One of the more surprising elements of Vince Wilfork’s monthlong contract standoff with the Patriots was how so many fans seemed to turn against Wilfork, one of the team’s most beloved players for the past 10 years.
Wilfork has been the heart and soul of the defense and has given countless hours of his time to improve our community, yet I saw a startling amount of anti-Wilfork sentiment from fans, who railed against him with every cliché in the book: He’s a spoiled athlete, doesn’t know how good he has it, should realize that he’s not worth the money anymore, and on and on.
But fans and media need to keep in mind that the NFL is not like the NBA or Major League Baseball, where star players like Miguel Cabrera sign for an ungodly sum of $292 million, role players like Anderson Varejao get $48 million guaranteed, and has-beens like Josh Beckett still get to collect their $16 million annual salary.
In the NFL, most players have absolutely zero leverage, because of their nonguaranteed contracts and a new collective bargaining agreement that squeezes them six ways from Sunday.
You’ll never see me blame an NFL player for holding out or throwing a little hissy fit as Wilfork did.
Management always wins these negotiations.
The details of Wilfork’s three-year, $22.5 million contract extension are in, and while Robert Kraft emphasized that he hoped the sides could come to a “win-win,” there’s only one side that won here, and it wasn’t Wilfork.
To recap: Wilfork, 32, was set to enter the last year of his contract with a $7.5 million base salary (up to $8 million in bonuses) and an $11.6 million cap number. The Patriots (rightly) felt that both numbers were much too high for a player of Wilfork’s age, position, and injury history (he’s coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon).
Instead of Wilfork being cut outright, the sides agreed to a restructured deal that lowered his numbers and kept him under contract through 2016.
Wilfork got all of $2.6 million guaranteed — a $1.3 million signing bonus and his $1.3 million base salary in 2014. That’s it.
As for the other $19 plus million on his contract, the Patriots are going to make him earn it. And it certainly won’t be easy.
Wilfork will probably see the $500,000 bonus he gets for appearing on the 53-man roster just once during the 2014 regular season. And he’ll probably see the $200,000 bonus for showing up to offseason workouts.
The Patriots will make him weigh in five times this offseason, and Wilfork will get $60,000 each time he makes weight. He’ll get $87,500 for each game he plays; last year, he made it four weeks before suffering his injury. He’ll get $500,000 in incentives if he plays 50 percent of the snaps, $1.25 million for 60 percent, $2 million for 70 percent, $2.5 million if he plays 70 percent and the Patriots make the second round of the playoffs, and an extra $500,000 if he plays in 70 percent and the Patriots defense finishes in the top 10 in points allowed.
Add it all up and it comes to $8 million, the amount he was set to make in his previous contract. But a lot of good things have to happen for Wilfork to get there — most notably his staying healthy. And I can’t wait to see the politics of Wilfork’s playing time at the end of the season if he’s right around 60 or 70 percent of snaps played.
The Patriots were able to lop a cool $5 million off his cap number for 2014. Wilfork was able to save face and claim that he got $22.5 million from the Patriots, but let’s be honest: He got squeezed here. Badly.
And guess what? Wilfork might have to go through this whole song-and-dance next year. The final $14 million and two years on his contract are predicated on the Patriots picking up a $4 million option on the first day of the 2015 league year (next March).
If the Patriots don’t pick it up, the contract voids and Wilfork will be a free agent. If they do, he has base salaries of $3 million and $5 million (nothing guaranteed, of course) and similar bonuses — weight bonus, workout bonus, per-game bonus, and so on.
I shudder to think of the Patriots’ opening offer to Wilfork, given that the end result is skewed so badly in their favor. But the reality is this contract was probably better than anything he could get as a free agent this offseason.
And Wilfork is hardly the only player getting squeezed. That massive $57 million contract that Aqib Talib signed with Denver? The Broncos can easily make it a one-year, $12 million or two-year, $18 million deal. Darrelle Revis, arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in the league, signed for one year and $12 million with the Patriots after realizing he wouldn’t be able to approach the numbers he wanted on a long-term deal.
The four-year, $26 million contract the Buccaneers gave Alterraun Verner is really a year-to-year deal with only 2014 and $8.25 million guaranteed. And let’s not even talk about running backs, who have become so devalued that top free agents like LeGarrette Blount and Ben Tate were happy to get $950,000 and $2.5 million guaranteed, respectively.
Franchise quarterbacks — and even mediocre ones like Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford — still have leverage, because good quarterbacks are so hard to find. A handful of non-quarterbacks also have leverage: rare talents like Calvin Johnson, Richard Sherman, Larry Fitzgerald, and Greg Hardy.
Everyone else is left to fend for themselves, to do whatever they can to make as much money as they can in a league with the shortest average career span.
And the results, as we see with Wilfork, usually aren’t pretty for the player.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin