Teams throughout the league have all been engaged in reducing cap dollars in order to comply with a reduced salary cap, based on a loss of revenue that occurred in the league during the 2020 season due to the COVID-19. Nearly half the teams in the NFL had to find ways to cut salary before the new league year officially started last week.
Some teams just released players while others traded contracts. Some just restructured player’s pay by converting their base salary into a signing bonus and prorating it over the length of a player’s deal. Some even added fictitious years for the purpose of getting under the cap number and these years will later void and cause more cap increases down the road.
The one exercise that comes with much consultation and a fair amount of strategy is when you must ask a player to CUT HIS PAY. This idea can not only have short term, but long term ramifications and effect the relationship with both the player and the agent in the future. This is where an educated and confident player rep (agent) can be very valuable in the process. A well-connected agent can prove to be valuable for both the player and the team during this process. No player is going to walk a tightrope wire without a safety net. When a team asks a player to reduce his pay, their only leverage is the threat of releasing the said player. A projection, by the agent, of what that player’s market value would be, if on the street, acts as the safety net and is the first thing that has to happen. Both sides understand this. Technically, yes, this is tampering if another team gets involved, but a well sourced agent with relationships that are deep and solid with teams can gather this information in a way that is viewed by most league insiders as just part of doing business. It’s very much accepted.
A pay cut, like the one the Minnesota Vikings executed last training camp with OT Riley Reiff, might just have had an effect on where Reiff was going to play in 2021. In his case, the team asked for a pay cut very late in the offseason and really limited his options. He really had no choice because most teams had their roster and cap all planned out for the season. It was playing hard ball and really squeezed him into a corner.
I remember thinking at the time, this is going to cause hurt feelings and might even effect how other players in the locker room viewed management. It was all well within the rules but, just my opinion, I really didn’t like it. A very loyal and consistent professional, who was well respected, got squeezed for money at the last second. This being said, After some due diligence by his agent, I’m sure Reiff agreed and stayed under a reduced contract. At the time, I felt like, because of this, he would have zero willingness to return and it might even have effected a lesser professional’s performance during 2020. It turned out I was right. Reiff signed with Cincinnati last week.
Don’t get me wrong, this happens around the league all the time and more so this offseason than ever before. Ben Roethlisberger took a haircut to stay in Pittsburgh, but it was softened by a signing bonus, some guaranteed money being thrown his way, and some shared hardship by the club of being willing to “kick the can” by pushing this money down the road in order to count against the cap, in dead money, when Rothlesberger retires. Both the club and Big Ben share some of the burden so it wasn’t a straight PAY CUT.
In my experience, the one thing that’s really hard to forecast in these types of negotiations is PRIDE. The line of thinking of a lot of players is that if they are going to have to play for less, it’s going to be for somebody else. I get it and understand it well. It’s a natural human reaction when somebody says they may not be worth what they have been getting paid.
I feel as though this may have happened in the Kyle Fuller situation and maybe even with Akiem Hicks, both with the Chicago Bears. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I’d be willing to bet that Fuller’s agent gauged the market once the Bears said he was going to get cut, if not for a pay cut. Having only one year left on a deal that was going to pay him $14M was his bar of demarcation. He and his agent made a quick decision that reflected the mindset I brought to light above. If I have to play for less, it will be somewhere else and, in Fuller’s case, just happens to be at a place where he already knows the head coach. He knows the defense and the learning curve will be short. Fuller believes he will re-establish his market value and then hit free agency in 2022. His agent negotiated down from the $14M as opposed to negotiating up from the veteran minimum of just over $1M, which would have happened if he had been released, another smart and well thought out strategy by Fuller and his team. The Bears just might have been offering a similar pay structure if he was willing to stay in Chicago, but the Bears paid the price for originating all this drama to start with. The fact that he had a new deal with the Denver Broncos so soon after he was released by the Bears tells me this deal was orchestrated well before.
The mechanics of the Hicks deal is another story and may just fall in the favor of the Bears. Obviously, with Fuller’s cap savings, the Bears might be more willing to fit the Hicks deal in under the cap now. Hicks and his representation may also have gauged the market and found it to be even more lucrative than his current status. Defensive lineman are fewer and further between than any other (non QB) position other than maybe offensive tackle. Hicks’ agent might have just said, release us, knowing he would get a pay raise if on the street. It sounds like the Bears are going to keep him, after giving him permission to seek a trade last week. That trade permission may have been used to gauge salary parameters because I’m sure any team that traded for him would have wanted him to sign an extension.
My point to all of this is that these decisions by teams and players have many pressure points and mechanics involved. They are complicated beyond the numbers and every one of them has a life of its own. Every decision effects the team building aspect as well. I actually enjoy the complexity of these deals and the juggling act that comes with being a General Manager in the National Football League. You do not just get to sit around and pick players like sometimes gets portrayed on social media or TV. These decisions are usually made only after tons of discussion with your Salary Cap Manager (sometimes the lead negotiator), the Head Coach and even the Team President and/or Owner, depending on how involved they want to be. I love the building of consensus, whether it’s in the draft room or the board room. When we as fans read ONE LINE in the transaction section of the newspaper, just remember the number of things and the thinking that usually goes into making these decisions are anything but a one line description. Sometimes things are not as first perceived and all deserve a deeper look.