NFL players will vote over the next week on a proposed new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league’s owners. If a majority of the voting players approve, the deal will go into place immediately, as the owners already have approved it. NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith expressed confidence last week that the players would vote it through. Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 14.
The new CBA will expand the NFL’s playoff field by two teams starting with the 2020 season and allow the owners the option to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 games as early as 2021.
But those are only the big-headline items. More than just a deal to increase the number of games played each season, this is a document that will establish and govern the rules under which the game is played, contracts are negotiated and rules are administered for the next 11 years, through the 2030 season.
We thought you might have some questions about what’s in it. Thanks to a copy of the memo the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) sent to its members late last week, we have some answers:
You said 11 years? I thought this was a 10-year deal.
Yeah, important point there, and it depends on how you look at it. The proposed new deal runs through 2030, which means it runs for 10 years after the current deal was set to expire. There are significant changes to certain rules and league structures that would go into effect in 2020 if the deal is approved by the players, however.
So you could call it an 11-year deal that tears up the final year of the previous CBA and runs for the next 11 years. Or you could call it a 10-year deal that begins in 2021 but alters some rules for the final year of the current deal. Either way, it would run through the 2030 season.
All right. And the 17-game season?
Owners would have a window from 2021 to 2023 to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 games, should they choose to do so (as it’s obviously expected they will).
At this point, the two sides haven’t had substantive discussions about how the 17-game season actually will work — i.e., which team gets the extra home game and whether there will be more bye weeks — which is why many think 2022 is the soonest it could happen. But it’s very likely to happen.
I thought the players didn’t want that.
Some don’t, and that’s the reason the voting process at the NFLPA leadership level has been so contentious to this point. Expanding the regular season is not a well-liked idea among NFL players who already view 16 as too hard on their bodies, so they want to make sure they’re getting enough in return to justify agreeing to something they don’t want to do.
So, what are they getting?
For starters, more money, in the form of a higher share of league revenue beginning in 2021. This year, players will get 47% of all league revenue, in keeping with their number from the current CBA. The expansion of the postseason by two teams will generate an estimated $150 million, according to the NFLPA memo, and 47% of that is $70.5 million. So that would be additional revenue going to the players that they wouldn’t have received without the playoff expansion.
Starting in 2021, the players will get at least 48% of all league revenue, and that figure could get higher depending on how the league does in negotiating new TV deals. Once the league moves to a 17-game season, the players’ share of revenue includes a “media kicker,” which constitutes an additional share of revenue based on the size of the TV contracts. According to the NFLPA memo, if the league’s TV revenues increase by 60%, the players’ share of revenue increases to 48.5%. That share can climb as high as 48.8% if the league’s TV revenues increase by 120% or more, and it cannot be reduced via “stadium credits” — meaning that any money the owners take off the top of the revenue pile for stadium construction and renovation cannot push the players’ share of revenue below 48% (or whatever the media kicker brings it to) during the life of the deal.
The new deal also would give the players 70% of incremental revenue from the league’s Los Angeles Stadium project, meaning 70% of any revenue that exceeds projections in any given year. And they’d get a share of revenues from legal gambling operations conducted in stadiums, whether that gambling is on NFL football or other sports.
Which players will benefit the most from the new system?
It seems the lower-earning players — roughly 60% of NFL players operate on minimum-salary deals — will get the most significant bumps in pay, at least right at the beginning. Minimum salaries are going up by around 20% immediately. A player with less than one year of NFL experience is set to earn $510,000 this year under the current deal. That number rises to $610,000 in 2020 if the new deal is signed, and the minimum salary for players with less than one year of experience rises incrementally throughout the deal, reaching $1.065 million in 2030.
Minimum salaries for players in other experience brackets rise too. Players with one year of experience would earn a minimum of $585,000 in 2020 under the current deal and $675,000 under the proposed new one, and that number goes to $1.185 million by 2030. Players with seven or more years of experience would have a minimum salary of $1.05 million in 2020 under the new deal, up from either $810,000 (for players with seven to nine years of experience) or $910,000 (for players with 10 or more years of experience). The minimum salary for that group rises to $1.48 million by 2030.
What about existing contracts that run into seasons that could expand to 17 games? Will those be adjusted?
Yes. Any player who is under contract when the new CBA is signed and remains on that contract in a year in which the league plays 17 games would receive a bonus of 1/17th of his salary if he’s on the roster on the date of that 17th game.
