Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith ended his holdout yesterday, agreeing to a contract with the Bears that partly addresses the concerns that had kept him from signing. The driving force behind Smith’s holdout was the same thing that initially kept Jets quarterback Sam Darnold out of camp: neither player wanted to sign a contract that would allow their teams to void guaranteed money in the event of a fine or suspension.
The Bears’ original offer reportedly included broad language that could have been used to take away some of Smith’s guarantees if he had been suspended for a variety of reasons, including a violation of the NFL’s new and confusing helmet rule. You can see why a linebacker might be concerned about his team wielding that sort of power when the NFL still has yet to demonstrate any ability to apply the new helmet rule consistently.
According to Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk, Smith got the Bears to cede some ground on voidable guarantees:
Per a source with knowledge of the deal, the two sides agreed to a specific formula that gives Smith protection against most of the potential incidents that would arise while he is in uniform and on a football field. As to anything that could happen during a play (for example, lowering the helmet, unnecessary roughness, illegal hit on a defenseless receiver, roughing the quarterback), Smith’s guarantees void only if the league office imposes a suspension of three games or more.
Smith would have to do something pretty heinous on the field to get hit with a three-game suspension (Florio points out that over the last decade only Vontaze Burfict has been suspended for three games for an on-field incident), and so he should be in good shape to earn out all of his guaranteed money.
But the Bears still do have some ability to void Smith’s guarantees, and that will likely embolden teams to keep seeking the ability to do so in the future. Voidable guarantees—often for violations as minor as fines—have crept into rookie contracts over the last few seasons, and multiple rookies had to fight to earn some protections against them during contract negotiations this summer. The specific language of those protections surely vary from player to player, and not all are as safe as others:
The fact that this is even a fight in the first place, that rookies, who already have their earning potential artificially depressed by the rookie wage scale, have to negotiate and hold out in order to prevent teams from reaching through various loopholes to snatch back the portions of their contracts that are actually guaranteed, is ridiculous. Smith may never do anything that will allow the Bears to exercise their right to void his guarantees—he’d have to be both a recklessly violent player and a tremendous bust for that to happen—but it’s a right that they, or any other team, should never have been granted in the first place.