Getting inside the Crabtree negotiations

It seems like every year there’s one negotiation that stands out as the last remaining battleground between a player and a team. The fact that this year’s last man standing is Michael Crabtree is not surprising, for a few reasons:

Crabtree appears to have a “herd” of enablers around him, including a cousin who’s a self-proclaimed adviser and enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame earlier this summer when he announced that Crabtree might sit out the season;

Eugene Parker, Crabtree’s agent, is going to pursue his concept of “value” to the fullest extent and will be pleasant, professional and maddeningly patient in trying to get the deal he wants;

The 49ers were admittedly elated when Crabtree fell to them in the draft and have not wanted (and don’t want) to inject a contentious tone into the negotiations.

The deadline has passed for any potential trade of Crabtree; that ship sailed on Aug. 14. Crabtree will be a 49er. Pay no attention to the rumor of him sitting out the season.

Now there’s a report of a requested meeting by the president of the club, Jed York, to try to inject a fresh new voice into the negotiations, which have been handled by the club’s able contract negotiator, Paraag Marathe. This is a nice public relations move by the team to show it’s doing everything it can to sign the player, although probably not something that will have much effect.

This negotiation has been dissected by many, including myself and my NFP colleague Bob Boland yesterday. Here, though, is a more in-depth look into the issues and the points of contention that may be taking place:


Parker’s calling card is to try to negotiate the shortest length possible on contracts. In Green Bay, I negotiated two first-round picks with him in the past five years — for Ahmad Carroll in 2004 and Justin Harrell in 2009 — and like clockwork, Eugene’s first and foremost request was a contract of four years in length, matching the number of years required to reach free agency. Parker understands that the most important thing about a first contract is to set up the second contract, where the true money is made.

Recently, Parker has negotiated two remarkable wide receiver contracts, those of Larry Fitzgerald in 2008 and Greg Jennings in 2009. Beyond the top-of-market APY (Average Per Year) and guaranteed money of these deals, Parker was able to have a term of four years in length, allowing both Fitzgerald and Jennings to have another shot at the free agency spending spree before they turn 30. These are gold standard contracts.

When I negotiated the contract of Jason Peters for the Eagles with Parker this spring, Peters was made the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL, but only with a six-year term. Parker fought hard but eventually agreed to a six-year deal kicking and screaming along the way.

Although there hasn’t been a four-year deal in the first round for 10 years – not since Parker client Chris McAlister in 1999 — Parker will try with Crabtree, knowing he will have to let go of that demand but try to use it as a bargaining chip for a concession. He does not have any leverage to ask for that term.

These deals are for five or six years. The 49ers are willing to pay more guaranteed money to have a six-year deal, but Parker will take less to have the five-year term, a term he will accept while feigning disappointment to not get a four-year.

Total Base Contract and Guaranteed Money

Despite all the banter about whether Crabtree, the 10th pick in the draft, deserves to be paid like a top five or top seven pick, that argument is a nonstarter — and Parker is smart enough to know that.

The contract of B.J. Raji at No. 9 is the most relevant. Normally, the team would try to slot in Crabtree between Raji and the 11th pick, Aaron Maybin, but the 49ers have generously not even tried to slot Crabtree, focusing on the Raji deal above.

Raji has a five-year deal (it’s written as a six-year but voids to five with minimum play time) with a conventional option bonus/one-time incentive structure. The base deal is worth $22.5 million; the guaranteed amount is $17.7 million (79 percent of the base contract). The increases from the 2008 pick, Keith Rivers, are 14.6 percent for total and 14.7 percent for guarantee.

This is essentially the deal that the 49ers have offered, bringing Crabtree right to the brink of the pick before him. It has not closed the deal, however, a huge source of disappointment for the club, as it would be for me if I were doing this deal.

The Escalator

The escalator provides upside in the contract based on the player’s performance. This is where things get tricky. In negotiating another first-round receiver’s deal this summer, I spent many more hours on the negotiation of the escalator than the hard dollars of the deal on Jeremy Maclin’s contract with the Eagles.

Issues to be resolved include the following:

the year(s) in which the ability to escalate kick in;
the year(s) in which the salaries start to escalate;
the thresholds for the ability to escalate — number of receptions, number of touchdown receptions, amount of reception yardage, playing time percentages, etc.;
ability to void the contract prior to expiration due to superior performance;
honors escalators for all-rookie, rookie of the year, Pro Bowl, other honors.

These are all negotiations in themselves, creating upside for the player beyond his base contract. The 49ers are certainly trying to adjust these escalators to penalize Crabtree for time missed this year, while Parker is trying to infuse these escalators with easier thresholds and levels of performance while pushing most of the performance criteria past this season.

Parker created a monster with the rookie contract of Fitzgerald, who earned so many escalators early in his contract that the deal became unworkable for the Cardinals, with cap numbers approaching $20M in the latter years. Thus, Fitzgerald and Parker had extraordinary leverage in last year’s extension with the Cardinals when he received the striking contract discussed above. This is what the 49ers are trying to avoid with the escalator.

Raji had a maximum escalator of $6M, with $5.3M of play time, $700,000 in honors incentives. $1.8M of the escalator was in the fourth year, $4.2M is in the fifth year. Parker is seeking considerably more, in line with Darrius Heyward-Bey’s maximum escalator of $15.8M, although $6.5M of it is what we consider “fluff”, escalators that rival the performance of a Jerry Rice or Randy Moss — funny money that the team doesn’t expect to be earned.

