Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of overthecap.com. Jason is considered an expert in NFL salary cap and contracts analysis and has consulted on many projects in the field of NFL contracts. He is a contributor to the Sporting News and has been interviewed by many news outlets to discuss contract related issues for specific teams and players.

Recent Posts by Jason

Could a Players Strike Work for the NFL Players

Mike Freeman had another thought provoking article about a strategy down the line for a players strike. There are a number of good points here on planning how to win, but the reality is it is going to be very difficult to get a group of players to ever consider a strike and before you can use a strike to win you need somewhere around 2,000 players to feel loyal to the cause. That is not easy. The biggest issue just deals with the economics of the NFL and the general lack of a foundation to “rally” the players around the idea. We’ll look at some ways in which the union can try to get those players to feel they benefit from a strike the way the top players would.

Whenever we hear about strikes in the NFL it never really comes with specifics. Even going back to the NFL lockout of 2011 it’s hard to really see what the union objectives were. Most of the talk, at least publicly, was centered on the option of decertifying the union. Based on the eventual deal that was signed it would seem that the unions major issues seemed to deal with player safety via reduced practice time, no 18 game schedule and shorter offseason workout programs, added injury protection that would be standardized across the NFL, an attempt to move money from rookies to veterans, and finally the tying of team cash spending to the salary cap rather than a focus on salary cap spending. I don’t think any of those are issues that would get the league as a whole to strike and needless to say as soon as it was time to do football activities the players were ready to get back to work ASAP.

Its 6 years later and still I’m not sure what the vision is. One group of players talks about the commissioner having too much power. On another day another group is talking about guaranteed contracts. Another deals with more player safety. Another is focused on veterans earning more. Another wants more overall money. It’s haphazard and sounds more like some of the stuff coming out of Washington DC these days where you talk about a million things but don’t have a real focus on any.

In reading what older players say about the last lockout/strike many feel as if they were misled about the deal. Things seemed to come down quickly and the final selling point was more money to veterans. That never materialized. Even though many of those players are gone the sentiment probably remains to some extent and if you want to recapture the majority of the players the communication has to not only be better during negotiations but it has to begin now to sell everyone on an idea and make sure that these are focus points for the union.

The economic reality of the league is that the majority of the money is tied up in a very small portion of NFL players. While they are not earning as much as their NBA counterparts the average salaries of these players is very high. The league is likely on pace to spend about $5 billion in salaries to players this year. About 17% of that total will go to 50 players. 50% of the total will go to just 250 players, about 12% of the entire league population.

While buy in from these top players is important since they are the stars of the league, they should be economically in a position to sacrifice for some big goals; the 75% of the players who make up just 30% of the leagues wealth are not. For the young players in that group you are potentially asking them to sacrifice the rest of their career. Around 45% of players drafted in the 7th round are cut by the first year of their draft and 35% of 6th rounders don’t make it to year 2.   The 5th round is about 30%. UDFAs are obviously less. On the veteran end you have many guys going for a last payday and hoping they have one more year where they can make the league and pocket around $1 million.

So many of the topics that are touched on are going to benefit the 250 players in the league who have already “made it”.  There are probably just as many on the low end who would effectively be giving up their careers, some before it ever got started, by striking. It would be near impossible for the union to expect those players to not cross unless there is something concrete in it for them.

Last season there were about 1,270 players who were on contracts that averaged the veteran’s minimum ($1.065 million) or less. Currently about 15% of those players, about 195 in all, are no longer under contract to a NFL team. We are not yet even in training camp and rosters have to be slashed from 90 to 53 so you can be sure that number will likely at least double by September. The upper echelon (those over the minimum) has lost about 12%, or about 100 players. That number will grow too but not nearly as much over the next month.

Either way it’s pretty simple to see that a strike is likely going to mean that close to 25% of those supporting the strike are effectively giving away their career for the strike, most of whom did not make much playing the game. Most of those players have not been fortunate enough to be in a position where their earning power has put them in a position to be in a good financial position. It’s a very hard sell to those players.

On top of those numbers there are also a good chunk of players aiming for free agency that would likely have their contracts toll if a strike occurred. That’s another year of injury risk. That’s one less year of earning power. That again is a hard sell.

While talking about “more money and guarantees” sounds great on paper what the last CBA negotiation showed is that more revenues did not benefit the majority of the league.  Salaries, particularly for quarterbacks, spiked. Teams invested more at the top and used new rules regarding no minimum cap spending to create contracts that hurt some of those close to the top and in the middle by giving far more flexibility to teams via contract structures that did not exist nearly to this extent pre-2011. If Im the 230th pick in the draft Im only going to strike if I can help my bottom line, not Andrew Luck’s.

The union has to first find ways to fight for the bottom before they move to the sexy topics of fighting for the top. They need to start rallying the base on that idea now not simply as a throwaway four years from now. So what are some ways to accomplish that?

Ensure the bottom tier is paid.