So, to make it simple: If your current contract says you’re scheduled to earn $17 million in 2021, and the league expands to 17 games that season, you get an extra $1 million as long as you’re on the roster on the date of that 17th game.
Do the players get guaranteed contracts?
No. As we’ve been trying to explain for years now, the CBA isn’t the place to secure those. NBA and MLB players were able to make guaranteed contracts the standard in their sports because they insisted on them individually in contract negotiations with teams throughout the years. If NFL players want guaranteed contracts, that’s what they’d have to do.
There is one change in the new CBA that could help, however. For years, teams have cited the antiquated “fully funded rule” as a reason they couldn’t guarantee large sums of money in contracts. That rule, which dates back to the wobbly early days of the league when there was some doubt about teams’ abilities to reliably pay their players, requires a team to hold in escrow an amount of money equivalent to the amount of guaranteed money (minus a $2 million deductible) in a player’s contract.
So, when Kirk Cousins signed for three years and $84 million fully guaranteed two years ago, the Vikings had to put $82 million into an escrow account (the guaranteed amount minus the $2 million deductible). The new deal would raise the deductible to $15 million in the years 2020-28 and to $17 million in 2029 and 2030. The thought is that this could create more fertile ground for players and agents to demand and receive more guarantees in contracts.
How about expanded rosters?
Yes. More jobs. That’s another way the players benefit here. The game-day active roster will increase from 46 to 48 players (although one of the extra players must be an offensive lineman). Practice squads will expand from 10 players to 12 in 2020 and 2021 and to 14 starting in 2022. Practice-squad salaries also are going up — the minimum salary is $8,000 per week in the current CBA, and it will rise to $11,500 by 2022 — and those players will be eligible for 401(k) and tuition assistance benefits.
Two practice-squad players per week may be elevated to the team’s roster, meaning game-week roster sizes could effectively increase from 53 to 55. And a player elevated from the practice squad to the 55-man roster could be sent back to the practice squad two times without having to clear waivers.
The changes will give teams more flexibility in managing their rosters and, if utilized fully, will offer more opportunity for practice-squad players to earn active-roster salaries.
Will the franchise and transition tags still exist?
Yes. Eliminating those is a non-starter for owners, so they remain. The only change in the franchise/transition rules is that, in the final league year (2030), teams will not have the ability to use two tags in the same offseason, as they do if 2020 turns out to be the final year of the current deal.
So, players won’t get to free agency earlier?
Not in the vast majority of cases, no. Shorter rookie contracts are not among the gains players made in the proposed new deal. There are a couple of helpful modifications to rookie deals, including:
Second-round draft picks are now eligible for the proven performance escalator that used to apply only to players drafted in Rounds 3-7. That’s the kicker that increases their fourth-year salary if they play a certain percentage of their team’s snaps in the first three years.
Players picked outside the first round will be eligible for a new performance escalator based on Pro Bowl selections. (This and the previously mentioned escalator will apply beginning with the 2018 draft class.)
There will be no more distinction, when calculating fifth-year option prices for first-round picks, between players picked in the top 10 and players picked between 11-32. Under the new deal, everyone’s fifth-year option will be based on performance and can be as high as the franchise tag number for his position.
If a team exercises the fifth-year option on its first-round pick, that option is fully guaranteed. As of now, a fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only at the time it’s exercised and doesn’t convert to a full guarantee until the start of the league year in which the fifth-year option applies. Teams have to decide on fifth-year options in advance of the player’s fourth season (which is not a change from the previous deal), so having to fully guarantee it at that time could affect some teams’ decisions.
Dan Graziano reports that the majority of NFL player reps voted early Wednesday morning to send the proposed CBA to the full union membership.
Any other financial changes that help the players?
Yes. For one, players will now be paid over 34 weeks (or 36 weeks once the season expands to 17 games). As of now, players are paid in 17 weekly installments during the regular season. The new system would allow them to collect paychecks for eight months of the year instead of just four.
And there’s a new “Veteran Salary Benefit” that allows a team to re-sign up to two of its own players per year (provided they have at least four years of service time) and exclude as much as $1.25 million of each player’s base salary from each year’s salary cap. Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re a four-year veteran on the Jets, and they want to re-sign you. They can offer you a one-year, $6.25 million deal, and only $5 million of it would count against their salary cap if they designated you as one of their two VSB exceptions. If you left and signed with, say, the Patriots, for one year and $6.25 million, the Patriots would have to count all $6.25 million against their cap. It’s sort of a starter version of the NBA’s midlevel exception rule, as I understand it.
