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The Phony Numbers in NFL Free Agency

Here’s your regular reminder that the eye-popping contract numbers trotted out during NFL free agency—unlike major league baseball—are far from the real thing. Plus, why the combine’s move to L.A. is inevitable, why Nick Foles was never going to stay in Philly, where the AAF’s money is coming from and what to expect for Robert Kraft.

There are sooo many stories on the business of football right now. Let’s examine a few:

On NFL contracts as free agency approaches

Next week a select group of NFL golden ticket winners will sign new contracts with headlines blaring total contract values of $60 million, $80 million, perhaps even $100 million. But, of course, none of those contracts will be worth anywhere near $100 million. In contrast, last week, major leaguers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed contracts not only reported to be worth $330 million and $300 million, respectively, but actually worth those amounts!

Even for players with the most leverage, free agents, NFL teams are able to keep the guaranteed portion of player contracts limited to the early, low-risk years. And while the player with the most leverage in recent history, Kirk Cousins, wrangled a fully guaranteed deal, he could not get more than three years guaranteed. Harper has 13 years guaranteed, Machado 10.

I have heard all the arguments when I point these disparities out, even from those representing NFL players. One is, “But the other sports play so many more games!” Season lengths are similar, no matter the number of games. Do NFL players have to play 80 games to make similar money to NBA and NHL players? Please.

The other one is, “NFL rosters are much bigger than the other sports!” So are NFL franchise values and team revenues. Major League Soccer teams have fewer players and play more games than NFL teams; should those players make more? Please.

There is no player in NFL history, retired or active, whose career on-field earnings equal what Harper and Machado just signed for, and this is at a time when the MLB Players Association has been hinting at collusion by MLB teams. It proves once again that when it comes to the length, amount and security of player contracts, NFL players sit at the children’s table.

On the business of the combine

In my 10 years at the combine with the Packers I was always busy but rarely, if ever, watched a player workout. The combine is a convention for NFL business, with every team contract negotiator and every agent in close proximity. NFL front office staff set up shop in various hotels, restaurants and bars around Indianapolis to meet with agents of players both on their team—to discuss extensions, adjustments or just relationship building—as well as agents for pending free agents hitting the market. As for tampering, there is always cover for teams and agents if the question is raised. Agents usually represent players on teams they are talking to, and teams know how to frame questions hypothetically, to be immune from tampering accusations, such as: “If your player becomes a free agent, what would he be looking for?” Agents for top pending free agents leave the combine with teams “pre-qualified,” willing to pay the level of contract that the agent and player are looking for. That then frames the negotiation when free agency officially begins.

Finally on the combine, I strongly sense we are the waning days of Indianapolis being the regular host city for the event. While it has become tradition to have it there and the proximity of the downtown area allows for great convenience, the NFL will soon be unable to resist temptation of more geographically desirable options. With stadiums coming online soon in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, I can see either a rotation among cites hosting the combine—similar to the Super Bowl—or a permanent transfer to Los Angeles, with players actually performing their workouts outdoors (imagine that).

On Nick Foles being allowed to enter free agency

As I wrote here in December, the Eagles’ “affair” with Nick Foles had to come to an end. They had privately and publicly proclaimed their love for Carson Wentz, and no matter how much the team and fans loved Foles, they had to separate. As for a franchise tag for Foles, it made no sense, either emotionally or businesswise. Notwithstanding the fact that the “tag and trade” strategy would not be kosher with the league, the market for Foles, as magical as he has been, was not going to be robust (likely Jacksonville and no one else).

This is not fantasy football, where wannabe GMs decide Foles would be better for the Giants than Eli Manning, better for the Raiders than Derek Carr, etc. The reality is that the Eagles were going to be lucky to get a third-round pick, if that, for a player carrying a $25 million cap number. Thus, while the Eagles played the public relations game of letting Foles go to be generous to him, the reality was there was no business reason to keep him as a trade asset. He had to go, and the Eagles will now be “faithful” to Carson Wentz.

On the new chairman and funder of the Alliance for American Football

Tom Dundon, the owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, has quickly become the most important person in a league he had no financial interest in when it kicked off a month ago. As Dundon explained on my podcast last week, an opportunity presented itself, and he pounced: “It was an opportunity where somebody like me could come in and take away their need to worry about capital, and they could just focus on continuing to improve the product.”

Dundon then cleared up the issue of how much was invested and the future security, or lack thereof, of the AAF, saying “I have final control now, I have final say on everything. I have the capital that can take this thing forward in a way that, depending on how much we want to grow and how much we want to innovate, will determine how much of that capital is needed. ... But it’s like any other business. As long as there’s demand, there’s no reason to talk about capital anymore.” Translation: As long as people are watching in the same or similar numbers that they are now, he will keep funding it, and it is secure. But if they don’t, well, stay tuned.

On Robert Kraft’s offseason issues

On the legal front, the misdemeanors for solicitation of prostitution will play out with what I sense will be a plea deal requiring a fine and community service, certainly not jail time. On the NFL discipline front, I would not expect anything soon but would expect that Kraft will eventually receive some sort of suspension from team activities, though nothing that will affect the day-to-day operation of the team, as Kraft’s son Jonathan will assume the face of ownership in his stead.

The larger issue for Kraft, of course, is the public shaming and any effect on the respect of him and the larger Patriots brand, a brand embodied by three primary leaders: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Kraft. Now, one of that triumvirate has been identified, with graphic detail, in a compromised position.

Finally, as for judgment of Kraft by other owners, I wouldn’t expect too much. There are various and varied skeletons among that group; there won’t be much shaming from them.

For now on Kraft, the story is simple: There will be lawyers.

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