaguars' three options for getting rid of Bortles this spring and exactly how much cap space this would free up in 2019 and 2020.
Option #1: a run-of-the-mill release
Result: Save $4.5 million in 2019 cap space and save $23 million in 2020 cap space.
In the NFL, signing bonuses are “prorated” up to five years into a contract, meaning that $5 million of Bortles’ $15 million signing bonus was slated to be accounted for over the three years of his deal. When a player is released, the yet to be accounted for money “accelerates” onto the cap. Basically, instead of the already-paid $10 million remainder of a signing bonus splitting over the 2019 and 2020 caps, a release of Bortles would lead to Jacksonville assuming all $10 million in 2019.
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On top of that, $6.5 million of Bortles’ $16 million salary (game checks) is guaranteed. Guaranteed salary is also paid out (and accounted for by the cap), no matter if a player made the team or not. If Bortles is released next offseason, he will still account for $16.5 million on the Jaguars cap in 2019. That cap hit number would rank 27th in the NFL by 2018 standards.
The bright side to this strategy is that while the team only saves $4.5 million in cap space in 2019, the team would not be on the hook for a dime in 2020. Currently, Bortles’ 2020 cap hit is slated to be $23 million if he makes the team.
Option #2: a June 1 designation release
Result: Save $9.5 million in 2019 cap space, save $18 million in 2020 cap space and carry $21 million on the 2019 cap until June 1st.
One of the NFL's forms of fighting off "acceleration" is through what they call a "June 1 designation." Any player released after June 1st does not have his signing bonus (in Bortles' case $5 million in 2020) or future guaranteed salary (which Bortles does not have beyond 2019) accelerated onto that season's cap. So if Bortles was released after June 1st, the Jaguars would only assume $11.5 million in cap space in 2019 ($6.5 million in guaranteed salary and $5 million in his slated 2019 prorated signing bonus) but they would also have to account for $5 million in cap space (slated 2020 prorated signing bonus) in 2020.
In the NFL, you may designate a player as a post-June 1 release even if you release him beforehand. Players and agents enjoy this because they don't have to sit on rosters that they aren't going to make, giving them an opportunity to land elsewhere. With that being said, NFL teams still have to carry a player's salary until June 1st even if a player is released as a June 1 designation in March and immediately signs with another franchise.
If Jacksonville did go this route, kicking an extra $5 million of dead cap from 2019 to 2020, they would have to assume Bortles' $21 million cap hit until after June 1st, way after the majority of meaningful free agents sign. This strategy makes the most sense if they plan to spend most of their 2019 cap space on extensions for 2020 and 2021 free agents on their own roster, contracts they will have access to give in June as opposed to unrestricted free agent deals in March.
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Option #3: a trade
Result: Save $11 million in 2019 cap space, save $23 million in 2020 cap space and give up something like a 2020 third-round pick.
The biggest difference between a release and a trade is that the team which traded for a player has to assume his guaranteed salary, a responsibility of a player's original team in a release. In the context of Bortles’ contract, that’s the difference between $6.5 million in game checks.
If the Jaguars were to trade Bortles, they would only have to eat $10 million (his slated prorated signing bonus in 2019 and 2020) in dead cap, saving them $11 million immediately and $34 million over the remaining two years in his contract. The major problem in this forecast would be finding a trade partner.
Bortles almost certainly wouldn’t be worth his salary ($16 million) for any NFL team next season. Trading for Bortles would be with the intent of releasing him (eating the $6.5 million in guaranteed game checks) for a draft pick. The only time we have seen something along these lines was when the Houston Texans sent a future second-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for assuming Brock Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed salary.
If a team is willing to eat $6.5 million for a draft pick, it would probably have to come at the cost of a future third-round pick based on the trade value chart. Are there teams who would do this deal? Maybe. At the moment, the Colts, Jets, Bills and Texans are slated to have $85 million or more in cap space next season. To promise that a franchise would do something that has only been done once in NFL history would be a lie, though.
What should we do from here?
This is where the situation gets trickier. Transitioning from "What are our options?" to "What is the best option?" is a gap that needs to be filled with Jacksonville's intent this offseason.
Are they planning on using 2019 cap space on extensions? They should June 1 designate Bortles and release him.
Are they planning on using 2019 cap space on free agents? Do they think $6.5 million more in cap relief is worth a future third-round pick? They should try to find a trade partner. Do they not think $6.5 million more in cap relief is worth a future third-round pick? They should run-of-the-mill release him.
We can't answer these questions for the Jaguars. They have to answer how much $6.5 million in guaranteed salary is worth, how they plan to spend cap space in 2019 and if their access to quarterbacks is worth moving on from Bortles this offseason.
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It should not be assumed that Jacksonville moves on from Bortles in 2019, even if he is no longer a franchise quarterback in their eyes. Only saving $4.5 million on a run-of-the-mill release, a number lower than the cap hits of some backup quarterbacks, just may not be worth exposing them to the quarterback market. They may find that their best option is to have Bortles play through a $21 million cap hit in 2019 and just save $18 million in cap space in 2020 with a run-of-the-mill release. Contract structure and guarantees complicate a lot of contract-based discourse, but these are the conversations Jacksonville is likely having in reference to Bortles' cap situation.