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Proven Performance Escalators: Will Austin Pettis Become A Cap Casualty?

Rams wide receiver Austin Pettis is entering the 4th and final year of his rookie contract. Provisions in the CBA have given him a substantial pay increase for 2014; virtually doubling his salary cap hit. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is high on many Rams fans' draft wish lists. Could Pettis become a cap casualty? If the Rams release Pettis, does Sammy Watkins become a more attractive option in the upcoming draft?


The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement: 300 plus pages of barely decipherable legalese, contract-related labyrinths, and NFL-specific terminology. Recently, I came across a little-known provision in the CBA, one affecting only a single player on the Rams' roster: Austin Pettis. The provision in the CBA I'm referring to is the "Proven Performance Escalator".

January is the time of year players find out about raises in their contracts triggered by provisions in the CBA. Season statistics - that affect contracts - are officially finalized by the NFL around this time of the year. The Proven Performance Escalator is a provision included in all rookie contracts of players selected between the third and seventh round of the NFL draft. The escalator/raise becomes available during the 4th (last) year of their contracts. To qualify, a player must play in at least 35% of the snaps - offensive or defensive - in two of his first three seasons, or 35% of the total snaps - offensive or defensive - over the entire three year period. If earned, the players base salary increases to that of the lowest Restricted Free Agent Tender. The most common restricted free agent tender - involving draft choice compensation - will be $1.389 million in 2014. The raise is not guaranteed money.

From the 2011 NFL CBA:

Section 4. Proven Performance Escalator:

(a) The Proven Performance Escalator is mandatory for Rookies drafted in the third through seventh rounds. Rookies drafted in the first or second rounds and Undrafted Rookies are not eligible to earn the Proven Performance Escalator.

(b) The Proven Performance Escalator is a non-negotiable amount by which an eligible player’s year-four Paragraph 5 Salary may escalate provided the player achieves at least one of the two qualifiers set forth in Subsection (c) below. The Proven Performance Escalator shall be deemed a part of every Rookie Contract of a player selected in the third through seventh round by virtue of this Agreement and may not be separately attached to such Rookie Contract.

(c) Qualifiers. An eligible player will qualify for the Proven Performance Escalator in his fourth League Year if: (1) he participated in a minimum of 35% of his Club’s offensive or defensive plays in any two of his previous three regular seasons; or (2) he participated in a "cumulative average" of at least 35% of his Club’s offensive or defensive plays over his previous three regular seasons. "Cumulative average" means the sum of the total number of offensive or defensive plays in which the player participated over the applicable seasons, divided by the sum of the Club’s offensive or defensive plays during the same seasons.

Austin Pettis' 2014 contract, before - and after - the PPE raise:

Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Total Cap Hit Dead Money
2014 670,000 144,567 814,567 144,567
2014 1,389,000 144,567 1,533,567 144,567

As a result of the PPE, Austin Pettis receives a $719,000 raise in 2014. His salary cap hit increases from $814,567 to $1,533,567. This could pose a salary cap problem for the Rams. They must be under the 2014 salary cap before the beginning of the new league year (March 11). Currently, they are very tight up against the cap. Releasing him would free up $1.389 million in cap space.

The increase in Austin Pettis' contract for 2014 raises a number of questions: How valuable is Pettis to the Rams' receiving corps? Is he valuable enough to be retained by the Rams, irrespective of the tight cap space situation they're facing in 2014? Do the Rams value Pettis enough to give consideration to a contract extension? If released, does it create more urgency to select a wide receiver in this years draft? Does it make drafting Sammy Watkins - or another wide receiver - an even more attractive option for the Rams?

Austin Pettis is the only player left on the Rams' roster who was selected between the 3rd and 7th rounds of the 2011 NFL draft. The other five picked in those rounds are no longer with the team. To illustrate the Rams' new-found prowess in the draft - since the arrival of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead - look no farther than next year's likely PPE recipients: Trumaine Johnson, Chris Givens, Greg Zuerlein, and Daryl Richardson. Although the escalators will have a negative impact on the Rams' salary cap, it's a small price to pay for the continued productivity and success of the Rams' later round draft choices.