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Why all NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed

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Emmanuel Sanders (10) won the Super Bowl with the Broncos, but did he choose the wrong sport?
Emmanuel Sanders (10) won the Super Bowl with the Broncos, but did he choose the wrong sport?(Al Bello)

The crazy dollars thrown around in NBA free agency last week certainly got the attention of NFL players, with midlevel stars such as Mike Conley getting $153 million over five years and backups such as Timofey Mozgov signing for $64 million. Moreover, every penny they signed for is fully guaranteed.

"Looks like I chose the wrong sport," Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders tweeted.

"We getting peanuts compared to these nba and mlb cats!" added his teammate, safety T.J. Ward.

NFL players certainly don't compare to their counterparts in other pro sports leagues when it comes to contract guarantees and long-term security.

Football players carry by far the greatest injury risk of any athlete in the four major pro sports, yet the NFL is the only league that doesn't have fully guaranteed contracts. While average NBA and Major League Baseball players are cashing in on huge contracts and long careers, NFL players risk life and limb for pay that doesn't always match the risk involved.

"I feel bad for football players," basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said last week on ESPN Radio. "I don't understand why their contracts aren't guaranteed."

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Actually, there are several reasons why NFL players don't have guaranteed contracts, or get compensated nearly as well as athletes in other sports, particularly basketball. Let's examine why:

 It’s a numbers thing. The NFL generates the most money of any sport, about $12 billion in revenue during the 2014 season (and rising each year). The NBA has generated about $5 billion for each of the last few seasons.

But there are almost four times as many NFL players as NBA players. The NFL has 32 teams with 53 roster spots equaling 1,696 jobs, while the NBA has 30 teams with 15 roster spots totaling 450 jobs.

In the NFL, players receive about 47 percent of the league's total revenue, per the latest collective bargaining agreement. That works out to about $5.64 billion to divide between the league's 1,696 players, or about $3.325 million per player.

In the NBA, the players receive 51.15 percent of the total revenue, per the CBA. That works out to about $2.5575 billion to split among the 450 players, or $5.683 million per player.

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"By definition, the smaller business is going to be able to pay their employees more money per employee than the bigger business is," NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah told Pro Football Talk last week.

 The NFLPA hasn’t been able to negotiate for it. There’s no immutable law stating that NFL players can’t get fully guaranteed contracts. And in fact, more players are playing with 100 percent guarantees than you think.

Every year, the top 19 draft picks get a fully guaranteed four-year contract. The first-rounders who get their fifth-year option exercised — think Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones this year — are also playing on fully guaranteed deals. So is anyone playing on a franchise tag.

But the majority of the league is playing year to year, and no one really gets more than two or three years of job security. The union could, theoretically, try to negotiate for a new pay structure that would provide for guaranteed contracts during the next CBA negotiations in 2021. But realistically that's a pipe dream, because the topic has been a non-starter for owners for more than four decades — and for good reason.

 The injury risk is too great. Players in the other sports, especially basketball, can reasonably expect to have long, productive careers and avoid crippling injuries. But injuries are a way of life in the NFL, when players partake in violent car-like collisions up to 70 times per game.

If athletes were compensated based on the risk of injury, there's no doubt that football players would earn the most money. But the opposite is true — the risk of injury decreases the value of football players. The Raptors can invest $145 million in DeMar DeRozan because they can reasonably expect him to maintain his health and level of performance over the next five years. None of that can be said for any NFL player, even an ironman such as Tom Brady.

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Fully guaranteed, long-term contracts would wreck the NFL. Teams would be stuck with all kinds of dead weight, paying for players who simply cannot play anymore. And many players would lose their motivation to strap on the pads and risk their bodies. Star players would routinely sit out games and ruin the competitive balance of the league.

"Why would you play with a significant ailment if you had multiple future years fully guaranteed after that?" former offensive lineman Ross Tucker wrote last week on sportsonearth.com. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to do that kind of damage to your body if you have at least two more seasons to get healthy and perform at a high level before the next contract."

 NFL players are the most easily replaceable. This won’t be a popular opinion with NFL players, but generally speaking, they are the least skilled among the athletes in the four major pro sports. No question, NFL players are highly tuned athletes with freakish abilities. Receivers and defensive backs need world-class speed and hand-eye coordination. Offensive and defensive linemen need to dance like a ballerina while carrying 325 pounds.

But those characteristics are also required in the other professional sports, plus the ability to dribble and hit jump shots, or hit a curveball 400 feet, or skate forward and backward and shoot a puck. Years of training and honing of skills is required to reach the pinnacle of basketball, baseball, and hockey.

