NFL teams use all sorts of contractual techniques to limit the earning power of players, from injury splits to per-game roster bonuses to an abundance of one-year “prove it” deals. But there’s nothing quite as breathtaking as NFL contracts that automatically void—contract language that literally makes the back end of deals disappear as if they never existed.
An example: Nick Foles is returning to the Eagles to back up Carson Wentz on a contract that maxes out at five years and $27.5 million. But: If Foles is still on the Eagles’ roster on the 23rd day before the start of the 2019 league year—likely mid-February 2019—the rest of his deal voids. Poof. Gone. Just like that. Which means Foles’s deal is really a two-year deal with a total cash value of $11 million, before incentives.
Or, to put it another, more absurd (but totally accurate way), Nick Foles will be under contract for 2019 unless he is under contract for 2019.
What’s the point of the void language? Why not just make it a two-year deal? Because it buys the Eagles short-term cap relief. As of today, the Eagles have slightly less than $10 million in cap space, per NFLPA records. Foles’s deal was structured so he will count just $1.6 million against this year’s cap, and $7.6 million next year. He received a $3 million signing bonus that will be pro-rated at $600,000 per year across the five-year max life of the contract. And when the deal voids in 2019, his $1.8 million in remaining bonus proration will accelerate to the Eagles’ 2019 cap.
The void date also creates a deadline for a potential renegotiation. If the Eagles want to keep him, they have the chance to try to work out an extension while Foles is still under contract, before has a chance to bargain with other teams. And if they don’t want to bring him back, they can let the void kick in and eat the dead money, which by then might be more manageable for them to do, cap-wise.
Foles isn’t the only player with years on his contract that are completely ephemeral. The Bills similarly bought themselves immediate cap relief with Tyrod Taylor’s new five-year deal that automatically voids itself after two years. And last summer, the Jets had done something similar (albeit with a two-year structure) when they finally ended the saddest contract standoff in league history with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In all three cases, according to former Packers vice president and ex-agent Andrew Brandt, each player had “limited options” in terms of what he might get elsewhere. So each respective team took advantage of the chance to squeeze a little.
“The business,” Brandt told me, “seems more tilted to management all the time.”
Voidable contract years have a history that dates at least as far back as far as NFL’s previous CBA, according to overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald told me these devices were typically used in rookie contracts—this was before the rookie wage scale that took effect with the current CBA—and that those clauses typically had a stipulation attached to them that was easily reachable. A player might have had to play, say, 35 percent of the snaps in one year and 45 percent in the year after—the sort of thing that was frequently achievable for most high draft picks.
“Those were going to be earned 99 percent of the time unless you were a Vernon Gholston-level bust,” Fitzgerald said.
The Cowboys, Saints, and Washington have also sometimes used voidable years in contract restructures—the conversion of salary into a signing bonus—to create short-term cap relief, Fitzgerald added.
Ironically, in a pair of high-profile instances, voidable years were used by players as leverage against their teams. In 2009, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha signed with the Raiders for a reported three years and $45.3 million, thus making him “the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history,” as the common parlance went. But the deal voided following the 2010 season after Asomugha failed to meet playing time and performance incentives that were literally termed as “not likely to be earned.” As Fitzgerald wrote a few years back, “Under his initial contract Asomugha locked the Raiders into a dead money cost of $12.5 million unless the Raiders were able to come to a contractual agreement on an extension before his contract voided.” (That said, the Asomugha situation turned out to be not so clear cut.)
Likewise, Darrelle Revis’s second contract during his first stint with the Jets had a voidable clause that eventually forced the Jets into trading him to Tampa Bay.
Call them loopholes if you must, but teams have proven much more proficient at finding every last allowable trick under the terms of the CBA. As The MMQB’s Albert Breer discovered, just 24 out of 206 contracts filed with the NFLPA between March 7 and yesterday had total guarantees of at least $3 million beyond 2017. And as Kevin Clark of The Ringer wrote last week, citing something Fitzgerald had told him, there seems to be a “ripple effect” taking place thanks to an obscure clause in the CBA:
If a player on a multiyear contract is injured for the last game of a season, 50 percent of the money he’s owed (up to $1 million) the following season becomes guaranteed, even if he can’t play that year or was otherwise not going to make the team. To avoid that penalty, Fitzgerald says teams are trending toward more one-year deals for bottom-of-the-roster players — another way injury-prone, aging players can find themselves sapped of bargaining power or out of the league.
Then, of course, there is the rollover allowance, which allows teams to roll any used cap space into the following year, while being required to spend to a cap floor in four-year intervals, with this being the first year of the new increment.
“Cap space is no longer an issue as it was years ago; teams have become smarter and are taking advantage of the rollover allowance,” Brandt told me. “Now, teams such as San Francisco, Cleveland, and Jacksonville have adjusted caps of over $200 million, while being measured on spending minimums—and not for four years—based on the $167 million number [this year’s cap figure]. This is a loophole that is allowing teams to collectively leave $200-300 million of cap room on the table every year. Teams now have a collective $750 million in cap room, and free agency is basically over.”