First-Year Money

The 49ers would like to have a larger base salary to inflict some sort of penalty (1/17th per week) for Crabtree missing these games early in the season.

Parker and Crabtree want the minimum salary, meaning that Crabtree is only missing out on 1/17th of first-year minimum ($310,000, or $18,000 a week)) and the rest in the form of roster bonus or signing bonus, earnable upon signing the contract, unaffected by this holdout period.

So, to answer a question many people have emailed me, what would I do if I were representing the 49ers? Not much different than what they’ve been doing, but here are some guidelines:

1. Maintain a positive working relationship with Parker despite the holdout. Patience is required here because Eugene is as composed as they come and will not be infl
uenced by fan or media pressure to sign. He has probably imbued Crabtree with some of the same.

2. Try to cut through the charade of the player wanting to be paid outside of the slot. For every argument like that, the team could say that if they didn’t draft him, he may have slid way down the draft and they could be negotiating around the fact that they saved him a lot of money by taking him. He was the 10th pick, for better or worse.

3. Offer a substantially similar APY and guarantee as the Raji deal, a generous offer off of a reasonable deal done by the Packers. It’s more than the 49ers want to pay and takes the deal to the brink of jumping the slot ahead and potentially rewarding the player for holding out, but my sources say that deal has been contemplated all along.

4. Offer upside escalators between the amount of Raji and the amount for Heyward-Bey, although have a great deal of “fluff” in the escalator — performance levels only achieved by the top receivers in the game. This lets the player shout to the world that his contract has a maximum value of, say, $35 million, while everyone inside the industry knows it’s really a deal of $22M, with another $6M of reachable escalators. The team will also make sure the escalators are evenly balanced for performance in years one through four, extracting a penalty for missed time this year.

5. Insist on a six-year term, knowing they would agree to a five-year term. I believe, however, they are beyond posturing about years at this point.

6. Insist that much of the compensation for 2009 be in the form of guaranteed salary rather than a combination of that plus signing bonus, roster bonus, etc. With a cap number of $2M, if the entire amount was salary, Crabtree would be losing $118,000 per week missed, a $100,000 difference compared to what he would be losing with minimum salary. With that structure, the team does not need to make hollow threats about lowering the offer. It will be lowered automatically.

7. Be as nice and patient as possible. The more that Parker, or any agent for that matter, can create angst and anger from a front office, the more they are getting inside the heads of management. Never let your adversaries become your enemies.

8. Crabtree appears to have a healthy opinion of himself. I never engaged in personal discussions of “who’s better” with agents or players; there was nothing to be gained from that. I would appeal to Crabtree’s sense of self with heavy upside at high levels of performance. One tenet of negotiations that I hold paramount is the following: Never underestimate the importance of ego and insecurity.

The 49ers do a good job in contract negotiations and have certainly thought through all of these issues. This is a tough one, but the mark of a good negotiator is to never let them see you sweat. The 49ers have to be frustrated, as are their fans and media, but they have to keep their eye on the ball. As they know, these few weeks are about five years of contract. This, too, shall pass, and the Crabtree summer of discontent will be a distant memory…I think.

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The agent cycle

I get asked many times, “When is your busy season?” My reply is, “September to April.”

For those agents with 50 or more clients, there is no down time. And for agents trying to build or maintain a mega-sized clientele, the treadmill is running 365 days a year.

My cycle begins in June and ends in May. Here’s a month by month breakdown of my schedule. It might be similar for most agents but not necessarily identical.

June: This is when the National Scouting Combine list is distributed to member NFL teams. Therefore, incoming seniors have a draft grade and the list somehow makes its way into the hands of agents. The national list becomes a prospect sheet for most agents. I actually haven’t had a copy of the list in a few years since it’s harder to get, but I identify prospects based on the opinions of my scouting network. So for me, June is some light initial recruiting: letters, brochures, emails and a few phone calls to about 10 prospects. It’s also vacation time. Most NFL front office execs, coaches and players take time off in June, so it’s safe to get some down time. I travel to Europe and visit a new country each year — 23 and counting. Other agencies start recruiting as early as March.

July: The month is filled with some follow-up recruiting and a few face-to-face meetings with prospects and/or their parents before the players head to camp. There may be some contract talks for veterans trying to get extensions done before camps start. Rookie draft-pick deals are front and center this month. Some endorsement deals may be finalized, especially with Nike and Reebok.

August: This is the month I plan my football season. I decide which NFL games I’m going to attend, what players I want to sign and what days I need to set aside in November, December and even January to have final meetings with college prospects. August is also filled with a few camp visits, some rookie counseling, some injury settlements/discussions and lots of phone calls to front offices checking on clients. There may be some veteran contract extension talks as well. This is not a travel-intensive month, but I have to be on alert and accessible.

September: This month usually kicks off with handling player cuts, player movement and getting rookies set up in their new team city. If I have a player cut and not re-signed, I’m on the phone trying to get him placed. I will also start visiting clients. Thursday night, I was at the Steelers game visiting Tyrone Carter, and I was in Cleveland over the weekend to see Browns guard Eric Steinbach and Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson.

