John Thornton Guides Nick Kwiatkoski Through Free Agency Maze
A couple of former Mountaineer football players had a pretty good day recently.
Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears, cashed in on free agency by inking a three-year contract with the Las Vegas Raiders worth a total of $21 million.
The agent who represented Kwiatkoski in that negotiation was another past WVU great, John Thornton.
“It’s great working with Nick, and it was great taking him through the free agency process,” said Thornton. “I’m happy he landed with a good team.”
Thornton knows well the path he’s leading Kwiatkoski down. A native of Philadelphia and graduate of the Scotland (Pa.) School, Thornton culminated his college career as a West Virginia defensive tackle by earning All-American honors in 1998. The next spring he was drafted in the second round by Tennessee, thus starting a 10-year NFL career split between the Titans (1999-2002) and the Cincinnati Bengals (2003-08).
Thornton moved into the player representative side shortly after retiring from the Bengals, and four years ago, he became an agent for Roc Nation, which is an entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z.
So Thornton knows the business from many angles. He has served as Kwiatkoski’s agent since the linebacker was first drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round in 2016. The former Mountaineer had served mainly as a back-up linebacker and special teams stalwart for the Bears the past four year, but as his rookie contract was coming to an end, he was looking for an opportunity not only at a bigger payday but also to move to a team that wanted to use him as a starter.
That’s where the Raiders came in.
“Nick hit an escalator in his rookie deal last year that took him up to $2 million,” explained Thornton. “Because he had been a backup through his first three seasons, he didn’t know if (the Bears) would keep him at that price heading into last year. He was valuable, and they viewed him as a guy who could come in and start if one of their starting linebackers did get hurt. For the first seven games or so, he was a backup and played special teams. He wound up starting a game and had a monster game against the Vikings. He went back to the bench for a couple games but then the Bears’ other linebacker got hurt for the rest of the season, and Nick got his chance to start the rest of the way and played well down the stretch and that got him on the radar of a lot of people.
“For his second contract, I thought it was important for him to find a team that viewed him as a starter so he didn’t have to look over his shoulder and he could just go and play. He also got very good money. It wasn’t top of the line money, but it was very good money for a guy who was a backup most of last year. Now he gets a chance to be a full-time starter, and hopefully they come back and offer an opportunity to redo the deal in a couple years. It’s a win-win for him, and win-win for the Raiders.
“Tyler Urban (another former Mountaineer player who also works at Roc Nation) is the other agent with Nick, and we all work together,” noted Thornton, who was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame last fall. “We started getting emails and calls (on the first day of the free agency period). You do your groundwork for this kind of stuff. I know a lot of people around the league, and I spent the whole week at the NFL Combine asking people what they thought about Nick. Some people said they thought he was a great special teams player and a good backup linebacker. Others felt he was a starting linebacker. You know who needs linebackers, so you have an idea who is going to be calling. We had two teams who were really aggressive, so it was really up to Nick at that point where he wanted to play.”
There is an art to negotiating a high-priced contract, and Thornton is no stranger to the dance.
“I never offer first,” stated John, who lives in Cincinnati along with his wife, Allison (also a WVU alum) and their sons Jalen, Ty and Rory. “The Bears didn’t have to wait until (the start of the free agency period) to offer. I met with them at the Combine, but they never even offered a contract. They were doing a deal with the linebacker who got hurt (Danny Trevanthan), and they were straight up about that.
“The most important thing is to agree on what type of player he is. If I think he’s a starter and you think he’s a special teams player, you are going to offer me a crazy deal I’m not going to accept. So, I felt we had to align ourselves with teams who viewed him as a starter, and then the money would be around what we expected, and that’s pretty much how it worked out.
“Some guys price themselves out of a job,” Thornton noted. “If you have an agent who tells you he’s going to get you $15 million a year and they tell every team that, it may scare teams off and they’ll look at a lesser-priced guy. Now you’ve priced yourself out of the market. Some teams come in with a first offer and say, ‘Hey, we can’t go over this amount.’ Others are more willing to negotiate. You have to know who you are dealing with.”
Many aspects of normal life are currently on hold as the world deals with the COVID-19 threat, and that includes parts of pro football. The NFL’s free agency is moving forward, though.
“A lot of teams didn’t know if it was going to start on time (March 16),” explained Thornton of the start of free agency. “Every year the first day of free agency is crazy, and now people also have to check up with the new (players’ Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was approved on March 14). You see a lot of guys doing shorter deals, so once everything gets back to normal, and hopefully the money spikes back up, they can get another piece of the pie.
“Normally you would have guys who would travel around and take visits, see the coaching staff, see the stadium, see the city. But right now (because of the virus), you aren’t taking those visits.”
Another thing that has changed is the workouts for those currently eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Draft still is scheduled for April 23-25, but rather than being a huge fan-friendly event in Las Vegas, it will strictly be TV-only. The NFL Combine also took place in Indianapolis Feb. 23-March 2 before most public gatherings were disallowed. But many of the visits, pro days and workouts that usually take place between the Combine and the Draft are now video-only.
“I have Andrew Thomas, a big offensive tackle from Georgia, and he is a top 10, top 15 guy,” said Thornton in regards to one of his clients this year. “He did everything at the Combine. He had a bunch of visits and private workouts in, but those stopped. Fortunately he did get two private workouts in before everything shutdown. Now I’m communicating with teams for him. He’s training in Atlanta, and he’s sending me video of his training. I put that together and send it to some GMs. I don’t think (the lack of in-person contacts) will hurt Andrew or guys at the top of the draft, but guys further down who didn’t workout at the Combine or didn’t go to the Combine, it will be different. For the most part teams have already done their work, but it will change some things.”