I think to do this the NFLPA has to set forth one plan and one firm negotiating objective. Since we determined about 200 players will definitely lose their job in any given year and more likely that number will be closer to 400 by the time the season starts the union has to find a way to protect those players.

The union should set up two funds for this purpose. One fund is to keep the players financially stable for the year. I would accomplish this by paying every player under contract at or below the veterans minimum a practice squad salary. For the sake of argument we can call this $110,000 give or a take a few dollars. This needs to cover our 1,300 minimum players who would be expected to be on a roster plus another 320 players who are going to lose practice squad opportunities. This would work out to be a fund of about $178 million to be distributed equally among the lower income players.

The negotiation aspect of this deals with roster sizes.  Currently the NFL mandates 53 roster spots plus a 10 man practice squad. If, even for just one year with options to continue the expansion, they bump the active roster to 63 along with the practice squad it will create an additional 320 jobs. That would cover a large percentage of the low tier players who would normally not be asked back in any given year.

These players would be given a mandatory one year split salary guarantee on their current contract or receive a mandatory split guarantee on any one year extension signed after the strike if they were a free agent. This is to make certain that those spots are held by the players who risked a season rather than being used for another group of undrafted players who had not been exposed to the same risk.

In addition each NFL team would be given a salary cap waiver for up to 10 players on a contract with an APY under the vet minimum. For a player on a rookie contract they would only be eligible if they were drafted in the 4th round or later. The league did something similar for veterans in the last CBA offering a cap credit for players under contract prior to the strike. The problem with that is it really didn’t prevent the release of those who needed it. This would protect players with the highest cut rates.

The second fund would then cover lost wages for those not asked to return to the NFL. While we have trimmed that group in theory by 320, there are still going to be some 100+ players likely out of work. Some of these are players who were free agents before or after the strike, depending on how tolling contracts are handled. This fund would likely need to be around $70 million.

Raise minimum salaries and growth rates.

Nobody wants a max contract limit like there is in the NBA, but that system has helped the bottom and mid tier players who often sign somewhat head scratching contracts simply because the money has to go somewhere.  In the NFL the increased cap has worked the other way. The union can help fix that by increasing the minimums at the bottom.

As spending requirements go up the star players, particularly in free agency, get paid more and more while those in the middle and the bottom get pinched.  The NFL currently raises minimum rookie salaries by $15,000 per year. In the last two seasons minimum salaries have risen by less than 5% while the cap has risen over 16.5%.  True veteran minimums have risen between just 3 and 4%. Veterans, really should be earning 2-3X as much as rookies, but its not that much anymore.

Those numbers mean that the league had an additional $759 million in cap space they could spend over those two years. Only $39 million of that goes to minimum salary increases. Signing bonus money for draft picks is basically pegged to the salary cap so about $76 million has gone to increased bonus money since 2015 as well as raises for the first and second rounders in each year of their contract. The rest is pumped into the top valued areas on the field leaving the league in a spot where Ryan Tannehill and Sam Bradford aren’t valued much less than Matt Ryan since so many other players are simply earmarked for low valued contracts.

The yearly minimum P5 should have raises based on how much the cap has grown since 2013, basically meaning raises of 7-7.5% per year.  Catchup provisions should be made by increasing both sets of minimums.  If such a change was made this year the rookie 1st year salary would jump from $465,000 to $535,000 while veterans would jump from $775, 000, $885,000, and $985,000 to $1,070,000, $1,340,000, and $1,605,000 respectively. I think you should argue for more (Im basing these off the 2011 CBA where players at the bottom were already poorly compensated especially vets), but this should be the minimum acceptable levels.  This gives the majority of the league a chance to really benefit from any increased revenue splits rather than just going on strike to make the top end earn more.

While this clearly reduces the overall money available to stars, it isn’t going to come from the pockets of those who really deserve it, but instead force the league to think twice about paying as much for average players at expensive positions or make them get more creative with the salary cap. The more creative teams need to be with the cap the better it will be for players who sign longer contracts anyway.

Reduce contract length/increase escalators

This is not going to help veterans but it will make the league a fairer place for the younger players looking to cash in at an early time. If the union can negotiate contracts down from 4 to 3 years it will benefit all young players around the NFL and give them more reason to be firm on the strike even if most won’t benefit from this rule.

Admittedly this is a difficult one for the union to win but an easier compromise might be to increase the current standard escalator from that of the ROFR tender in rookie contracts to any of the tenders based on playing time. This would prevent a situation like a young Richard Sherman being stuck at a $1.5M or so salary while a lesser UDFA could have earned over $2.5 million. There should also be an escalator available in the 3rd year of the contract based on playing time if contracts remain at 4 years. These escalators also need to be guaranteed once earned or treated as incentives once earned.

