Disgrunted San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and New England Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins are threatening to sit out the entire 2010 season. However, there is a strong probability that they will sign their contract tenders and report to their respective teams by Week 10, because language in the current collective bargaining agreement could place both players in the same situation next year.
Jackson and Mankins are five-year NFL veterans -- experienced enough to qualify as unrestricted free agents under a new CBA. However, clauses in the current CBA have caused much concern in union circles about the players' future status and ultimately could lead them to report to their teams this season.
"If they sit out the entire season, there is still a very, very strong chance they end up right back where they are -- restricted free agents," one CBA expert said.
The current CBA stipulates that if any restricted free agent sits out an entire season and doesn't sign his tender, his current team can issue another qualifying offer consistent with what it did the previous year. The player would have the same rights in terms of negotiating with other teams as he did the previous year. That means teams could again tender these players as they did in 2010.
Union and league sources were unclear about whether or not teams would have to re-tender players at their original 2010 level -- around $3 million -- or at their reduced levels, which could become one of many issues of contention.
While the NFL Players Association would like to create more rights for players in this situation, sources said there are no guarantees this language will be greatly altered via collective bargaining with owners, and that negotiating process is nowhere near completion. In sorting out options with NFLPA officials, the union could offer no guarantees to the players, sources said.
If the union decertifies, the league likely would continue with the existing rules, which would keep both players as restricted free agents. Or the league could implement new rules, which likely would include language still binding the players to their respective teams.
These are unprecedented, nuanced cases for both the league and union, and it's uncertain how the players' free-agent status could be impacted in the future if they remain unsigned. It could reach a point where the differing interpretations of CBA language forces a settlement -- along the lines of the roster-exempt settlement with Jackson brokered by the league and the union -- and there also is the possibility of court litigation.
"Even if we tried to challenge that language through a grievance or a settlement, there's no guarantee we would win," a union source said. "There is no way to guarantee in any instance they would get the language they want."
So ultimately, it might make more sense for Jackson and Mankins to sign their tenders and play the minimum games required to earn a full season toward free agency, sources said, assuming neither player is dealt by the trade deadline.
So why is Week 10 the magic date? Because being on a roster for at least six weeks virtually would assure both players of an accrued season -- and unrestricted free agency or a franchise-type tag. That season gives the players six in the league, and in any new CBA, players would need no more than that to earn unrestricted free agency.
Jackson, whose current tender is around $600,000, is seeking a long-term deal from the Chargers and an annual salary in the $8 million range. In order for Jackson to be on the roster for six weeks, however, he must report before Week 8 (Oct. 31).
Jackson faces a three-game stint on the roster-exempt list whenever he does report, during which time he will not earn time towards an accrued season. He would be eligible to play and earn credit toward an accrued season beginning Week 12 at Indianapolis. The Chargers finish the season against Oakland, Kansas City, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Denver.
Mankins wants to be traded and sign a long-term deal elsewhere, and his tender is $1.5 million. Since he isn't roster exempt, he must report by the Tuesday following Week 10 or become ineligible to play in the NFL at all in 2010.
The worst case for either player is that teams retain a franchise tag in the new CBA -- seen by many as likely -- which, for a wide receiver, would require a one-year commitment in the $10 million range. For an offensive tackle, the figure would be in the $9 million range.
The fear of suffering a major injury during the final six weeks that cripples future earning potential is significant, but being bound on a low tender to the Chargers or Patriots for another season is even less appealing. That ultimately leads many to conclude that Jackson will return to the Chargers just before Halloween, with Mankins doing the same a few weeks later with the Patriots.
Jackson's teammate, left tackle Marcus McNeill, was in the same predicament with the Chargers, but he signed his tender and reported to the team late last month. At this point, it would be a surprise not to see Jackson and Mankins do the same.