There was much rejoicing and even a little bragging from current and former players last week when the NFL salary cap was set at $155.27 million for the 2016 season. It’s the highest salary cap in league history, and $12 million more than in 2015 — the second straight year of a double-digit increase.
“ ‘Experts’ said the 2011 CBA = worst deal ever,” former NFL Players Association president Kevin Mawae said on Twitter. “$155M — how ’bout ’dem [apples].”
With all due respect to Mawae, he should focus less on the $155 million and more on the realities of the NFL’s new economic system.
With NFL free agency set to begin on Wednesday, there’s no question that the NFL is flush with cash thanks to several multibillion-dollar TV deals, international rights, and a new “Thursday Night Football” package.
And the top-end NFL players are scoring megabucks. You won’t hear Kirk Cousins complain about the NFL’s economics after scoring a $20 million franchise tag based on one good season. Joe Flacco got a record $40 million signing bonus last week. Elite talent — Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Von Miller — is being rewarded well.
It’s the guys below who we’ll be monitoring more closely throughout free agency. The NFL’s middle class seems to be shrinking, and the disparity between the Haves and the Have-Nots is growing.
Last Monday, three days after the salary cap was announced, the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article stating that “NFL careers are shrinking at an unprecedented rate.”
“The decrease in career lengths is a historical abnormality. From 1991 to about 2008, career lengths were mostly consistent,” wrote the Journal. “But since 2008, players have been exiting the league earlier . . . From 2008 to 2014, the average NFL career dropped in length by about two and a half years.”
The Journal theorizes that increased health awareness by players and teams is a factor, as well as increased awareness about concussions. Those are certainly factors that must be taken into consideration.
But so, too, must the economic realities of the NFL under the current CBA, which is five years into a 10-year deal. In today’s NFL, teams are flush with cheap labor, as all drafted players are locked into their rookie contracts for at least three seasons (undrafted rookies sign three-year deals and can renegotiate after two).
Russell Wilson, for example, wasn’t allowed to hold out or renegotiate his contract after winning the Super Bowl in his second season, and was forced to play 2014 at his predetermined salary of $662,434. And slashing rookie pay was one of the main sticking points of this CBA — last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Jameis Winston, got $25.35 million guaranteed, still less than the $30 million guaranteed Jake Long got as the No. 1 overall pick in 2008.
Wilson eventually got paid like an elite player, signing a five-year deal with a $31.7 million signing bonus and $61.5 million in full guarantees. But many NFL players don’t make it to that all-important second contract.
A census of 2014 NFL players by Andrew Powell-Morse of besttickets.com revealed an interesting trend. The average salary for players ages 20-25 fluctuated between $984,000 and $1.6 million. A significant jump occurs at age 26, with an average salary of $2.43 million, and another jump at age 28 to $3.75 million.
But 49.7 percent of players in the league were ages 25 and under (844 of 1,699 players on Week 1 rosters). And 69.98 percent of players were 27 and younger (1,189 out of 1,699).
Considering that most NFL players are locked into their rookie contracts until they are 24, 25, or 26 years old, a significant chunk of the league is not making it to a modest second contract, let alone a big pay raise.
Instead, NFL teams seem to be relying on a few star players and a constant churn of rookie talent — players who have healthier bodies, are eager to make their mark in the NFL, and are locked into relatively low-paying contracts for three to four years.
“I doubt the cycle changes,” said Jason Fitzgerald, who tracks every contract and dollar spent across the league with his website, overthecap.com. “Teams have cash minimums to reach, and it’s easier to do that by paying big for a few stars and being frugal everywhere else. It’s far easier to get $11 million out of the way for a Vinny Curry and then finding some low-tier players you want, than it is preemptively finding three players to target at $4 million each to have the same cost as Curry.”
The quarterback position is one with a wide gap in the middle. Twenty quarterbacks average between $16 million and $22 million per year. Nick Foles is next at $12.25 million, then Tom Brady at $9 million, then Andrew Luck, Winston, and Marcus Mariota between $6 million and $8 million, and then 83 quarterbacks making less than $6 million per season.
