Nothing polarizes the Rams' fan base - both on an emotional and intellectual level - more than the "Sam Bradford Debate". Solid and valid arguments can be made - by both sides - in this debate. Irrespective of your stance in the discussion, most will agree on this: Sam Bradford's 2014 salary cap hit - $17.61 million - has an undeniably significant impact on the Rams' salary cap structure. In the midst of the sometimes heated discussions, many have suggested ways to reduce Bradford's salary cap hit. Are any of those suggestions feasible and realistic?
Observations And Rationale
- All of the guaranteed money in Sam Bradford's contract has been paid to him. His two remaining years of base salary are not guaranteed. There is $7.19 million in dead money - prorated bonuses of $3.595 million each year - associated with his contract.
- Although his salary cap hit is $17.61 million for 2014, he is not being paid that full amount. It's an important distinction. Only $14.015 million of the cap hit - his base salary - is being paid in 2014. The remainder is a prorated amount for salary cap purposes only; part of his $17.795 million signing bonus paid out in 2011. Cap hits do not necessarily equate with money earned in any particular season.
- Every indication suggests the Rams are committed to Bradford as the team's starting quarterback in 2014. He's not going anywhere, at least for the coming season. A sentiment echoed by Rams GM Les Snead (link).
- The Rams have a tight salary cap situation heading into the off season, as noted in last Wednesday's off season primer article (link).
- Creating $8 million in salary cap space is the minimum needed to meet the following Rams' 2014 financial/salary cap commitments: the net cost of signing the incoming rookie class, creation of an adequate reserve for contingencies during the regular season, salaries for the practice squad, and providing a cushion for salary cap adjustments - earned incentives, workout bonuses, escalators, etc. - made by the league.
- There are only four ways to create/conserve salary cap space: restructure existing contracts, minimize the signing/re-signing of free agents, and release players with contracts larger than the league minimums.
- It's possible for the Rams to meet their financial commitments - and remain in compliance with the salary cap - without involving Sam Bradford's contract in the process. His contract is but one of many avenues which exist for creating salary cap space. As examples, both Chris Long's (twice) and Harvey Dahl's contracts were restructured in 2013 to create additional salary cap space, plus Quintin Mikell and Wayne Hunter were released for salary cap purposes.
- The NFL salary cap is expected to remain relatively flat through 2015. Although the lucrative new television contracts commence in 2014 - substantially increasing league revenue - they will not be immediately reflected in an increased salary cap. The NFLPA, in effect, "borrowed" against future cap increases to bolster the 2012/2013 salary caps. The salary cap would have exhibited a declining trend in those years had they not negotiated the "borrowed" increases. The excess has to be adjusted back to the owners beginning in 2014. No substantial increase in the salary cap is expected until 2016. In the interim, the 2014 salary cap is expected to rise from $123 million to $126.3 million.
- Restructuring contracts could imperil the Rams' future salary cap structure. The Rams will be looking to extend Robert Quinn's contract within the next two years. A contract extension for Sam Bradford also looms as a distinct possibility. John Hekker and Joe Barksdale become free agents after next season. The following year, Kendall Langford, William Hayes, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Eugene Sims, Chris Givens, Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Brian Quick, and Greg Zuerlein could all become free agents.
Sam Bradford's Contract
Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Total Cap Hit Dead Money 2014 14,015,000 3,595,000 17,610,000 7,190,000 2015 12,985,000 3,595,000 16,580,000 3,595,000
Despite the money associated with the last of the big rookie contracts under the old CBA, Bradford's contract currently ranks 14th among quarterbacks in Average-Per-Year.
Quarterback Ranking In Average Earnings Per Year (rankings courtesy of Over The Cap):
Lowering Sam Bradford's 2014 Salary Cap Hit
There are seven options that exist for the Rams regarding Sam Bradford and his 2014 salary cap hit:
- Leave his contract unchanged.
- Release him outright.
- Trade him.
- Negotiate a cut in base salary.
- Have Bradford offer to take a cut in base salary.
- Restructure the two remaining years of his contract.
- Negotiate an extension of his contract.
Before considering realistic options for reducing Sam Bradford's salary cap hit, let's eliminate the unlikely-to-occur and unrealistic options. Given the organizations' publicized support for Bradford, it's unlikely they will release him outright. Many have suggested Bradford should willingly take a pay cut by offering to do so. It's not realistic to expect him to consider this option. Some have suggested trading Bradford. Again, this is unlikely to occur, as the Rams would be on the hook for $7.19 million in dead money, and have already committed to him for the 2014 season. It's been suggested the Rams force Bradford to take a pay cut, using the threat of release as leverage. This option is unrealistic. There is no realistic incentive for Bradford to consider taking any type of pay cut, nor do the Rams have the leverage to force him to take one.