Football, though, is the "people's sport." You don't need to have much experience, if any, to play in the NFL. If you're big enough, strong enough or fast enough, they'll find you.

Antonio Gates didn't play a down of college football, and he's going to the Hall of Fame. Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas were college basketball players who only played one year of college football before reaching (and excelling in) the NFL. The 49ers signed Australian rugby player Jarryd Hayne last year, even though he'd never played a down of football in his life.

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And since NFL players rely more on physical attributes and less on skill than athletes in the other sports, the players are more replaceable.

Everyone, that is, except quarterbacks (and kickers and punters), the one every-down position that requires a rare blend of size, athleticism, intelligence, and skill — the ability to read a defense, avoid a pass rush, and throw a football into tightly contested spaces. It's why there are only 18-20 good quarterbacks in the world, and why they can play late into their 30s and even their 40s now. And it's why quarterbacks are the only players who, on the whole, are paid like NBA players.

Everyone else? Make your money while you can. Because NFL players will never get the dollar amounts or guarantees seen in the NBA and the other pro leagues.

BLAME GAME

Teams, not media, are most intrusive

One item in a recent guest column about marijuana and pain management by former 10-year NFL quarterback Jake Plummer for The MMQB caught our attention:

"I think I can't believe how much freedom and control the media has now. Nothing is off limits anymore with cameras catching every moment from the locker room to the field to the celebrations after games. Personally I would hate having cameras present all the time. The authenticity of special moments shared with teammates is lost when cameras are ever-present."

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No, Jake. That's not "the media" invading your personal space in the locker room and capturing every moment on cameras. It's your bosses doing it to you. The people filming in the locker room before and after games for broadcast on the Jumbotron and team website? Those are employees from your team's video department. That person putting a microphone under your pads and capturing every word you say? He's from NFL Films.

Half the "reporters" asking questions at a news conference? They're wearing NFL logos and writing for the team website. And your bosses are only going to intrude more on your personal space. It was Arizona Cardinals' upper management, without consulting its players, that agreed to participate in "All or Nothing," a behind-the-scenes NFL Films reality show of the 2015 season that was produced into eight one-hour episodes and released last week on Amazon Prime. And Rams management, who signed up for "Hard Knocks" this training camp in their return to Los Angeles, have also agreed to do "Hollywood & Football," a reality show that will air six one-hour episodes this fall on E!

NFL Films does a great job producing slick, entertaining content. The "All or Nothing" series on the Cardinals quickly sucked us in, and we binge-watched the entire series on Thursday.

That said, it glosses over a few negative story lines — right tackle Bobby Massie's two-game suspension was never mentioned — and basically serves as an infomercial for team president Michael Bidwill, general manager Steve Keim, and coach Bruce Arians. The players get embarrassed and humiliated repeatedly throughout the series — we see players getting yelled at and called out for mental mistakes, and Lawrence Okoye released because he parked in the wrong spot — yet there is never any criticism of Arians's coaching moves, or Keim's roster decisions. Remember, NFL players: It's not "the media" portraying you in a bad light and invading your personal space. It's your bosses.

ETC.

Nerves on edge with downtime

Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul blew off his finger in a fireworks accident last year.
Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul blew off his finger in a fireworks accident last year.(Bill Kostroun)

This six-week stretch between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp is the most nerve-racking for teams, because only bad things can happen when players have free time on their hands — Jason Pierre-Paul blowing off his finger in a fireworks accident, for example, or players getting arrested.

Last summer, six NFL players were arrested during this stretch. This year, only one has technically been arrested so far — Jaguars linebacker Dan Skuta for battery last month — but a couple others are in hot water.

Jaguars running back Denard Robinson was initially cleared by police even though he was found asleep in his car last Sunday night while it was sinking in a retention pond in Jacksonville. But on Wednesday, Sheriff Mike Williams announced a further review into the officers' conduct and wants to determine if Robinson should face DUI charges.

And quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, a 10-year veteran who was the Seahawks' backup the last three years, was arrested on June 24 for allegedly pulling a gun on his wife. Jackson has not been signed this offseason, and will now likely have even more trouble finding work.

NFL players made it through the July 4 weekend relatively unscathed, but coaches and executives won't breathe easy until players report to camp in 2½ weeks.

There has to be a catch

The NFL attempted to clarify the catch rule, but judgment still is up to the officials.
The NFL attempted to clarify the catch rule, but judgment still is up to the officials.(Doug Pensinger)

The NFL released its 2016 rule book last week, and the league attempted to clarify the catch rule. The term "football move" was removed, and now a receiver becomes a runner when, "after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps." This language still makes it a judgment call for the official to determine whether the receiver is "capable" of making any of the aforementioned football moves. And officials are still going to call it inconsistently this fall.

