The NFL is on the verge of making defining, groundbreaking news this offseason, but it has nothing to do with Tom Brady or X’s and O’s.
The league’s owners have sent a finalized proposal for the next collective bargaining agreement to the NFL Players Association. The proposal is in the hands of the approximately 2,500 players, who each get a vote. If the CBA passes, the NFL will have a new set of rules for the next decade — rules that govern the salary cap, player benefits, drug testing, commissioner discipline, and much more. If it fails, the owners and players will play the 2020 season under the terms of the 2011 CBA and will negotiate again next spring, with the owners holding the threat of a lockout in their pocket.
The CBA stuff is certainly not the easiest to follow. So let’s try to break down what’s happening in terms that those of us without a law degree can understand:
If there is a year left on the CBA, why are they negotiating now?
The owners want to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. The league’s television ratings the last couple of years have been excellent (compared with the rest of TV), and the networks are ready to hand over gobs of cash in new broadcast deals. There’s a theory that this fall’s presidential election could detract from the NFL’s TV ratings, which could hurt the league in negotiating new deals with the networks.
Why don’t the players make the owners wait it out?
They certainly could. And there is a faction of critics, most notably former agent and Packers executive Andrew Brandt, who believe that the players’ risk of waiting until next spring is not that great. The players will always lose in a lockout, but owners may not be so willing to lose a year of football, with huge sums of money to be made and owners such as Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft not getting any younger.
But many people, including NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, believe that the owners’ offer now is the best one that will be on the table, and that any offer next spring won’t be nearly as good for the players. There’s also the theory that the NFLPA wants to get a deal done before union president Eric Winston has to leave office on March 18. He is not up for reelection, and having new union leadership could mean having to start over from scratch.
How long is the proposed CBA?
It would last through the 2030 season (expiring in the spring of 2031), making it an 11-year deal. The 2011 CBA was a 10-year deal that set a new precedent as the longest labor deal in major professional sports. This one would be even longer — and wouldn’t have an opt-out for either side.
Critics believe that the length of the CBA, combined with no opt-out, is a telltale sign that the deal is overly friendly to the owners. Proponents believe that the length provides cost certainty to the players, and that having labor peace will lead to larger TV deals and more money for everyone.
What needs to happen for the deal to pass?
The electronic ballots went out Thursday, with everyone getting a vote and having a week — until 11:59 p.m. on March 12 — to vote yea or nay. All that is needed is a simple majority of those who voted. If only 1,800 players vote, then 901 votes are needed for it to pass. And it will take effect immediately.
What’s happening in the meantime?
Business is proceeding as usual under the 2011 CBA. For now, teams can use both the franchise and transition tags, instead of one or the other. The Cowboys, for example, could use the franchise tag on Dak Prescott and the transition tag on Amari Cooper. But if the new CBA passes, the new rules will take effect immediately, and teams will have to rescind one of the tags.
The NFL pushed back the franchise and transition tag end date from March 10 to March 12 at 4 p.m., but will not push it back any further to accommodate the NFLPA vote, per a league source. And the start of free agency won’t be pushed back either. It is still on track for 4 p.m. on March 18.
What’s in this deal for the players?
The players did seem to get several small victories. Minimum salaries will see an immediate bump of $90,000 or more, which is significant for more than half of the players in the league. By 2029, every player in the league will be making at least $1 million.
The players will get a higher percentage of revenue — from 47 percent in the old deal to 48 percent in the new deal, and as high as 48.8 percent depending on other factors such as TV ratings. The players got increased pensions and a lower threshold to qualify for one. Rosters will be increased, adding 128 players to the union by 2022, via the growth of game-day rosters (from 46 to 48), game-week rosters (from 53 to 55 with the inclusion of extra practice-squad players), and practice squads (from 10 to 12 in 2020, then 14 in 2022).
They got lighter practices and higher pay in the offseason and training camp. They got significant concessions on the drug policies, including a much smaller window for marijuana testing and the removal of suspensions for most violations of the substance-abuse policy.
Player fines will be decreased. Commissioner Roger Goodell would be replaced by an independent arbitrator in player discipline, though Goodell would still hear most appeals and have the ability to strengthen a punishment if he deems it appropriate. The players also got exceptions that would help protect the roster spots of mid-level veterans, like keeping them out of the formula for compensatory draft picks.
What’s not to like for the players?
Adding a 17th regular-season game, and two extra wild-card playoff games, is a big point of contention. Some players are in favor of it, because it means more money. Other players, mostly older veterans, are against the 17th game because the extra money doesn’t mean nearly as much to them as the extra wear and tear on their bodies. Notably, the 17-game schedule would not include a second bye week.
And while the players made several small gains, the deal is still heavily tilted in the owners’ favor. Nothing will change about the franchise and transition tags, which greatly suppress the wages of the league’s top players. Very little will change about the rookie compensation system, which locks players into low-paying contracts for at least three years and has helped reduce the “middle class” of NFL players; it’s mostly superstars and grunts now.
The new CBA would also significantly increase the punishments for holdouts. Fines will be increased, and will be mandatory — teams won’t be able to waive them. And a holdout will cost players an accrued season, which would turn some players from unrestricted to restricted free agents and could cost them millions.
Browns center J.C. Tretter had an interesting social media post this past week detailing some of the areas in which the players didn’t get what they were looking for. The NFLPA wanted minimum salaries to be $700,000 in 2020, but won’t get them until 2022. The extra money from playing a 17th game likely will be taken not from the owners’ pockets, but from money that was going to go to the players anyway, in the form of player performance bonuses. “Money … which usually goes to minimum players, will be moved to pay the non-minimum players instead,” Tretter noted.