The new deal also would provide increases in offseason pay, preseason game pay, performance-based pay, postseason pay and benefits for current and former players.
Did they make any changes to the drug policy?
Yes, they did. The new CBA would eliminate suspensions for positive marijuana tests, limit the testing period to the first two weeks of training camp and raise the threshold for a positive test from 35 to 150 nanograms of THC. The idea is to focus the drug program on clinical care as opposed to punishment. Basically, if you test positive, your test gets reviewed by a board of jointly appointed medical professionals to determine whether you need any kind of treatment. The NFLPA deal memo also says that “violations of law for marijuana possession generally will not result in suspension.”
The policy on performance-enhancing drugs will change as well. A first failed test for stimulants or diuretics will result in a two-game suspension. A first failed test for anabolic steroids will result in a six-game suspension. And “manipulation and or substitution and use of a prohibited substance” will land players an eight-game suspension. A second violation for stimulants or diuretics results in a five-game suspension. A second violation for anabolics results in a 17-game suspension.
The new deal also increases the punishment for DUI to a three-game suspension.
Suspended players now will be permitted to be at the team facility during the second half of their suspension period.
Will the commissioner still be judge, jury and executioner on the discipline policy?
Sounds like no. The new deal would provide neutral arbitration for most discipline cases, including personal conduct policy violations. And the NFLPA memo says the deal carries “significant reductions” in club fines and on-field player fines.
This has been a point of contention among players who have felt the discipline and appeals process has been unfair since the people in charge of imposing the discipline have been the ones who hear the appeals. That will no longer be the case in most discipline matters, according to the memo.
Wow. Sounds like the players will be able to get away with just about anything!
No, not anything. One thing the owners set out to get in this deal was stricter punishment for training camp holdouts, and it looks as if the new deal would increase fines for holdouts and players who leave camp without permission.
A “player playing under a contract signed as a veteran who fails to report to his club’s preseason training camp on time or reports and leaves the club for more than five days” cannot have his fines waived by the team upon return and will not earn an accrued season for that season. Harsh, but note that it specifies “a contract signed as a veteran.” So it seems as if the new anti-holdout rules won’t apply to players holding out for more at the end of their rookie contracts, as Ezekiel Elliott did last year, for example.
How’s training camp going to work under the new deal?
The players got some concessions here as well, although not to the extent that vocal anti-17-gamers such as Aaron Rodgers were seeking in last week’s meeting with NFL owners. There will be a limit of 16 padded practices in camp, and no more than three in a row. (The previous limit was 28, and no restrictions on consecutive days except built-in days off.) There will be a five-day “acclimation period” at the start of camp with restrictions on the types of activities permitted. After the acclimation period, players can be on the field for no more than four hours per day between their two practices, and no practice can last longer than 2.5 hours. Players are not allowed to be at the team facility for more than 12 hours in any given day, and that number decreases in subsequent seasons. And in any 17-game season, players will get a mandatory “bye week” after the third preseason game.
Teams also are not permitted to add any padded practices in the regular season once the season expands to 17 games.
How about these expanded playoffs? How will that work?
Each conference will have seven playoff teams instead of six, meaning three wild-card teams and a total of six playoff games on the first weekend of the postseason. The 2019 first-round matchups would have been Chiefs-Steelers, Patriots-Titans and Texans-Bills in the AFC and Packers-Rams, Saints-Vikings and Eagles-Seahawks in the NFC. Only one team in each conference would get a bye, so the 2019 bye-week teams would have been the Ravens and the 49ers.
One key change: In the past, players on teams that had bye weeks in the first round of the playoffs didn’t get paid for that week, while players who were playing in games that week did. That would change under the new deal. Starting in 2021, players on division winners would get $42,500 for that weekend while players on wild-card teams would get $37,500. Players participating in the divisional round would get $42,500. Players playing in conference championship games would get $65,000. Players on the losing team in the Super Bowl would get $75,000 and players on the Super Bowl champion team would get $150,000. And those amounts would increase in subsequent years.
And the expanded season? Is this just the beginning? Is the NFL eventually going to 18 games?
Not until 2031 at the earliest. This deal specifies that 17 is the maximum number of games that can be played in any of its seasons.
The deal also limits the number of international games the league can hold to 10 in any season through 2025. After that, players and owners could meet to determine whether more international games are warranted. If a team plays more than one international game in a season, its players each get $5,000 stipends for each additional game. This will help offset the tax implications of, say, the Jaguars having to play two home games a year in London.