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Agent Leigh Steinberg on NFL free agency, John Lynch and the dominant 49ers teams from the 80s & 90s

The super agent represented Lynch, Steve Young and countless other Niners.

Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Before the 2020 NFL season, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a record-breaking 10-year deal worth $450 million.

The man who negotiated that deal is Mahomes’ agent, Leigh Steinberg.

Steinberg has been a player agent since 1974 and has negotiated more than $4 billion in salaries for his 300-plus clients. Steinberg is credited with being the real-life inspiration for the Oscar-winning film Jerry Maguire.

The 71 year old currently represents San Francisco 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. Steinberg was also John Lynch’s agent during his playing days and represented Hall of Famer Steve Young.

I caught up with Steinberg to discuss NFL free agency if NFL players will ever have the same level of empowerment as their NBA counterparts and what it was like negotiating with former 49ers’ owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and Carmen Policy, as well as what made the Niners the premiere franchise during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Niners Nation: How has the pandemic affected negotiations during this year’s free agency period?
Steinberg: The first group of premium free agents that are heavily sought after are signing deals that will probably be pretty equivalent to what they would have signed without the pandemic, even if they’re running an eight percent drop in the cap. Because you have to realize that there are blue skies ahead for the NFL, the TV contracts appear to be coming in at an increase. And depending on the progress of the vaccine. We could be seeing crowds next year. So this appears to be a one-year blip with the cap number. And one of the things that people are doing goes back to 1993. I had the first pick in the draft, and that was Drew Bledsoe. We did a concept called “voidable years,” and I think you’re seeing this in a few contracts where the signing bonus is still substantial, the salaries are lower, but then if it’s a five-year contract, there’s a pointing mechanism. That means the player doesn’t have to play those last two years.

How does NFL free agency differ from other sports?
Remember this about free agency; it’s the only time that teams have to compete with each other to sign players. The three ways that a roster can be enhanced. One is through the draft. That’s a structured cap event, one through trade, and in that situation, a new team absorbs the current contract, but in free agency, they bid against each other. So, what I think, again, if you really look at free agency in football, it does not operate the way it does in the NBA.

Because the superstar irreplaceable players never make it to free agency with rare exceptions. They either preemptively sign extensions, or in one case where no agreement can be reached, the team has the franchise tag. So what you see are B+ players getting A+ contracts. In basketball, LeBron James becoming a free agent is something that happens frequently, but you will never see a Patrick Mahomes-type NFL player hit the open market. Aaron Rodgers will never become a free agent because they’ll just keep extending him, so remember what you’re getting here [in free agency], you’re not getting players considered the most valuable. You’re getting their expendable talented players. But it’s like I said, B+ players can get A+ contracts because of the bidding and the competition.

Superstar QB Deshaun Watson — who signed an extension with the Houston Texans — has requested a trade. Do you think we will see a move towards more player empowerment in the NFL, similar to what we have seen over the past decade in the NBA?So let’s take a parched down approach and break this into two segments. Russell Wilson said he wanted to be more involved in the offense. All right, well, I can tell you franchise quarterbacks have always had involvement. All they have to do is walk into a coach’s office. A well-run team would consider it extremely important to know what the quarterback thinks about the current personnel, potentially draft picks and free agents. So they’ve always had that.

You go back years and look at Steve Young. We would have three-way meetings with Steve, myself and Carmen Policy, where we talk about stuff like, “this Tim McDonald’s a really good free agent, you should think about signing him.” Or we would say the offense needs this, so that has always been there.

In the NFL, the best way not to get traded is to ask publicly ask for a trade because it puts the incumbent team under the gun. Again, the equivalent of LeBron James or Kevin Durant in football is never going to be a free agent. So, now let’s deal with the situation of dissatisfaction. The best way never to get traded is to talk publicly about it. Why? because if the 49ers had a player that went public that they wanted to be traded, other franchises would take advantage of the 49ers and not offer much in trade, right?

With Deshaun Watson, he doesn’t want to play for Houston anyway. So the 49ers are going to say we aren’t giving you four first-rounders here. So it makes it more difficult to do. Everybody’s making the assumption that because he asked, there’ll be a trade. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But remember, he doesn’t have that freedom. Football will never be the equivalent of basketball because you only have five starting players. If LeBron James gets Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard gets Paul George; it totally alters the shape of the team. In Football, only the quarterback can do this, but you know it’s not like, okay, let’s just recruit a quarterback and left tackle and all-of-a-sudden, they’re a Super Bowl winner.

You represented 49ers legend Steve Young throughout his career. San Francisco was the premiere franchise during the 80s and 90s. What was it like negotiating with the likes of Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and Carmen Policy during those days?
They were the most player-friendly franchise in football. They treasured players. Eddie used to stand at the edge of the locker room and welcome everyone as they came off the field. He took them on trips. Las Vegas sometimes, Hawaii sometimes. He always took care of them.

When the 49ers played Cincinnati in the Super Bowl years ago, San Francisco took had an all first-class plane for the players and had a second plane that flew all the families. They stayed one to a room. The Bengals had a normal plane for all of their people, and they all had roommates at their hotel.

So, the point is, San Francisco was a destination that that most players aspired to go to because they were so player-friendly. Everyone used to call Carmen Policy “Charming Carmen” for a reason. I had so many players on those teams that when the cap came along that we basically learned the cap together. So the question was, how could you squeeze more talent into a roster of superstars.

So we had to be very clever, in terms of the cap, because at that point I’m representing Steve Young, Jesse Sapolu, Bill Musgrave, Gary Plummer, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis and Tim McDonald. The point is that it was in our mutual interest for the 49ers to win Super Bowl. Those negotiations were extremely smooth, but they had to be creative because, if you remember, the axis of football those years was between Dallas and San Francisco. They would play each other year-after-year in the conference finals, so it was like the days where Kansas City and the raiders were the two stumbling blocks for each other.

We had a large, large number of free agents, so we had a little factory going to manufacture how the collective bargaining could be used to allow talent to join the team. The negotiations with Eddie and Carmen will always pleasant and very smooth.

You represented John Lynch during his playing days. He and head coach Kyle Shanahan have helped turn the franchise around since being hired in 2017. Why do you think Lynch has done such a good job with the team during his tenure?
When you’re talking about the 49ers, the presence of John Lynch there gives them a great advantage. John is so smart; he has charisma, he’s fundamentally sound. He’s a Stanford grad. He’s just a huge asset and easy to work with in the same way. Because again, there are people in football who just understand the cap more creatively, more expansively, who are ahead of the game in terms of relating to players. He [Lynch] and Paraag Marathe, who handles San Francisco’s cap, are two of those people. The reason we signed Jeff Wilson there is that I had a discussion with John and simply asked, ‘is this a good place for him?’ and he said yes. I fully trust him and said to Jeff that he should sign with San Francisco.

You negotiated Patrick Mahomes’ record-deal with the Kansas City Chiefs last summer. How do you prepare for negotiations like that, and what is the process like?
The question would always become with every contract like that is, “what is the point in the player’s career that they’ll come to free agency or the ability to do an extension?” In order to do that contract, you’d be very carefully watching the quarterback and the cap. So, in all negotiations, the more anticipation and work that can be done early to foresee the situation, rather than reacting to it, is always a better strategy. That’s what we did with Pat, and the Chiefs knew they couldn’t let him go.