The Antonio Brown situation has gotten absurd at this point. From something resembling frostbitten feet keeping him out of practice to now refusing to play because the NFL will no longer allow him to use an old helmet. The Raiders have now seemingly come to a breaking point after weeks of distractions with GM Mike Mayock finally saying he needs to know whether Brown is going to be with the team this season or not. Still this is more or less unchartered territory for a team and how they can handle the situation.
I could not come up with a good comparable to this. The closest I could think of was Albert Haynesworth in Washington where he was suspended by the team after refusing to play in certain defensive packages and refusing to listen to coaches. But that was more reminiscent of Brown in Pittsburgh trying to find his way off the team by undermining the organization at the end of the 2018 season. There was of course Terrell Owens who held court in his driveway doing situps as a member of the Eagles when he was looking for a new deal. Owens eventually was sent home for the season, but Owens was, like many players who hold out, looking for more money. Brown isn’t doing that.
The contract situation with Brown is somewhat straightforward but can also be somewhat complex. Brown, following a trade to Oakland, renegotiated his contract to raise his salary in 2020 and 2021 while also giving him $30.125 million in guarantees. Unlike most deals, however, Brown’s contract included no signing bonus so while the guarantees are large no money has likely exchanged hands yet outside of maybe a guaranteed workout bonus worth $500,000, that I am assuming he earned from the team this offseason.
Guarantees are a funny thing. They protect a player from not being paid for declining performance, being injured, or for any salary cap reasons, but in most cases they are easily voided. Though I am not familiar with the particulars of the Raiders contract with Brown, most contracts will see the guarantees void in a contract due to suspension from a team or the NFL, being arrested, refusing to report to camp, refusing to practice, personal conduct that reflects poorly on a team, non football related injuries preventing him from playing, retirement, engaging in an activity that brings on potential risks, etc… It is generally a very broad range of possibilities that will void the guarantee on a contract.
My assumption is that Brown has already done enough to warrant the Raiders to explore the possibility of voiding the guaranteed portion of the contract due to failure to practice. Even if that is not the case he has to already be close to the threshold needed to suspend some for conduct detrimental to the team, which would also likely void the guarantees on the contract.
If Brown’s guarantees void the Raiders would be able to escape the contract with minimal impact on their salary cap. The only charges at that point should be a $333,333 charge this year and $666,667 charge next season for the salary cap treatment of his guaranteed workout bonuses. The Raiders would offset $500,000 of that charge as a credit on next years cap, so basically this entire episode would just cost them $500,000.
However there is no recovery of draft selections that the team gave up in a trade if they were to cut Brown. If I were the Raiders I would be livid that the player I just traded for is showing no effort to play for the team. I would question whether he either wants to play football or just doesn’t want to play with the Raiders and is looking for an escape. This is where things are more complex.
Because Brown was traded rather than the released from the Steelers, the Raiders should hold the rights to recover Brown’s signing bonus prorations that remain from Pittsburgh if Brown refuses to play. This is a substantial amount of money- at a minimum $11.4 million (there are other prorations from a restructuring but more often than not teams are ineligible to reclaim that money).
This forfeiture of bonus money is a reason why Brown never would have retired from the Steelers unless it was under amicable circumstances where they agreed to not recover the money. Likewise if he truly does not want to play football it is why he would never retire now and would want to be released if he was done playing in the NFL. If the Raiders release him they should not have an avenue to recover that money. The forfeiture can begin to be triggered in the preseason so they could threaten that if he is actually not even showing up to work. So in a sense it is a game of high stakes chicken as to how long the drama should unfold if this carries over to the regular season.
Even if the Raiders void the guarantee on the contract I believe that Brown, if he is on the active 53 man on week 1, would have his salary guaranteed via the Termination Pay benefit of the CBA. That can also be voided if Brown continues to behave erratically and refuses to participate or show reasonable effort to prepare for a game. As far as an in-season suspension the Raiders are only able to suspend for a max of 4 games, a rule that is in place to prevent a team from essentially banning a player from the NFL as the Eagles did with Owens.
If the Raiders do not void the guarantee then there really is no way to release him. Brown would immediately count for nearly $29.5 million on the 2019 salary cap if he was cut and that would leave Oakland with under $4 million in cap room for the start of the season. They would also owe him $30 million in cash which would be insane for them to pay if he was cut. They could trade him but given how the last 9 months have gone who would trade for him?
I think Brown’s deal has offsets on his guarantees (I don’t know that for a fact but it was never reported that they were of the no-offset variety) so while the Raiders would recover some money if he signed with another team, how substantial could that be? If the Raiders owe him $30 million would you have any reason to pay him more than the minimum? Probably not.
The only other way for the Raiders to remove themselves from the contract and possibly recover their money would be if his feet were such an issue that they felt they had a case to place him on the non-football injury list. Players on NFI do not have the right to receive their salary and can also trigger bonus forfeiture. My guess is that ship has sailed since the Raiders have seemingly let the issue slide and allowed some level of participation after that injury occurred. If they were able to place him on NFI it would end his season.
In the event Brown was released following a voided guarantee or placed on NFI it would likely lead to a grievance process. This is also costly on the salary cap, but not prohibitive. While the grievance is outstanding the team would take on a charge around $11.5 million (40% of his remaining guarantee) until the grievance was settled. While its possible the end result could happen this season it seems to be complex enough of an issue to where the Raiders would not have to worry about taking the balance of the charge if they lost until next season.
The Raiders have to be running out of patience but need to carefully be looking at their options. Because Brown is such a star they have certainly done things that would not be done for 90% of the NFL so far but that is probably about to change and I would imagine the other 31 organizations will carefully monitor what happens here to make sure that they are all protected by such events in the future.