October: I’m on the road attending NFL games and maybe a few college games. I represent some coaches, such as Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh and Green Bay assistant head coach Winston Moss, so I’ll also make time to see these guys as well. Because I live in San Diego, I’ll stay home when a client plays against the Chargers and usually see them for dinner the night before the game.

November: More NFL games and visiting with clients. Some face-to-face meetings with college prospects who have finished their regular season. The intensity picks up this month.

December: November segues into December with more NFL games and more meetings with college prospects. Seniors who have bowl games in January may take their final agent meetings on a weekend off from practice. This is a travel-intense month. There may also be a lot of activity and travel for agents who represent college coaches.

January: This is the busiest month of the year for football agents. There are usually a few more final meetings with prospects who are making their decisions on agents. I may meet for a second or third time with a prospect and sometimes for the first time with college players who waited until January to start the agent selection process. I also will attend the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game week, go to a playoff game or even a college bowl game. It’s not unusual for an agent to sign a player a few hours after his final game. I’ve welcomed the New Year in places like Tempe, El Paso and Pasadena waiting for a signature. In addition to traveling to visit clients and prospects, I may have a prospect visit me in San Diego for a final meeting. Some players fly to see several agents before making their final decision. On top of everything else this month, if you represent pro coaches as I do, you’re going to be busy. For example, last year Winston Moss had two head coaching interviews.

February: You may find me and other agents checking in on their rookie clients at a training facility. I will also be gearing up for deal-making at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Every year, I usually have a veteran free agent coming up (contracts are up at the end of this month), so I’ll prepare my pitch and price. I also may attend the Super bowl and the Pro Bowl.

March: Free agency takes center stage as the first week, if not the first day, of March is dominated by deal-making and shopping your free agents. This is also the month of college pro days. Many agents will attend these to cheer on their clients and even help manage the day itself. Some schools deny access to agents while others have an open-door policy. Some agents may attend as many as seven pro days this month. It’s also an excuse to get a peek (and maybe even an introduction) to the incoming seniors for that season.

April: April is usually the first month since the previous summer that agents can exhale. NFL teams are focused on the draft, your draftees are done working out and your free agents should be placed. Although there may be lots of phone work, there’s little in the way of travel. Some agents spend draft day with their clients as I sometimes do. It’s also tax time. I invite my rookies out to San Diego for a few days to relax at one of my beachfront condos. It’s a great opportunity to get to know my new clients better and prepare their expectations for draft day.

May: This is a slow month for me as there is little travel and little activity in the NFL. However, more aggressive agents use this time as a recruiting month. I use it to recharge my batteries.

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NFL has few options in Williams case

Before discussing the landmark decision regarding Pat and Kevin Williams on Friday, a couple of comments.

As to last night’s game, I have long referred to Greg Jennings of the Packers as a special player. Greg is not the fastest, strongest or biggest receiver, but he finds the ball and has incredible balance, hands and body control. I remember the early morning of draft day 2006 when Packers scout Eliot Wolf rolled tape of this kid from Western Michigan and said he would be our player in the second round. He was and recently was extended to a whopping contract extension. Kudos to Eliot for locking in on Jennings.

As for the Bay Area dramas, Richard Seymour has reported for duty in Oakland; Michael Crabtree has not reported in San Francisco. Seymour had a lot more to lose. His salary of $3.65 million calls for him to make $215,000 (1/17th) by reporting and playing tonight. Crabtree, however, will likely make the minimum salary as most of his compensation will eventually be in the form of bonuses and potential escalators. Thus, he only forfeited 1/17th of $310,000, or $18,000, by missing Sunday’s game.

Williamses Win

In a stunning opinion Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that Pat and Kevin Williams of the Vikings were cleared to play for the entire 2009 season, despite the fact the NFL had suspended them nine months ago for violating its Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse by testing positive for a diuretic that masks the presence of steroids.

I teach my first class of the semester today in sports law, and we now have a new addition to the syllabus, an astounding result as the federal policy favoring the sanctity of collectively bargained agreements between employers and employees has been disturbed here.

Anyone who wants to read the opinion can find it on the Eighth Circuit Court’s site. It reflects a result that is antithetical to the uniformity that the NFL hopes to achieve with players and teams through the application of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was negotiated by the league and the players.

What happened in court Friday?

A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit United States Court of Appeals essentially ruled that the NFL did not have complete jurisdiction over its drug-testing program, allowing the courts to get involved and sending this case back to state court to weigh the merits of the NFL policy against the protections of the Minnesota laws, a process that will take place some time after the season.

The court held that the Williamses’ claims were predicated on Minnesota law, not the NFL’s CBA nor its testing policies. Therefore, no interpretation of the CBA was necessary, and state law would apply.

The court found that despite the policy of preference for federal labor policies trumping state laws, this was not intended “to displace any state law they found inconvenient…” saying, “…such a rule of law would delegate to unions and unionized employers the power to exempt themselves from whatever state labor standards they disfavored.”

But aren’t players responsible for what’s in their bodies and subject to suspension?

Yes, according to the NFL policy that is a strict liability policy. Whether a player is taking a cold medication, a weight-loss pill or any other substance, he’s completely responsible for what’s in his system and faces penalties for positive tests. That, however, is how the NFL interprets it, not necessarily how the courts in Minnesota interpret it.

What about the Minnesota state laws is different than the NFL testing policies?

