Agent's Take: Are Earl Thomas and Seahawks headed for a divorce? Let's take a look
There are many things to consider when player and team can't come to an agreement
Earl Thomas announced via Twitter Sunday morning he wouldn't attend the Seahawks' mandatory minicamp (June 12-14) or any other team activities until his contract situation is resolved. He hadn't been at Seattle's voluntary workouts this offseason either. The free safety also expressed his desire to stay with the Seahawks for the remainder of his NFL career in the same tweet.
Skipping this minicamp has financial consequences. Thomas is subject to an $84,435 fine under the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement with a three-day absence.
Thomas is in the final year of a four-year contract extension signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year, which made him the NFL's highest-paid safety at the time. He is scheduled to make $8.5 million this year. His salary-cap number is $10.4 million.
Thomas feels that his performance over his eight years in the NFL warrants a new contract. He has been selected to six Pro Bowls, while being named to All-Pro teams five times. Thomas earned a Pro Bowl berth and second team All-Pro honors in 2017. CBS Sports Senior NFL Writer Pete Prisco put Thomas 78th in his.
Thomas' interest in a new deal and the lengths he may be willing to go to get one haven't been a secret. He telegraphed his holdout during an interview in late January while at the Pro Bowl. Talk of a holdout at the time seemed premature because the 2017 season playoffs hadn't ended and the start of training camp was five months away.
Sizing up the Seahawks
The Seahawks are a team in transition. A vaunted defense that was consistently among the league's best has been dismantled this offseason. Cornerback Richard Sherman, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, quickly joined the NFC West rival 49ers after his release in early March. Defensive end Michael Bennett, who had been Seattle's most consistent pass rusher, was dealt to the Eagles when the 2018 trading period opened in mid-March. Defensive end Cliff Avril was released last month. The neck injury Avril suffered early last season is thought to be career ending. Strong safety Kam Chancellor's career is also in jeopardy because of a neck injury suffered during the middle of last season. Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner are the only two mainstays remaining from a unit that led Seattle to a convincing Super Bowl XLVIII win during the 2013 season and return appearance in Super Bowl XLIX the following year.
General manager John Schneider met with Thomas' representation at the NFL combine in early March. There hasn't been any meaningful dialogue about a contract since then.
The Seahawks established a baseline for Thomas by giving Chancellor a three-year, $36 million contract extension (with $25 million in guarantees) when training camp opened last year. The deal was a curious decision even before Chancellor's career-threatening neck injury because it seemed as if his eventual replacement had been found in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with Delano Hill. Thomas, who will be 30 next year, probably has his sights set on reclaiming his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current standard with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017. Adjusting Thomas' existing deal, which was signed when the salary cap was $133 million, to the current $177.2 million salary cap environment puts Thomas at approximately $13.25 million per year.
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The best tactic in Seattle
Seattle's recent history in contract disputes suggests that a holdout isn't the best tactic to get a new contract. Chancellor held out 54 days in 2015 before returning to the Seahawks without any changes to his contract. Seahawks owner Paul Allen didn't intervene to end Chancellor's dispute. He firmly backed Seattle head coach Pete Carroll's refusal to give into Chancellor's demands. Ironically, Thomas' public comments in 2015 suggested that he was getting frustrated with Chancellor's absence.
A major obstacle Thomas must overcome is Seattle's concern about establishing a precedent of giving in to a player's demands for a new contract through a holdout. Although teams should be able to easily make distinctions based on each player's particular circumstances, they don't want to send a signal to the other team members that they could get rewarded by holding the team hostage.
Along those lines, some teams have a philosophy that they won't have engage in substantive discussions about a new contract while the player is a holdout. The Raiders didn't extend offensive tackle Donald Penn's contract last year until he returned to the fold shortly after the second preseason game.
Gauging a player's leverage, risks
Generally, players need to objectively assess their leverage and understand the risks and potential ramifications before deciding to hold out. Most holdouts don't result in the player receiving a new contract. When I was a player representative and we had a client contemplating a holdout, we would arrange conversations between him and other clients we had who considered holding out or been through one and recommend that he speak with other NFL players he knew well that had been faced with the same decision. Chancellor would be a great resource for Thomas in this regard.
