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Why NFL Players Can’t Hold Off on the Holdouts

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Exceptional players stuck in their rookie scale contracts have their predecessors to blame for their current salary landscape. Until the next collective bargaining agreement takes place after the 2020 season, there’s going to be a lot more holding out as it has become their only form of negotiating leverage.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I was watching ESPN the other day — as is common practice — and I got totally sucked in by a debate among Bill Polian, Tedy Bruschi, and Adam Schefter. Bruschi and Schefter were going through the NFL’s notable list of 2018 players who are currently holding out for new contracts. They argued in favor of players, like David Johnson and Aaron Donald, who have clearly out performed their rookie contracts.

Polian, a Hall of Fame general manager, became almost ornery when broaching the subject.

“Everyone who has a contract is obligated to honor that contract. Just because they want a new contract doesn’t mean they should get one. They have a contract to honor. They are not free agents. The CBA allows them to have free agency. They have not yet reached free agency. They do not have a contractual right to abrogate their contracts.”

The debate continued as Bruschi intimated that the Rookie Wage Scale, which was implemented in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, was unfair towards young players who excel early in their careers.

Polian countered with little empathy. “Tell them to call their union, D. Smith (DeMaurice Smith). He’s the one that negotiated this agreement. He’s the one that did it. I didn’t do it, Roger Goodall didn’t do it, Rich McKay didn’t do it, nobody on management side did this. D. Smith agreed to it.”

Since the CBA was agreed upon in 2011, many up and coming players today weren’t in the league yet and didn’t have a voice or vote on the matter. Bruschi understood this. “These players didn’t. This is their only recourse though,” he offered.

Polian remained unmoved. “I’m not arguing with that. What I’m saying is they don’t have a right to do this, they are taking some risk to do this. They are not entitled to get a new contract.” What risks are we talking about here?

First, players are fined up to $30,000 a day for missing mandatory team activities like training camp. Teams can choose to void those fines like the LA Rams did for reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. But, usually players are willing to risk a couple hundred thousand bucks if it means they can enter a more lucrative contract earlier in the prime of their career.

Donald royally screwed up though, or should I say, he got some bad advice from his agent. Because Donald failed to report to the team by the league mandated report date in early August of 2017, he failed to accrue a fourth year of tenure, even though he appeared in 14 games of the 2017 season. What does this mean?

If Donald chooses to holdout past August 7 of 2018, he will again fail to accrue a fourth year of tenure no matter how many games he plays this season. That will mean he is not eligible to become a free agent after his fifth year option expires next year.

He would only be a restricted free agent which would allow the Rams to match any offer from the open market. Donald, the premier defensive tackle in the league, would not be able to choose his next team when his second contract comes around.

There are veteran players like Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, and Earl Thomas, who, in my opinion, are acting like little brats by holding out before the completion of their second contracts. I hate it when players agree to a contract and then bitch about how much they are paid when players sign larger contracts after them.

The nature of the market is such that a player’s contract sets a new standard for pay at that position going forward. Of course people who sign contracts after you are going to get more. If you keep playing well, you too can negotiate a new third deal to keep the show on the road.

A major argument in favor of player holdouts, however, stems from the use of fifth year options on first round picks. Players like Ndamukong Suh who perform well from the beginning are sure to have their fifth year option exercised by their team, after which a franchise tag could be placed on them for three years consecutively.

Therefore, it’s possible for an elite first round pick player to never control their own destiny until their ninth year in the league. The average NFL career spans three and a half years, less than the length of drafted rookie contracts.

Fifth-year options came into existence with the 2011 CBA following a general uproar from clubs over vast amounts of money being guaranteed to first round picks who had yet to prove themselves. The Sam Bradfords and Jamarcus Russells had NFL executives freaking out over incoming rookie salaries.

