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ben volin | on football

For NFL’s star players with much to lose, opting out has to be tempting

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson could lose most of his $18 million salary this year if the season gets canceled early.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson could lose most of his $18 million salary this year if the season gets canceled early.Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

The NFL owners and the Players Association finally completed their revised collective bargaining agreement for the 2020 season Monday night, 10 days after agreeing on the framework of a deal. The sides put the finishing touches on all of the new rules that govern the roster, salary cap, player salaries, and more as the NFL attempts to play through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the CBA has an unintended consequence, potentially a huge one:

The new rules are all but encouraging star players to opt out.

Yes, the players with the most to gain this year — the highest-paid and most bankable stars like Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and J.J. Watt — also have the most to lose if the pandemic forces the NFL to cancel games or shut down.

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The owners and players agreed that any guaranteed money that isn’t earned this year gets rolled into a guarantee in 2021. But if a player has roster security — say, a franchise quarterback like Wilson, or a free agent who just signed a big multiyear contract — then he is likely going to lose millions if the NFL has to cancel games.

Take this scenario:

Player is supposed to make $20 million over the next two years: $10 million this year fully guaranteed, and $10 million next year with no guarantee.

The 2020 season is canceled halfway, and the player earns $5 million. Now $5 million of his 2021 salary becomes fully guaranteed, but his salary remains $10 million. Player then plays the full 2021 season.

In this scenario, the player would earn only $15 million over the next two years, not the full $20 million. The other $5 million would go poof.

If you’re a star player with a high salary and roster security, opting out has to be tempting. Wilson doesn’t have to worry about losing his job, but he does have to worry about losing most of his $18 million salary this year if the season gets canceled early.

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What would happen if someone like J.J. Watt opted out?
What would happen if someone like J.J. Watt opted out?Michael Wyke/Associated Press

“For many veteran players whose roster spots are secured next year, it probably makes sense to opt out and toll the contract,” said salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com. “The reality is the stars should ask for either all of their salary as a signing bonus as soon as final cutdowns happen, or sit the year.”

Can you imagine an NFL season with several big names sitting at home? The star players have a ton of leverage right now, if they’re willing to use it.

Now let’s take a look at some of the other key terms in the revised CBA:

Opt out

The deadline for opting out has officially been set: Thursday at 4 p.m. As of Monday, 48 players had opted out. One agent said Tuesday he expects only 5-10 more to opt out, as most have already made up their minds.

The decision is irrevocable. Once a player is out, he’s out, and once a player is in, he’s in. But exceptions will be made during the season for players who want to opt out if a family member dies or is sent to a medical facility, or if a player develops high-risk symptoms.

Also, players who opt out won’t have their signing bonuses count against the 2020 salary cap, and instead will have it count in 2021. This created approximately $10 million in cap space for the Patriots Tuesday, giving them about $35 million now.

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But don’t expect a flurry of free agent signings. Most teams will simply roll over most of their unused cap space to next year, when the cap is supposed to dip as much as $23 million per team because of revenue shortages.

Roster flexibility

Several new rules give teams significant flexibility to move guys on and off the roster.

The biggest flexibility is with the practice squads, which were expanded from 12 players to 16. Four players will be “protected” each week and can’t be signed by other teams. And practice squad players can be called up to the active roster as late as 90 minutes prior to kickoff, as long as they’re replacing a player who goes on COVID-IR. Previous rules required practice squad players to be called up by 4 p.m. Saturday.

What sort of roster flexibility will Bill Belichick have in 2020?
What sort of roster flexibility will Bill Belichick have in 2020?Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The injured reserve rules also have been liberalized. Teams now may bring an unlimited number of players off IR during a season, provided the player misses at least three games. The old rules allowed teams to bring just three players back, after they sit out eight games. Expect teams to stash several guys on IR at the beginning of the season.

Game-day rosters will be 48 players, up from 46.

High-risk activity

What’s the best way to ensure that players stay safe and maintain social distancing all season, especially when teams fall out of contention? Threaten to withhold their paychecks.

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A player who contracts COVID-19 during the season will have it classified as a “football injury” that will allow him to continue to be paid in full — unless the team can prove that the player contracted the virus as a result of high-risk conduct.


A first violation of these rules can result in a fine or suspension. High-risk activity is defined as:

▪ Attending an indoor nightclub or bar unless player is wearing PPE and there are no more than 10 people in the establishment.

▪ Attending a house gathering of more than 15 people without everyone wearing masks.

▪ Attending an indoor concert or entertainment event.

▪ Attending a pro sporting event unless the player is seated in a separate section, is wearing PPE, and there are no more than 10 people in his section.

▪ Attending an event that is prohibited by state or local regulation, executive order, or law.

Attending religious ceremonies was included as high-risk in the original draft but was taken out of the final agreement.

It may seem harsh to police player activity away from team facilities, but remember, the NFLPA agreed to this. Punishment is probably the best way to ensure that everyone takes the virus seriously.

Other fines

It also will be costly to not follow other rules. The owners and players agreed to these fines:

▪ Refusing to take a required COVID-19 test: Maximum fine of $50,000.

▪ Refusing to maintain social distancing, or refusing to wear a mask, PPE, or the Proximity Recording Tracking Device after receiving a written warning: Maximum fine of $14,650.

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If a player has repeated violations, a team may suspend him for up to four weeks.

But it’s not just the players who will be subject to these fines. They apply to everyone in Tier 1 and Tier 2, which means coaches, trainers, general managers, and locker room attendants.

Everyone has to be on board for this plan to work.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin