Is progress being made toward paying players a percentage of the salary cap?
During the 2016 offseason, we explained that nothing in the labor deal prevents players from getting paid a percentage of the salary cap. This approach would protect great players against significant jumps in the spending limit (and, in turn, the market) creating the impression that the player is being underpaid in the latter years of the contract.
Some have tried to get there, starting with former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis in 2010 and, more recently, continuing with Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins last year. To date, no player has gotten that sort of term.
Jason Cole of Bleacher Report recently noted that "[s]ome agents and people within [the] NFLPA are increasingly suggesting” that star players tie their contracts to a percentage of the cap. It’ll happen only when a great player has maximum leverage, presumably upon hitting the open market and creating a land rush for his services. It probably also needs to be a franchise quarterback.
While most big-money, long-term deals are meaningless beyond the first couple of years, a franchise quarterback tends to continue to play every year of his contract, until it’s time for another. To date, however, no true franchise quarterback has tried to get the out-year protection that comes from tying compensation to cap percentage. Not Aaron Rodgers (who refuses to admit he’s underpaid because to do so would be to admit he did a subpar deal four years ago), not Peyton Manning in 2012 (when teams were lining up to get him), not Tom Brady at any time, not Ben Roethsliberger, not Drew Brees, not Russell Wilson, not Andrew Luck (who may not be a true franchise quarterback yet, but who had plenty of leverage when he did his second deal), not anyone.
There’s still no guarantee that a player would get that term. It’s believed that the highly-influential Management Council has encouraged teams to resist, which makes the refusal to tie wages to cap percentage arguably collusion, if there were ever a paper trail to prove it.
Cole mentions Odell Beckham Jr. and Derek Carr as current star players who potentially could get a piece of the cap to account for future spikes, but Beckham is two years away from having his best leverage (unless he’s willing to hold out from mandatory activities and ultimately skip games) and Carr has one more year before he can put the Raiders on the verge of the Cousins-style year-to-year franchise-tag dance.
It’s really not all that controversial of a term, which makes the refusal of teams to do it even more confusing. The team and the player would set the salaries and guarantees for the first two or three years of the contract, and then starting in the third or fourth year of the deal he’ll have a set salary along with a roster bonus or some other payment aimed at bringing his total pay for the year to a certain percentage.
For example, if the Raiders were to sign Carr to a contract worth $25 million per year (which would represent 14.9 percent of the 2017 salary cap of $167 million), Carr’s contract would ensure that, come 2019 or 2020 (and beyond) he’d always be making 14.9 percent of the total cap.
If Rodgers had included such a term in his 2013 contract worth $22 million per year, which represented 17.8 percent of the $123 million salary cap in the year it was signed, he’d be making $29.72 million this year. Instead, he’s making $13.65 million.
Accounting for his signing bonus, Rodgers actually is at $20.3 million this year. Still, that’s nearly $10 million lower than where he could have been if the deal had fully accounted for what has become a 35.7-percent hike in the cap since Rodgers signed.
Of course, a term like that could make a team more likely to squeeze a player to take less or to simply cut him in latter years of the deal, given his overall cash and cap burden. But getting a crack at the open market because the team thinks the player is making too much is always better than being tied to a team by a contract that doesn’t pay nearly enough, and having no way to improve the situation without alienating fans who always applaud owners for trying to make more money and consistently chastise players for doing the same.