The rising salary cap, which sits at $167 million for the 2017 season — up $12 million from last year and $47 million from 2011, the first season of the league’s current collective bargaining agreement — has altered spending patterns in the NFL. And though earnings are rising for the top free agents, a confluence of events has caused them to shrink for those lower on rosters, eradicating the NFL’s middle class and costing its lower tier much of its leverage.
Larger training camp and practice squad rosters mean more players competing for spots on the active roster, robbing those on the fringes of true bargaining power. The rookie wage scale, introduced in 2011 to theoretically push more money toward veterans, has actually hurt aging nonstars, who wind up negotiating below-market deals based on their low initial salaries. And of course, NFL teams remain self-interested even amid the rising cap, reducing their own financial burden using little-known, widely implemented mechanisms like split contracts and per-game roster bonuses.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. “The goal of [the 2011 CBA] was to give more money to the middle class,” says Mark Dominik, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager, who’s now an analyst for ESPN. “Instead, what happened was teams rewarded star players, and it created a cavernous pit between types of contracts. It’s a have-and-have-not league.”
NFL teams have always considered lower-rung players disposable. Now, however, franchises have become expert at stacking the deck against those with the least leverage, further splitting rosters into two clusters with vastly different circumstances.
“We’re in a challenging time,” says Rams general manager Les Snead. “I’ve heard [former Colts executive] Bill Polian talk about the concept of ‘monetary dysfunction,’ where you have problems in the locker room because guys are saying, ‘Hey, why is this guy getting this money?’ … The market used to be outdated annually; now it’s outdated on a player-by-player basis. The paradigm shifts constantly. … There’s going to be a natural jealousy.”
The clauses are a staple in a copycat league full of teams eager to protect their interests and control costs. Colin Kaepernick’s 2015 deal, for instance, included up to $2 million in per-game payments; he lost $875,000 when he went on injured reserve that year. Robert Griffin III stood to gain $750,000 in per-game bonuses last season with Cleveland, but played just five times due to a shoulder injury and earned just over $200,000 in bonuses instead. Jason Fitzgerald, who founded the website Over the Cap and has consulted for half a dozen NFL teams, says these bonus clauses are a way for teams to gain an edge on players who won’t agree to a split contract. He cited Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, who has suffered injuries but is valuable enough to dodge the split language historically reserved for bottom-of-the-roster players. Instead, Fitzgerald says, Nelson took $500,000 of his contract per year in per-game form.