In a story that just seems to keep repeating itself Antonio Brown has been released again this time by the Patriots and again questions come up regarding his contract. Ill preface this article by saying that this is a situation Ive really never seen before so I’m just offering an opinion based on my understanding of the rules and what has been said about his contract.
Brown signed his contract with New England on the 9th of September following a public divorce with the Raiders just a few days earlier. The contract structure was stunning to me because of how Brown had behaved all offseason. Rather than tying most of the contract to being on the team and active the Patriots went all in with $10 million in guarantees, $9 million of which came as a signing bonus, and just $500,000 tied to playing on Sunday. All of this was absurd because signing bonus money is not the easiest thing to recover if things go south. Salary is a different story.
I can only venture that the Patriots did this because they had salary cap troubles (they had a very tight cap situation) and wanted to be able to split the charges for Brown over two years by including a second season on the contract worth $20 million that for all intents and purposes was a void year used to dump $4.5 million from the signing bonus. I’m going to assume they had enough of a relationship with Drew Rosenhaus that they were convinced that Brown was fine and only looking to leave Oakland and didn’t do much to really see if there was any additional off the field that could be a concern. This would explain why the deal came together so quickly.
The NFL CBA is pretty strict with what can cause forfeiture of a signing bonus. Refusing to practice triggers forfeiture. Going to jail triggers forfeiture. Non football injuries trigger forfeiture. PED violations trigger forfeiture. Retirement triggers forfeiture. Being accused in a civil matter does not trigger forfeiture. Being a bad guy does not trigger forfeiture. Being a distraction does not trigger forfeiture. All those things trigger is the internal question of “why did we sign this guy in the first place”.
Forfeiture is also not an all or nothing situation. It more or less proportionate for the time missed due to whatever triggers it and it is based on the prorated portion of the bonus, not the entire bonus. At the initial stage there can be a lump sum loss(I believe its 25% of the prorated number in the regular season) but then it moves into weekly forfeiture. I cant see forfeiture being in play at all.
Now this is not the only avenue for the Patriots to try to recover the bonus. It has been reported that the first installment of Brown’s signing bonus was set to be paid on September 23. This, to me, explains the timing of the release as the Patriots will have him all cleared out from the organization when they decide to withhold payment. The question is whether they have a leg to stand on.
Most Patriots contracts contain what are essentially morals clauses. Such language states that the player has represented that he is not engaged and will not engage in any unlawful or immoral conduct and that there are no pre-existing circumstances that would prevent the player from fulfilling the contract. These clauses extend to the signing bonus as well as any other parts of the deal. So the Patriots more or less will need to prove that Brown was either engaged in some type of immoral behavior that they were not made aware of before signing the contract or after signing the contract.
If the Patriots do not make the payment Brown will file a grievance against the Patriots to force them to pay the $9 million. They will be an arbitration issue and while I have not really followed all the drama surrounding Brown the last few days because I was pretty much just sick of it my assumption is they will argue that this is a private matter between two (or more) adults. Perhaps it was juvenile but not immoral and illegal especially if no charges were filed prior to his release. I would also think that there are probably more than a few other Patriots in history that they can point to as example of what would be considered similar ‘immoral’ conduct that were allowed to complete their contract. That’s not a knock on the Patriots as it would likely happen with every other team just that it’s the Patriots treatment of similar situation that would be an issue in the grievance not how the other 31 would have handled it.
Brown also has a $1 million salary guarantee. Guarantees generally have much broader language regarding the voiding of the guarantee. Conduct detrimental to the team, speaking badly about the team, harming the teams reputation through actions, etc…My guess is they can point to these as hurting the teams reputation as a way to void the guarantee. If so Brown would likely file a grievance as well on that. Brown will have earned two weeks salary regardless of the guarantee so, $125,000 has already been paid. Even if the guarantee was voided Brown should be entitled to $250,000 in termination pay if he decided to file for it which is an additional $125,000. I would imagine that there are also offsets on the guarantee if some other team decides to take the plunge on him. The $500,000 in per game bonuses is lost to Brown with the exception of the $33K he earned for the first game.
So all told my feeling is that Brown will count for $5.75 million against the Patriots salary cap this year (the guaranteed salary, the signing bonus proration, and the proration of his per game bonuses) and $4.75 million next year with a grievance pending if they withhold payments. If he is successful with his grievance the only change will be a $466,667 credit applied to the Patriots 2020 salary cap for per game bonuses that counted on the cap but were unearned.
If Brown were to lose a grievance the Patriots should be a $4.5 million cap credit in 2020 for the signing bonus, an $875,000 credit for guaranteed salary that was voided, and the same $466,667 credit for the roster bonuses. The $4.5 million dead money from the signing bonus in 2020 would also vanish from the books. There would be a chance that they would take a charge for $125,000 in termination pay if he filed that following the loss of a grievance.
There are a few other scenarios depending on what they do with the guarantee and if he signs elsewhere, but for the most part it will be one of these two situations. I would lean towards the first one being the most likely outcome where he would win a grievance but again that’s just my opinion on it.
I can’t say Ive seen anything like this before. At the start of the year Brown was set to earn $15.125 million with Pittsburgh. He was then scheduled to earn the same from Oakland following a trade in March with a guarantee for another $14.5 million. He lost most of that. He then signed with the Pats set to earn up to $15 million with incentives. He may have lost most of that.
If the Patriots play hardball and Brown is unsuccessful with a grievance he will end up making around $1 million this season- one weeks salary from the Raiders and two weeks salary plus a per game roster bonus payment from the Patriots. In the meantime Brown will have left the three organizations with somewhere around a combined $28 million in dead money while only playing one game this year.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.