The NFL players know they can get a better deal. But the owners have put them in a tough spot — and the clock is ticking.
The owners submitted their latest proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement on Thursday afternoon, and several veteran players were vocal in their criticism of it. The additional revenues, salaries, and benefits being offered to the players aren’t enticing enough to get high-priced players such as Richard Sherman and J.J. Watt to agree to a 17-game schedule.
But the players also must consider: Is this the best offer they are going to get? Time is of the essence, the NFL’s statement noted, “since the clubs and players need to have a system in place and know the rules that they will operate under by next week.”
Realistically, the NFL may have until March 10, the final day of the franchise tag window, to negotiate a new deal. But the league needs to know if it will be operating under one set of rules with the current CBA or another set under a new CBA.
If the players reject the deal and play the 2020 season under the current CBA, the owners’ offer may not be so good next spring, when the owners can lock out the players. The players have proven time and again, particularly in 2011, that they will fold under the prospect of a lockout. Waiting a year to sign a new CBA could also potentially cost the NFL money in its next round of TV contracts, which would trickle down to the players.
And not every player agrees with Sherman or Watt. Those two can afford to be patient and drive a hard bargain, but the average NFL career is three years, and the owners’ proposal offers immediate raises for young players. Even one veteran player told me the deal is “good in framework . . . just needs tweaks to financials in order to get done.”
The fact that the owners are so eager for the players to accept the deal is definitely a red flag.
Now for a breakdown on the particulars of the proposal:
■ There are certainly some interesting concessions for the players. Rosters would be expanded from 53 to 55 players, game-day rosters from 46 to 48, and practice squads from 10 to 12 (and eventually 14). There would be immediate increases in rookie salaries, minimum salaries, and performance-based pay. Players would have the right to get paid over 34 weeks a year instead of 17, which would help with budgeting.
Marijuana penalties would be reduced (and suspensions eliminated almost altogether), THC thresholds will be higher, and the testing window will be tightened to the first two weeks of training camp. Training camps will be even lighter, visiting locker rooms and medical facilities will be upgraded, offseason pay will be increased, and player fines will be decreased.
And the owners are willing to concede some of Roger Goodell’s disciplinary powers. The proposal allows for a “neutral decision-maker for most Commissioner Discipline cases,” which players and fans have been howling for since the days of Deflategate and Ezekiel Elliott. The independent judge would hear a case and decide on discipline, but Goodell would still handle all appeals.
■ But there is plenty for the players to dislike about this offer, particularly the veterans. Most notably, the owners’ proposed compensation for a 17th regular-season game does not seem like nearly enough. The owners are offering an additional 1.5 percent of revenue (48.5 percent of total revenue), and a maximum salary for that 17th game of $250,000, which is the equivalent payout of a player with $4.25 million annual salary. For many veteran players, it means subjecting themselves to additional injury risk for significantly less compensation, and I can see how it would be a non-starter for players such as Sherman and Watt.
■ I don’t see anything in the proposal about changing the franchise tag formula, which is the owners’ best method of controlling player costs. And I don’t see anything about giving rookie players a quicker path to free agency, which has been another key vehicle for the owners to control costs.
The 2011 CBA locked all drafted players in for a minimum of three years, and the majority of players don’t hit free agency until after four. First-round picks don’t hit free agency until after five years of team control, and teams then have the franchise tag at their disposal for the sixth and seventh seasons.
Many of the concessions — like easier training camps, lighter marijuana penalties, and taking away some of Goodell’s disciplinary powers — were ones the owners were probably happy to make. But they didn’t concede on most of the big financial battlegrounds.
■ Another aspect that probably doesn’t work in the players’ favor is that it is another 10-year deal, through the 2030 season. On one hand, having prolonged labor peace could lead to more lucrative TV contracts, which benefits everyone. On the other, there’s a reason the owners want to lock it in for that long — they obviously believe the terms benefit them. Ten-year labor deals were unprecedented in pro sports until the owners got the players to agree to one in 2011.
FEEL THE POWER
Brady has more leverage in talks
Tom Brady likes posting motivational quotes on his social media pages. This offseason, it seems like he should be quoting former Red Sox pitcher David Price.
“I hold all the cards now.”
Brady is set to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, and boy, does he seem to be enjoying the power that comes with it.
After years of taking team-friendly deals and not getting the multi-year commitment he has sought, Brady finally has some leverage in his negotiations with the Patriots. And he is not-so-subtly reminding everyone of this.
Seemingly every week on his Instagram page, he’s posting photos of himself working harder than ever, and not-so-cryptic messages to the Patriots and any of his doubters. Last Monday, Brady posted a photo working out with his wife while on vacation in Montana, with the hashtag #nodaysoff. On a separate Instagram story, Brady posted, “Go ahead and bet against me. . . . And you think you’ve seen the best of me. I’m grateful for you doubting me and I’m determined to prove you wrong . . . again.”
It may just be posturing for a new contract with the Patriots, but Brady appears to be the linchpin of the entire quarterback market, and he seems to know it. I spoke to a league source last week who is closely connected to one of the free agent quarterbacks (not Brady). The source said that every team looking for a quarterback this spring wants to know what Brady is doing before moving on to Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or any other available quarterback. The source said teams weren’t really interested in Drew Brees — perhaps because he said he would only return to the Saints — but they are definitely interested in Brady. And the source said that three teams keep getting brought up as most likely to go after him — the Chargers, Raiders, and Buccaneers. Even though Brady will be 43 years old in August, it appears that he will be in high demand. And based off his social media feed, Brady wants the Patriots and the rest of the world to know it.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Missing Combine becoming a trend
It felt like a big deal in 2018 when the Patriots didn’t send any assistant coaches to Indianapolis to partake in the NFL Combine. The Combine is supposed to be a big part of the pre-draft equation, and it was curious that the Patriots weren’t sending most of their coaches to participate, particularly offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But now it’s becoming a trend across the NFL. Per ESPN, the Rams aren’t sending either of their new coordinators, instead leaving them back in Los Angeles to work on implementing schemes for next season. The Broncos also won’t be bringing most of their assistant coaches to the Combine. And Ravens coach John Harbaugh will skip the Combine as well, following offseason knee surgery.