These were just some thoughts on the subject and I certainly don’t want to see a player strike nor do I think its necessary if the sides, which have many years to hammer out a new deal, actually talk rather than prepare for court like the last go around. But if striking is an option on the table and the union wants it to stick they need to think first about that 1,300 players closer to the bottom and getting them the information they need and explaining what they are doing for them. If come 2020 or 2021 they just do what they did in 2011 and get that years Tom Brady to put his name on a lawsuit as if that is going to do something magical that group wont last any longer than the 2011 group which signed themselves up for a 10 year deal that they weren’t very happy within 2 or 3 years.

Cowboys Extend La’El Collins

The Dallas Cowboys were back in the news today, this time signing tackle/guard La’el Collins to a two year, $15.4 million contract extension per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. The move largely “makes Collins whole” after dropping in the 2015 draft following the possibility that he was a suspect in a murder, which he was cleared of being involved in a short time later. At the time Collins more or less stated he would prefer to go undrafted if not selected high enough in the draft and that is exactly what happened. At the time that occurred I looked at the benefits of being undrafted and it worked out for Collins.

Collins will now stand to make about $17 million over the first five years of his career. Had he been drafted in the first round Collins would have had an option year that likely would be worth around $9 million for 2019. If we pull that out from this extension it essentially puts his value somewhere around the 29th or 30th pick in the 2015 draft. Dallas that year had the 27th pick so the numbers are pretty close to where Dallas selected that year.

It would certainly seem as if Dallas was doing Collins a favor here and I am sure some will speculate that as long as Collins was not a bust that they would honor a first round status. It is hard to see Dallas really exhibiting much leverage in this situation at all.  Collins started 11 games as a rookie at left guard and just 3 games last year before landing on injured reserve. The plan this year is to move him to the much lower cost right tackle position.

Those are not the numbers that would merit any kind of extension, even a short term one, given the contractual situation. Collins was under contract this year for a small number, which will be baked into the extension, and the Cowboys controlled his rights for another year at a low number which is not baked into the extension.

That number would have depended on the RFA tag that he was given. Based on his play I assumed that this would be the 2nd round tender which is worth around $2.9 million. If they used a first round tender it would be $4.1 million. The 1st round tender isn’t really used very often and only for high level stars or QB’s, something Collins is not.

Taking that into account Dallas is effectively paying Collins, a right tackle, between $11.3 and $12.5 million for a one year extension. The current top contract for a true right tackle is Ricky Wagner at $9.5 million a year. The top guard contract is Kevin Zeitler at $12 million a season.

Im not sure you can spin those numbers in any  way as a positive for Dallas. Even if Collins becomes a top line player the Cowboys still don’t control his rights beyond those first few years. It’s a big departure from the contracts they did in recent years for their top players on the line who are all under contract for a long time.

So sure they did Collins a solid here, but if I was a player on the Cowboys in a similar spot I think Id want the same benefit moving forward.

Thoughts on Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Offer

Yesterday we looked at Kirk Cousins contract offer and today we’ll take a look at Le’Veon Bell’s basics which were reported on today by Tom Pelissero. Per Pelissero the offer included $30 million in the first two years of the contract and $42 million across three years. Unlike the Cousins offer, which was pretty weak by any standard, this seemed pretty strong and it is hard to see how Bell turned this one down so lets explore.

As a pure new contract the numbers would put Bell at $12+ million a year over a five year timeframe. That would be the largest APY for a running back since Adrian Peterson’s $14 million and change contract a few years back.  From a new money standpoint the Bell metrics would surpass Peterson’s on the frontend numbers. They would also obliterate any recent veteran contract. Here are the 2 and 3 year comps:

Player2 Year3 year
Bell$30,000,000$42,000,000
Peterson$29,280,000$41,280,000
McCoy$21,050,000$27,300,000
Martin$15,000,000$21,750,000
Miller$14,000,000$19,750,000
Ivory$12,500,000$18,500,000

So not only is this offer pretty incredible by today’s standards, but historically it’s also pretty solid.

Like with Cousins we can also factor out the fact that he was set to already earn $12.1 million on the year to determine what he is earning purely in new money in the first two years of a new contract. Again these numbers would paint things in a pretty solid light and represent a small raise over Peterson’s numbers, which seem to be a baseline used in the offer.

Player1 Year2 Year
Bell$17,880,000$29,880,000
Peterson$17,780,000$29,280,000
McCoy$16,000,000$21,050,000
Martin$8,000,000$15,000,000
Miller$8,500,000$14,000,000
Ivory$7,500,000$12,500,000

Unlike Cousins, who is in a position to break the bank next year, it is hard to imagine Bell making over $18 million next season to justify passing this contract up. First of all the running back market is simply stagnant. Bell is far and away the best of the bunch, but we don’t have any players in the NFL making over $8.01 million a year.  The high point year 1 payment in the NFL is McCoy at $16 million but he falls way short of Bell’s proposed two year “new money” earnings. So at best I would guess that Bell would break even if he hit free agency and his earnings between now and 2019 would probably fail to reach these proposed numbers.

Not only that but if the Steelers tag him again his salary next year will be just $14.52 million, well short of the number needed to break even. Again this was very different than Cousins. The Cousins offer basically built in the value of a transition tag and shortchanged him on the franchise tag. The two year offered to Bell is stronger than two tags and is the more traditional way things work when  trying to make a sincere offer.

