The impact of a “possible” 2021 lockout on today’s contracts

Dayna O’Gorman
Senior NFL Reporter

By Dayna O’Gorman // @DaynaOG

It was announced that the NFLPA and the league were going to start talks about the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement. Yes, there are two years left on the current CBA. The fact they are starting now should give you an idea of how complicated this is going to be.

Let’s be real. I put the word possible in quotes because the probability of there being a full NFL season in 2021 is slim to none. The players are feeling their power, as they should, and many are already talking about the upcoming CBA negotiation. Owners, at the same time, are trying to hold on to their power, yet please the players. We know that probably won’t happen quickly. Therefore, we need to prepare ourselves for a lockout.

The question becomes, what and how does the impending doom of a work stoppage effect players and teams who are currently in negotiations for new contracts? What impact does it have on players who may already be in the second half of their career looking for that all important 3rd contract?

I’m not going to take credit for coming up with this article idea. I was having a conversation on Twitter regarding wide receiver Doug Baldwin when this was brought up. I instantly thought it would make a fantastic article (Yes I got permission to use the idea). Little did I know how complicated and unpredictable the research would be.

As soon as I started digging, it got really complicated. It’s impossible to get a definitive answer on anything NFL, but when you start looking into contracts…forget it. So many things are hidden, secretive, and completely dependant on the team preference. So I went looking for some help.

Enter in Miguel Benzan, who writes for the Boston Sports Journal, and is considered by many to be a cap/contract master. As we talked we both realized very quickly how many different levels a lockout could affect this and next season, and the contracts given in that time.

First, we talked about guaranteed money. Obviously, that is going to be one of the major sticking points in the next CBA so the question I had for Miguel was could teams withhold any guaranteed money if players aren’t playing in 2021? The answer was no. “Players who have any guaranteed money coming to them in 2021 will still get it. However, of course, they won’t be getting incentives or game checks. Then the question then becomes can there be guaranteed money (from contracts before 2021) past the current CBA (which expires at end of NFL season 2020)?”

From what I’ve read, the answer was mostly yes, there can be…as long as the new CBA allows it. Again, the NFL loves living in the gray area. Yet, we have to keep in mind that guaranteed money, and how its dispersed, is completely handled by the clubs. Therefore players getting new contracts could demand that money before 2021, not in chunks over the entire contract. That could be a huge issue for some teams.

Then there is the issue of incentives. If a player’s contract is heavily laden with incentive bonuses, not playing in 2021 could greatly impact the value of that contract. However, Miguel went on to explain another angle that is a hurdle for teams, possibly making teams want to use incentives less in 2020.

Using the example of a wide receiver and a “number of catches” incentive, he said “Let’s say a player gets a $5 million incentive for a certain number of passes. When a player hits a “non-likely to be earned” incentive, that comes off of next years cap. But because 2021 might be a lockout year (new CBA) that incentive comes off the cap the Tuesday after that game (when the player hits the incentive). In 2020, every incentive made goes against the 2020 cap instead of the next year.”

Then there is the age factor. For most NFL players, sitting out a partial or full year isn’t the end of the world, but what about those who are moving toward the end of their careers? Quarterback Tom Brady plans on playing until he is 45. He will turn 44 in August of 2021. If the NFL season doesn’t happen that year, does he come back for one year? What about Drew Brees? He’ll be 42 at the end of the 2020 season.  QBs Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning… all 40 or older by 2021.

What about players who aren’t franchise QBs? Running backs have a shelf life and are often thought of as basically done after 30 or so years old. If the league skips 2021, Le’Veon Bell will be 30 before the start of the 2022 season. Same for David Johnson. Sitting out a year for players who are or may be close to that all important 3rd contract could greatly impact not just the money, but the length of that contract.

As Miguel and I talked we both realized there were so many rabbit holes we could go down and never find an answer to. Things like how is carry over money going to be handled? How would the NFL handle the public relations aspect? Then I brought up not having a draft and how those college players…it was just too much.

The true answer to all of this is a lockout would be bad for football. Bad for players, teams, and fans. And, let’s not forget, Major League Baseball’s CBA expires in December 2021. Let’s hope the fact that the league and the NFLPA are starting so early on these negotiations that we will all be spared a lot of turmoil.

Follow Dayna on Twitter // @DaynaOG

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