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Cap Classroom: PUP and tolling contracts

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

As the 2017 season wore on, one question fans and observers asked over and over was regarding the status of cornerback DeShawn Shead, who had opened the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list while working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in final half of the final game of the 2016 season.

The reasons fans were so interested in Shead’s status was due to the team’s loss of multiple defensive backs during the Week 10 game against the Arizona Cardinals, as both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor went down with injuries. With the benefit of nearly eighteen months of hindsight, we now know that Week 10 would be the last time fans would see either Chancellor or Sherman in uniform for Seattle. Shead, obviously, represented a step down from either, but he started at corner across from Sherman for nearly the entire 2016 campaign and had served as Chancellor’s backup at strong safety earlier in his career.

Fans knew, of course, that his performance would likely come up short of how he had played prior to suffering the ACL tear, but with the team’s season spiraling and desperate for help at the position, Shead represented a sort of hope that is rarely delivered late in a season. Unfortunately, that hope was never fulfilled. Shead played just 45 special teams snaps over the last two games of the 2017 season, and when Blair Walsh pushed a 48-yard, go ahead field goal wide right to end the Hawks season, it also ended Shead’s time in Seattle.

However, Shead’s time in Seattle did not come to an end because his contract expired, his time in Seattle came to an end because team management decided to move on. In spite of having played 2017 on a one year contract, because he spent the majority of the season on the PUP list rather than the 53 man roster, Shead’s contract tolled. If the Seahawks had wanted him on the roster in 2018, he was theirs for the taking on a repeat of the same one-year contract on which he spent the 2017 season.

Obviously, the Seahawks decided to move on from Shead, releasing him in order to allow him to sign with the Detroit Lions, rather than keep him on the tolled contract. However, it does present an opportunity for fans to learn one of the small intricacies regarding the PUP list when players are in the final year of their contract, and that is an intricacy of which another recent occurrence is also relevant.

In order to understand this, there are two key parts. The first key is that there are two conditions that must be met, and those conditions are:

  • the player must be in the final year of their contract and
  • the player must not spend enough time on the 53 man roster to earn an accrued season.

If both of those conditions hold true, then that player will have their contract tolled, and they will again be under contract to the same team for another season at the same terms as the final year of their contract.

I know that’s kind of confusing, so let me explain it with an example in order to clear up any misunderstandings created by my twisting and winding explanation. In my example, I will discuss Sebastian Vollmer, who was originally drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Vollmer stepped in and started almost immediately as a rookie, starting 44 games over the course of his rookie contract. He hit free agency in the spring of 2013, but rather than depart New England, Vollmer eventually agreed to terms on a new four year contract with the Pats.

This new contract would keep Vollmer in New England for the 2013-2016 seasons, while securing his services through his prime. Unfortunately, injuries continued to plague him in the coming season, as he missed eleven games in the first three years of the contract. Specifically, during the 2015 season he missed three regular season game and played through injury during both of the Pats playoff games.

The injuries he suffered in 2015, specifically a nagging hip injury, landed Vollmer on the PUP list to open training camp in 2016 and eventually led to him missing the entire season. That is important because having spent the entire season on PUP and IR, his contract tolled. That means that even though 2016 should have been the final year for which he was under contract to the Patriots, because his contract tolled, he was again under contract with the Patriots for the 2017 under the exact same terms. Both sides, however, had decided to move on rather than bring Vollmer back to New England for another season. Thus, the Pats released him in early March of 2017 and he retired just a few weeks later.

The reason this is of note now is that reports indicate that the contract of another player who suffered a serious injury has also tolled. Zach Miller of the Chicago Bears suffered a devastating knee injury that could have forced the amputation of his leg during the 2017, and in the spring of 2018 the Bears signed him to a one year, minimum salary contract.

So, in short, the Bears have shown themselves to be a class organization in terms of taking care of one their players who were injured on the field. Much as I anticipate with Chancellor, though, don’t be surprised if the Bears release Miller in the second half of the week after the draft. There are extended health insurance benefits available to qualified (vested) players released after May 1 with a failed physical designation, and so it will not be a surprise to see players like Chancellor and Miller quietly let go in the wake of the draft.