Practice squad players would no longer be able to negotiate higher salaries for themselves. Veteran players that don’t have a credited season — practice squad guys and such — would also have to participate in the Rookie Development Program another time.
Will it pass the player vote?
It’s hard to say, since several influential players have been adamant about voting it down, including Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, and Mike Pouncey. But many players have also come out in favor of the deal — high-priced players such as Drew Brees and Nate Solder, older veterans such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, and younger rank-and-file guys such as Patriots offensive lineman Ted Karras.
Interestingly, the NFLPA executive committee — which for months negotiated the proposal that was submitted by the owners — subsequently voted, 7-4, not to pass the CBA. It got sent on to the 32 player reps anyway, and they voted, 17-14-1, to send the proposal to the entire player body for a vote.
Based on the fact that the new CBA means salary increases for a majority of the league, my gut feeling is it will pass.
“I think everybody hopes that it does pass,” Brees told the Globe on Thursday. “I’m sure the devil is in the details, but I think on the surface it looks like a pretty good deal for everybody.”
Karras will keep teammates informed
Ted Karras is one of the Patriots’ alternate union reps — Matthew Slater is the team rep, while Devin McCourty, Joe Cardona, and Karras are the alternates. On Thursday, Karras shared his thoughts on the CBA and his role in the process at the “Saving by Shaving” charity event at Granite Communications to benefit Boston Children’s Hospital.
Only Slater has been directly involved in the proceedings, but Karras and the other alternates are serving as guides for their Patriots teammates. Karras said he’ll be in Miami this weekend for a big NFLPA meeting, in which the union will elect a new president to replace Eric Winston.
“The most important thing for me is just encourage guys to vote,” Karras said. “I’m not going to be super outspoken. I’m going to encourage guys to vote and talk through it with them. Hopefully we get a great turnout across the league to vote, because it’s important.”
But Karras also won’t be shy about sharing his opinion.
“I’m probably in the ‘yes’ faction,” he said. “I’m going to read it over again, but I like the deal. We got some of the concessions we asked for. Adding an extra game means more money. So I think for guys like me, to get an extra bulk of our earning potential, it’s huge.”
Karras will also be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks. A backup guard/center for his first three seasons, Karras started 15 games at center for the Patriots in 2019 after David Andrews was lost for the season, and Karras hopes to parlay it into a starting job in 2020, in New England or elsewhere.
“I’m grateful for my four years here and hopefully we can continue that, but I understand the business aspect of the league,” Karras said. “It’s an exciting time to be a player with a little bit of a market.”
McCourty deals may be connected
A couple of Patriots-related notes:
▪ The last time Devin McCourty was a free agent, in 2015, the Patriots slow-played it with him like they do with most of their free agents, and it proved a little costly. McCourty had significant offers from the Giants and Jaguars in hand, and it forced the Patriots to come over the top with a record-setting offer for a safety (at the time): five years and $47.5 million, with $28.5 million guaranteed.
But the news this past week that the Patriots plan to pick up Jason McCourty’s team option for 2020 may help the Patriots save some money this time on Devin. If Devin McCourty wants to play with his twin brother — “In an ideal world, we’d play together,” Jason McCourty said at the Super Bowl — there’s now only one place that can happen. And that should give the Patriots some leverage in contract negotiations.
▪ For the past two offseasons, private quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, younger brother of longtime NFL quarterback Carson Palmer, has been coaching Jarrett Stidham, the Patriots’ fourth-round pick from a year ago. And Jordan Palmer told The Athletic this past week of Stidham, “I think he is a star, and he is going to be a big-time franchise quarterback.”
Color me a bit skeptical. First of all, of course the guy that Stidham pays to train him is going to hype his client. Second, let’s slow down the train just a little bit. Stidham has thrown all of four NFL passes, one of which was a pick-6. The Patriots didn’t put him in the game at the end of blowout wins against the Steelers, Dolphins, Giants, Jets, Browns, or Bengals. They can’t possibly know how he will handle the starting job. Coaches in Buffalo and Oakland loved Nathan Peterman, too, and he turned into an interception machine.
The Patriots like Stidham’s work ethic, his intelligence, his practice habits, and his consistency at the team facility. But that’s a long way off from being ready to start in the NFL.
You think the Patriots have a dead cap money problem with Tom Brady? It’s nothing compared with the Saints’ problem with Drew Brees. Because of several previous renegotiations, Brees will have a whopping $15.9 million dead cap hit in 2020, in addition to whatever he signs for. If his current contract voids on March 18, that will add another $5.4 million to 2020, giving Brees a $21.3 million cap hit as a starting point. Brees really does need the CBA to be passed, so the Saints can get creative with his cap numbers. Brady, by comparison, will have $6.75 million in dead money in 2020 if he signs with the Patriots before March 18, and $13.5 million if he becomes a free agent … One aspect to consider about the Chargers in the Brady chase: Starting in 2020, the Chargers have to pay off their $650 million relocation fee — $65 million a year over 10 years (though the NFL is allowing the Chargers to borrow half, and to pay it off over more years). The Chargers have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years, and signing Brady could prevent them from signing extensions with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Mike Williams, and other core players … Rob Gronkowski hit the jackpot when he got drafted by the Patriots in 2009, but at the time he said he was “praying” the Cardinals would take him. “I felt like they needed a tight end and they brought me in for a little visit,” Gronkowski, who played at the University of Arizona, said on Arizona Sports 98.7 this past week. “[But] I could tell they had no interest in me. I could tell, the people that brought me in, they were just bringing me in to bring me in.” The Cardinals instead drafted defensive tackle Dan Williams, who had 3½ sacks in seven NFL seasons and hasn’t played since 2016.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.