Once the above-mentioned options are eliminated from the discussion, two viable options remain for reducing Bradford's 2014 salary cap hit: signing him to an extension, and restructuring the remainder of his contract. When considering restructures and extensions, many factors come into play. There must be motivation/reasons/incentives for doing so. Each party must exhibit a willingness to negotiate. Financial and other considerations [ex. guarantees] must be agreed upon. In many cases, leverage plays a role in negotiations.
There are a myriad of ways to restructure a contract, limited only by the imagination of the front office. In 2013, the Rams employed two different strategies for restructuring the contracts of Chris Long and Harvey Dahl.
Chris Long's contract restructuring
Chris Long signed an extension with the Rams in 2012 for five years/$60.310 million. To free up much-needed cap space, his contract was restructured on April 23, 2013. The Rams converted $6 million of Long's $13.25 million base salary for the 2013 season into a prorated bonus. Long still receives the same amount of money as originally contracted, but the $6 million he received was accelerated by 6 months. The restructure is an accounting move for salary cap purposes only. The conversion of the $6 million in base salary to a guaranteed bonus allowed the Rams to pro-rate the $6 million in equal installments over the remaining years of the contract (4 x $1.5 million). Instead of counting $13.25 million against the salary cap in 2013, Long's restructured contract reduced the cap hit to $8.75 million (freeing up $4.5 million in cap space). The accompanying chart presents Long's entire contract, before and after the restructure:
Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Total Cap Hit 2012 10,310,000 8,247,500 18,557,500 2013 13,250,000 13,250,000 2014 13,200,000 13,200,000 2015 8,000,000 2,000,000 10,000,000 2016 9,750,000 2,000,000 11,750,000 2012 10,310,000 8,247,500 18,557,500 2013 7,250,000 1,500,000 8,750,000 2014 13,200,000 1,500,000 200,000 14,900,000 2015 8,000,000 1,500,000 2,000,000 11,500,000 2016 9,750,000 1,500,000 2,000,000 13,250,000
Chris Long had a second, minor restructure of his contract negotiated on December 14, 2013. Due to injuries, the Rams' available salary cap space stood precariously at $17,000. They converted $200,000 of Long's 2013 base salary to a 2014 guaranteed bonus, allowing them salary cap relief for the remainder of the season. This restructure had no effect on Long's earnings.
Although this type of restructure is a viable option for reducing Sam Bradford's cap hit and creating cap space, it's not ideal for the Rams' front office. This option would hold much appeal for Sam Bradford, as the prorated bonus created is paid up front (in a sense guaranteed). For the front office, an ideal contract for this type of restructure would have three key elements: A large base salary, 3-4 years remaining on the contract, and minimal future dead money. Bradford's contract has a large base salary; however, it has only two years remaining, and $7.19 million in dead money. If the Rams restructured $6 million of Bradford's 2014 base salary, it would only create $3 million in salary cap relief for 2014, and $3 million in additional dead money for 2015.
Given that Chris Long already had his contract restructured in 2013, the only other player with an ideal contract for this type of restructure is James Laurinaitis. His contract contains all three of the key elements mentioned earlier. If $6 million in base salary was converted to a prorated bonus, the Rams would gain $4.5 million in cap relief for 2014, and would only add $1.5 million in dead money for each of 2015-2017. This is a much better proposition than re-working Sam Bradford's contract.
The following charts present the current status of James Laurinaitis' contract, and the results of a 6 million restructure:
Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Total Cap Hit Dead Money 2014 10,000,000 400,000 10,400,000 10,200,000 2015 3,625,000 400,000 4,025,000 800,000 2016 5,775,000 400,000 6,175,000 400,000 2017 6,100,000 0 2,000,000 8,100,000 0
Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Total Cap Hit Dead Money 2014 4,000,000 1,900,000 5,900,000 10,200,000 2015 3,625,000 1,900,000 5,525,000 5,300,000 2016 5,775,000 1,900,000 7,675,000 3,400,000 2017 6,100,000 1,500,000 2,000,000 9,600,000 1,500,000
Harvey Dahl's contract restructuring
Before September 4, 2013, the remaining two years of Harvey Dahl's contract - 2013-14 - were structured in a simplistic manner: $4 million in base salary for each of the two years, non-guaranteed, and no dead money. September 4 marked the first day of teams having to be compliant with the regular season NFL salary cap requirements. Among the transactions completed by the Rams - to get under the salary cap - was a restructuring of Harvey Dahl's contract.
