On Hardy, Borland and a Hyperactive Offseason
Nine days into free agency, one name that drew as much intrigue as any free agent has now signed. Greg Hardy agreed to a one-year deal with the Cowboys that predictably protects the team in the inevitable event of league-imposed suspension. Despite the best efforts from agent Drew Rosenhaus in creating the perception of an active marketplace for Hardy, he faced lukewarm interest—for obvious reasons—until the Cowboys stepped up.
The contract provides no signing bonus and pays Hardy the minimum salary for a five-year player, $745,000. He can earn another $1.3 million in workout bonuses through the offseason, tethering him to the team and their facility during these months. Beyond that, however, the money is all "on the come," a striking amount of $9.25 million in per-game roster bonuses. For each game Hardy is on the 53-man roster this season, he earns $578,125. The Cowboys have protected themselves financially from any risk of suspension, as well as protecting themselves from injury risk, as Hardy will not receive those amounts if he is placed on injured reserve. And, from a cap point of view, the Cowboys only count the salary, workout bonus and one per-game bonus (the number of games he was on the 53-man roster last year) for a total of $2.6 million, with the weekly bonuses, if earned, counting along the way.
As noted, Rosenhaus was able to sell this $2.6 million deal as a potential $13 million deal (there are sack incentives as well). The contract also precludes the Cowboys from placing the franchise tag on Hardy next year. For what he was faced with—teams stepping up to the mic to announce they were not interested in Hardy—he did a nice job, as the Cowboys may have been the only true suitor. And, of course, owner Jerry Jones is saying all the right things about meeting Hardy and giving him a chance, etc. The optics, however, are not good, especially since Dallas let the high-character DeMarco Murray leave for a division rival.
Having had an adjudication of Hardy's case—though he was found guilty of domestic violence in a bench trial, charges against him were dropped when the complaining witness did not appear for the subsequent jury trial—we await the law of Goodell. As written in this space, the fact that Hardy’s case was dismissed will have little effect on the NFL’s discipline. The league was chastised both in the Rice appeal and the Mueller Report to be less reliant on legal outcomes and more reliant on their own investigations. I would expect a significant suspension of Hardy, something the Cowboys have prepared for.
Last week, in discussing the surprising retirements of Patrick Willis, Jason Worilds and Jake Locker, I noted how rare it is in the NFL for players to retire on their own terms rather than the norm of teams “retiring” them. Even when players retire in the offseason, it’s usually because they haven’t received any calls and are conveniently retiring. We now have a new case with Chris Borland who, one year into his NFL career—the three players from last week had at least four seasons each—chose to leave the game before enduring further damage to his brain.
I have always thought that even with the increasing concussion awareness and prevention protocol, the real problem with long-term head trauma is protecting players from themselves. Most have an overriding desire is simply to “play through,” and the lack of guaranteed contracts and no job security incentivizes them to do so. Players generally see the short term— the next practice, the next game, the next contract—rather than thinking about their capacities in the years ahead. Now Borland, having researched the long-term effects of head trauma, is making a composed decision to no longer sacrifice long-term health by playing a sport he has enjoyed for so long.
There is an inevitable overreaction to Borland’s decision, with some saying it portends the downward spiral of the NFL and football overall. That, of course, is hyperbole. There is no future shortage of willing football players. I’ve seen the thousands of videos and DVDs that come to NFL team offices every year, and I’ve heard the begging from agents and players for tryouts. The Borland case, however, can be (1) a reminder to players that there is more to life than football, and (2) a cautionary tale for players—at all levels—to avoid the default instinct to “play through.”
In its statement regarding Borland, the NFL referred to the significant decrease in concussions last season, which it announced during Super Bowl week. The problem with that statistic, however, is that it does not include two situations that Borland mentioned in his interview with ESPN: (1) players getting “dinged” but it not showing up in the reporting statistics and (2) concussions that occur in training camp, the time of year when players experience the most contact.
There is no doubt that the NFL has tried to make the game safer and that concussion protocols are on upward trajectory since 2009 Congressional hearings on the topic. The challenge is making an inherently violent game safe, knowing that (controlled) violence is part of the appeal.
Finally, I found it interesting how many questions I received about whether the 49ers could sue to recover three-quarters of the signing bonus they gave Borland in his four-year rookie contract last year. The theoretical and legal answer is yes—the Lions sued, and recovered, a portion of Barry Sanders’ bonus when he retired—but the practical answer is probably different. I do not see the 49ers filing a grievance to recover money from Borland; we will see.
In speaking to players, whether as an agent, a team executive or an analyst, I have always said to view professional football not as a career but as a head start on a career. Borland, with his preemptive and asymptomatic retirement, has seen a bigger picture.
Although there were flashy headlines about spending in the first week of free agency, the top tier of contracts—except for outliers Ndamokung Suh and Darrelle Revis—fell into the same $20-25 million guarantee range as in recent years. Despite major increases in the salary cap in the past two years, there appears to be no corresponding increase in top-level player guarantees. As for the outliers…
The key marker in the Revis contract is neither the $39 million overall guarantee nor the $70 million total value. Rather, it is the $6 million no-offset guarantee in the third year that is the differentiator in the deal (and was so with the Patriots). Having the first two years guaranteed is standard fare for top free agents; Revis’s $6 million third-year no-offset guarantee is powerful.
