A New Season Begins

Thursday February 12th, 2015

As we enter the official start of the NFL offseason—the longest offseason in all of pro sports—we move from “we time” to “me time.” The season is about sacrificing for the greater good, but the offseason is when players make decisions that are best for them and their actual family, rather than their “team family.” As we begin the offseason, here are a dozen takes on how I project the business of football to play out in 2015:

 

Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck will set a new standard for NFL contracts. The present threshold—$20 million per year, with $60 million guaranteed—was set by Drew Brees in 2012, and the class of 2013 contracts (Romo, Rodgers, Ryan and Flacco) hovered just below that threshold. It’s time for a market adjustment, and we’ll see it with two quarterbacks who have become the signature players for their teams.

 

More interesting than the numbers, though, will be the structure of guarantees in these contracts. There is a unique and potentially groundbreaking opportunity here: fully guaranteed contracts. As transcendent players barely in their mid-twenties, these two have the opportunity to demand that all five or six years of a contract be guaranteed. It is on the Colts and Seahawks to justify not doing so.

 

Speaking of the Seahawks….

 

Marshawn Lynch will get a nice raise for 2015 but have no guaranteed money beyond this year. Lynch’s low rumbles of discontent during training camp last summer forced a short-term upgrade, which he will get again this year, perhaps even with non-guaranteed years added to the contract. With all the concerns about expiration dates on running backs, I can’t see the Seahawks locking themselves into Lynch beyond this year.

 

Speaking of running backs…

 

DeMarco Murray, after shopping his services to a lukewarm marketplace, returns to the Cowboys for a team-friendly contract. As I have often noted, Murray’s strong production may have actually hurt his contract value, with teams more focused on future rather than past performance. Indeed, free-agent running backs with fewer carries may actually procure better contracts. As for the Cowboys, they have clearly prioritized Dez Bryant ahead of Murray all along.

 

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Speaking of Bryant…

 

Dez Bryant, after being saddled with the franchise tag in February, will complete a striking contract extension with the Cowboys before the July 15 deadline. The Cowboys will unsuccessfully attempt to apply their team-friendly structure used with Tyron Smith before relenting and paying Bryant a top-of-market contract. And if they need salary cap room, the Cowboys will continue to refinance the most heavily mortgaged contract in the NFL, quarterback Tony Romo’s.

 

Speaking of quarterbacks….

 

Tom Brady will not play for the scheduled $8 million in his contract. When Brady reworked his contract two years ago, reshaping 2013 and 2014 for cap purposes (while receiving $3 million for his trouble), I never trusted the 2015-17 “out years” of $7, $8, and $9 million (now $8, $9 and $10 million). I expect another “adjustment” of this deal. If, however, Brady is playing quarterback for the Patriots for $8 million, $11 million less than Peyton Manning will be making this year, I will completely buy into the “sacrifice” narrative and bow down to his altruism.

 

Speaking of Manning…

 

Peyton Manning will return to the Broncos to play (at least) another season. Manning’s 2015 salary of $19 million becomes fully guaranteed on March 9, the day before the 2015 League Year begins. Although the party line is that Manning is taking his time to decide, I sense his return is inevitable after the disappointing end to the playoffs. The hiring of Gary Kubiak can only be seen as a positive for Manning. I believe he’ll be back.

 

Speaking of coming back….

 

Darrelle Revis will be back with the Patriots, although not for the scheduled $20 million in his contract. This option year was put into his contract as a placeholder for the team while it tries to negotiate a new deal. Interestingly, Revis was scheduled to make $16 million last year and this year from the Buccaneers ($4 million more than he made with the Patriots) before being released by Tampa just one year into a five-year contract. After winning the Super Bowl, Revis will once again opt for less money and play for the Patriots, who will not be the highest bidder for his services.

 

Speaking of going to the highest bidder…

 

Ndamokung Suh has played his last down for the Lions; a business decision to leverage the multiple bidders he will have. His contract will surpass J.J. Watt’s $51 million guaranteed—using the same agent—into the $55 million echelon usually reserved for elite quarterbacks. And after scratching and clawing to retain their two other franchise players, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the $26.7 million franchise tag price for the Lions to retain Suh is prohibitive.

 

Speaking of the tag…

 

The franchise tag will continue to be a valuable management weapon to remove top players from free agency. The new CBA increased its strength by changing the tag calculation from the average of the previous year’s top five salaries per position to a formula based, in part, on the average of those salaries from the previous five years. Players such as Dez Bryant, Julius (or Demaryius) Thomas, Justin Houston and Devin McCourty are vulnerable to their teams deciding to “date” them for another year rather than marrying them, thus keeping the option open to moving on.

 

Speaking of moving on…

 

Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy will separate from the Vikings and Panthers, respectively, after both were seen as radioactive and hastily sent away with pay last season. The Vikings do not seem interested in paying what Peterson is scheduled to make ($13 million), and Peterson has trust issues with a front office that he feels hasn’t sufficiently supported him. Hardy is a free agent whose status is pending after criminal charges in his domestic violence case were dismissed this week. But after paying Hardy $13.1 million for participating in one game last season and bringing negative repute to the franchise, the Panthers appear ready to allow Hardy to enter what may be an active marketplace when free agency opens.

 

Speaking of preparing for free agency…

 

There will be blood. Before the splashy free agent signings during the week of March 10, dozens of players will be released from team payrolls, most with no remaining compensation due. And some of the players who are terminated— their contracts, not them—were first-day marquee free-agent signings in the not-so-distant past. (Michael Oher, who signed a $20 million contract with the Titans eleven months ago, is now an ex-Titan who made just $6 million.) Before we get to March 10, the waiver wire will be Exhibit A as to the dangerous waters of free agency. Tens of millions of dollars will be removed from team payrolls.

 

And speaking of deflated payrolls…

 

Deflategate will end with a whimper. The Wells investigation will be thorough and comprehensive (and quite expensive) but without a “gotcha” moment or a smoking gun. Rather, the investigation will spur deeper discussion—among the Competition Committee and in general—on all measures that teams take to gain a competitive edge, either within or teetering just on the fine line rules. As coinciding investigations into the Falcons’ artificial noise and the Browns’ in-game texting will suggest, the time is ripe for a larger conversation about integrity and where to draw the line on what constitutes an allowable competitive edge. I will have more on this to come.

Welcome to my season—the offseason—in which the business of football trumps the game of football. Hold on, it will be a bumpy and an eventful ride, but I’ll get you through it.


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