The Minnesota Drug Testing in the Workplace Act (DATWA) has rigid guidelines and procedures as to how and when employers can test employees, standards that are tougher for employers than the NFL requires in its Policy for Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances. These guidelines are more employee-friendly than most other states. What are those employee protections? Among them, the employer must:

– Provide employee who tests positive written notice, an opportunity to explain that result and ability to request a re-test at the expense of the employee;
– Not discharge or discipline the employee until positive tests verified;
– Give first-time offenders the chance to get treatment before action is taken.

Notwithstanding that, however, the league hopes it doesn’t have to worry about different applications in different states. It thought it had a uniform policy that was immune from state-by-state interpretation. That argument was rejected by the court as the ruling was that the players’ state law claim is independent of the NFL CBA.

The court ruled that the CBA cannot and does not pre-empt the state law claim, even if it results in potential anarchy among the many teams and states with NFL teams.

What about the players for the Saints? Will they be protected in the same way?

Not likely. Louisiana does not have the same protections for employees that the DATWA has in Minnesota, nor a Consumer Products Act, which is also present in Minnesota and was helpful to the WIlliamses as well in this case.

Charles Grant and Will Smith of the Saints are still subject to serve their four-game suspensions imposed by the league for their positive tests, as is the unsigned Deuce McAllister. It will be interesting to see how strongly the league pursues those suspensions, which were imposed 10 months ago.

What happens now?

The NFL could appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, which could obviously decline to hear the case.

The NFL could also request that the entire panel of judges on the Eight Circuit review the case, although it’s unlikely the court would do so after its own three-judge panel issued a ruling. In other words, the league’s options are limited.

Can states’ drug-testing procedures trump those of the NFL?

With this ruling, evidently. There is a real potential for anarchy in the drug-testing environment of the NFL and, for that matter, every league that has a collectively bargained drug testing policy.

Spokesman Greg Aiello of the NFL said Friday: “The real losers today are the players on 31 other clubs who no longer live under the same rules as players on the Minnesota Vikings — a result of the NFL Players Association’s failure to stand behind the program it negotiated with the league.”

Does the state law in the NFL player contract trump the CBA?

That is now the question. In Paragraph 22 of the standard NFL player contract, the language states, “This contract is made under and shall be governed by the laws of the state of ________.” The contracts of the Williamses obviously have “Minnesota” in that space. Although all NFL player contracts are ultimately governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, this case raises the question as to which source of governance trumps the other.

This is not over. Stay tuned.

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Now it’s ‘we’ time in the NFL

As of Thursday night’s scintillating opener, another NFL season is upon us, seven long months since a meaningful snap was last taken.

I have always referred to football’s long offseason as “me” time, when players seek to get the best they can get for themselves, with the interests of the team being secondary. We have now finally reached “we” time, when teams galvanize together in the ultimate team sport, a sport where the absolute best players in the game are on the sidelines for at least half of it.

And what an offseason of “me” time it was. It included:

– Annual contractual gripings by regulars such as Anquan Boldin and Chad Ochocinco.

– Massive contract extensions for players who used the strong leverage of impending free agency (Nnamdi Asomugha, Jordan Gross).

– Unrestricted free-agent deals that set new standards of pay for defensive linemen (Albert Haynesworth), linebackers (Bart Scott) and centers (Jason Brown).

– Franchise players who leveraged their status into megadeals (Matt Cassel, Terrell Suggs).

– Traded players who complained their way into better situations (Jay Cutler, Jason Peters).

– This year’s poster child for what’s wrong with rookie compensation, Matthew Stafford, now the NFL’s highest-paid player in terms of guaranteed money at $41.7 million.

Perhaps the two most talked about players in the 2009 NFL offseason were not members of any NFL team until a couple weeks ago. Michael Vick has resurfaced with the Eagles, a team that presented him with the best option for redemption, as his other choices for employment would not have set him up well for the future. And, of course, my old friend Brett Lorenzo Favre finally agreed to a date with the Vikings, who had been asking him out for more than a year.

Note on Favre: I’m amazed at how many people ask why Favre made the Vikings wait, why he couldn’t make up his mind, why he acts the way he does, etc. The answer is very simple: Because he can. Had the Vikings threatened to pull the plug or lower the offer at any time, we may have seen different behavior from Brett.

And, of course, what would an NFL offseason be without bad behavior?

Donte Stallworth gave us a chilling reminder of how a blink of an eye can change a career and, much more tragically, a life.

Plaxico Burress gave up his self-delusion that he would get another large contract and avoid jail time and finally accepted reality and took the plea bargain for his crime.

Brandon Marshall was suspended for conduct detrimental to the Broncos due to his scripted insubordination.

Now, however, “me” season is over, and as we look into the crystal ball for the 2009 season, it’s important to remember the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” There will be some constants in 2009, such as:

– The teams that have been built for sustained success — Giants, Packers, Eagles, Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Steelers, Titans, Ravens, etc. — will likely continue to have success.

– The teams drafting high in the 2009 NFL Draft — due to a poor record in 2008 — will likely have the top choices in the 2010 draft, due to a poor record in 2009.

– Wide receiver divas such as Terrell Owens, Marshall, Ochocinco, Boldin and others will have production on the field but cause headaches for their teams off it. Memo to Denver: Throwing money at Marshall will not solve the problem. Step away from the bargaining table now!