Polian, himself, was a staunch supporter of a revamped rookie wage scale back in 2010. “We need to change the rookie system because to have, for example, Sam Bradford paid $50 Million in guaranteed money for never having taken a snap in the National Football League is just wrong. That money should go to veteran players who have earned it in the National Football League. That’s a very stark example, but it exists. It’s there, and it needs to be changed.”

During negotiations, the players pitched a fifth-year option that would make the fifth-year salary comparative to top veteran, not rookie, contracts. Picks 1-16 would have a fifth-year option of a transition tag formula of the top 10 average salaries at their position. Picks 17-32 would have a fifth-year option to the top 15-20 average salaries at their position.

The owners, not surprisingly, pitched a more fixed and lower cost to the fifth-year option. Picks 1-8 would fetch roughly $9 Million. Picks 9-16 would get roughly $7 Million, while picks 17-32 would receive a level equivalent to the average salary at their respective positions.

According to the CBA, a player’s position is determined by where he took the most snaps during his third league year. As many Saints fans remember, this fine point was argued by tight end Jimmy Graham as he sought wide receiver type money on his second contract.

Drafted players get a four-year deal, and first round picks have a fifth-year option that their teams must exercise between the player’s third and fourth years. Undrafted free agents have the same rookie wage scale, but are only eligible for three year contracts.

The final agreement between the NFLPA and the owners made the fifth year salaries determined by draft position. The first 10 picks earn salaries equal to the average of the 10 highest salaries at their position. This is good for top picks like Khalil Mack, who can still earn a hefty $13.8 Million in his fifth year, assuming he reports to duty.

Yet, he believes he’s worth more, and after watching the Raiders commit to substantial financial contracts with Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson, perhaps Mack just wants to feel prioritized. He could be gambling with the wrong hustler, however. Newly returned and seemingly out of touch head coach Jon Gruden doesn’t play well with holdouts.

Another major implication from the rookie wage scale in the 2011 CBA is that highly drafted and highly performing players miss out on maximizing their earnings during the peak of their career.

Writer for The Big Lead, Jason Lisk, called it perfectly. “I could see scenarios where teams tell a player “why should I renegotiate when I get you so cheap in year 5” and then turn around at age 28 and say “why should I sign you to a long term deal when you are on decline?”

Incoming rookies who never had a say in 2011, but are affected today, are responding in different ways. The Chargers’ 2016 number three overall pick Joey Bosa held himself out for the first four games of his rookie season as he negotiated contract terms including bonuses and offset language. He ended up getting four years guaranteed and the largest signing bonus in franchise history.

2018 32nd overall pick, Lamar Jackson, didn’t even retain a traditional agent like Bosa. He used his mom. “I know coming in as a rookie, agents don’t really negotiate anything really,” the final first rounder said. “You’re going to get the salary you’re going to get, or whatever, and I decided I don’t need him. He’s going to be taking a big cut of my paycheck anyway, and I feel I deserve it right now.”

Jackson eventually negotiated a four year deal worth $9,471,823, of which $4,968,598 is a signing bonus that is speed over the four year period. Of course, teams value drafting quarterbacks in the latter half of the first round because then they can use the fifth year option to retain the player for another year without having to potentially break the bank on a long term extension after the fourth year.

Long story short, the players are going to need to address the rookie wage scale when they step back to the collective bargaining table following the 2020 NFL season. Hopefully the NFL won’t be benefiting from another guaranteed explosion in television deal money like they were in 2011. Because they weren’t financially dependent on the season actually taking place in 2011, players bent on important issues more than they would have if they had more leverage in pursuing a strike.

Cerebral players like Richard Sherman are already counseling younger players to save their money for 2020, because it’s clear the 2011 CBA overly corrected to problem of guarantee rookie salaries and paved the way for players like Alvin Kamara to be paid far short of their actual value during what could very well be the prime of their careers.

Of course as a fan, and pretend GM, I love the though of having Kamara on the books for four years on the cheap, but it’s simply not fair for these players who weren’t even present to negotiate this terrible deal in the first place.