Bobby Wagner sat inside a hotel conference room at the NFL’s 2012 rookie symposium and listened to one horror story after another.
The league’s annual onboarding program for first-year players was still centrally located at the time, so Wagner and a few hundred of his fellow draft picks gathered in Aurora, Ohio, for a four-day orientation that went heavy on the pitfalls of being young, recognizable and suddenly wealthy.
The warnings weren’t subtle.
“The gist of the weekend,” Wagner recalled in a conversation with ESPN, “was don’t trust your agent. Don’t trust your family — they’re going to steal money from you. Don’t trust your financial advisor. Watch out for the women — they’re going to take all your money … so basically go into the league knowing that you can’t trust nobody.”
After hearing an estimate that 80% of NFL players end up broke once they’re retired, Wagner left the event knowing that he’d have to figure out how to be on the right side of that statistic.
That sparked an interest in the financial side of football and in business in general, which took the Seattle Seahawks’ linebacker down a path that eventually led to his decision to join a handful of NFL players who serve as their own agents.
Two of Wagner’s former Seahawks teammates, Richard Sherman and Russell Okung, did it before him. High-profile players who have done it since include Lamar Jackson, Laremy Tunsil, Jacoby Brissett and DeAndre Hopkins, whose Arizona Cardinals face Wagner’s Seahawks on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) at CenturyLink Field. Wagner and Hopkins detail their experiences below.
Wagner said the decision wasn’t the result of a soured relationship with his former agency, Athletes First. It wasn’t about wanting to save the 3% on agent fees.
Locked up the best LB in the game!!!! 🐢🐢🐢
» https://t.co/hiTBB6Xma8 pic.twitter.com/yMSqM9fZpL
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) July 27, 2019
“It was about challenging myself and showing players that there’s another option, showing players that no matter what you do, whether you have an agent or you don’t have an agent, it’s really about educating yourself, educating yourself in the business that you perform in,” Wagner said last summer after negotiating his three-year, $54 million extension, which includes $40.25 million in guarantees. “We know the statistics. We know that whenever you’re done, a lot of us tend to go broke or don’t take good care of our money, and I feel like it’s because we don’t educate ourselves while we’re here. We wait ’til we get done playing football and then try to figure it out.
“So this was me trying to educate myself before I get out there in the real world and actually have some real-world experience.”
‘He did his homework’
The idea of representing himself started to gain momentum for Wagner after he signed his first veteran extension in 2015. It piqued his interest in the negotiating process and the intricacies of NFL contracts. Wagner began examining the details of his four-year, $43 million extension. Then he studied other players’ deals via Over The Cap, Spotrac and the NFLPA.
The homework really started once he decided to become his own agent.
Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes about contract and cap matters for CBSSports.com, thought Wagner negotiated a strong deal. He liked how Wagner easily set the benchmark in terms of annual average, even though it had just jumped approximately 37.5% with Mosley’s deal. Corry thought Wagner improved upon his last deal in terms of cash flow (with $35.5 million over 2019 and 2020) and the way he protected himself by negotiating less of his compensation into non-guaranteed, per-game roster bonuses while changing the requirements to make them easier to earn.
When polled by ESPN, three current agents and one contract analyst — all of whom have no affiliation with Wagner — shared similarly positive assessments of his deal for some of the same reasons.
“There are a good number of solid agents that have done some big deals that couldn’t do what Bobby did,” said one agent, who gave the deal an A-.
Some echoed a point Corry made: Not all players are equipped to handle negotiations without an agent.
“We’ve done enough good deals for players that they see our value. But good for some guys if they think they can do it and they want to challenge themselves. I think that’s great. I just don’t think it’s for most guys, and in most situations I … think it’s really difficult.”
One of the books Wagner read while preparing for his 2019 negotiation was “Crunching Numbers,” an in-depth guide to NFL contracts, the salary cap and the collective bargaining agreement. Another was a how-to on negotiating called “Never Split the Difference.”
Wagner’s curiosity in the business sector created helpful connections. He interned at Microsoft, then became friends with the company’s CFO, Amy Hood. Another friend who previously worked at Microsoft connected Wagner with Steve Ballmer, the company’s former CEO who now owns the LA Clippers. Wagner picked Michael Jordan’s brain during a trip to Monaco that Jordan organized for several Jordan Brand athletes.
Wagner asked what negotiations are like in their worlds and looked for similarities. He prepared for negotiations with the help of his wealth manager and talked with J.I. Halsell, a former salary-cap analyst for the Washington Football Team who later became an independent contract advisor.
“Bobby is a super smart guy, and he did his homework,” Halsell told ESPN. “We had really, really good, intellectual conversations about how deals get structured, what are the metrics that are truly important versus the ones that you typically see in the media that may or may not be as important. He asked a lot of really intelligent questions where you could tell that, based upon the questions he was asking, it was clicking.”
Wagner’s biggest takeaway from the advice: Know your market value, and understand where that fits in the salary cap. When it came time to start negotiating with Seahawks general manager John Schneider and vice president of football administration Matt Thomas, Wagner wasn’t going to waste their time by asking for franchise quarterback money just to shoot for the moon.
Even then, Wagner knew he’d have to put his emotions aside as he heard his organization tell him why it didn’t think he was worth as much as he believed he was. Wagner welcomed the frank conversations, preferring to have them directly with the team, rather than hearing them relayed by an agent.
