Among the many superlatives hurled at the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement was an insistence that veteran players would be treated more fairly than rookies in terms of overall dollars. Over the past decade or so, first-round NFL rookies have found their initial salaries skyrocketing annually while many veterans were unable to find work.
In what was viewed by many as a “veteran friendly” agreement, the new CBA has dramatically adjusted what a top rookie can now make. Last year, the No. 1 overall pick, Sam Bradford, received $50 million guaranteed and this year, Cam Newton received $22 million guaranteed. Further down the draft board, rookies are now being slotted in terms of descending dollar amounts – with the only negotiating point being how many guaranteed years a contract covers.
Another wrinkle produced by the new CBA is the return of a salary cap floor, which required teams to spend up to a certain amount of cash per year. Absent in an uncapped 2010 season, the realities of frugal NFL teams proved the necessity of having a salary cap floor.
So with all of these qualifiers in place, it would appear that veteran NFL players made out in the end. Already, some terrific contracts have been handed out to players who could be characterized as marginal stars and with many teams experiencing cap breathing room, a wave of re-signings should follow.
Yet doesn’t it seem like there are still a lot of quality players currently without teams?
From the ghosts of Browns’ past, a short list of available players includes Braylon Edwards, Matt Roth, Abe Elam and Jerome Harrison.
While Edwards’ inclusion probably points more to his eternally mercurial and stunted behavior, the idea of Roth still being available is puzzling. From a defensive scheme standpoint, Roth may be a bit of a “tweener” but was easily the Browns’ best run defender and most physical player a year ago. On a lesser scale, Elam could make a similar argument. At select moments in 2010, Elam was a game-changer.
Speaking of which, Harrison just can’t catch a break. After an electric finish to the 2009 season, Harrison was traded to the Eagles, where he played well during his two instances of activity. So far during the current shortened offseason, Harrison’s name hasn’t surfaced often despite the sixth-year back's still largely untapped potential.
Around the rest of the league, some other interesting names count themselves among the unemployed, including former Giants Kevin Boss and Steve Smith, wide receiver Malcolm Floyd, tackle Jared Gaither, safety Dashon Goldson and veterans Shaun Ellis, Kirk Morrison and Ricky Williams.
Of course, we all know that the NFL is a prime example of capitalistic carnage. With only so many roster spots available per team, competition is leaded with ferocity.
So in regards to this year’s group of unsigned veteran talent, is the issue related to money or basic competition?
While more veteran free agents are slowly trickling into training camps around the league, what once appeared to be a boon for veterans has become anything but. With what appears to be an even greater source of undrafted free agent talent this year, NFL teams are both evaluating and housing players in a manner usually reserved for the early days of summer.
However, in the tightened window of this offseason’s NFL activity, teams don’t have the luxury of filtering through ranks of untested players. A fringe training camp roster candidate may not be exposed as such until late in the preseason. With this thinking, it’s possible that some of the above mentioned names – along with other lesser profile veterans – may be added to rosters towards the end of preseason.
In this sense, most NFL teams would be reenacting a lost June and July before turning attention towards game specific planning in September. As such, legions of undrafted free agents are currently serving as nothing more than NFL cannon fodder. As the preseason wears on – bringing with it the usual litany of injuries – these players will likely be replaced by more familiar names.
That is if it makes sense financially for the teams to do so.
Or remember, in the NFL, it’s always about money.
It’s worth noting that despite the modest financial gains the players made during CBA negotiations, one concession may prove costly to veterans. With a new agreement comes a bump in the NFL’s minimum salary. In 2011, rookies are paid $375,000 while a player with four to six years’ worth of experience gets $685,000.
On the surface, such a raise would be characterized as great news.
Yet in this scenario, it’s obviously more cost-effective for NFL teams to fill their last five to six roster spots with players who make less money. Even despite the looming need for some teams to actually spend more money than usual – in order to reach the approximate salary cap floor – paying a more experienced player still doesn’t make much financial sense.
In terms of a player such as former Browns players Eric Barton or David Bowens or a high profile name such as Terrell Owens, the minimum salaries jet to $910,000 – or roughly the cost of two undrafted rookies plus some spare change. In this case, a team would have to either be nowhere near the league’s salary cap floor or facing a personnel crisis that can only be solved through signing such a venerable talent.
In either case, veteran NFL players have once again become marginalized – despite the recent gains they have made.
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