An uncomplicated contract like Dahl's became complex overnight. Because of his age, injuries, and declining skills, the Rams knew they had leverage in renegotiating his contract. The threat of being released was implicit in the negotiations. The Rams restructured the contract in the following manner: Dahl's base salary was decreased to $850,000, with a $1.9 million bonus (both guaranteed). This reduced the cap hit by $1.25 million. The $1.25 million in pay reduction was converted to playing time incentives, giving Dahl the opportunity to earn back the reduction. Most playing time incentive clauses involve a 75% participation rate (which Dahl did not achieve due to missing 7 games). It also gave the Rams cap flexibility: the option to count any earned incentives against the 2013 salary cap, or assessing them against their 2014 salary cap. As a concession to Dahl, the final year of the deal was re-worked, to split his $4 million base salary equally between base salary, and a roster bonus due the third day of the new league year in March, 2014. This forces the Rams to decide on their 2014 plans for Dahl very early in the free agency period.
Harvey Dahl's restructure was significantly different in nature than Chris Long's, and in essence it was a sophisticated pay cut. The pay cut could be accomplished because of two overriding factors: leverage, and the supply/demand equation. There wasn't a huge market for a 32 year old, oft-injured, lower positional value player, with a relatively high salary cap hit. This in turn gave the Rams leverage in negotiations, for Dahl was unlikely to get a better offer from another team if released.
This type of restructure simply won't work with Sam Bradford. The conditions necessary for negotiations - leverage and a favorable supply/demand equation - don't exist in this case. Bradford would have little trouble signing with another team. The demand for his services would be far greater than Harvey Dahl's. The supply of reasonably good starting quarterbacks in the NFL is severely limited. The Rams would likely guarantee some of the 2014 base salary to entice Bradford to restructure his contract. The Rams took away some of that bargaining power with their unqualified endorsement of him. The endorsement virtually "guaranteed" Bradford's contract for 2014. The Rams just don't have the leverage necessary to negotiate this type of restructure with Sam Bradford.
Extending Sam Bradford's contract
Before Bradford went down with a season-ending injury, the Rams front office made their interest in extending his contract publicly known. The injury changed everything, and put future contract discussions on hold. There's been little talk of an extension since that day in Carolina. The two key issues involved in considering an extension for Bradford are: determining his fair market value at this point in time, and incentive for both parties to negotiate a new contract before the season begins.
Determining Sam Bradford's fair market value is difficult enough without the injury he sustained. The new CBA - and the overall lack of talent at the quarterback position in the NFL - distorts valuations of quarterbacks. Jay Cutler's recent contract extension illustrates that distortion (link). Given Bradford's injury, both he and the Rams will likely need to see 2014 season results before determining his fair market value. Bradford would be hesitant to extend his contract until he can produce results in 2014 that increase his bargaining position. Conversely, the Rams would be hesitant for the same reasons, wanting to see a complete recovery - and continued growth as a quarterback - before entertaining thoughts of an extension. To an extent, there's incentive for both parties to consider an extension: the Rams for reasons of cost certainty and cap space relief; Bradford for the reason of negotiating guaranteed money in his new contract. On balance, a wait-and-see approach is prudent for both the Rams and Bradford.
Extending Sam Bradford's contract before the 2014 season appears unlikely at this time.
I believe the Rams will not negotiate an extension of Bradford's contract - or a restructure of his existing contract - in 2014. There are too many uncertainties and factors precluding an extension/restructure from occurring. If the Rams - and Bradford - have a fine 2014 season, they will be looking to extend his contract. Conversely, if Bradford - and the Rams - have a poor season, St. Louis will likely be looking at other options, both for his position and his contract.
The three teams with the best records in the NFC this year - Seattle, San Francisco, and Carolina - all have quarterbacks with substantially lower contract amounts than Sam Bradford. This imbalance was created by the implementation of the new rookie wage scale in the 2011 CBA, and has given each of the three teams an edge over the Rams in managing the salary cap. The imbalance is about to change over the next two years, which is good news for the Rams. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are currently eligible for free agency after next season. Russell Wilson becomes eligible for free agency the following year. When the three are re-signed by their respective teams, the salary cap structure for each team will be drastically altered.
If the Rams are hedging their bets, they may consider the following, in its entirety: re-signing Kellen Clemens for one more year, drafting a developmental quarterback in the 3rd-5th round of this years draft, and trading down the number two overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft [ensuring they receive a 2015 1st round pick in the process]. The 2015 NFL Draft is expected to have a strong quarterback class. Having two 1st round picks in 2015 would give the Rams plenty of ammunition for trading up to select a quarterback, if the need should arise. Let's hope the need doesn't arise, and the Rams make their first playoff appearance since 2004.