On the offensive line, nine players make at least $10 million per season, 46 players make between $5 million and $10 million, and 353 players make less than $5 million per year.
One agent believes that the turning point came during the 2007 offseason, when offensive linemen Eric Steinbach, Leonard Davis, and Derrick Dockery signed similar seven-year, $49 million deals, and Kris Dielman signed for six years and $39 million.
“What really got owners ticked was when they were paying these guards stupid money because they had all this cap money and they had to spend the money, and they were paying for mediocrity,” the agent said. “And I think the owners stepped back and said, ‘I don’t mind paying for the best, but if I’m paying for mediocrity, it doesn’t make sense.’ ”
The only players in the middle class now are veterans who don’t get the riches they were seeking in free agency and instead sign one-year “prove-it” deals. But they don’t stay in the middle class for long.
“They either end up at a big number or cheap,” Fitzgerald said. “Either way, they never land in the middle.”
ONE MAN’S RULING
Facts are a factor in Brady’s case
A couple of thoughts about the Tom Brady-NFL appeal in New York on Thursday after having a front-row seat to the proceedings:
■ I’ve read and heard several Patriots fans complaining that the three judges spent a lot of time on the facts of the case instead of the process. Indeed, much of the 70-minute hearing focused on Brady destroying his cellphone the morning he was to meet with Ted Wells, the text messages and increased communication between Brady and John Jastremski in the days after the AFC Championship game, and the “compelling, if not overwhelming” evidence of ball tampering, according to Judge Denny Chin.
But if the judges are supposed to determine whether District Judge Richard Berman ruled correctly, or if Roger Goodell’s punishment came from the essence of the league’s CBA, don’t they have to take the facts of the case into account? Don’t the judges need to know what was going through Goodell’s mind when he came up with the four-game punishment? And whether Berman overstepped his bounds?
■ Thursday wasn’t a great day for Team Brady, but all is certainly not lost. Berman overturned the punishment based on three grounds, and only one was addressed on Thursday — whether Brady received adequate “notice” about the possibility of a suspension for a potential equipment violation, for not fully cooperating with the investigation, and for being “generally aware” of someone else’s wrongdoing.
Judge Barrington D. Parker did not buy the “notice” argument, calling it “hypertechnical.” Judge Robert Katzmann, who did seem to take Brady’s side more than the other judges, still asked aloud, “Where in the CBA does it say if you tamper with game balls and then obstruct, where does it say the only punishment is a fine?”
But the other two grounds were not really addressed, two grounds that speak to the fundamental fairness of Brady’s arbitration on June 23 — that league executive Jeffrey Pash wasn’t made available to testify, and that the league didn’t share all of Wells’s attorney notes. It’s certainly possible for the judges not to agree with Team Brady on the “notice” argument, but to still affirm Berman’s ruling based on the “lack of fundamental fairness” arguments.
Parker, though, didn’t seem to buy that argument, either. “If federal rules applied, you’d have a point,” he told attorney Jeffrey Kessler. “But this is arbitration. It’s casual, down and dirty.”
Some teams will be left wanting
NFL free agency opens on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Now that franchise tags have been applied and we know which players will be hitting the market, here’s a quick primer:
■ This looks like a good year to buy a cornerback in free agency. There is elite talent at the top with Janoris Jenkins and Sean Smith, and lots of interesting names available, including Casey Hayward, Prince Amukamara, Adam Jones, Patrick Robinson, Brandon Boykin, Leon Hall, Leodis McKelvin, and Greg Toler, among many others.
■ Von Miller is off the market, but intriguing talent remains among edge rushers, including Olivier Vernon (who got the transition tag from the Dolphins) and Bruce Irvin, who could find himself in a bidding war between Seattle, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. Veterans Mario Williams, Jason Pierre-Paul, Greg Hardy, and Tamba Hali might also be had for a discount.
■ Some notable names available at running back, particularly for the Patriots, who need to sign at least one: Matt Forte, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, Chris Ivory, Alfred Morris, LeGarrette Blount, Bilal Powell, and Stevan Ridley.