Multiple sources explained that while the Combine is certainly important, and every coach plays a role, leaving coaches back home isn’t too unusual. One current offensive coordinator said he understands why the Rams would leave their coordinators home — this time of year is crucial for building a playbook before the players return in April, and especially so for a team with new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Plus, while assistant coaches can help in interviewing some of the 330-plus prospects in attendance in Indianapolis, the Broncos coaches can still do plenty of their own interviews at pro days and official team visits. And as one front office executive said, all of the drills are shown on TV and all of the Combine interviews are taped.
It’s always good to be present at the Combine — watching the drills live, interacting with the players instead of observing a tape — but Harbaugh, the Rams coordinators, and the Broncos’ assistants won’t be too detached from the proceedings.
URI to send trio to Indianapolis
Speaking of the Combine, we’re used to seeing players from Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and Ohio State get invited. But for the first time ever, the University of Rhode Island will be well represented in Indianapolis.
The Rams are not exactly a football powerhouse. They went 2-10 last year, including an 0-8 record in the Colonial Athletic Association, but the Rams will have three participants at this year’s Combine: Receivers Isaiah Coulter and Aaron Parker, and offensive lineman Kyle Murphy.
URI had a handful of players this decade sign with NFL teams as undrafted free agents, but haven’t had a player taken in the draft in 34 years, when the Jets took Bob White in the seventh round of the 1986 draft. URI’s communications department confirmed that the school never before had a player invited to the Combine in the event’s 30-plus year history.
Getting invited to the Combine doesn’t ensure a player will get drafted — there are approximately 330 invitees, and 250 draft picks — but chances look pretty good.
Game 17 pay scale would aid owners
If (when) the NFL expands the regular season to 17 games, one of the key negotiating points will be how to compensate players who are already under contract. The league isn’t likely to institute an expanded schedule until 2021 or 2022, and the Patriots currently have just three players under contract for ’22 – guard Shaq Mason, cornerback Jonathan Jones, and long snapper Joe Cardona.
As explained in the lead item, the NFL’s latest CBA offer would pay each player another game check up to $250,000 for a 17th game. But most players with per-game roster bonuses would be out of luck.
Mason, for example, has $1 million in roster bonuses for the 2022 season — $62,500 for each game he plays. But it is written into his contract that he would not get more than $1 million if the regular season expands. In a 17-game schedule, Mason would receive $58,823.53 per game. And his contract actually uses the example of an 18-game season, stating he would get $55,555.55 each week. It’s another way the owners come out on top.
Is Burrow trying to avoid Bengals?
It’s officially time to start monitoring LSU star quarterback Joe Burrow and whether he’s trying to make a power play to avoid getting drafted by the Bengals with the No. 1 pick. Burrow has been dropping several hints of late that he doesn’t want to be a Bengal. His private coach is Jordan Palmer, whose brother, Carson Palmer, once retired because he was so fed up with the Bengals. Burrow said recently in a radio interview that “you want to go to a great organization that is committed to winning Super Bowls,” which was one of the major criticisms Carson Palmer had of the Bengals.
Burrow gave a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the Bengals last week at the Davey O’Brien Award ceremony, saying, “If they select me, they select me.” He also said, “I do have leverage. They have their process and I have my process.”
That does not sound like a man fully committed to being a Bengal. Of course, Burrow may not have a choice. Eli Manning was able to pull off a similar move in 2004 because the Chargers liked Philip Rivers just as much. John Elway was able to do it because he had baseball in his back pocket. Burrow doesn’t seem to have similar leverage, unless the Bengals fall in love with Tua Tagovailoa. But perhaps if Burrow becomes a big enough nuisance, the Bengals would be enticed to accept a huge package of draft picks from the Dolphins or someone else.
Stop the presses: Stefon Diggs is upset again. The temperamental receiver, coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, removed all Minnesota Vikings references from his social media last week, leaving people wondering if he’s trying to force his way out of town. Diggs expressed his dismay continually over the first month of the 2019 season, but quieted down once his numbers picked up and the Vikings started winning. Diggs, 26, coming off a season in which he averaged an impressive 17.9 yards per catch, would probably net the Vikings a nice haul in a trade. He is owed $11.5 million this year, then $12 million in each of 2021–23 — salaries more than reasonable for a young star receiver. Trading Diggs would only save the Vikings $5.5 million in cap dollars, but they are tight against the cap entering the new league year. He would look great with the Raiders or Patriots . . . It doesn’t seem likely, but the Titans could, in theory, give Ryan Tannehill a franchise tag of $27 million between Feb. 25-March 10, and still pursue Brady. The Titans have $50 million in cap space, so they could afford to carry Tannehill on the tag and still sign their free agents. If Tannehill doesn’t sign the tender, the Titans could simply rescind it, and swap out Tannehill for Brady on their salary-cap ledger. If Tannehill does sign the tender, the Titans could still try to trade him.
Seeing free agent left tackle Greg Robinson get busted with 157 pounds of marijuana near El Paso, Texas, helps explain why he was a total bust for the Rams after they drafted him No. 2 overall in 2014. Robinson perhaps wasn’t the most dedicated player, nor makes the smartest decisions.