I remarked last week that Suh and agent Jimmy Sexton, with their extraordinary leverage, missed a unique opportunity for a fully guaranteed contract. Having now seen the contract, they got as close as anyone has. Beyond a full guarantee for three years—a rarity usually reserved for A-list quarterbacks—Suh has conditional guarantees for roughly half of his fourth, fifth and sixth year salaries, a cumulative amount of $26.5 million. Those amounts—$8.5 million in 2018, $9.5 million in 2019, and $8.5 million in 2020—become guaranteed at the start of the league year in each of those years. While the Dolphins can still release Suh in February in any of these years without future financial obligation, Suh and Sexton made some headway in changing the game for elite player contracts.
In the "How fast they have fallen" category are four wide receivers who cashed in heavily in 2013. Mike Wallace was the "winner" of 2013 free agency, signing a stunning $65 million deal with the Dolphins with $30 million guaranteed (more than any receiver since). Now Wallace has been traded to the Vikings for a late-round pick, a “ham sandwich” trade, as I call it. Three other receivers heavily rewarded in 2013 could not even net that ham sandwich and were released.
Percy Harvin went from a $64 million contract with a $12 million bonus to being traded, released and has now signed a one-year contract with the Bills. Dwayne Bowe, re-signed by the Chiefs two years ago to a deal with $26 million guaranteed, was shed after the team signed Jeremy Maclin. And Greg Jennings—a player I know well (and like) from Green Bay—had his five-year, $45 million contract with the Vikings turn into a two-year, $18 million deal. The pendulum truly swung for these (once) highly paid receivers in two years.
Defensive tackles Terrence Knighton and Nick Fairley—considered by some as desirable free agent targets—saw a lukewarm marketplace and took one-year deals with the Redskins and Rams, respectively. The teams now have the motivational leverage of the players—whose weight and conditioning have been issues—again in a contract year. Speaking of which, Knighton’s contract contains $450,000 in weight clauses. I learned from experience to no longer use weight clauses, as they could be detrimental to players' health. Players would stop eating and start sweating and urinating—through saunas, steam rooms, diuretics or other supplements—in the days (and hours) before weigh-in, which did not serve him nor the team well.
The Raiders’ new conservative ways
As readers of this space now, my ideal cap management involves matching cap and cash spending, with no prorated bonus amounts pushed out to future years. Now my former colleague, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie—always a willing student of cap management—is practicing this conservative approach with his newfound wealth of cap room.
The Raiders’ most expensive free-agent signing, center Rodney Hudson, will receive $13 million in compensation this year with a cap number of— you guessed it—$13 million. From my point of view, this is a perfectly managed contract, loading a full cap amount into the first year. The Raiders should manage as many veteran contracts this way as possible. Future proration = future problems.
AFC East cap war
Following the massive commitment the Dolphins made with Suh, the Bills have struck at their division rival, signing transition tag tight end Charles Clay to a deal with $20 million guaranteed ($38 million overall) and an eye-popping $24.2 million over two years. While part of the Bills' strategy was to put pressure on the Dolphins from a cap perspective, my sense is this was more a challenge to see how strongly they felt about Clay as a player. Teams can always move around cap space to keep a "must-have" player. The question here was whether the Dolphins believed Clay was worth more than $24 million for the next two years. They obviously did not, and let him "transfer" to the Bills, having protected themselves by signing former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron to a two-year, $15 million deal.
Cameron’s deal is noteworthy in itself, as he was all but signed with the Browns when the Dolphins stepped up at the last minute to procure him. The 2015 compensation features a $4 million signing bonus, a $1 million salary and $2.5 million of per-game roster bonuses, protecting the Dolphins in case of injury after Cameron’s battle with concussions last season.
The NFL released the numbers for the Player Performance Benefit, adding a collective total of $116.256 million to players on top of their team player contracts. The money comes from the NFL, not from the teams, as part of a collectively bargained benefit paying undervalued players through a negotiated formula. In simplest terms, players who make the least and play the most receive the biggest checks, a list topped this year by the Bills’ Seantrel Henderson ($374,000) and the Packers’ Cory Linsley ($340,000).
There are a few cautionary tales in free agency every year, but perhaps none more so than last year’s Buccaneers’ signing of the now-released Michael Johnson. The Bucs paid Johnson $16 million in the first year of a long-term contract that they subsequently terminated (they did the same with Darrelle Revis—remember him—in 2013).
The damage with Johnson, however, does not stop there. He will continue to make a $4 million guaranteed roster bonus and $3 million salary from the Bucs, which will be on top of the $6 million he will make after signing with the team he left a year earlier, the Bengals. And it gets better for the Bengals: They will receive a third-round draft pick to compensate for last year’s loss of—you guessed it—Johnson. The Bucs’ expensive loss is the Bengals’ valuable return engagement.
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