With free agency just hours away, the salary cap up about $10 million over last year and some meaty contracts already being handed out, a narrative shift is about to take place with regard to the NFL's economic landscape.
Basically, the players are about to get paid.
In spite of what you may have heard over the past two years, the players did very well for themselves in the latest collective bargaining agreement. The proof of that started to roll in a couple of weeks ago when we learned that the salary cap was rising dramatically this year and would do so again in the next two years. The cap is rising because the league's projected revenues continue to grow, but it's also rising because the players negotiated a new mechanism designed to force teams to spend more of that revenue than ever on player salaries.
The key chip the players got in that deal was a provision that requires each team to spent 89 percent of the salary cap, in cash, over a four-year period that began last year and another that begins in 2017. That means that, while teams may find ways to bank salary cap space for use in future years (as John Clayton discussed in his weekly mailbag), they're not going to be able to keep as much cash in their pockets as they have in years past. The cap has to rise, or else minimum salary levels would start to exceed the maximums.
You already can see the results in the new contracts signed over the past week. The cornerback market looks primed to take off, with Miami having signed Brent Grimes for four years, $32 million ($16.95 million guaranteed) and Green Bay having signed Sam Shields for four years, $39 million (including $15 million in the first year). Days after being cut by Cleveland, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson scored a four-year, $22 million deal ($11 million guaranteed) from Indianapolis. Days after being cut by Seattle, defensive tackle Red Bryant agreed to a four-year pact with Jacksonville.
This is all before the market actually opens. Once it does, expect the spending to get nuts. Teams can talk about banking cap room, and those who have young quarterbacks to pay in the coming years may well do so. But teams know the bill will eventually come due. If they don't hit the minimum-spending threshold by the end of the four-year window, they'll have to write checks to everyone who played for them during that time. So if they have players they like now and they have a chance to lock them up for big short-term money, they're going to do it.
And that's one big, tangible reason why the players are making out under the new CBA.
Critics of the deal point to commissioner Roger Goodell's ludicrous salary and bonus figures as evidence that the owners made out like bandits. In truth, the $73 million Goodell has made the last two years is merely proof that the NFL has more money than it knows what to do with, which would have been the case regardless of how this turned out. The owners are happy with the new deal, but that doesn't automatically mean players should be upset about it.
Owners locked out the players in 2011 because they wanted a larger share of licensing and local revenues than the previous deal gave them. They got it. They also gained cost control over the top draft-pick contracts they believed were getting out of hand and restrictions on the growth of player contracts in the first three years of players' careers. The owners got what they wanted.
For the first couple of years of the current CBA, as the salary cap stagnated and all anybody could see was that No. 1 overall draft picks weren't setting new contract records every year, the popular belief was that the players got taken to the cleaners.
Not the case.
Once they were locked out and realized the owners wouldn't let them continue under the previous rules, players sought quality-of-life improvements. The current CBA includes drastically improved benefits packages for players and their families, longer and better postcareer health care and a significant reduction in offseason work requirements. (i.e., those "voluntary" workouts that coaches made clear weren't so "voluntary" are fewer and farther between.) So Cam Newton may not be able to renegotiate his rookie deal as early as his No. 1-pick predecessors were, but the reason you don't hear him complaining about it is because he and his family are raking in benefits unavailable to those predecessors.
Remember, when you read the usual criticisms: It's not the players who have been grumbling for the past two years about the CBA; it's the agents. They miss the days when early first-round picks could move the market at premium positions, and while the salary cap stayed flat in the first couple of years of the deal, they wondered when the promised benefit would be realized on the veterans' end.
That time has come. Once the clock hits 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, all the complaints you've been hearing about the lousy deal the players made in 2011 are going to start sounding awfully silly. The end result is that everybody -- owners and players alike -- is making out on this new CBA. This spring, it's going to be the players' turn to look like the winners.