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How 4th-year players could be squeezed by a cap crunch

Seattle Seahawks v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The big expectation across the NFL this offseason is that the salary cap will decrease and teams across the league will turn to the middle class in order to come into compliance with cap requirements. The middle class had already long been shrinking, with the rookie wage scale of the 2011 CBA making it far less expensive for teams to use younger players on cost-controlled rookie contracts to build out depth on the roster. However, with multiple teams across the league looking at possibly needing to trim tens of millions of dollars in cap commitments for 2021, one group that could unexpectedly see itself at a disadvantage when crunch time comes at roster cuts in September is fourth year players.

Observers have long been critical of the fact that players on rookie contracts have minimal ability to renegotiate their contracts while being provided limited injury protections, however, players with three credited seasons could find themselves unexpectedly looking for work for cap reasons in September. The reason has to do with minimum salaries, the veteran minimum cap benefit and the fact that there are likely to be multiple teams across the league that will be looking to shave every dollar off cap savings they can.

Before jumping into the issue, it is first necessary to understand why it exists, and that means understanding minimum salaries for the 2021 season as defined by the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Minimum salaries are determined by how many credited seasons a player has, and for the 2021 season here are those minimums as determined by experience:

  • 0 credited seasons (rookies): $660,000
  • 1 credited season: $780,000
  • 2 credited seasons: $850,000
  • 3 credited seasons: $920,000
  • 4-6 credited seasons: $990,000
  • 7+ credited seasons: $1,050,000

So, players with three credited seasons have a CBA proscribed $920,000, all of which counts against the salary cap. In contrast, players with four or more credited seasons qualify for the Veteran Salary Benefit, more commonly known among fans as the veteran minimum contract benefit. The VSB provides that a player with four or more credited seasons who signs for the veteran minimum for their experience level counts against the salary cap the same as a player with two accrued seasons.

What that means for teams is that when they sit back and look at role players, there is a small advantage to signing veterans with four or more credited seasons compared to veterans with three credited seasons.

For a team like the Seattle Seahawks it means that as they look forward to 2021, their 2020 special teams snaps leaders who are unsigned for 2021 as listed by snaps played are:

  • Nick Bellore (UFA/290 special teams snaps)
  • Jacob Hollister (UFA/280 special teams snaps)
  • Ryan Neal (ERFA/199 special teams snaps)
  • Linden Stephens (ERFA/162 special teams snaps)
  • Jayson Stanley (ERFA/126 special teams snaps)
  • Damontre Moore (UFA/122 special teams snaps)
  • David Moore (UFA/97 special teams snaps)
  • Poona Ford (RFA/71 special teams snaps)
  • Damarious Randall (UFA/69 special teams snaps)
  • Ethan Pocic (UFA/68 special teams snaps)
  • Shaquem Griffin (RFA/68 special teams snaps)
  • Jordan Simmons (RFA/67 special teams snaps)
  • Shaquill Griffin (UFA/49 special teams snaps)
  • Neiko Thorpe (UFA/47 special teams snaps)
  • Mike Iupati (UFA/44 special teams snaps)

There are obviously a significant number of names on that list about which fans are unlikely to worry much. The trio of exclusive rights free agents in Neal, Stephens and Stanley seem almost certain to be back in 2021 on minimum ERFA tenders, while veterans such as Damontre Moore, Randall and Iupati played less critical members of the team in 2020 and may not be back next season.

However, digging in to certain names in the above group, there will certainly be questions regarding who will be the special teams leaders in 2021. While Bellore and Hollister are at the top of the list, there is certain to be a group of fans clamoring for the Hawks to bring back Shaquem to pick up a significant number of special teams snaps, just as he did in 2018 and 2019. However, depending on how tight the cap crunch is for teams across the league, what could jump up and shock some is the fact that veterans like Bellore, Hollister and Thorpe could potentially carry a lower cap hit than Shaquem.

If the Seahawks non-tender Shaquem as a restricted free agent, he then becomes an unrestricted free agent. If, at that time, he then signs a minimum salary contract, based on his three credited seasons his minimum salary for 2021 would be $920,000. In contrast, one of the more veteran players of Bellore, Hollister or Thorpe could sign a veteran contract that would be for a larger amount but carry a smaller cap hit. A minimum contract signed by one of these three would carry the following minimum salaries and cap hits:

  • Bellore (10 credited seasons): salary $1,075,000; cap hit $850,000
  • Thorpe (8 credited seasons): salary $1,075,000; cap hit $850,000
  • Hollister (4 credited seasons): salary $990,000; cap hit $850,000

The counter argument is that $70k is a drop in the bucket in terms of the millions of dollars many teams will need to trim off their cap commitments for 2021, and that is certainly true. However, compounding the squeeze on fourth year players will be the savings that can be had by the signing not only of more experienced players, but less experienced players as well.

In addition, in 2021 fourth year players who have demonstrated they can provide depth when called upon but have yet to establish themselves as starters will also see a challenge from rookies. Depth is fantastic, but when push comes to shove and teams across the league need to free up cap space, it’s likely there will be multiple fourth year players who see their jobs handed to first and second year players who cost less against the cap. In short, those players who enter 2021 with three credited seasons will be feeling the squeeze from both sides, and may need to show something extra during training camp to earn a spot on the 53 this fall.