Secondly Bell is an injury risk and a suspension risk. Cousins’ position is more or less injury and age proof for a second contract. Bell’s is a high risk position and his history is terrible. He’s had multiple knee injuries  and been suspended twice. Another injury and suspension is just going to hurt his value. From the standpoint of a suspension he would also stand to lose 1/17 ($712,941) for each week suspended. If he signed a long term deal with a signing bonus he would lose 1/17 of a much lower base salary and just 1/17th of 1/5th of his overall bonus paid in 2017.

So why would he turn this contract down?  That is hard to say. About the only things that could really be at hand here are the issue of guarantees and payment timings.  The Steelers organization offers very large signing bonuses relative to the majority of the NFL, but they don’t guarantee salary beyond that. For example Antonio Brown received $19 million as a signing bonus but not a penny more guaranteed.  That’s simply doing business with the Steelers and you need to accept that when you sign with them.

Pittsburgh is also one of the stronger organizations when it comes to honoring contracts regardless of guarantees. The only team that is probably better in this regard is the Bengals, who often have even less favorable payment terms. The contract structure in Pittsburgh also helps since the cost to cut is high early on. This is how the league used to operate and Pittsburgh is one of the few who still does this way.

Pittsburgh’s standard contract also often contains a second year roster bonus earned in March. I guess it is possible, given Bell’s suspension potential, that they did not want to use that mechanism and preferred a full base salary which would be more open to recovery in the event of a long suspension.

Might the first year payment have been a little light?  That is also possible, though Id imagine under any scenario it was going to not only be greater than what he is currently scheduled to earn but also bigger than McCoy’s $16 million. In any event the number was going to be more than he is set to earn now.

Obviously we aren’t privy to the entire offer but based on what is out there it is really hard to see why this contract did not work for Bell. It is highly doubtful that he will top it by signing next year and if guarantees are the issue well his best offer is going to come from the Steelers anyway next year and that will not include any fancy guarantees like we see elsewhere. I don’t really see the reward here for Bell but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Cousins and Redskins Fail to Reach New Deal

As expected the Redskins and Kirk Cousins did not come to an agreement on a new contract so he will play out the season on a one year franchise tag. Washington released a statement following the passing of the deadline which outlined the parameters of their offer.

“On May 2nd, right after the draft, we made Kirk an offer that included the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history ($53 million) and guaranteed a total of $72 million for injury. The deal would have made him at least the second highest-paid player by average per year in NFL history.”

The statement, which goes on to say that the team never received a counter offer from Cousins agents is obviously damage control for Washington, who has handled the situation pretty poorly. I think the numbers above likely paint a picture as to why this is a relationship that is simply not working.

The May 2nd date means two things. One is that the framework that we have to value this contract goes back to making an offer prior to the Derek Carr extension being complete. Since many NFL extensions don’t get done until July I would say there is a good chance Washington’s front office simply assumed no new contracts would pop up until after the July 17 franchise deadline.

The second thing the date tells me is that Washington continued to drag their feet on any contract talks. To wait until the draft to make an offer meant they were either shopping Cousins or were waiting until a few spots he maybe had in mind in 2018 selected in hopes they would pick a QB. Either way I don’t believe it shows the proactive approach that was probably needed to help the relationship. It certainly sounds like they didn’t make another offer either, which is not a great sign for anyone.

The fact that Washington failed to disclose the APY while giving the guaranteed numbers probably means that the offer was not as great, especially in light of the Carr contract, as they want to make it seem. There are a number of different ways to value contracts in the NFL and technically as of May 2nd the second highest paid player by APY was Drew Brees at $24.25 million. That said Brees was on a one year extension and the two year value on his contract is $22.125 million, which is right below Joe Flacco’s $22.13 million extension. I would say that it is likely that Cousins offer was in the $22.2 million per year range.

One my pet peeves with contract extensions is when people make a big deal out of the guaranteed numbers without taking into account any guarantees. The $53M number sounds wonderful, except Cousins is already guaranteed $24 million on the season. That is not even a paper figure….its an actual guarantee. So Washington is offering to guarantee Cousins another $29 million to sign this contract.

FWIW that $29M is about the cost that it would take Washington to transition tag him next year and is less than if they franchise tagged him for a third time. Every major recent contract for a QB, other than Carr (and that’s unique because of the Raiders), sees the player get a signing bonus of at least $30M and 1st year new money over $40 million.

So what benefit is there to taking $29M to lock yourself into what’s quickly going to be an undermarket contract when you stand to make at least that much or more next year. Just to put it in perspective in the event Cousins falls off a cliff Brock Osweiler earned $21 million in first year cash and $37 million fully guaranteed as a free agent. So as long as Cousins in passable his full guarantee on a new contract needed to be at least $61 million to even put Cousins in the break even range.

