A Combine like no other

Greetings from the Combine, where I've been coming since 1998, the year where, as an agent, I couldn't get client Matt Hasselbeck an invitation!

Meeting business as usual?

Yesterday’s meeting at the Combine for key NFL personnel has drawn some attention, as its timing --- following a week of mediation to resolved the labor dispute and a week before expiration of the CBA -- is certainly interesting. Some have speculated that this is a unique and special meeting unlike others in the past. NFL officials, however, have maintained that this is routine, as this group gathers every year to go over procedures.

The truth is that both sides are correct. Yes, there is an annual meeting at the start of the Combine every year to brief head coaches and general managers. However, that meeting has been largely about media and other responsibilities over the coming days besides, of course, scouting college talent. The meeting is usually more procedural than substantive, with little detail about the coming weeks in the business of the NFL. Any detail about structuring contracts, the Salary Cap, and signing free agents, contact with players, etc. is usually left to conference calls and meetings among team presidents and Salary Cap managers.

A Combine like no other

That was then; this is now. While it is true that the head coaches and general managers were spared a lot of the business details of what is ahead, we are entering one of the most unique weeks in the history of the business of the NFL. Team executives have to plan out the coming weeks (months?) not knowing – at this moment – if there will be any NFL business to conduct during that time frame.

If there is no NFL business, meaning a work stoppage in the form of a lockout, teams will need to be briefed on the consequences of that, which are many:

  • Players will not be allowed in the team’s facility to either train or rehabilitate injuries.
  • The team will no longer cover players’ health care, although players can continue coverage through COBRA.
  • Football operations staff – coaches, trainers, etc. – will not be allowed contact with players, although there is a slippery slope in whether they are talking to players as “friends” as opposed to as employer to employee.
  • Front office personnel can talk to player agents but not engage in negotiations.
  • There are potential salary reductions and furloughs ahead for teams' coaches and other staff.

In sum, all NFL business between management and labor shall cease.

This is not good news for coaches and general managers. They are conflicted in their collective bargaining allegiance – to management, of course – versus their desire to interface with the product of their business, the players. A general manager I talked to said to me “I just want to put my team together.” That will have to wait.

The RFA issue

Of immediate importance is the issue of Restricted Free Agent (RFA) tenders. In a “normal” year, teams could only tender RFAs if they were players out of contract at the end of their third season. However, with the unique rules of 2010 due to the uncapped year, teams could tender – and retain as RFAs – players out of contract in their 3rd, 4th, and 5th years in the league. This created a major advantage for ownership as teams could tie up a much larger talent pool than before.

Now, with tenders due next Thursday, everyone wants to know how to apply them. To be safe, most teams I have talked to will tender as they did in 2010, covering their bases with 3, 4 and 5 year players. That, of course, will be challenged by the union in the same way as application of the Franchise tag.

If and when there is a CBA hammered out, neither NFL officials nor player agents will know – until it is actually negotiated – any of the following for sure:

  • Will there be a Salary Cap?
  • What will the Cap ceiling be?
  • What will the Cap floor be?
  • How many years required for unrestricted free agency?
  • How many years required for restricted free agency?
  • What are the tender amounts for restricted free agents?
  • Will there be a Franchise tag?
  • Will there be a Transition tag?
  • Can a team use both tags in the same year?
  • What will the rules be on proration of signing bonuses?
  • What will the rules be on recovery of signing bonuses?
  • What will the rules be on language of signing bonuses?
  • What will the rules be on future guarantees in contracts?
  • What will the rules be on voiding future years of contracts?
  • What will the rules be on adding escalators and incentives to contracts?
  • What will be the rookie salary structure?
  • Will there be a rookie wage scale?
  • Will there be any negotiation of rookie contracts?
  • Will there be a Player Performance Benefit program?

As you can see, aside from players still going through their testing, this is not your ordinary Combine. It will be unique. The real question is when any or all of the questions above will be answered.

Stay tuned.

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