Extra points

Don’t be surprised if Super Bowl MVP Von Miller re-signs with the Broncos.
Don’t be surprised if Super Bowl MVP Von Miller re-signs with the Broncos.(Patrick Smith)

The July 15 deadline is rapidly approaching for players with franchise tags to sign long-term extensions. If the team and player can't reach a deal by next Friday, then the player must play the 2016 season on his one-year, guaranteed deal. The Bills already signed left tackle Cordy Glenn to a five-year, $65 million extension, and Washington reportedly won't be agreeing to a long-term deal with quarterback Kirk Cousins. But don't be surprised if most of the group including Von Miller, Alshon Jeffery, Eric Berry, Muhammad Wilkerson, Trumaine Johnson, and Justin Tucker sign during the middle of this coming week . . . A lawsuit filed by more than 1,500 former NFL players, alleging that teams and medical staffs intentionally misled them about the health risks of powerful painkillers, will move forward into the discovery process after a federal judge in the Northern District of California denied the NFL's motion to dismiss last week. This is one lawsuit the NFL wants to quash as quickly as possible . . . The NFL released its roster of officials for the 2016 season, and only one isn't returning — head linesman George Hayward retired after 25 seasons. But the league also split up Pete Morelli's crew after it had several high-profile gaffes last year, including the clock fiasco in the San Diego-Pittsburgh game . . . Couldn't have been a very settling week for Saints tight end Jack Tabb, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. The Saints mistakenly sent an e-mail on July 1 to the other 31 teams that they had claimed former Browns quarterback Connor Shaw off waivers and released Tabb, a move that was then reported publicly. But the Bears also put in a claim for Shaw and had higher waiver priority, negating the Saints' move. A week later, the Saints released Tabb for real to make room for defensive end Darryl Tapp . . . Tom Brady was voted by his peers as the No. 2 best player in the league last year as part of the NFL Network's top 100 list, behind only 2015 MVP Cam Newton. Can't believe no one has written an amicus brief to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit yet declaring that this is further proof that Brady was never aided by deflated footballs. You're slipping, Patriots fans . . . Veteran receivers Andre Johnson and Roddy White are reportedly staying in shape and hoping for another year in the NFL. The Patriots probably have enough receiver depth for now with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Nate Washington, and others. But if they suffer injuries in camp or Bill Belichick isn't thrilled with the depth chart, don't be surprised if the Patriots take a flyer on one of the veterans, like they did last year with Reggie Wayne (who decided after one week that he wasn't a good fit with the Patriots).

Draft redux

Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter may be the most notable supplemental draft pick.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter may be the most notable supplemental draft pick.(Reuters)

The supplemental draft takes place on July 14. While it isn't the bonanza that is the regular draft, some notable players have been plucked from it.

Bernie Kosar (QB), 1985, Browns used first-round pick

12 seasons, 23,301 passing yards, 124 touchdowns, 87 interceptions, 1 Pro Bowl, 7 playoff starts

Brian Bosworth (LB), 1987, Seahawks used first-round pick

3 seasons, 3 fumble recoveries, 4 sacks — perhaps best known for being de-cleated by Bo Jackson on "Monday Night Football"

Cris Carter (WR), 1987, Eagles used fourth-round pick

16 seasons, 1,101 catches, 13,899 yards, 130 touchdowns, 8 Pro Bowls, 2-time first-team All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Steve Walsh (QB), 1989, Cowboys used first-round pick

10 seasons, 7.875 yards, 40 touchdowns, 50 interceptions, battled with Troy Aikman for starting job in Dallas

Bobby Humphrey (RB), 1989, Broncos used first-round pick

4 seasons, 2,857 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, 1 Pro Bowl

Rob Moore (WR), 1990, Jets used first-round pick

10 seasons, 628 catches, 9,368 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 Pro Bowls 1-time first-team All-Pro

Mike Wahle (OL), 1998, Packers used second-round pick

11 seasons, 138 starts, 1 Pro Bowl

Jamal Williams (DL), 1998, Chargers used second-round pick

13 seasons, 13 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 Pro Bowls, 2-time first-team All-Pro

Ahmad Brooks (LB), 2006, Bengals used third-round pick

9 seasons, 47½ sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 1 Pro Bowl

Josh Gordon (WR), 2012, Browns used second-round pick

3 seasons, 161 catches, 2,754 yards, 14 touchdowns, 1 Pro Bowl, 1-time first-team All-Pro; was suspended for 2015 after violating league's substance abuse policy


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.