The $72 million injury guarantee also falls into the same trap. That represents about $48 million in newly guaranteed salary. That is well below Luck at $70 million and Wilson at $60 million.  Sure he is coming from a higher starting point but the Redskins only have themselves to blame for that. This is actually a more valid number than the full guarantee (only Eli Manning comes close in  a new guarantee) but they are not the blow away numbers that Washington is attempting to portray in their letter.

Cousins, because of the position he plays, is in a very unique spot which the Redskins don’t seem to realize. QBs have a much longer life than the average NFL player so losing seasons to the tag doesn’t have the same impact as it would to a wide receiver or defensive end who will likely be removed from his prime after two tags. The injury rates impacting financial earning power are really low as is the loss of power because of a bad season. And if Washington is successful this year it puts Cousins in a scenario to break the bank. More quarterbacks should be following this path.

Washington really needed to take this all into account with any offer they made him, but it seems they failed to do that. The numbers they released simply fall short of making him an offer he cant refuse, which is what they needed to do.

Rookies, the 2011 CBA, and Veteran Salaries

So there has been a great deal of talk this week about rookies being underpaid. I think it came out from a really good article by Mike Freeman and later our buddy Chase Stuart chimed in on the topic as well with some good input.  Ive written about the benefits derived from the draft before and how at the least it should be used to revalue trade charts since the benefit is potentially great for teams. That said I do think there has been some misstating of the cause and effect here.

The prevailing thought is that the cause of this imbalance is from the 2011 CBA which instituted a firm wage scale on drafted rookies. Prior to this CBA there were a large number of loopholes that agents found to drive the prices of rookies through the roof, primarily at the top of the draft. For example players like Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Aaron Curry, Trent Williams and others became among the highest paid at their positions before they ever stepped foot on the field. Almost all became the highest guaranteed players.  Many justified the cost but plenty did not. In the new system only running backs really still hit those marks.

The league let it get away from them in my opinion during that timeframe because in general the top of the draft is dominated by bad front offices. Such teams often did some very crazy things to get players into camp and the better teams, all of whom end up in the top 10 at some point, couldn’t avoid doing the same. About the best they could do was avoid certain players or agents because of the cost involved. Hence the new system was meant to be dummy proof and prevented the worst teams from doing deals that set the league on fire. But outside of the top picks that wage scale was almost always in place. That’s not a popular opinion but I think we can back that up.

So what Im going to do here is look back at the top 20 players from the 2011 and 2012 draft and try to find a reasonable comparable from the old draft system and see how the dollars and cents work out over the first six contract years. To be a bit fairer we will inflate the older player’s salaries based on their pay as a percentage of the cap over the first 6 years of their contract. Here is the list I selected (if there is a NA it means that there was no notable player drafted at that slot)

PickPlayerEarningsCompComp EarningsComp InflatedGain/Loss
1Newton$76,025,498Stafford$84,000,000$90,126,299-$14,100,801
2V. Miller$55,448,214Suh$90,959,706$94,994,103-$39,545,889
3Dareus$61,521,947Mccoy$76,205,000$79,584,972-$18,063,025
4Green$56,438,098C. Johnson$68,250,000$76,424,430-$19,986,332
5Peterson$53,510,500J. Haden$64,456,742$67,315,635-$13,805,135
6J. Jones$51,683,750C. Johnson$68,250,000$76,424,430-$24,740,680
7NANANANANANA
8Tannehill$50,050,979Sanchez$64,725,000$73,550,342-$23,499,363
9T. Smith$51,260,098Clady$30,365,500$33,345,018$17,915,080
10Gilmore$46,166,150Revis$56,661,500$63,447,953-$17,281,803
11Watt$50,706,498Ngata$39,000,000$43,955,847$6,750,651
12Cox$46,540,198Ngata$39,000,000$46,554,004-$13,806
13Fairley$17,889,000Graham$25,908,000$27,057,115-$9,168,115
14Quinn$39,248,224Pierre-Paul$22,434,002$23,429,032$15,819,192
15Brockers$28,918,000Carriker$16,845,000$19,977,492$8,940,508
16Kerrigan$33,008,294Timmons$29,622,250$35,130,795-$2,122,501
17Solder$28,978,242Albert$24,168,000$26,539,408$2,438,834
18Liuget$30,792,744Hali$25,500,000$28,740,361$2,052,383
19Amukamara$24,516,938Rodgers-Cromartie$18,313,750$20,110,728$4,406,210
20NANANANANANA

All in all I think this is a pretty fair representation of what the rookie wage scale was designed to do. The top 8 picks saw their salaries significantly stunted, primarily because of earnings lost in the first four or five years of their contract and potential leverage lost regarding their extension. Von Miller was probably the most impacted by the changes since the system effectively tied the extension year values to the position whereas Suh was simply paid on a scale where all number 2 picks earned a pretty big number. I’d also say that Patrick Peterson was hit very hard as I didn’t have a good comparable for him due to position. Had I used Eric Berry the disparity would have been even bigger. Julio Jones and Ryan Tannehill are a bit overstated since I used slightly higher selected comps for them.

