Business of Football: Top 10 Story Lines of the New League Year

The start of the new league year is typically a busy season for the business of football, and this March was no different. The league has been significantly affected by new TV contracts, the trend of voidable contract years and more.
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The first two weeks of the NFL’s new league year are typically the busiest ones for the business of football, and this year—despite a diminished salary cap—was no exception. And not to be outdone by any player signing, it was the league—not a team or player—that made the biggest headline.

Here are my top 10 business of football stories from this March’s flurry of activity.

Roger Goodell, Dak Prescott and Taysom Hill

1. The still undisputed champion of programming

The NFL’s new media contracts are massive, with cumulative value north of $100 billion over 10 years. The incumbents—CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN/ABC—almost doubled their current rights fees. And, for good measure, Amazon doubled what Fox is currently paying for Thursday Night Football. The deals suggest 1) Broadcast television is not as dead as people think, at least broadcast television that carries the NFL; 2) It is always a waste of time to debate week-to-week or year-to-year ratings of NFL games, as media contracts always go up regardless; and 3) NFL franchise values will now skyrocket. NFL owners secured a team-friendly 10-year CBA with the players a year ago that had a 17th regular-season game as part of it; they then went to the networks armed with labor peace and 17 games and came out $100 billion richer. Now with media contracts averaging $300 million annually, combined with a player cap that may not even exceed $200 million until 2024, the math is heavily tilted for management. There has never been a better time to be an NFL owner. Remember when concussions, or player protests, or domestic violence or various other issues were expected to be the one that would knock the NFL off its perch? That was cute.

2. Contract reporting is still a mirage

The hyperbole of media reporting of NFL player contract value bothers me every year, probably more than it bothers others. It just seems disingenuous to see media constantly portray contracts in the best possible light for the agent and the player, with numbers that are not real. I get it: Relationships with agents are important. I know that well. But I do wonder about journalistic standards for reporting on contract values that, unlike guaranteed NBA and MLB contracts, don’t paint a true picture of the deal. As an example, at this time last year the Dolphins signed Kyle Van Noy to a reported “four-year, $51 million contract.” Van Noy was cut last month, having made $15 million, with no remaining obligation from the Dolphins. I know few care as much as I do, but player contract reporting around free agency is a mirage.

3. Quarterbacks: You get what you get

My previous column discussed the strength of Dak Prescott’s contract, due in large part to his being on the precipice of free agency. NFL teams never let ascending young quarterbacks hit the market; that would be franchise suicide. Thus, the group of free-agent quarterbacks this year looks a lot like it does every year, with names like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton and diminished versions of James Winston and Cam Newton. When Bears fans lament the Dalton signing, my question is: Who exactly did they think was going to be their quarterback? Putting hopes into trading for Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson (both of whom I maintain will not be traded) is like buying a Powerball ticket. The best time to find a quarterback is when you don't need one (see: the Packers). Speaking of which …

4. Trading at the top

Friday saw the 49ers move up from 12th in the draft to third, giving up 2022 and 2023 first-round picks to the Dolphins. Of course, no team would trade those assets for any position besides quarterback. The 49ers are saying incumbent quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is staying, which brings to mind the George Constanza line: “It’s not a lie … if you believe it.” The 49ers prepared themselves well to move on from Garoppolo: By front-loading $37 million of cap space in the first year of that deal, trading him would leave a dead-money charge of less than $3 million, a far cry from the $34 and $22 million albatrosses of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. And speaking of Wentz, the Eagles moved down from sixth to 12th, securing the Dolphins’ 2022 first-round pick in the process. They now potentially have three first-round picks next year, ammunition if Watson or Wilson (or Aaron Rodgers) becomes available, or to package for a top quarterback next year. In other words, they have assets now to replace the quarterback (Jalen Hurts) who replaced the quarterback (Wentz) costing them $34 million against the cap this year.