– A month from now, there will be three or four teams talking about 2010 already. So much for 2009.

– Brett Favre will give weekly press conferences where he’ll say things like, “I’m not saying….” which means he is saying, “I don’t care about records….” and “This will be my last year…” And people will believe him.

– Teams will be very hesitant to extend contracts this season (save for a record-setting deal to come soon for DeMarcus Ware) due to, in some cases, cash flow issues, but in most cases because of the great uncertainty about a future that appears to include no salary cap in 2010 and potentially no football in 2011.

– Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith will do more negotiating in the media than with each other about a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Only a deadline — perhaps March 1 — will spur action.

– The combative relationship between the NFL and cable companies over carriage of NFL Network will continue, with the league holding to its price and insistence on not being placed on a sports tier.

– The tweeting issue will not go away. The league has covered the problem of tweeting immediately before and after games, but the individualistic nature of tweeting at times will outweigh the team-first mentality that coaches, management and the league desire. We have not seen the last of the tweaking of the tweeting rules.

– The blackout rule will be adjusted, although not enough to please teams and fans.

– Flatline coaches such as Andy Reid and Bill Belichick will frustrate fans and media with their platitude answers but will continue to win.

– Emotional and fiery coaches such as Tom Cable and Mike Singletary will delight fans and media with their outbursts as their teams will have similar mood swings.

– Richard Seymour will play for the Raiders and Michael Crabtree will sign with the 49ers; the financial consequences are too severe for them not to.

And, of course, the National Football Post will be publishing every day to bring you the best news, information, insight and opinion available about the sport we love. Enjoy the games and enjoy the NFP.

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High anxiety for rookies

I’ve always believed that life comes down to defining moments.

This philosophy especially holds true for NFL players when it comes to making a team. It could be one play, some supporting words from a position coach in a personnel meeting or an injury to another player that provides an opportunity to play in the NFL.

Imagine coming out of college as an accounting major at the naive age of 22 and being drafted by a firm in one of 32 major cities. Graduates from some Ivy League schools get big bonuses to work for prestigious east coast firms and most likely will have job security for the next three or four years. The rest have to spend their summer competing with each other and veteran CPAs to land one of the finite number of jobs at a minimum salary. They have grueling days of test taking, four role-playing skits and a chance to perform their skills with and against the veterans. Then, in a defining moment, the partners post a list on the wall at the end of the summer with the names of those who will be accountants for at least another year and possibly have careers.

If your name is not on the list, you hope another firm doesn’t like the graduates that it drafted and will give you a call. However, tax season is starting and there isn’t much time. There are eight intern jobs for each team, and you hope to land one of them. The pay is just enough to cover your living expenses.

I don’t think any of us can fully understand the anxiety caused by the NFL’s process for making a team. It is, at minimum, a very stressful time for the young men who are trying to fulfill their individual dreams of working on Sundays and making their passion a career. For those who had their dreams cut short last Saturday, some will rise from the ashes and find their way back into the mix. It may take a year or two like it did for Mat McBriar, Al Harris or Kelly Gregg, but some will make it. The rest will hang on for a few years going to tryouts, signing with the UFL or making a pilgrimage to Canada. The rest eventually will have to be like the rest of us and jump into the work force and commute to the plant, get a sales job at Dunder-Mifflin or start processing TPS reports in their cubicle.

For those who get to extend their dream, the anxiety is not over yet. At the tender age of 22 or 23, they still have to decide on a number of things: Where do I live in a city I’m unfamiliar with? Should I buy, lease or rent? Do I buy a new car or get a used one? Should I get a roommate? What kind of rental, car and life insurance should I get? Whom do I get to find it for me? Should I have my girlfriend come live with me? Should I have my dog shipped out? Do I buy or rent furniture? How should I invest my money, and whom should I trust with it?

These are a lot of grown-up decisions that most us get to make over time. In the NFL, the head coach usually gives rookies a day and half to get settled and work out these personal decisions. No wonder these guys make some bad decision early on. A good agent and financial consultant, along with the guidance of a team player development person, can help the transition, but it doesn’t entirely reduce the anxiety resting on the shoulders of these young men.

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Wednesday whys: Critical time for cap planning

Why is today such an important day of the year for the NFL salary cap?

Today marks the turn of the calendar in which all players on teams count toward the salary cap.

When the 2009 league year started on Feb. 27, that date marked the beginning of the “Top 51” view of the salary cap. In other words, from Feb. 27 until today, only the highest 51 salaries on a team counted toward the cap, with all amounts below those falling out. That allowed teams to do two things: (1) carry full rosters of 80 players with only the highest 51 counting, and (2) net the cost of signing new players against the 51st salary. For instance, if a team signed a new player for a salary of $1 million, it would knock out the 51st salary on the team that was, say, $350,000, meaning the team only need to have $650,000, not $1 million, of available room to sign the player.

As of now, every single team expense counts against the cap: players 52 and 53, all eight practice squad players, all LTBE (likely to be earned) incentives, all workout bonuses, all roster bonuses, all prorated signing bonuses, all salaries on injured reserve, all injury settlements, all grievance charges, all non-roster (dead) money from players no longer on the team, etc. It all counts, and it will all continue to count, as there is no cap-dumping into the subsequent year for the first time (since there is no cap next year).