But once you get outside the top 10 (and Gilmore vs Revis is a stretch there since Revis was so great and renegotiated his rookie deal after 3 years following a holdout not some CBA rule) in general the numbers balance out or favor the players in the current CBA. A good deal of this, IMO, again deals with positional valuation. In the old CBA 5th year salaries were more or less negotiated based on draft slot. Under the new system they were tied to position with no distinction being made between the 11th and 32nd pick. If we went further out and started looking at Chandler Jones, Muhammad Wilkerson, etc… the numbers would be more in favor of the current system.

I think the real takeaway is that the new system saw a transfer of wealth between good players in the first round with less money being paid to the top 7-10 players and more going to 11-32.Obviously there is a big savings from the bust prospects. For example Darrius Heyward-Bey had earned nearly $37 million over his entire career while someone like Jake Locker was under $13 million. For weak drafts like 2013 that is a major cash savings for the league.

It certainly doesn’t balance out (my guess is if we run out to 32 there is probably $72 million in savings on good players and more on busts even factoring in possible raises for those outside the top 10) but I don’t think it’s going to veterans either. The NFLPA, in the last negotiation, failed to differentiate veterans and rookie salaries on a percentile basis. While minimum salaried vets should fairly be priced between $2 and $3 million with somewhere between $250 and $350K in guaranteed salary they remain stuck at $855K and $80K in guarantees.  That doesn’t put the team in a position to have a real decision in front of them nor pay a reasonable salary for older players who play a valuable role on the team.

But the inequality in rookie salary vs actual performance has almost always existed in the draft. It’s not exclusive to the current CBA; it has been something that owners have continuously used to keep wages for players down and that is being lost in the shuffle.  In the past the first few picks were overvalued unless the player was a bonafide stud, but the benefits almost always rested with the teams. It’s a bit moreso now but its not new to the current CBA regardless of how blind we would get to some of the massive numbers being floated for those top 10 players.

One of the problems with the negotiation of the CBA is the fact that the union seemed to miss the fact that this really should not be about veterans vs rookies, regardless of who was doing the voting on the new CBA. We all have a tendency to look at every player in the NFL for four years or less as a “rookie” but that is doing a disservice to all players. A rookie generally proves his worth by his second or at the latest his third year in the NFL. The union needs to be looking at any player beyond 2 years in the NFL as a veteran because that is when the money should come in. They failed to do that when they continued the same four and five year contractual system that has always been in place.

In some ways they made it worse because they stripped agents of their ability to use bad teams to drive prices for the NFL league wide. They also eliminated the RFA system almost entirely by demanding four year contracts which eliminated agents abilities to gain higher fourth year salaries for players either through workout based escalators or simple RFA contract procedures. The NFL sold it as veteran aid and the union bought it hook, line, and sinker. It was more of the same.

The NFL is very different than any other sport because the players prime years generally end around the same time as a players rookie contract. In the NBA we see plenty of players productive in their 30s even as their 20 year old athleticism leaves them. Baseball players last forever. By 30 the average NFL player is about as useful to most teams as I would be, yet the system in place still holds so many rookies onto their rookie contracts until they are 28 years old.

If you want to fight for veteran rights you have to understand that once a player proves his worth in the NFL they need to get paid. Whether that is through built in options, negotiated by agents not based on some old Jimmy Johnson draft chart, or short term contracts the path to veteran benefits comes from the right to get real raises and commitments at the age of 25 and 26.

But this isn’t exclusive to that 2011 CBA. It has been in place for ages and has become accepted practice by the league. The NFL, in my opinion, does a great job of riding on public sentiment and using it to mold negotiations. More guaranteed salaries, less practice time, more concussion protection, less power for the commissioner are all going to be ideas floated by the league to avoid any discussion about ways for players to get paid at a younger age. The rookies of today are the veterans of tomorrow and to do the best by them means to focus on rookie rights and freedoms. Nobody has done it yet and Im not sure enough people realize it.

Will Anyone Sign at the Franchise Tag Deadline?

The deadline to extend Franchise players is Monday which leaves Kirk Cousins, Le’Veon Bell, and Trumaine Johnson just a few more days to gain that added job security for the season. While none are reportedly close to a deal these contracts can often come out of nowhere at the last second (think Muhammad Wilkerson who signed so late it was reported he didn’t get an extension) despite whatever posturing there is on both sides. Let’s take a quick look at the three players.

Kirk Cousins

I can’t help but think that the Redskins have completely botched this contract. Last year I think it made all the sense in the world to not sign Cousins long term. He came off a good year after three seasons of relatively non-descript play. The odds were against Cousins being a long term viable starter off what could have been a fluke season and the investment in light of the Brock Osweiler contract would have been $18-$20 million a season with close to $40 million in guarantees, so Id argue that rolling the dice on one year for $19.95 million was worth it.

