|Wednesday, February 19
Updated: March 25, 3:47 PM ET
Large roster bonuses force teams to make decisions
By Len Pasquarelli
It is Monopoly Money and Fool's Gold all rolled into one -- a $14 million windfall that Cleveland linebacker Jamir Miller will never see, and that Browns management never had any intention of paying.
OK, so Miller's $14 million roster bonus, due March 1, is the Mac Daddy of such contract addendums. But it is hardly the only roster bonus due to an NFL veteran player next month. And it certainly isn't the only roster bonus that will not be paid.
"There's going to be a lot of scrambling in the next week or so to address the big (roster) bonuses," said agent Tom Condon, who has several clients due payouts. "There are a lot of ways to deal with them, and, trust me, all of them will be discussed. That (March 1) date is coming up. So it's time for teams to deal with the roster bonuses and, one way or another, they will."
By unofficial count, there are at least five dozen players due roster or option bonuses of $1 million or more in the first two weeks of March. Most come due March 1, a date that coincides with the start of the free agency period each spring -- the official first day of the league year.
Most stipulate that a player will be paid the bonus if he is on a team's roster on March 1. Some, like that of New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn, who is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 10, come up a little later. But since teams traditionally scramble to squeeze under the salary cap in the days preceding March 1, and since not paying roster bonuses is a fairly expeditious way to save money, they are the first items identified when belt-tightening begins.
Last year, for instance, only a little more than half of the March 1 signing bonuses of $1 million or more were paid. This year doesn't figure to be much different.
Resolving roster-bonus situations is one more item, albeit one not on the official agenda, at this week's predraft scouting combine in Indianapolis. There are only a few teams, primarily those philosophically opposed to such bonuses, whose cap specialists won't spend time huddled with the agent of a player soon due a fat roster bonus.
One prominent agent allowed he has at least five meetings scheduled over the weekend at the combine to deal with roster-bonus issues.
"The clock," said the cap manager for one AFC team, "is moving toward midnight on (roster bonuses). And most of the roster bonuses of $1 million, maybe less, are going to turn into pumpkins. Because, like the glass slipper, they don't fit for teams anymore."
So if most roster bonuses aren't meant to be paid in the first place, why are they even negotiated into contracts?
For one thing, they allow agents to pump up the overall value of a contract, to fatten its per-year average with "funny money." On the plus side for some agents and players, a roster bonus tied to an early March payout date forces a team to make a decision on a player early in the free-agency period, instead of perhaps releasing him later in the summer. The earlier a player gets into the market, the better his chances of landing a decent deal with a new club. The rationale isn't far different for teams, too. It gives them an easy way to lop off funds for a player who no longer fits into a their plans, or to perhaps renegotiate the contract of a veteran they want to retain.
The $14 million roster bonus due Miller was written into his contract on Jan. 1. Coming off a season wiped out by an Achilles injury, both Miller and the Browns wanted a deadline by which a new deal would be negotiated or the player would be released. By making the roster bonus so prohibitive, Cleveland must either rework Miller's contract over the next 10 days or release him altogether.
The early March roster bonuses are, in part, accountable for so many of the players who are dumped into the free agent pool even though they were not scheduled for unrestricted status. Teams now, while evaluating free agents, are forced to guess on which veterans with roster bonuses might become cap casualties in late February or early March.
"What it's done is created an entire subset of free agents," said Washington Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato. "You've got the list of players you know will be unrestricted. And then you've got the list of guys who you are guessing might be cut loose."
One way to keep from releasing the player is to refashion the contract, to address the roster bonus by perhaps including it in a signing bonus for an extended deal, or to have a player agree to void it.
Houston offensive tackle Tony Boselli, who didn't play a single snap in 2002, will receive his roster bonus of $2 million on March 1, but he had to agree to cut his base salary by $3.85 million to assure the payment. There is much attention being paid in New York to how the Giants deal with the $1 million roster bonus Sehorn is due March 10.
No matter the manner of confronting them, there are some critical issues for teams involved in such negotiations.
Kansas City, for instance, owes quarterback Trent Green a whopping roster bonus of $8 million on March 2. Among some of the other untenable roster bonuses: Green Bay cornerback Tyrone Williams ($4 million), Kansas City defensive end Duane Clemons ($3.5 million), Oakland defensive tackle Sam Adams ($5 million), Raiders cornerback Tory James ($4 million), Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest ($5 million), St. Louis corner Aeneas Williams ($3.5 million), Denver defensive tackle Chester McGlockton ($2 million).
Negotiations aimed at restructuring the contracts of many of those players, and of avoiding the roster bonuses due them, are already under way. And they will continue, full-bore in some cases, in Indianapolis, where scouting college prospects is only one element of what transpires there this week.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.