We would attempt to gauge the client's level of commitment beforehand by detailing the worst-case scenarios with his potential holdout since some players don't have the attitude or mindset for a lengthy holdout. The client would be given his team's history with holdouts. We would also provide him a league-wide analysis of holdouts over the previous five years which included the success rate.
Penalties for holdouts
The penalties under the CBA are severe for players under contract withholding services they are contractually obligated to perform once training camp starts, which are an effective deterrent for most players unhappy with their deals.
A team can fine a player a maximum of $40,000 for each day of training camp missed. Training camps typically run from 35 to 40 days. Missing all of camp would subject Thomas to approximately $1.5 million in fines.
A team can also recover a portion of a player's signing bonus. Fifteen percent of the prorated amount of signing bonus can be recouped on the sixth day of a training camp holdout. Thomas' total 2018 signing bonus proration is $1.9 million. It's one percent for each additional missed day with a maximum of 25 percent of the prorated amount during training camp. An additional 25 percent can be recovered with the first missed regular-season game. After four missed weeks, a team can recover 1/17 of the prorated amount for each additional week of the player's absence. The maximum a team can recover in a season is the entire prorated amount of the player's signing bonus in that contract year. Thomas would also be forfeiting 1/17th of his $8.5 million base salary for each week of the regular season he missed, which is $500,000.
When a holdout reaches the regular season
Holdouts extending into the regular season are extremely rare. The only one in the last few years besides Chancellor's was by current Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown with the Texans last year, which lasted nearly three months. Seattle acquired Brown at last season's trading deadline in late October.
The chances of Thomas sitting out the 2018 season are remote. It would be counterproductive contractually. Seattle would likely have Thomas' contract tolled for a full year under the extension provisions in paragraph 16 of the standard NFL player contract thanks to an arbitration decision relating to Joey Galloway's 101-day holdout in 1999. This would mean Thomas' deal wouldn't expire until after the 2019 season instead of the 2018 season.
Seattle lost a grievance attempting to get Galloway's contact extended for an additional year under paragraph 16 because he held out for the first nine weeks of the 1999 season. The arbitrator didn't give a clear standard for how many missed weeks are necessary to trigger tolling.
It is the NFLPA's belief that the deadline for teams to sign their unsigned franchise and transition players, draft picks and restricted free agents, which is the Tuesday following the 10th week of the season, also applies to holdouts. After this date, which is Nov. 13 this year, these players are prohibited from playing for the rest of the season. It remains to be seen whether returning at this deadline would be sufficient to prevent a contract from tolling.
An unsuccessful holdout would give the Seahawks the option of putting a franchise tag on Thomas in 2019. The safety number is currently $11.287 million. The 2019 safety franchise tag is expected to be about same if the salary cap increases to the $190 million neighborhood next year.
The possibility of a trade
The Seahawks haven't been opposed to trading Thomas for the right price. The Cowboys seem the most logical destination. Thomas, a Texas native, created a bit of a stir by lobbying Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett after a game between the teams last season to either trade for him or sign him if he ever hits free agency. Byron Jones moving to cornerback full time created a void at free safety in Dallas. Kris Richard, who was Seattle's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, becoming the Cowboys' secondary coach only fueled speculation that Thomas could join him in Dallas. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram's Clarence Hill, the Seahawks wanted first- and third-round picks for Thomas leading up to and during late April's NFL draft. Teams reportedly weren't willing to part with more than a third-round pick.
It may become time for to Seattle to aggressively pursue a trade, assuming the parties become firmly entrenched in their respective positions. Thomas becoming more vocal as the holdout progresses where he is increasingly critical of the Seahawks could be a signal that he would rather have a change of scenery than a new contract in Seattle. If the relationship between Thomas and the Seahawks becomes acrimonious, a trade may wind up being the most viable option. Seattle would need to lower its asking price to below a first-round pick. Any team seriously interested in Thomas would likely want permission to discuss a new contract with his representatives, if not reach an agreement in principle, before acquiring him.
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