But after another relatively good year the Redskins really needed to make a firm decision on his status. Either he stays long term on say a $23 million a year contract or he goes via trade to a team like the 49ers. Instead they tagged him at $24 million and have allowed him to sit and stew about his future. He is already beyond the Osweiler and Tannehill two year salary levels and if they tag him again next year he would be in the Andrew Luck region. The price should have gone up in light of the Derek Carr $25 million contract extension and I can’t see any reason that Cousins would sign for less than that.

Washington’s front office was in such turmoil that its hard to make a prediction here. Id say if this was any other team in the league Cousins would sign a new contract on Monday, but Washington has taken an odd hardline stance on his value while at the same time being happy enough to keep him around at $24 million for the season. I’d guess a contract won’t get done.

Le’Veon Bell

This is a rare case where the positional price of running back likely plays a role. Running backs are the cheapest positional players in the league and the top of the market is just over $8 million a season. Bell’s tag value already pushes him past $12 million. There have been two recent running backs to jump over the $10 million a year hurdle. One was Adrian Peterson who signed a generation ago and nearly played out his contract while the other was Marshawn Lynch on a shorter term $12 million a year extension that saw him retire after just one year.

Bell also has some red flags due to multiple injuries and some off the field stuff, but I don’t think that will be a concern for the Steelers who would more or less be able to recover signing bonus money anyway and those are the only guarantees they do in contracts.

Given the market for the position, Bell has reason to get a deal done rather than play the year out. Unlike Cousins there is not going to be a better offer next year if the Steelers come in at $10 million a season. The risk of injury at the position is so big that anything above $9 million a year he has to probably consider even if his goal is much higher. His threshold number should be to increase his salary this year to $18-$20 million which would blow McCoy’s $16 million year one salary out and that would be fair for both sides. Given the way the Steelers often treat their own players it would be a bit of a surprise if they could not come to an agreement.

Trumaine Johnson

I’m not really sure what the Rams were thinking with Johnson. When they tagged him last year he basically ran to lock in that close to $14 million salary because the odds were against him earning much more than in free agency anyway. When they did it a second time at nearly $17 million he ran even quicker to sign it before the Rams came to their senses.

To put the numbers in some kind or perspective his $30.6 million he will earn on the tag will be above Janoris Jenkins $29 million, well above AJ Bouye and Darius Slay at $27 and $25 million and close to the 2 year payout of Stefon Gilmore at $32 million and Desmond Trufant at $33 million.

Johnson will still be a free agent next year and likely earn anywhere from $13 to $15 million in cash in 2018, whether with the Rams of someone else. Assuming he does that it would put his 3 year salary at $43 to $45 million which is putting him in the Richard Sherman and Joe Haden class of contract.  Would anyone have given him that kind of contract last year?  I think the answer is a clear no.

Either way that this works out I think the Rams don’t look good. If you use the tag on a player like Johnson you are using it to make a long term deal. If they call your bluff in year one you probably just need to make whatever deal you can. Doing it two years in a row just seems crazy, but at this point his asking price from the Rams should be significantly higher than his market value. It just seems like a lose-lose proposition for the team and Johnson probably has little incentive to give in much which makes it unlikely a contract gets done.

Guaranteed Salaries and the NFL

I actually wrote this up a few weeks ago when Tom Brady’s wife mentioned him playing with concussions and there was talk on the prospect of players hiding injuries because contracts are not guaranteed. I’m not sure why I never got around to publishing it, but it kind of fell by the wayside. With the NBA free agent deals in the news guarantees have become a hot topic so I figured I could post this now and just give some thoughts as to why the guaranteed system won’t really work in the NFL.

The major issue at play is the basic lifecycle of the NFL player. For even the best players at most positons the cycle is pretty similar- development year or two on a rookie contract, peak in years 3-5, begin noticeable decline in year 7, keep fighting for a job until no teams want you anymore.

The way current contracts are primarily negotiated is that teams pay a large premium on the frontend of a contract in hopes of receiving a benefit on the backend of the contract if the player breaks out from the cycle mentioned above and is still playing at a really high level in year 8 and 9.

For example look at the Patriots contract with Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots are paying him $32 million in the first two years of his contract and guaranteed him $40 million across three years with the hope to gain a benefit on the backend of salaries of $11 and $12 million at a time when cornerbacks will likely be earning $17-18 million a year. If Gilmore flops terribly the Patriots will have overpaid him by millions but at least be free in years 4 and 5. If he does well they have a great deal.

Once you move to a fully guaranteed structure teams are going to adjust accordingly. Once you remove the benefit of the backend teams aren’t going to pay as much up front because there won’t be a year four or five in the contract. As they absorb more risk they are going to be less likely to inflate the front end of the contract. The contract will only go as far as the current guaranteed deal likely goes (the exception being the QB position).

Right now we can look at Gilmore as being paid about 7.9% of the projected cap in the first three years of the deal for the possible benefit of paying him just 5.7% of the cap at the end of the contract. Remove the benefit and the team is going to cut the first three year’s salary from $42 million to $36 or $37 million to limit their risk and eliminate years 4 and 5.