Cap planning becomes paramount at this time of year, and this year more than any other, as teams must budget accordingly to effectively use their remaining cap room – as, again, none can be carried over into 2010 –while leaving room for any potential earned incentives and/or extensions.

Why is it unlikely that veteran players such as Jeff Garcia, A.J. Feeley, Zach Thomas, Jon Runyan, Sean Mahan and others will be signed this week?

The reason is the rule requiring vested veterans who are on opening-day rosters to receive full salary in the form of termination pay if they are released. Teams are careful to note any vested players on their roster at the start of the season, as they are financially committed to them for the year.

This doesn’t mean that these players won’t be signed soon, but it’s unlikely to be this week. After this week, the requirement to vested players is a four-week requirement, a far cry from a full year.

Teams routinely play the circumvention game during this week, signing a vested veteran early in the week and releasing him before the weekend, thus avoiding the termination pay requirement. In that case, the player gets paid his week’s salary but doesn’t count on the opening-day roster for those purposes. I’ve seen firsthand teams play fast and loose with these rules, and it was frustrating to deal with from a competitive standpoint.

Why hasn’t Richard Seymour reported to the Raiders, and why are his options very limited?

Seymour has been slow to report to the team that just acquired him through a trade, the Oakland Raiders. Why? You know the answer: Follow the money.

Seymour is in the last year of his contract and is approaching the wrong side of age 30. Thus, he would certainly like some assurances – the financial kind — about his future. Those assurances could come in the form of a formal promise by the Raiders not to tender him as the franchise player next year, or they could come in the form of a new contract. Once he reports to the Raiders, his leverage for a new contract lessens. So he is likely using this time to try to influence some concessions from a team that has been very, shall we say, player-friendly in compensation.

Having said that, the Raiders have the leverage here. Seymour, as part of the NFL Players Association and its collectively bargained agreement with the NFL, is subject to trade and having his contract assigned to another club, as it has been. He can report or be subject to the reserve/did not report list, which would force him to miss the season (as the Patriots did with Terry Glenn a few years ago). Seymour does not have a no-trade clause in his contract, a rarity in the NFL (only the Redskins’ Andre Carter and the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald have them).

The only unknown factor is the wording of the trade papers between the two clubs. In the event there is some requirement about signing Seymour to an extension or the like, things could be different.

My sense is that Seymour will be in uniform on Monday night to collect 1/17th of his $3.7M salary, or $217,650 in pay for the week.

Why are Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez starting for their teams in Week 1 of their careers?

Follow the money. The Lions ($41.7M in guaranteed money) and the Jets ($28M) want to start getting some ROI (return on investment) as soon as possible.

And for my Pet Peeve Why of the Week:

Why, in team preseason scouting reports, do writers discuss released players in the context that teams will miss them?

If the Colts were going to miss Marvin Harrison, if the Saints were going to miss Deuce McAllister, if the Buccaneers were going to miss Derrick Brooks, if the Cowboys were going to miss Terrell Owens, they wouldn’t have let them go. No one should forecast these teams’ seasons as if the players left willingly when the teams tried to keep them. That wasn’t the case.

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Financial impact of cutdown weekend

The way my crazy mind works, I always look at players released during cutdown weekend and focus on the money teams wasted by paying them significant amounts — only to flush them out to the street with golden parachutes months later.

In managing player costs for the Packers, the league’s only publicly-held franchise, for nine years, I always thought in terms of what was in the best interests of the shareholders. I believed that we – as employees of the team – were stewards of this national treasure called the Green Bay Packers and had a fiduciary duty to our fans and stockholders to serve their interests financially.

Here are some prominent examples of what just happened that may raise some financial eyebrows:

$ands of Time

The Raiders have been rumored to have cash issues. They have struggled with a lack of funding for a new stadium and the need for more revenue sharing among the clubs as they fall farther down the revenue rankings of the NFL.

That, however, didn’t stop them from excessive spending in 2008, including massive deals for players such as Tommy Kelly, Javon Walker (now cheaper to keep than release), DeAngelo Hall (released after eight games), Gibril Wilson (released after one season) and now Terdell Sands (released this weekend).

Sands was in Green Bay when I was there; he was as big a defensive lineman as I have ever seen. He showed brief flashes of ability but ended up disappointing, playing only one game with the Packers. Sands hooked on with the Raiders and showed enough to earn a four-year, $17-million deal in 2007, which I used as a comparable in negotiating the contract of Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins.

Sands received a $4-million signing bonus as part of that deal and $1 million in offseason bonuses this year before his release. For a team struggling for revenue, Sands was another expensive mistake who pocketed millions of dollars before being set free to work for a minimum contract – at best – elsewhere.

The Raiders have also forfeited their top pick in the 2011 draft to acquire Richard Seymour from New England, a pick that’s expected to be quite high. But given the exorbitant cost of guaranteed money for previous first-rounders such as JaMarcus Russell, Michael Huff, Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey, it will be a welcome non-expense.

The problem with acquiring Seymour is that he’s a free agent after this season. The Raiders run the risk of either (1) renting a player for one year and giving up the extremely high cost of a potential top pick, or (2) having to extend Seymour for top-of-market defensive lineman money, potentially upwards of $35M guaranteed – which is, coincidentally, the price of a top-five draft pick.

