As we pass through the winter lull after the Super Bowl, we are starting to see the first activity of the 2015 season, beginning with the arrival of the scouting combine. This event attracts the decision-makers of NFL teams as they look to evaluate the raw talent of hopeful prospects in the upcoming draft. Aside from watching aspiring young players, this event also brings those decision-makers together with player agents. And any time player agents are involved, you get lots of information - some of which is true and some that can only be described as a smokescreen.
A common theme you will see in news reports this time of year is when an NFL team announces that they want to re-sign one of their own free agents. What this typically translates to is, the team wants the player back on their team, but they are not in a position to meet the player’s perceived salary demands. So they intend to allow the player to test the free agent market. In these cases, you can often sense the frustration from the team’s front office.
For example, Steve Bisciotti , the owner of the Ravens, made a point this past week of stating that he felt Mike Wallace’s contract was not good deal. Did he say this because he has something against Mike Wallace or the Dolphins organization? I don’t believe so. What he’s saying is that he does not like the fact that Wallace’s contract raised the value, and thus the salary demands, of a player like Torrey Smith. His intent is to label the Wallace deal as preposterously high in an attempt to temper the market and lower Smiths’ asking price. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Smith’s agent brought up the Wallace deal to use as a comparison for his client, and lit the fire under Bisciotti.
The reality is the Ravens, a veteran playoff team, have a huge contract in place for quarterback Joe Flacco. Because Flacco’s contract ties up so much of their salary cap, the Ravens don’t have the freedom to match the offers from other teams to all their pending free agents. This is frustrating to the Ravens, who don’t want to lose multiple pieces of their team. I can see the point of the team. In their opinion, Smith was not a great of wide receiver when he entered the league. The Ravens have developed him over the last several years, and he is now a solid wide receiver that is a threat across a wide range of routes. He really came into his own this past season, and I am sure the Ravens don’t want to lose him just as he’s becoming a prized starting wide receiver for their team.
On the player’s side of the equation, Smith has not yet ‘made bank.’ In today’s NFL, rookie salaries are capped, so a player doesn’t make a ton of money under that first contract. In particular, players selected after the first round in the draft are not highly paid relative to other players in the league. So you can’t blame a guy for wanting to set himself up for life, especially in a job where he can get hurt on one play and lose the ability to earn money.
Miami faces a similar quagmire with Charles Clay. They have to be careful with their cap space, but they have made it clear that they want to keep Clay. Much like Smith, Clay was not a great player when he entered the league and really only had one solid year in 2013 (he was hurt a large part of the 2014 season). Under his rookie contract, Clay has been paid peanuts relative to other NFL players, and there are probably several teams with cap space that can pay him well.
Such is the nature of salary cap. And you know what? It is worth it to the sport. The competitive balance in the NFL is amazing. Every season, every team has a realistic chance to compete. It is a far cry from the unbalance you see in professional baseball and basketball.
But as a fan, this creates a lot of frustration in the off-season. As you watch your team each year, you start to like the players that you see develop. Charles Clay went from a guy I was not sure had the size to play tight end in this league to “Big Play Clay” and a fan favorite. There is something special about watching the drafted players on your team develop into stars. You make them your own as you cheer for them. Many times the fans, the team, and the player all want things to stay put, but it is just not realistic. Fans and coaches alike hate to see “their” guys leave in free agency. The NFL does make an attempt to help prevent this from happening by having a franchise tag. However, in recent years this has turned into a negative tool for teams to use as leverage on a player, and I don’t think it serves its intended purpose.
With all this in mind, I want to throw an idea out there which I feel has some merit. My suggestion would be to give teams a “cap discount” to sign a player that was originally acquired by that team. The player could be acquired through a traditional route like drafting Clay, or through a nontraditional route like signing Cameron Wake as a free agent. The point being that the team that signed the player to their first contract is eligible for a cap discount on a new contract extension so long as the player remains on their team. Of course the NFL would need some accounting experts to come up with an ideal number to keep the mix of competitive balance in place. But this has the built in luxury of improving player loyalty to teams.
As an example, let’s say we used a discount number like 15%. Using Clay as our example, let’s say he has two equal offers of $5 million per year, one from the Dolphins, the other from the Broncos. If Miami signs Clay, their cap hit would be discounted since they were the team that signed him to his first contract. In other words, the Broncos would have a $5 million cap hit, while the Dolphins would only have a $4.25 million count against their cap. The idea is to create an advantage and incentive for both the team and the player to stay together. Of course if the player wants out, he would sign with another team regardless, barring the team using the uber-restrictive franchise tag.
This cap discount should have some appeal no matter who you root for. It would help the Ravens keep Smith, it would help the Cowboys keep Dez Bryant, and the Dolphins keep Clay. Of course, teams with a lot of cap space can and will still offer massive deals to get a player they want (“A fool and his money are quickly parted”). But in situations where a team and player are trying to make it work, it gives the team that expended considerable time and effort developing the player a better chance of keeping “their” player. And it also helps the team keep a player that the fans have grown to love.
So what do you think? I am interested in hearing what people have to say about this idea. Post your comments below or let me know on Twitter @GoFins4SB!
This column was written by Chad Ronnebaum. Follow him on Twitter: @GoFins4SB