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The New Deal

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After a nearly five month work stoppage, the NFL and NFL Players Association have agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that will provide labor peace for the next ten years.

Before the lockout began, there were talks of major changes such as adding regular season games, granting the league an antitrust exemption and shortening the full-year injured reserve designation. None of that happened; in fact the new CBA is almost the same exact number of pages as the previous one. The largest difference is that it’s more detailed with respect to how revenues are accounted and divided.  There’s even a paragraph describing how specific forfeitures will apply to Plaxico Burress’ contract.

Many of the changes, such as drug testing policies, stadium credits, and pension benefits will have no effect on how the game is played. However, there are new guidelines that will change the way your team’s roster is built and sustained.

The most justified change is the restructuring of the rookie salary cap. Fans, owners and players alike have been in disbelief for years at the notion that a rookie first-round draft pick can become the highest paid player in the league at his position before ever playing a down of professional football. Believe it or not, there was a rookie salary cap in place under the previous agreement, but it was unsuccessful in controlling wages. The new agreement allows for a “Year-One Rookie Compensation Pool,” which is determined by the league based on the team’s number of draft picks and where those picks are slotted.

Also, rookie contacts are now capped at four years with an option for a fifth, as opposed to six years under the previous agreement. The Steelers’ Year One Rookie Compensation Pool for 2011 was just under $4 million, which allowed them to sign 31st overall pick Cam Heyward to a four-year $6.7 million contract. Significantly cheaper than last year’s 31st overall pick, Jerry Hughes, who signed a five-year $12 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

This change is most notable at the number one spot, where last year QB Sam Bradford signed with the Rams for six years at $78 million, but this year’s number one, QB Cam Newton received only $22 million over four years.

Reducing the length of the deal allows teams to cut ties with players who are not developing (much like Hughes) without having to incur such a steep salary cap penalty. It also allows players who have played well to sign a big-money contract sooner.  The salary cap was also reduced slightly this year to $120.4 million per team. Each team is required to spend at least 99% of that ($119.1m) on their 2011 roster.

The reduction in player salaries didn’t come without concessions. The offseason workout period has been reduced from 14 weeks to 9 weeks. Most of these 9 weeks consist of strength and conditioning and “dead-ball” drills. Organized team activities (OTAs), which are full practices much like those conducted during training camp, have been reduced from 14 to 10.

Training camps have also been scaled back. Instead of two full-contact practices per day, the dreaded “two-a-days” are no longer allowed. Teams are allowed only one contact practice per day and the other must be a walk-through.

Roster limits have also changed under the new CBA. Teams are now permitted to bring 90 players to training camp instead of 80 and have 46 players on the active roster as opposed to 45. The maximum number of players on the final roster, including those inactive, remains 53.

In response to recent observations concerning players’ mental health following their career, a Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit has been written into the new agreement. This benefit is available to ex-players under 55 who have at least one credited season after 1994. If three different doctors agree that the ex-player has permanent, neuro-cognitive impairment, he will receive at least $1,500 per month for up to 15 years and have his medical expenses reimbursed.

Despite efforts to make the game safer and take care of those with long-term impairment, owners lobbied heavily for additional regular season games early in the negotiations. The topic moved so fast at first that Indianapolis Colts owner Bill Polian twice called the additional games a “fait accompli” in September. The NFLPA put their foot down hard. Not only were additional games not instituted, the topic was given only a one sentence article in new CBA saying that games can be added if the NFLPA agrees to it, representing a significant loss for the owners. The number of ex-players who qualify for the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit will have a large influence on any future talks of additional games.

The best thing about the CBA is that it does not include an opt-out clause, which leaves lockouts, decertifications and impasses off the table for another ten years. Now for the rule book…

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