The Raiders keep adding to the cost side of their ledger while worrying about the revenue side.

It’s Good to be a McCown

The signing of Luke McCown in Tampa Bay earlier this year shows how long an offseason it is in the NFL and how things can change dramatically. When the Bucs rewarded McCown with a two-year, $7.5M contract with $2.5M in an upfront bonus in February, he was their starting quarterback. This was certainly not a typical backup quarterback deal.

But that was then, this is now. Since then, the Bucs drafted Josh Freeman in the first round and added veteran Byron Leftwich. And on Saturday, McCown was no longer a Buc, having that contract traded by the team with a parting gift of his $2.5M already earned. The Jacksonville Jaguars now assume the contract, but it’s for salary and incentives only, as the bonus has been paid.

This is the second time in two years that a McCown brother has signed early in the offseason for $2.5M in guaranteed money and then been traded at cutdown time due to changing circumstances. Last year, Josh McCown was the victim/beneficiary of the Brett Favre drama in Green Bay: The Jets’ acquisition of Favre led to the release of Chad Pennington, which led to the Dolphins’ acquisition of Pennington and the trading of McCown to Carolina, who assumed the contract with the bonus having been paid by the Dolphins early in the 2008 offseason.

Other financial notes on the cuts:

• No one values draft picks, especially those as high as the second round, more than Packers general manager Ted Thompson. Brian Brohm, last year’s second-round choice of the Packers (and his $1.5M guaranteed money that came with the contract), was released and then signed to the practice squad, leaving only 2008 seventh-rounder Matt Flynn as insurance for Aaron Rodgers (who is now one of the most important players in the NFL a year removed from being a backup). The Packers haven’t given up on Brohm, but the true test will be when a team comes calling to add him to their roster. What will the Packers do then?

• The duo that played a role in one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history is no longer part of the NFL. On Saturday, the Giants released David Tyree, recipient of the dramatic catch on top of his helmet in last year’s scintillating victory over the Patriots. The player covering Tyree, Rodney Harrison, retired earlier in the offseason after not receiving enough interest to continue playing. That play happened 18 months ago. How quickly things can change.

• Dunta Robinson, a franchise tag player with the Texans who has missed every second of the six-month offseason, will now sign his tender and report to the team. With training camp per diems of $2,000 a week and no obligation to be there, Robinson has stayed away. Now, with regular-season checks beginning this week – his franchise tender salary is $9.957M, meaning a weekly check for 1/17th of that amount, or $585, 706 – he will report. You think?

• I heard that the Chiefs offered Zach Thomas the “retirement” option before they released him, an option taken by Tedy Bruschi last week. He refused and was released, still wanting to play. We’ll see.

The practice squad shuffle

On Saturday at 4 p.m. eastern time, when rosters become fixed at 53 players, there will be about 700 players competing for 256 spots on practice squads. Those 450 players who don’t get signed will be on the outside looking in, wondering why they didn’t land spots. Teams that were not satisfied with their castoffs will search the wire for players they attempted to pick up after the draft but missed out on in April. Agents and team pitchmen such as GMs and head coaches will try to convince players to stay put their practice squads with promises of seeing time on the 53-man roster in the near future.

For many undrafted free agents who were overlooked on draft day and had to put up with what I call the “worst two hours in football” after the draft — when teams make pitches to players and agents like used car salesman with promises of opportunity — the process can start all over again. But this time it’s done over a 24-hour period.

Those coveted few rookies who had great camps, turned heads and impressed in preseason games will be asked to remain at the hotel as the teams promise a practice squad spot with the possibility of being activated within a few weeks. It’s a mixed bag of emotions for a player who’s been cut but is now asked to stay and practice with the team for a quarter of the minimum salary. That same player, however, may get offers from other teams to join their practice squad. There’s a “grass is greener” mentality to this process by both agents and teams in which a fresh start for the player seems like a better idea than going back to the team that just cut him. And so, it’s decision time again.

Typically, I encourage a player to stay put if a team offers a spot. He just spent five weeks learning a position, terminology, a playbook and a new system, so most of the time it’s not in his best interests to go elsewhere and start all over again. During the regular season, practice is 90 percent game prep with very little time spent on player development. However, I do explore all options for my player by not making a definitive decision until the dust has settled. I will always take a 53-man spot with a new team over a practice squad spot with the current team

For positions like wide receiver or tight end, I may be more open-minded to a new team’s practice squad since that player gets to show what he can do every day against the first team defense. It’s a little tougher for an interior lineman to make his mark during the regular season on the practice squad.

Every now and then, I’ll have a client who gets cut and is not claimed but is sought after by a few teams so desperate to have him that they will either pay a premium over the practice squad minimum or swear an oath that he will be activated within three weeks. I once had a player, Damien Robinson, who was told by the Eagles that he had made the team, then was cut the next day with the promise that he would be active the following week. I call that “the head fake.” The coaches had a love-hate relationship with Damien; they liked his potential but didn’t trust him yet. They cut him a few days after he made the 53, put him on the practice squad and demanded that he stay put and work harder. After a short time, I thought there was too much damage done to the relationship so I moved him to the Tampa Bay active roster, where he quickly became a starter.

There will be a lot more going on behind the scenes this weekend as players rely on their agents to make good decisions and put them in places where they can succeed.

