One day after the NFL agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, league general managers were left to figure out what it all means for the new cap year.
Here's what they found.
Free agency starts Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET, with the salary cap jumping to $102 million this year and $109 million in 2007. That's the easy part. The fine print is what follows, and we choose only the highlights to keep it readable:
- Clubs can waive two players before the cap year (in this case, March 11) and have their costs amortized after June 1 -- preventing them from paying roster bonuses simply to carry contracts into the summer. Example: Tennessee two years ago paid Eddie George a $1 million roster bonus in March so it could attempt a later contract renegotiation. When that failed, the Titans cut him. Because it was after June 1, Tennessee rolled George's unamortized acceleration into the following cap year. That was a popular idea throughout the league, with June 1 a magic date for cutting veterans to save cap room. Now, teams are spared the trouble by designating two players per club, with their salary-cap costs carried against the present cap until June 1 -- at which time the unamortized portion rolls over into 2007. The benefit to the player is that he gains immediate freedom to look for work; the benefit to the team is that it is saves money and cap room by having the unamortized portion of a bonus -- which normally would've count against this year's cap -- rolled into next year, as if he were cut after June 1.
- While there still is no standard language for signing bonuses, there is more defined language -- preventing clubs from recouping portions of signing bonuses from players guilty of misbehavior, particularly if they violate the league's drug policy. Can you say, "Ricky Williams?" The Miami running back was the most notable subject here, with an arbitrator two years ago ruling that he owed the Dolphins $8.6 million after retiring prior to the 2004 season. Williams returned to the club one year later. Under the new agreement players still can be forced to return bonus money, but punishment is confined to a refusal to play -- such as retirement or a holdout. Clubs can still write their own language regarding bonuses, one sports agent said, but must keep it within the strict guidelines of the new agreement.
- A club no longer can discipline a player as Philadelphia did Terrell Owens last season. Under the new agreement, the maximum discipline a team can impose on a player is suspension without pay for four weeks -- in essence, a reversal of the Owens decision of last year. The Eagles suspended the wide receiver for four games then removed him from the team and its premises for the rest of the season. Owens complained but lost when an arbitrator ruled in favor of Philadelphia. In essence, the new agreement means clubs like Philadelphia cannot deactivate players as long-term punishment. They can continue to deactivate them week-to-week, but they cannot -- as Philadelphia did -- remove them for extended periods of time as disciplinary measures.
- Once a team designates someone as its "franchise player" a third time, he gains the average of the top five players at the highest-salaried position -- even if it is not his. So, let's say you "franchise" a kicker for a third straight year; he gains the average of the top five quarterbacks, not the top five kickers. That's meant to deter clubs from keeping a player around by protecting him with the "franchise" tag year after year, as Seattle did with tackle Walter Jones from 2002-04.
- Players must be three years removed from high school to qualify for the annual NFL Draft. This is the Maurice Clarett rule, preventing someone like Clarett -- the former Ohio State back who tried to turn pro two years after leaving high school -- from entering the draft early. Clarett did not enter the draft until 2005 because a court ruling making him eligible a year earlier was overturned on appeal.
- When teams designate players for "transition" status, the money is guaranteed once the player signs the tender. Under the old rules it was guaranteed only for players designated as "franchise" players. Now it's available for both "transition" and "franchise" players.
- All "franchise" numbers and "transition" figures are computed into the averages of their positions. Under the old agreement if a player were designated for one year at, say, running back, his figure was not included in the top five or 10 at that position. Now it is.
- Minimum salaries increase $40,000 across the board, starting at $275,000 and moving to $350,000, $425,000, $500,000, $585,000, $710,000 and $810,000. Minimums will increase $10,000 annually.
It's not a lot to digest, but it's enough to keep club executives busy for the next few weeks.
"The hard part," said one general manager, "is going to be the interpretation, and I expect it will take a couple of months."
That's for league officials and club executives to figure out. As far as the players are concerned, there's more money available for them -- and that is good. As far as the fans are concerned, there's more money available to keep rosters intact and offer free agents -- and that is better.
"It's going to make everyone and everything more flexible," said one AFC GM.