|NFL stars Drew Brees (left) and Maurice Jones-Drew both have been involved in contract disputes this offseason.|
Even with workouts, minicamps and OTAs taking place, much of the offseason dialogue has centered on franchise-tagged stars (Drew Brees, Matt Forte, Dwayne Bowe) and a restricted free agent (Mike Wallace) who haven't reached long-term contracts. Maurice Jones-Drew threw himself into the mix last week by not reporting to a mandatory minicamp in hopes of getting a new contract, something Jacksonville Jaguars management said isn't happening since he has two years and roughly $9.4 million remaining on his current deal.
With training camps opening in about a month, those situations could create even more angst for fans, players and maybe even moreso team management, which attempts to finesse a salary cap that stayed relatively stagnant and won't be increasing much in the near future.
"Some teams are up against [the cap] now and a lot of the league could be next season," said a team official who deals with contracts and manages the salary cap. "That's why you've got to get your nucleus together now and not do something to mess you up down the road."
The salary cap slightly increased to $120.6 million from $120.37 last season. Several team management officials said it's not projected to jump much in 2013, prompting one general manager to say there could be "carnage" for some big-contract players -- Nnamdi Asomugha, for example -- after next season. It will also impact the market for impending free agents like Matt Schaub and Jake Long.
That's why the haggling to get deals done with Brees in New Orleans, Bowe in Kansas City, Forte in Chicago and Wallace in Pittsburgh hasn't been settled easily. Their respective teams know they are vital pieces, but the notion of individual value vs. the ability to build and maintain a competitive roster in future years might be more delicate than it's been since the cap has somewhat flat-lined.
Peaceful conclusions likely for Wallace, Brees
If the Steelers were to break the bank for Wallace -- a restricted free agent to whom they've tendered a one-year, $2.7 million contract -- they could lose talented wideout Antonio Brown after next season because they can't afford them both. That said, Wallace could be too expensive to retain as an unrestricted free agent in 2013 if a long-term deal isn't reached before training camp starts. There appears to be good-will negotiations taking place, since the Steelers opted not to reduce Wallace's tender to $577,000 to try and strong-arm him.
Brees is the most notable unrestricted free agent, mainly because of his track record and his value to a team that has consistently won and needs him more than ever with head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal. The impasse that's created angst in Who Dat Nation should be settled by the July 16 deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals or be forced to play under the one-year franchise tender, unless Brees is willing to sit out the season.
"Deadlines tend to get things done and you'll start seeing a lot of these franchise deals get worked out the first two weeks of July," the salary cap official said.
The Saints have said they want to take care of Brees and the feeling around the league is that a long-term deal will be reached and all will be good. The same result is expected with Bowe in Kansas City.
Some teams, according to one general manager, use the franchise tag to restrict player movement -- not so much in order to try and work out long-term deals, but because they fear players could lapse once they've received a big contract, like Albert Haynesworth. Rules state that placing restrictive parameters on players like franchise tags must be done in the spirit of working out a larger contract. In reality, that's not always the case.
As it pertains to Forte, or any running back with some years to his credit, that could always be a concern. A team could restrict a young, veteran running back from hitting the open market for a few years with a franchise tag, then let him walk as he approaches that age 30 benchmark teams use to start getting younger at the position. That player's earning potential will diminish at that point, as could his suitors.
Forte, 26, a four-year veteran coming off a knee injury, has been a reliable player and solid pro for the Bears, but the football business is ruthless -- as he has learned.
MJD, Revis situations most compelling
The most compelling situation could be that of Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and possibly cornerback Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets. Both are under contract for multiple years, but, especially in Jones-Drew's case, have shown strong indications a training camp holdout could be coming.
Jones-Drew, 27, is Jacksonville's best player and arguably the NFL's best running back, but the Jags can't set precedent by re-doing a five-year, $31 million deal which, at the time it was signed in 2009, was a market-value contract, one GM said. Some tweaks, like incentives, could be added, but re-doing a deal at this point could prompt other players to challenge management and make the club appear vulnerable. Jones-Drew has outperformed his contract, but other players have under-performed contracts, as well, and they don't give refunds, the GM said.
Of course, that is management perspective. Players have to get what they can while they can, and withholding their services is their best leverage unless they are free agents.
For Jones-Drew, there is an Aug. 6 deadline that, on paper, seems like a line in the sand. Any player under contract who doesn't report to camp by then loses a season toward free agency. Since he's entering his seventh season, though, losing a year toward free agency really doesn't matter. That situation is more crucial to players who don't have four years of tenure.
Jones-Drew has crossed that precipice, so he could hold out long term if he's willing to forfeit fines and potential game checks. Revis, who wants a new deal, is in the same boat.
That's why their situations could be the most compelling should one or both really push things and their teams decline to pacify them.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89