“At the end of the day, we’re all grown, and we’re mature individuals,” he said. “So if you haven’t heard something that you don’t like by 30, I would assume that your ears are closed. So it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me. It wasn’t really important. I felt like I was mature enough to be able to hear anything that they were going to have to say, positive or negative, and I felt there was mutual respect on both ends, so no matter what was said, we were going to be able to get something done.”
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Negotiations began around mid-June. Once they were finished in late July, Wagner was the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker in terms of annual average. He beat by $1 million the APY that C.J. Mosley got a few months earlier from the New York Jets, even though some considered Mosley’s deal an extreme outlier because it blew the previous industry standard out of the water.
Wagner had seen all of the scrutiny on Sherman’s deal, so he was prepared.
“I knew if I was going to do it, I had to do it right,” Wagner said. “Watching people’s reaction on Sherm’s deal really opened my eyes that there were people out there that didn’t want players to negotiate their own deals and wanted to kind of lure them away from that, and so I kind of wanted to do the opposite and show that if there are players out there that want to do it, it’s an option. I don’t feel like it’s something for everyone, but for the few that feel like they have it in them, it’s possible.”
‘You can get things done yourself if you believe in yourself’
A couple of days per week during training camp, usually right around 11 a.m., DeAndre Hopkins made his way to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim’s suite at the Renaissance Hotel in Glendale, Arizona, a stone’s throw from where the Cardinals hold camp, for a negotiating session.
There, between meetings and practices, they sat and hammered out the details of the contract Hopkins had yearned for during his final days with the Houston Texans. Just Keim and Hopkins. No agent.
Hopkins took on representing himself in the negotiations for a contract extension after he parted ways with his agent, Todd France, midsummer. Hopkins said he handled about 90 percent of the negotiations, getting help with the rest from a small team of trusted and long-term advisors who worked with other players such as Laremy Tunsil and Wagner.
“It was a lot of reading, a lot of nights staying up late, learning the language and terminology of everything,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins had to balance the hours each day and night between diving into the minutiae of contracts and studying a brand-new playbook. He didn’t have time to do yoga like he preferred during camp, but he meditated a lot during the day.
He was in constant communication with his mother, Sabrina Greenlee, and his advisors. More than two months after he signed his extension on Sept. 8, those long nights still stand out to Hopkins.
“That was probably the biggest challenge is just getting sleep and getting rest,” Hopkins said. “But the rest I enjoyed. I think anything that you do uncommon, I guess, could be considered a challenge, but I enjoyed the process.”
At the beginning of their negotiations, Keim warned Hopkins that the process wasn’t going to be easy. There would be emotions involved. If there were disagreements — and there were — both sides needed to remain professional and respectful.
“I mean, listen, everybody wants to make more money,” Keim told ESPN. “But when you have to negotiate your salary, on your own, with your boss, it’s naturally uncomfortable. I mean, nobody likes that feeling, and that’s why people have agents.”
The Cardinals presented the framework of the contract, Keim said, and Hopkins tried to add or subtract pieces from there. Hopkins has a no-trade clause in each of the five seasons of his deal, as well as a no-franchise-or-transition-tag designation in the final two years.
“[Both were] very big because I know this is a place that I want to be, and this is an organization that I want to help build and become a contender for the years to come [as] long as I’m here,” Hopkins said.
Signed, sealed, delivered. pic.twitter.com/0BqS8suS5C
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 8, 2020
Keim said Hopkins was a quick learner, and there were times when both sides had to walk the other through things. There were also times, Keim said, when Hopkins was adamant about something he wanted. With the potential of a salary-cap drop of 23% in 2021, Keim had to explain to Hopkins that for the Cardinals to be contenders for the next few years, he wasn’t going to get certain requests so that other players could get their deals in the future.
Overall, Keim thought Hopkins “had the concepts down.”
“It’s really neat because I would bet you [a] majority of the players in the league don’t understand half the things he was bringing up, whether it was escalators or incentives and some of the things, the way things trigger in contracts,” Keim said. “I mean, he had a really good grasp on all that stuff.”
Hopkins is the second player Keim has negotiated with who represented himself. The other was Larry Fitzgerald, who started handling his own contracts after his long-time agent, Eugene Parker, died in 2016.
Hopkins’ decision to pursue his deal on his own wasn’t a slight to France or agents in general. He said he didn’t end the relationship with France on bad terms. However, Hopkins wanted to represent himself to see the process for future business endeavors.
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“I know that one day, I want to be part of an organization and help build it,” Hopkins said. “So I felt like this was a good time to learn it and study everything that hopefully one day I’ll be doing. I think also, just showing other players that you can get things done yourself if you believe in yourself and have the right team around you.”
For the most part, the negotiations didn’t have major surprises or issues, according to Keim, except for this: Hopkins loaded his contract with high incentives — the opposite of what agents would request.
The last year of the deal — 2024 — voids if Hopkins is on the roster 10 business days before the start of the 2024 league year and if he has 400 receptions or 5,000 receiving yards or 40 receiving touchdowns or is first-team All-NFL each season from 2020 to 2023.
“Here’s a guy that has had tremendous success in the league and has always produced and threw up huge numbers to put in as incentives because he’s like, ‘I want to get those,'” Keim said. “So it was refreshing. That part of it was probably the one shocking part to me: that he didn’t try to lower it. Like, he truly was like … maybe it’s, like, an incentive for him. Maybe it’s something that drives him even more, like, ‘Hey, I put this stuff in here. I’m gonna get it.’ It’s like writing your goals out on a sheet.
“I think I had to walk him back through, ‘OK, [5,000] yards? Really? OK? OK.’ I had to keep my poker face.”