- From Antonio Brown and Joe Flacco to Colin Kaepernick and Kyler Murray, the business of football never stops.
The Super Bowl is barely two weeks behind us, but it seems not a day has gone by without a major development in one of the NFL offseason’s many story lines. A lot has been put out there about each of the five topics below but, as is often the case, I tend to have different insights and perspectives on these things. Here are my often less-than-hot takes, gleaned through my 30 years of experience in the business of football.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus takes on a lot of high maintenance players but truly has his work cut out in this situation. His client wants out of Pittsburgh in the worst way, and Drew has to find a team willing to offer the Steelers a viable trade proposal and ignore (or at least plan for and accept) Brown’s drama and petulance. Good luck with that.
I am on record saying in early January that Brown will remain with the Steelers, if only to avoid the dramatic $21 million cap impact were he to leave. As someone who managed an NFL cap for 10 years, I view Brown’s contract as one the Steelers made their bed with and are stuck with, high maintenance and all. The minute they rewarded him with that bonus-heavy (and cap limiting) contract Brown, in my view, became unccuttable and untradeable.
I know, I hear you saying: “But he’s a cancer in the locker room!” Well, Brown did not become what he is overnight. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers front office know what they are dealing with in Brown; they have dealt with it for years. And, in my opinion, they will keep dealing with it.
The NFL-Colin Kaepernick settlement
I am where I've always been about the Kaepernick (and Eric Reid) collusion claim: While NFL teams’ actions towards him may have been punitive, those actions do not meet the legal definition of collusion.
Kaepernick's attorneys referenced a "smoking gun" a couple of times. It never appeared and, in my opinion, was never going to appear. Thus, as a lawyer, their case, while not a bad one, could only go so far with circumstantial evidence and a list of quarterbacks signed instead of Kaepernick. It never had a true chance of success without this smoking gun.
We may never know the settlement number; everything reported will come from leaks with an agenda. Whatever the number is, NFL teams split it 32 ways, with potential coverage coming from insurers as well. The bigger impact, in my view, is that NFL teams would rather “pay off” Kaepernick than sign him. Sure, the settlement doesn’t close off Kaepernick returning to the NFL, but if he hasn’t by now, he’s not going to. And that may be the enduring impact of this collusion settlement. Kaepernick's last act with the NFL may be accepting their money rather than an invitation to play from any one of them, an invitation that probably will never come.
The Alliance of American Football
The natural inclination is to doubt the sustainability of any football league not named the NFL but the AAF, and the XFL2020 starting next year, has a chance. AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol joined my podcast and had some interesting comments on the league trying to differentiate from the first XFL and its association with the NFL:
"The big difference between us and all those who tried to do this before is how similar we are to the NFL, not how different we are. The XFL tried to replace the coin toss with a scramble and other kinds of gimmicky, catchy things. We've gone the other way. We only have 9 or 10 changes to the entire NFL rulebook, and we give them an NFL out. That has led to a very positive relationship with the NFL. It's the reason why we have 19 of our 43 games are going to be on NFL Network. It's why we sent 71 players to the NFL in the last six months, it's why 35 of them have been released to come back and play for us."
After the curiosity of opening weekend, of course interest, ratings and attendance will want, but I do give this league a chance. It has media credibility (Ebersol) and football credibility (Bill Polian, Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz, Phil Savage, Rick Neuheisel, etc.). My worry is more on the investment side and the ROI expected by a wide variety of investors.
The league is well funded; Ebersol discussed investment from the Silicon Valley community. I also know investors include former NFL players, former NFL executives and media companies such as the Chernin Group, which owns Bartstool Sports. My concern is that as the league goes forward, investors will have competing views on how fast (or slow) to grow the league, whether to spend more on players, whether to try to attract NFL-level players, what level to incorporate gambling into the experience, etc.
The diversity and amount of investors in the AAF is now a strength; it could later become a weakness, especially compared to XFL2020, extremely well funded with one investor (WWE) and no competing interests.
I will be tracking the business of both leagues going forward.
The Joe Flacco trade and potential Nick Foles trade
At first glance, the modest price of a fourth round pick to acquire Joe Flacco seems like a great deal for the Broncos. However, the Ravens had turned to the team over to Lamar Jackson and Flacco was expensive dead weight that had to be moved. Teams including the Broncos and any others that were interested knew that Flacco was going to be traded or cut. Now a fourth-round pick seems like a good deal for the Ravens.
While the Broncos will deal with the $7 million remaining guarantee on Case Keenum’s contract, I still wonder what “the plan” is as they tread water again with a stopgap veteran quarterback. Joe Flacco, as Case Keenum, is not the future quarterback of the Broncos.
As for the impact on a potential Nick Foles trade, the Flacco price—and the fact the Broncos are now out of the market—is not good news for the Eagles. I know, you’re saying: “But Foles is good and Flacco stinks!” Well, for whatever reason, including financial, the Broncos preferred Flacco, and with five teams addressing quarterback needs in the first round of the 2018 draft, the pool of teams looking has shrunk considerably. If the Eagles do indeed pursue a “tag and trade” strategy with Foles (I’m still not so sure they will), they may be only dealing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, if them. And then they are negotiating from a position where they need to move the player, as the Ravens were in moving Flacco.
The Eagles are assessing the market now; if it is a soft one, they may well let Foles wade into free agency unfettered rather than as a player counting $25 million on their cap.
And speaking of the cap, the Ravens 2019 cap charges at quarterback will include starting quarterback Jackson at $2 million and Flacco, now playing for the Broncos, at $16 million.
As I know so well, leverage in NFL player contract negotiations is heavily tilted toward management. That is especially true with rookies who have no other option than to sign those undervalued rookie contracts. Well, until now.
Although Kyler Murray led Oklahoma to the college football semifinals and won the Heisman Trophy in the process, that is not the reason he has unique leverage. Rather, he is the rarest of athletes who has another similar deep-pocketed suitor beyond the NFL: Major League Baseball.
The Oakland A’s selected Murray No. 9 overall in the 2018 MLB draft knowing Murray would play football at Oklahoma, saying at the time: "The risk of the football was, in our opinion, outweighed by the upside on the baseball field." Now Murray is purportedly choosing football again, which he announced last week. And guess what? The A’s—and Major League Baseball—are not going away.
MMQB BIG BOARD: Kyler Murray Climbs to No. 15
The A’s previously sent marketing executives to meet with Murray and, according to ESPN, MLB is considering a plan for the A’s to offer Murray, in effect, a second contract and signing bonus. This is truly rare. MLB is willing to unlock closed doors and create precedent to lure Murray away from the NFL. And this gives Murray extraordinary leverage with the NFL, an ability to say no to a team trying to draft or sign him.
This unique situation also raises the question of whether the NFL would break precedent with rookie contracts, as MLB is apparently willing to do, for Murray. It’s a thought, but I don’t see the NFL groveling to Murray in the way that MLB could. The NFL, unlike MLB, (1) doesn’t need the “marketing angle and (2) has both a rookie cap and an overall salary cap.
Kyler Murray is as uniquely situated as any player entering the NFL draft in a generation. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.
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