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The harsh truth about cutdown day

First, a comment on the opening salvos in the pending negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association on a new collective bargaining agreement: Pay no attention to the rhetoric.

We’re in a full-on posturing phase as the two sides present their cases to the media and public. On the union side, executive director DeMaurice Smith has harped on the “show us your books” argument, to which the league has responded that it has shown enough. On the league side, senior executives have said that they are not only expecting but are comfortable with an uncapped year in 2010, figuring it will hurt the players more than it will help them. The recent Forbes value rankings for all clubs – which I’ll address in detail next week — will be a new subject for both sides to put their spin on. The bottom line is that both sides are not negotiating yet; they are still posturing.

On to cutdown day….

Unless they have no heart and have become immune to emotion through the cold business of the National Football League, this weekend is the hardest weekend of the year for front offices and coaches to manage from a personal as well as professional stance. Approximately 25 percent of the players who have been working for them for months will now be pushed into a flooded market with hundreds of other players looking for a handful of open NFL jobs. By Labor Day, the labor force in the NFL will have shrunk by a quarter.

Being on the Same Page

Cutdown day also shows the symmetry, or lack thereof, of teams’ front offices. Every team tries to have the three areas of the football operation – coaching, personnel and contract/cap management – on the same page, but inevitably one of the three prongs wields more influence. The makeup of the final roster is a defining moment for the power source of the team because these decisions can have lasting effects for years.

Coaches tend to favor older players familiar with their systems and more dependable in tense situations. They will sacrifice higher upside to have a better insurance policy in place.

Personnel staffs tend to prefer young players they have brought in to develop. They fear the prospect of those players playing for someone else after the investment made in them. They advocate patience with draft choices, even from previous years, rather than pushing them farther down the depth chart or off the team. Also, younger players usually play special teams; veteran players are more reluctant to do so.

Cap and contract managers play advisory roles in the process, mapping out scenarios of cap room and cash commitments with different rosters. I would often have up to 10 roster scenarios and the cap and cash commitments associated with each. Cap/contract managers are also responsible for monitoring the risk on vested players, for whom the team is fully responsible for the year’s salary if the player is on the roster the first weekend of the season. And, of course, cap/contract managers have to allow for budgets for practice squad, injured players, injury settlements, injury replacements, planned contract extensions, planned earned incentives, etc. With the rules changing this year due to no cap in 2010, these forecasts are more important than ever.

The Bane of Teams’ Existence: Injuries

Injury discussions are the most vital conversations of the weekend. The type and length of injuries of players on the roster bubble are debated intensely as roster decisions have to be made that affect whether these players will be kept on the roster, released, released with an injury settlement or placed on season-ending injured reserve. For players with four-to-six week injuries, such as MCL strains, high-ankle sprains and hamstring injuries, these decisions are especially difficult.

This is also the time when players are placed on reserve/injured with injuries that are, uh, season-ending. Officially, the team doctor has to certify that the injury is “major,” which qualifies it for a minimum six-week time frame and can leave the upper time limit indefinite. As to confirming the veracity of such injuries, the league has spot-checkers who appear at team headquarters to check on them. However, this seldom happens; in my nine years with the Packers, I encountered one spot-checker.

As to the underbelly/unknown side of what really happens with injuries, there are situations that no one would believe unless they were there. I was always amazed that on the morning after the last preseason game, there would suddenly be a couple of injuries to players who were about to be released. These players checked out fine after the game but had mysteriously developed injuries that would require them to receive their pay over the coming weeks or months (teams can’t release injured players; if they do, they’re subject to grievances). Tim Couch, the former top pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, was a player who never solicited treatment in his time in Green Bay but ended up filing a grievance for his elbow. I always wondered what happened to these players between the last preseason game and cutdown time that would eventually earn them tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars? I’m not saying…I’m just saying…

Cutting Down to 53 and 45 — and adding and cutting again

After all the debates and harangues in cutting the roster to 53, which usually include a more detailed discussion of what the game-day roster of 45 will look like, a team’s front office and coaches take a deep breath — and then it’s time to scour the league waiver wire for players who are better than the ones they have, sparking more debate about the 45- and 53-man rosters.

A staple of cutdown weekend is trade talk. The usual conversation between teams involves which players may be available and the bluffing about how many teams may be interested if the team were to release the player. The good personnel staffs are able to sift through the posturing and have conviction about the players they want and what they are willing to do to acquire them. The vast majority of players who are discussed are eventually released, and the majority of trades that occur are in exchange for the minimum allowable trade compensation, a “seventh if” pick – the trading team gets a seventh rounder if the traded player is on the 45 or 53-man roster for a certain number of games – in a future year.

Dreams Deferred and Dashed

This is a tough weekend. Hundreds of players have been working intensely for months, many since January, doing everything the team has asked them to do. Many of them had little or no chance of making the team from the moment they signed but clung to dreams of turning enough heads to get a shot. Now a member of the personnel staff is calling them, asking them to come by and start the process of handing in playbooks and taking exit physicals with trainers.

Almost half the group that assembled five weeks ago for training camp in any NFL city is gone. Although around 250 of those players will come back Monday as practice squad players, there is no time in the NFL calendar that displays the true cold, hard nature of the business than this one. As I’ve said to dozens of players, it’s the numbers; there just aren’t enough spots. It’s not personal. Even when I said it, I knew it was a clich