■ The interior offensive line class also looks strong: Alex Mack, Kelechi Osemele, Alex Boone, Richie Incognito, Geoff Schwartz, Jahri Evans, Ramon Foster, Ben Jones, Stefen Wisniewski, and Zane Beadles.
■ It’s a terrible year to need a receiver or tight end. The top receivers available are Travis Benjamin, Marvin Jones, Percy Harvin, and Rueben Randle, all of whom might get overpaid. Mohamed Sanu is a tremendous athlete and someone to watch for the Patriots. The Dolphins’ Rishard Matthews is a sleeper, and veterans Anquan Boldin, Roddy White, and Marques Colston could probably be had for pennies, if they have anything left. Falcons owner Arthur Blank absolutely loves White, so it says something that the Falcons cut him.
Once Antonio Gates re-signs with the Chargers, the top tight ends available will be Ladarius Green and a pair of Colts, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
■ And the quarterback class is bare bones. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, Chase Daniel, Matt Moore, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Stanton, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Cassel, and Colt McCoy are the top names available.
Quarterbacks cornering bucks
It’s been a good offseason for NFC East quarterbacks, with Kirk Cousins getting nearly $20 million on the franchise tag from Washington and Sam Bradford getting $36 million ($22 million fully guaranteed) from Philadelphia. It got us wondering — which division spends the most on quarterbacks, and which spends the least?
It’s not an exact science, since Ryan Fitzpatrick remains a free agent, Colin Kaepernick will probably lose his job with the 49ers, Josh McCown might not be the Browns’ starter, Peyton Manning probably won’t play for the Broncos, and Tom Brady and Drew Brees are about to get their contracts restructured.
But as of now, the AFC North is spending the most on its four primary quarterbacks in 2016 — $77.825 million for Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, and McCown, thanks mostly to the $40 million signing bonus for Flacco. The NFC East is second at $64.45 million for Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Cousins, and Bradford. The NFC South is third at $60.4 million for Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Brees.
On the other end is the AFC East, which is currently spending just $21.44 million for Brady, Geno Smith, Tyrod Taylor, and Ryan Tannehill. And the AFC South is spending $25.24 million for Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles, Brian Hoyer, and Marcus Mariota.
Don’t sell Kraft short
One other note for Kevin Mawae — if the salary cap keeps increasing by $10 million to $12 million per year, it just shows you how much money the owners are making in this CBA.
Let us take Patriots owner Robert Kraft as a prime example. In 2013, Forbes valued Kraft’s wealth at $2.3 billion, No. 641 in the world. In 2014, it was $2.9 billion, No. 580. In 2015, it was $4.3 billion, No. 381. And last week, Forbes listed Kraft’s 2016 net worth at $4.8 billion, No. 282 in the world. Kraft hasn’t added any wildly successful businesses to his portfolio in that time. He simply has owned the Patriots, which Forbes now values at $3.2 billion, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.
Move over, Gronkowskis. The NFL is about to have a new First Family — the Fullers from Baltimore. Vincent Fuller was a safety for parts of seven NFL seasons with the Titans, Lions, and Patriots. Corey Fuller is entering his fourth season as a receiver for the Lions. Kyle Fuller was the Bears’ first-round pick in 2014, and Kendall Fuller, a highly rated cornerback prospect from Virginia Tech, bragged at the scouting combine that he’s the best Fuller brother . . . A reminder to the nine players who received the franchise tag last week: Four of the five players who received the tag last year signed multiyear extensions before the July 15 deadline (Justin Houston, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Stephen Gostkowski), and the fifth was Jason Pierre-Paul, who was going to sign an extension before his accident . . . The Falcons were this year’s team to ask a dumb question to a draft prospect. Falcons coach Dan Quinn apologized on Friday for one of his position coaches asking Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple at the combine if he is attracted to men. “I have spoken to the coach that interviewed Eli Apple and explained to him how inappropriate and unprofessional this was,” Quinn said. “I have reiterated this to the entire coaching staff and I want to apologize to Eli for this even coming up.”
With the combine in Indianapolis finished, here’s a look at some of the top performers in the drills:
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.