How much would a team pay on a 5 year contract in that situation?  Well we knew the Patriots were willing to take on an effective $42 million of risk to invoke those final two year options so at least $42 million. But beyond that they will probably use the cost of a replacement level talent which for that position is in the ballpark of $3 million a season. So lets call it a five year contract worth $48 million.

What is better for the player?  $42 million guaranteed with the potential to earn $65 million over 5 years or a straight five year contract with $48 million fully guaranteed at signing?  Or is the player better off taking the $36 million over three years with the potential of free agency awaiting?

Those are all really interesting questions for someone to answer but the NFL is not going to just take the current contract structure and ever just make them guaranteed. Might a few teams go for broke and not care about the future like the Redskins and Cowboys?  Anything is possible, but when those teams falter due to age you can guarantee they wont do it again.

If contracts were fully guaranteed the following players would still be on the Jets this upcoming season- Darrelle Revis, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Antonio Cromartie, Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Marcus Gilchrist, Breno Giacomini, and Jeremy Kerley. Most of those players aren’t even in the NFL right now. And oh yeah, Mark Sanchez would have been the Jets QB last season.  The Jets stink as it is but it would have been completely hopeless if the contracts were guaranteed at signing.

For fun I decided to actually put together a group of starters based on contracts who would still be in the NFL this season around the league if contracts were guaranteed. Most would have high cap charges along with the salary.

QBRyan FitzpatrickBills
RBAdrian PetersonVikings
WRPercy HarvinJets
WRGreg JenningsVikings
WRDwayne BoweChiefs
LTRyan CladyBroncos
RTGosder CherilusLions
CNick MangoldJets
RGDavin JosephBuccaneers
LGBen GrubbsChiefs
TEOwen DanielsBroncos
DEJason HatcherRedskins
DEJunior GaletteSaints
DTArthur JonesColts
DTJay RatliffCowboys
LBJerod MayoPatriots
LBPaul KrugerBrowns
LBPhilip WheelerDolphins
CBDarrelle RevisBuccaneers
CBAntonio CromartieJets
SJairus ByrdSaints
SDashon GoldsonBuccaneers

That would also be a lot of money tied up in players who either do not belong in the NFL or at best belong as backups and it would be coming out of the pockets of players who did deserve raises.

If the goal is to find more injury protection for players there are other ways to do that, in my opinion.  The NFLPA has already made movement in this regard with their injury protection benefit that they negotiated into the CBA. This was a real win for the union which somehow never gets any attention. It basically protects up to $1 million of salary for players on multi year contracts with a chance at a smaller second year payment as well.

The NFLPA could probably look into lowering some of the other benefits such as the performance based pay pool and using that money to help fund insurance policies for their players that cover loss of job due to injury.

There are probably ways to manipulate the salary cap to eliminate the massive carryovers and force teams into using more signing bonus money and functionally guaranteeing 3 years of most contracts or to lower the cap limits and taking that unused money to fund players whose contracts were terminated for injury.

I know just yesterday former NFLer Terrance Knighton put out a series of tweets talking about how ridiculous it is that Aaron Rodgers is earning so much less than NBA players. Part of that stems from Rodgers being willing, due to the system and general belief in the way the NFL works, to take a contract extension that was so long at a younger age. Is it good for the game is Rodgers goes from being a Packer one year to a Dolphin the next and then a 49er the year after that? Probably not but eventually that will likely stabilize, but that is going to be the way to maximize money. Still that may not benefit the overall general population of the NFL.

The players need to stand firm, threaten a strike, and demand that teams remove the franchise tag provision from the CBA and secondly make a move to reduce the length of rookie contracts to two or three years.  That allows players to gain much more negotiating leverage and begin to force the issue on contracts outside their home organization. Unless players get to free agency at a younger age they simply don’t have the expected careers to justify big “guaranteed” investments for any period of time.  Teams say that it takes three years to evaluate a player. If so then there is no reason for them to control those same players for up to 7 years through long contracts and franchise tag mechanisms.

Most people call free agency fool’s gold because the decline in those free agents is just too rapid. That’s because players are hitting free agency at 27, 28 and 29 years of age. But what if you had a system where Odell Beckham, Khalil Mack, Jadeveon Clowney, Mike Evans, etc… all in their early 20s were free agents this year?  That’s a different story whether we are talking teams fully guaranteeing a four year deal or simply doing a massive 1, 2, or 3 year contract. None of those players will ever hit free agency in this system. That probably even gives the mid tier guys a chance for bigger paydays with teams who don’t value the superstar as much.

But just saying that the NFL needs to guarantee contracts isn’t going to fix the problems. It will fundamentally change the way that the league does business and put pressure on players to take much lower contracts or be willing to go year to year. Either way the players are still going to be at risk. The whole system needs to be changed at its got to begin at the bargaining table when negotiating how much control teams have over their players careers once they draft them.