The devaluation of older NFL veterans continues. It has been trending for years, fueled by inexpensive rookie contracts that are cost-controlled for four years—the most valuable part of their careers, and often all they ever see. Perhaps the most glaring example of this trend is a trade market that has cratered for still-productive veteran players.
Players such as Michael Bennett, Robert Quinn, DeSean Jackson, Marcus Gilbert and Jordan Howard have been traded in the last couple of weeks for low round draft picks, some of which won’t even convey until 2020. Other recently productive and highly paid veterans such as Malik Jackson, Justin Houston, Dwayne Allen, Isaiah Crowell and Vinny Curry could not even muster a low draft pick, as each were released before signing with new teams. These players are being released or offered as part of “ham sandwich” trades, with teams getting anything they can rather than releasing them outright. Why is this happening?
NFL teams gladly negotiated a reboot of the rookie pay system in 2011 that ensured longer, pre-negotiated contracts and eliminated the specter of holdouts. Now, as often happens, teams have “gamed the system” with younger and cheaper players, knowing the gap in talent between them and older veterans is more than offset by the gap in pay. Of course, the acquired low round picks will not contribute as the players above would, but teams will sacrifice lesser value for dramatically lower compensation.
The Jordan Howard trade—from the Bears to the Eagles for a 2020 sixth round pick (which could become a fifth)—presents an even more troubling scenario for the NFL position with the shortest shelf life. The Bears received great value from Howard early in his career, and now the Eagles will receive similar value as they inherit the last year of his fixed and controlled rookie contract. The Eagles used this same strategy during their Super Bowl year, acquiring Jay Ajayi midseason at roughly the same point of his career, before showing no interest in his return and replacing him with Howard. (Ajayi did suffer a torn ACL in 2018.) Running backs are especially disadvantaged by the rookie pay system, heavily used during their most productive and lowest-paid years before being replaced by younger and cheaper options. Running backs truly need their own union.
Outside of unique talents such as Amari Cooper and Odell Beckham, the NFL trade market has been strikingly soft for veteran players. Even the Steelers return compensation of third and fifth round picks for Antonio Brown almost looks reasonable compared to recent trades. Speaking of the discarding of veteran players…
CBA Negotiations? Good luck with that
There is now talk of CBA negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA re-starting, to which I say: Good luck with that.
The two principals, Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, have had contracts that extend far past the expiration of the current CBA for some time; they could have been negotiating a new deal months or even years ago. Why haven’t they? Well, there are three obvious reasons: (1) They don’t like or trust each other, (2) NFL owners have no incentive to alter the terms of the deal they have, and (3) NFL players have a wish list, but very little with which to bargain.
I truly do hope there are CBA negotiations; talk of strikes and lockouts serves no one (except lawyers and headline writers). But we have seen this movie before; nothing will happen.
Increased Replay = Decreased Human Error
By expanding replay to include pass interference, the NFL is doing what I have been advocating for years: stepping up its data and technology to remedy human error. Indeed, this has been happening in all other areas of NFL decision-making, so why not also with officiating?
Though many coaches and scouts will bristle at this, their own human error is now being improved through analytics. Quantitative statistics are taking coaches away from “hunches” and “gut feels” and dictating parameters for certain positions to scouting staffs. This is happening more than you think.
With increasing emphasis on data and analytics, NFL decision-making is different than it was a decade ago and will look a lot different a decade from now. And, for those of us who think human error and “gut feel” can be improved upon, that is a good thing.
And finally, a view on a retiring player that is sure to be unpopular…
“Gronk being Gronk?” Too easy
Rob Gronkowski’s retirement last week was hardly surprising. Gronk retirement rumors of this decade were nearly as regular an offseason topic as Brett Favre retirement rumors of last decade (something I was very familiar with working for the Packers).
This thought is not to wade into predictable debates on whether Gronk will “unretire” at some point (he won’t) nor whether he is a Hall of Famer (he probably is). Rather, I look back shaking my head at the free pass that Gronk constantly received from fans and media, even beyond New England. “Gronk being Gronk” became an easy catchphrase and rationalization about behavior that (1) was certainly not admirable and (2) would not create the same response for other players.
Listen, I get it; Gronk is a goofy and likeable meathead. And likeable players can get away with things that players with a more serious tone cannot. That, however, shouldn’t give them free passes. I ask you to pick another player, any player; I will not pick one for you, as that would skew this experiment. Now imagine that player shown slamming beers, partying regularly with bikini-clad women and generally promoting a hard-party lifestyle. Would we say it’s just “him being him” and let him have his fun? I doubt it.
I know this is not a popular stance and some of you are offended I would raise these questions about the lovable Gronk. And Gronk, with his partying, has not broken any laws and is just having a good time. But consider this: It is a fair question to ask whether Gronk would have been injured less and had a more productive career had he partied less.
Gronk deserves his due on the field, which he is getting. But fans and media usually don’t laugh off his kind of off-field persona the way they have with Gronk. Gronk’s behavior led to rationalization, whereas the same behavior coming from others would typically lead to excoriation.
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