Money talks: Kyler Murray’s decision should surprise no one
After months of speculation and awkward prevarication on his part, two-sport phenom and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray finally renounced baseball on Monday, announcing on Twitter his intention to “firmly and fully” dedicate his time to becoming an NFL quarterback.
As such, Murray won’t be reporting later this week for his first spring training with the Oakland Athletics, who drafted the Oklahoma standout with the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft and coaxed a tenuous commitment out of him with a conditional $4.66-million signing bonus. (By choosing football, Murray must return all but $210,000 of the $1.5 million he received from the A’s last year and forfeits the remaining $3.16 million.) Instead, he’ll be gearing up for the upcoming NFL combine, where he hopes to “continue to prove to NFL decision-makers that (he is) the franchise QB in this draft.”
His decision should surprise no one.
“Football has been my love and passion my entire life,” Murray said. “I was raised to play QB, and I very much look forward to dedicating 100 percent of myself to being the best QB possible and winning NFL championships.”
Clearly, strapping on his helmet for 60 minutes of “Try Not To Get Brain Damage” gives Murray a feeling that stepping into the batter’s box doesn’t. If it didn’t, he probably wouldn’t have insisted that the Athletics allow him to play out his junior season at Oklahoma – and defer the start of his baseball career – to succeed Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
Ultimately, though, money was always going to be the deciding factor for Murray, and if he’d been merely adequate – or worse – in his first full season under center for the Sooners, he’d almost certainly be packing his bags for spring training right now. As his football stock rose, however, and Murray’s likelihood of going in the first round of the NFL draft grew, a career in football became fait accompli, with his performance throughout his superb junior season affording him the freedom to pursue his preferred sport professionally without making any financial concessions.
Now, in fact, he’s likely going to make more money than he would’ve playing baseball, with more up-front cash, too.
If he’s selected somewhere in the middle of the first round of the NFL draft, as many analysts project him to, Murray – an undersized but uniquely gifted quarterback who threw for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns last season, and rushed for another 1,001 and 12, respectively – stands to earn more than $13 million on his four-year rookie contract, according to Spotrac, with a signing bonus worth almost $8 million. That’s being conservative about his draft position, too. In October, Kliff Kingsbury, who was later named Arizona Cardinals head coach, said he’d take Murray first overall if he could, which would put the 21-year-old in line for something approximating the $33.1-million deal – and $22.1-million signing bonus – that Mayfield received from the Cleveland Browns after being chosen with the first pick last year.
And if Murray develops into even a serviceable NFL quarterback, his next contract could easily be worth nine figures: Jimmy Garoppolo’s current deal will pay him $137.5 million; Derek Carr’s is worth $125 million.
On the other hand, had he opted to stick with baseball, Murray could’ve gone a half-decade without a substantial payday and essentially subsisted on his original $4.66-million signing bonus throughout his time in the minor leagues, where some players don’t even make a livable wage. Then, assuming he makes it to the big leagues, he’d earn the league minimum for his first three years of his contract, with no recourse to affect his wage, and would have his salary suppressed by the arbitration process for the next three. Only then, after accruing six years of big-league service time, would he be eligible for free agency, which now seems like more of a threat than a financial boon.
Increasingly, it seems, big-league clubs have tacitly agreed to eschew free agency, having realized, ultimately, that trying to field a competitive team isn’t the soundest financial strategy. (They’ve also weaponized the luxury tax so effectively that it essentially functions like the NFL’s hard cap.) After all, pitchers and catchers were playing catch all across Florida and Arizona on Monday morning, and the list of unsigned free agents still reads like an All-Star team roster, with superstars like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Craig Kimbrel among those without jobs. Moreover, only nine players from this year’s free-agent class – hailed as one of the greatest ever – have signed deals that guarantee them a third year of employment.
The odds of a massive payday are dubious for everyone, in other words, given the current landscape, but particularly for players like Murray, who are all but guaranteed to hit free agency too late: if he spent three years in the minors, which isn’t an unreasonable timeline, Murray wouldn’t become eligible for free agency until after his age-29 season. Even with super-agent Scott Boras as his champion, that’s disconcerting.
And, of course, let’s not forget the cachet – i.e. avenues for ancillary income – that comes with being an NFL quarterback, especially a good one. Last year, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees averaged $12 million in sponsorship dollars, according to Forbes, with lesser quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, and Kirk Cousins each taking home seven figures, too. Those opportunities simply don’t exist for Oakland A’s outfielders. They barely exist for Mike Trout, who made a comparatively meager $2.5 million in endorsement money in 2018, more than Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Miguel Cabrera combined.
And, ultimately, Murray knew all of this, which made Monday’s announcement feel preordained. I don’t doubt his passion for football, but I also don’t believe that this decision came down to anything but simple economics.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.