There's a grow sense, though not quite tangible, of changes happening in the NFL. We constantly trip over articles about player safety, concussion lawsuits, sexual preference... Lots to take in, but how do we make sense of it? Ever since the 2011 NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed, I've had this nagging feeling things aren't quite right in the NFL world. "Not Right" may be an overstatement though; it's more about watching a favored sport evolve in this complex world. Things are less defined, and the days of divisions lauded as "Black n' Blue", playing on snow covered football fields, are slipping away.
When I try to parse the different changes in the NFL world, there's no better place to start than with MONEY! Player get paid tons of money, and I'm talking tons and tons of it. NFL team owners have loads of money themselves, and really aren't known for their love of parting with it. As I try to slice all the things to consider into neat little pieces, the 2011 CBA keeps appearing in my field of thought.
It may be just me, but right now there seems to be a wave washing over veteran players in free agency this year. The "wave" I'm talking about is the increasing trend of NFL teams to use the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement to chip away at free agent contracts, and to veer more toward the draft with the new rookie salary cap. In the 2012 NFL Draft, 29 of the 32 first round players selected became starters in the 2012 season for their teams. A strong draft class in most respects, but there appears to be a trend growing in the NFL to attack players' salaries by edging out veteran players, for their cheaper, younger counterparts more than ever before. I've been breaking down the number of years a player averages in their career, and began to focus in on a position that normally lasts beyond a five year career average - an NFL offensive lineman. Using two models - the past ten years and the past two years - I found something. While the ten year model showed a peak in free agent contracts for NFL linemen in 2009 - with a steady flow of lucrative contracts given to veteran players - the last two year model showed a notable decrease in contract values when you take into account what is actually paid out based on the sources I've been able to dig up. Add to this, the number of cap casualties which medium to high profile talent are experiencing, and hesitant teams reaching out to them... There's picture that's beginning to take shape.
I decided my pondering really wouldn't get me anywhere, so I contacted Heather Grosz at CAA (Creative Artists Agency). Nice, nice woman, and she put me in touch with Ben Dogra, who represents top NFL players like Robert Griffin III, Mario Williams, and... Well, you get the idea. Ben didn't agree with me much, and he paints a vibrant, cash raining down future for NFL players long into the future. Here's the interview, and I'll give you a few of my thoughts afterward...
|Tom Condon and Ben Dogra
I asked him - as an agent representing NFL players - what were he and his firm's first thoughts when they read the language of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement that ended the lockout?
Ben: "First and foremost regarding the 2011 CBA, we were happy that the lockout ended and the players did not need to miss any games during the 2011 regular season. It was good to see the NFLPA and the NFL come to an agreement that would create labor peace for potentially 10 years. Looking at the provisions at first glance, it became clear that it was just a matter of all of us getting familiar with the new provisions, rules and how it would impact future negotiations. Fortunately, we were familiar with the majority of the provisions from the prior CBA and the NFLPA was active in their educating of the agents on all substantive changes."
Next, as I mentioned in the article above, I asked him if I'm alone in thinking the NFLPA got snookered when their membership signed the 2011 CBA, giving NFL owners a rookie salary cap for shorter term free agency rights terms?
Ben: "No one has ever debated that an NFL Player’s second contract is generally more lucrative than his rookie contract. With the lifespan of an NFL player’s career being roughly less than 4 years, it was imperative that unrestricted free agency be at a term of 4 years (subject to the franchise or transition tag in year 5). As a result of these changes, impact players at the most critical positions will continue to see dramatic pay increases, setting the trend for players in the future to earn more over the life of their careers. Having unrestricted free agency passed the four year mark would have potentially been very damaging to a player’s ability to secure a lucrative second contract."
Hmm? Not deterred, I kept fishing for hints I could be right, so I asked him about how current free agent contracts highlight "guaranteed money". Seen by many as a short term insurance policy of sorts for free agents changing teams, is this a way to hedge a player's future against early release, or is it driven more by teams as they creatively structure their salary cap situations?
Ben: "The guaranteed money and the structure of the contract is the best way to hedge against a player’s early release. Having a greater percentage of the contract guaranteed, or by utilizing roster bonuses earned in the off season, ensures that teams are forced to make a decision on a particular player earlier in the life of the contract. NFL contracts have always been driven by guaranteed money and the further out you can guarantee money in a player’s contract, the longer you can ensure the longevity of the player’s tenure with that team. The three most critical components of the player’s contract are the guaranteed money, the average per year and the length of the deal. All three go hand in hand, and if any of those three are compromised, then that could subject a player to being released earlier than the expiration of his contract."
I then asked about the new broadcast rights extension signed in 2011, and scheduled to begin in 2014. The NFL's TV revenues are projected to skyrocket 60% through 2022. Given the increased income, I asked how players will be able to gain financially if the current trend of releasing veteran players, for cheaper rookie options through the draft, continues?
Ben: "The salary cap will rise with the TV revenue. Thus, players will see a steady increase in the salary cap in coming years and with the minimum spend requirement, the good players in the NFL should continue to see salary increases in the upcoming years. The draft has always been the foundation for growth for almost all of the NFL teams, and for that reason, as rookie players enter the NFL, the veteran players that are the backups or near the end of the 53 man roster, will continue to be released, but that is no different than what has occurred over the last 20 plus years."
I respect CAA and Ben Dogra for the work they do, but I still think the days of players with careers spanning a decade or more is coming to an end, or at least will become rare. So I asked Ben about it and - if what I contend is true - how would he attack a contract for a rookie client with a shortened earning potential window?
Ben: "To the contrary, the great players will continue to play as long as they can at a high level and that could easily span a decade or more. The average lifespan of an NFL career is 4 years or less because of the turnover ratio caused by 350+ rookies entering the NFL every year. However, for the quality starters and the stars of the game, the lifespan of their playing careers will not be impacted by the new CBA and will continue as usual."
Ben didn't answer a question I had on my list, but I won't read anything into it. Still, I would've been interested to hear his answer. Here's the question, so what do you think?
"When I look at free agent contracts being signed today, it seems like they have quite a bit of "smoke and mirrors" to them. A player signs a free agent 5 year contract for $50 million, but is let go after one or two years as a "cap casualty" more often than in past based on the salary cap of each team. Is it fair to say economics is, in some cases, trumping the value of veteran talent on NFL rosters more now than in the past?"
While I'm not convinced what I contend isn't true, Ben sure seems to think so. He believes the future is rosy for his clients, and I really hope he's right. But numbers don't lie when it comes to dollars paid to NFL players. Yes, positional players' contracts are market driven. We saw a great example of this in the most recent free agency period, not to mention a record number of players taking pay CUTS to keep their jobs, and not take a chance on the open market. As great a person as Ben Dogra surely is, he can't tell me the teams aren't playing the "We can always draft a rookie" playing card during contract negotiations.
There's a readily visible diminishing of "middle class" player contracts too. The St. Louis Rams' COO, Kevin Demoff has said as much in interviews. Value judgement have shifted - or are at least skewed - by the rookie salary cap. Go back to what I wrote earlier about 29 first round rookies playing a key role for their teams in 2012. I'm not taking anything away from what may go down in NFL history as one of the better draft classes, and it may very well have coincided with a mass generational turning of the page too. It happens I guess, where an abnormally large crop of current players all have their careers end en masse. Few of these player were really remarkable, and the draft is more than ready to fill any void. The veteran's minimum wage scale set out in the 2011 CBA probably had nothing to do with it... Really?