5. Voidable for the desperate

Many continue to ask me about voidable contracts, such as ones signed by Taysom Hill and JuJu Smith-Schuster, among others. To put it simply: The Saints and Steelers were so desperate for cap space that they added fictitious years to those deals to spread out the cap hit. Hill and Smith-Schuster will still make the $12 million and $7 million, respectively, that they were supposed to make in 2021, but most of it will be a bonus (prorated) instead of salary (not prorated) in order to push out cap room. And the fake years? They will automatically void after this season. This is what teams in desperate cap situations have to do to survive short-term. Speaking of which ...

6. Spiked cap: a false promise

The rationalizations regarding voidable years and restructuring are out there: It’s O.K. because there will be cap spikes in future years with the massive TV deals. Well, no. Anticipating cap spikes is a hope, and a hope is not a plan. It may be three years before the cap even reaches the level where it was supposed to be this year. Teams like the Saints and Steelers have been pushing the can down the road for years and look where they are now: declining teams with no Drew Brees and an aging Ben Roethlisberger. The Rams have thrown caution—plus dead cap and first-round draft picks—to the wind for a few years in their “win now” philosophy. Of course, only one team each year truly “wins now.” Here is the reality: There are 10 to 12 teams that have not had to resort to cap restructures or voidable years. The other teams have essentially given those 10 to 12 teams a $10–$20 million head start on next year or the year after. Teams that manage the cap well are always going to have an advantage over poorly managed teams, regardless of what number the cap is.

7. Patriots’ tight end obsession

I said it for weeks: The diminished salary cap presented an opportunity for well-managed teams to separate themselves. The Patriots—among others, including the Jaguars—targeted 2021 as a year to spend liberally to gain a competitive advantage in a depressed market. However, in looking at their first-day deals, it appears they did not think the market would be as depressed as it was. They signed the top two tight ends on the market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, to contracts valued at $12.5 million per year. The Patriots never pay wide receivers, running backs or (since Tom Brady) quarterbacks, but they do pay tight ends, going back to when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were the highest-paid duo in the league. While many NFL teams allocate scraps to the tight end position, the Patriots will be paying two of them a combined $35 million this year.

8. Deshaun’s Watson’s legal troubles

The talking points around Deshaun Watson have taken an extraordinary turn. There are no more hot takes about trades and Photoshopped jerseys, not with 19 (and counting) civil lawsuits against Watson alleging sexual misconduct, and new allegations in a Sports Illustrated exclusive Monday afternoon. The lawsuits will take much time to sort out as the two bombastic Texas lawyers spin their advocacy. Of more interest to me is an NFL commissioner who has repeatedly and consistently levied discipline against players—including high-profile ones such as Ben Roethlisberger, Ezekiel Elliott and James Winston—for conduct that did not result in criminal charges. Even with what little we know, it is hard to see Watson escaping the long arm of Goodell here, given the precedent. And, of course, no team is now considering trading for Watson anytime soon.

9. More, not less, Dan Snyder

As a native Washingtonian who grew up a diehard fan of the team, I am acutely aware of the fan base’s negative emotions toward majority owner Daniel Snyder. And that was even before reports of a hostile work environment toward women and cheerleaders being groped on junkets for season-ticket holders. Now Snyder has bought out his unhappy minority partners who wanted out due to—you guessed it—Snyder. The result: The franchise is more inextricably linked to Snyder than ever before. To be fair, Snyder has made some stabilizing hires of the top of the football and business sides in Ron Rivera and Jason Wright, and that bodes well for the future. But to those wanting less Snyder: Sorry, you are getting more of him.

10. Pride in Parker’s pride

Finally, I am now in the third chapter of my career: The first chapter was being an agent, the second was being a team executive and the third is trying to give back by teaching, writing, broadcasting, podcasting and lecturing on sports from my unique perspective. I felt some pride in giving a little back this week. I have been advising Brandon Parker, a young agent working for VaynerSports, who is the son of one of my mentors, the late great agent Eugene Parker. When Eugene—who was as knowledgeable about player value as any agent I had met—tragically passed away a few years ago, I made a vow to give back to his sons if I could. And last week Brandon negotiated a three-year, $63 million deal with the Giants for Leonard Williams. The deal has a top-of-market average, a practical full guarantee and only a three-year term for a player at a premium position, ensuring Williams another bite of the free-agency apple again at age 29. Brandon made both me—and his late great father looking down from above—quite proud.