Looking at Anthony Davis Possible Return to the 49ers

49ers right tackle Anthony Davis retired last season, but almost immediately upon doing so left the door open for his return at a later date. Yesterday Davis tweeted out something indicating he is indeed ready to return but that dealing with the 49ers general manager has not been easy.

While Davis may not have been serious (many have pointed out already that the tweet was made on April 1) I thought it made for a good opportunity to see some of the difficulties that can occur if a retired player does decide to return to the NFL, based on my interpretation of the rules (which may not always be correct).

When a player retires most teams will place the player on their Reserve/Retired list. From a salary cap standpoint this is treated identical to a release- all future prorations accelerate onto the salary cap- but unlike a release the team retains control of the player in the event he decides to return to the NFL. The return can be much more complicated, however, then just saying you are returning.

When a player retires, a team is within their rights to recover any signing bonus money that was paid to the player unless it was expressly agreed to by both sides that the bonus would not be subject to forfeiture. For Davis this number was $6.37M. The biggest loss was last season, in which he had to repay $3.37 million to the team.

Though the CBA is a little hazy on how that $3.37M would be handled (my interpretation is that this is lost forever) but it does seem clear that San Francisco could opt to release Davis and still recover the remaining $3 million.  From Article 4,Section 9(a)(vi):

If the player returns to play for the Club in the subsequent season, then the Club must either (a) take the player back under his existing contract with no forfeiture of the remaining Forfeitable Salary Allocations, or (b) release the player and seek repayment of any remaining Forfeitable Salary Allocations for future League Years.

This presents an interesting financial situation for the 49ers who may decide that recovering $3 million and removing all doubt about the $3.37 million Is better than having a player who walked away last season and may not even be in game shape come back and play for them. Davis is still young, but even going back to his last contract extension the 49ers seemed concerned about his conditioning tying $750,000 of his yearly salary to meeting weight requirements and participating in the offseason workout program, which is likely set to begin shortly.

Considering free agency is complete and the right tackle position was a loss for the players the market for Davis would likely not be robust. The 2016-2019 years of Davis’ contract average out to $5.35 million a season which would rank 9th in the NFL, just behind Joseph Barksdale. If we consider the additional $3 million, since that is money San Francisco could seemingly recover, he would move to 5th.  He could be a bit cheaper if his 2015 season tolled (Im admittedly hazy on this as I think that only happens if a player reports and then retires, but I would need to clarify it.

In addition Davis’ contract is more complex because of de-escalators tied to various goals. His $2.65 million salary decreases by $500,000 if he did not play in 50% of the snaps in the prior year. Since Davis was retired he clearly did not meet that. $250,000 is lost if he fails to be at 90% of workouts, which might be difficult if he is not reinstated in time. $500,000 is tied to weight and its possible that could be lost. As a good faith gesture I would imagine that Davis would want those amended for the year to reflect a new start.

So I think we have a much more complex situation than the 49ers just taking a player back with open arms. Davis’ leverage is not great if the 49ers threaten a release and try to recover that remaining $3 million, which seems permissible in the CBA. In that case Davis will likely earn close to nothing for the year since he would not make much more than that as a free agent. There is a good deal of negotiating that may need to occur to ensure all sides are on the same page before Davis makes his return to the NFL.