Ricky Williams left Texas in 1999 with the expectation that he would become one of the NFL’s best-ever running backs.
Williams never capitalized on that potential, either on the field or financially, but as it turns out he may never have had a chance at the latter.
Analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com broke down the specifics of the rookie contract Williams signed with the New Orleans Saints as the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
At the time, the deal was reported to be worth up to $68 million, but Williams agreed to a large signing bonus and a minimum salary. The rest would be paid using incentive bonuses outlined in the contract.
“I decided to go with the big bonus on the front end, and the rest I have to work for,” Williams said at the time, referring to his $8.8 million signing bonus. “With this contract I’m going to be making great money if I’m playing well enough.”
“Well enough” may have been nearly impossible. From FiveThirtyEight:
And we can say without reservation: Ricky Williams got screwed. Williams definitely underperformed expectations during his career, but only a fraction of that $68 million was achievable at all, even to the greatest running backs in recent memory.
Among the details outlined in the article were the 26 incentives each worth $50,000, a bonus that required Williams to rush for at least 1,600 yards a season and a bonus that required him to match the achievements of Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis.
FiveThirtyEight determined that among running backs from 1989-2015, 12 could have earned more than Williams (had he played all seven seasons) under the contract — with Emmitt Smith, Davis, Marshall Faulk and Barry Sanders earning the most.
Take the seven best seasons by LaDanian Tomlinson, widely considered one of the best running backs ever:
The gist of the contract becomes obvious: Hit the Terrell Davis bonuses or you don’t get paid. Had Tomlinson signed this contract in 2001, he still would have missed the Davis benchmark and ended his seven-season stretch — one of the best ever! — with around $17 million, more than half of it in signing bonus.
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