How An NFL Lockout Will Affect Potential Steelers Free Agents

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the potential ramifications if the NFL locks out its players in March due to a lack of collective bargaining agreement being successfully negotiated for the 2011 season.

Reportedly, NFL officials showed data to its owners that they could lose up to $1 billion even if a deal is reached late summer that resulted in no regular-season games being canceled.

The forecast projected teams could lose $400 million in March alone when most season-ticket packages are renewed or purchased initially, and another $500 million if preseason games are canceled in August. Hopefully, these projections will lead to the owners caving a little from their unreasonable demands in this absurd labor strife between billionaire owners and many millionaire players.

The current CBA divvies up most revenues, where players get roughly 60 percent and owners 40 percent. Teams then share any league-wide contracts equally, including all television deals. This utilitarian approach has resulted in the NFL having the most competitive balance of any major U.S. sport league (you will never see a Pittsburgh Pirates-type travesty so long as a pro sport league has a salary cap with a ceiling and floor, which is why Major League Baseball sucks). It has also helped make today’s NFL the most popular and profitable sport league in U.S. history.

However, the owners are complaining that populace backlashes to public financing for building plush stadiums for sport teams in these harsh economic times has resulted in the owners having to shell out huge amounts of their money for new stadiums and/or stadium upgrades, such as sky suites. Of course, the owners do pocket all of the revenues generated from such upgrades.

Despite this projection of potential losses if there is a lockout in March, the owners seem unreasonable by asking the players to essentially flip the 60-40 ratio of revenues received to where the owners take nearly 60% and the players 40%. They also want other concessions the players currently oppose – such as an 18-game schedule – that the players may concede through negotiations.

One reason the owners are taking such a harsh stance in negotiations is that the NFL somehow got ABC, CBS, DirecTV, ESPN and NBC to guarantee the networks would pay the NFL all of the television-contract money it negotiated through 2011 even if no games are played.

Current TV contracts with those networks are worth a combined more than $20 billion for rights to televise NFL games and the NFLPA estimates the league will receive $4 billion in television revenue in 2011 alone even if no games are played.

Regardless of a lockout, there will thankfully be an NFL Draft in April 2011. Some veterans will also become unrestricted free agents in January, although there may be little interest for teams to sign them to big contracts with such a tenuous labor situation.

My guess (and it is purely a hypothesis) is that a CBA will be reached sometime between late June and mid-August that will lower the players’ overall take but not near the complete 60-40 to 40-60 reversal the owners desire.

It will also include a salary cap with exceptions for free agents signed in the uncapped year of 2010, a hard rookie wage scale like that of the NBA (this is supported by both sides), some more token money for older former players and the player retirement pension, a franchise tag per team (although it may be limited to where a team can only apply one year in a row per player), and an increase in roster size to 56 active players (49 on gameday including emergency No. 3 QB) to accommodate an 18-game schedule.

The NFLPA wants most players to become an unrestricted free agents after their third season instead of having to wait four years as they have in years past, although most recent first-round picks have opted to sign 5- and 6-year deals to receive the most amount of potential money under the old CBA. The owners will not agree to this demand, although the longer deals for first-round picks may be shortened or eliminated due to the implementation of a hard rookie wage scale.

The last two CBAs resulted in players eligible for unrestricted free agency after four seasons and restricted free agency after three years unless they signed a longer deal during the life of those contracts, or were signed to a 5- or 6- year deal as a first-round pick.

However, a provision in the worst sport labor deal ever negotiated by the late Gene Upshaw (who was a horrible union rep for the players) resulted in no players being eligible for unrestricted free agency until after six seasons of service if no new labor deal was in place after the 2009 season.

This provision is why the Steelers were able to maintain the rights to OLB LaMarr Woodley and OT Willie Colon last season by merely issuing them 1-year tendered contracts that would have resulted in opposing teams having to give the Steelers a pair of first-round draft picks to sign Woodley or a first-round pick to sign Colon as restricted free agents.

Moreover, the Steelers had the right to match any unlikely offers either received. Without that provision kicking in for the 2010 season, Colon would have been an unrestricted free agents cashing in on huge payday from the Steelers or another team.

If a CBA is reached in late summer, my guess is the owners will refuse to sign off on a deal that would result in a slew of fourth- and fifth-year players immediately becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency. The new deal will likely keep the provision that players are not eligible for unrestricted free agency until after six years of service for the 2011 season and then revert back to most players being eligible to the open market after four years before the 2012 season.

This will happen for three reasons. First, the owners want to weaken the standing of the new union leadership with the players and preventing 4th-, 5th- and 6th-year players from cashing in on long-term contracts as unrestricted free agents will be infuriating for many in a league where the average career lasts just over 3 years.

Second, owners realize they will save a lot of money by keeping these players for 2011 under one-year contracts that do not include the lofty raises and huge signing bonuses that would likely be needed to keep the best of those players on their teams if they became unrestricted free agents.

Finally, the owners do no want a chaotic landscape where the biggest crop of potential free agents ever (if it included those who should have been eligible in both 2009 and 2010) hit the market in the summertime.

While my hypotheses would be a very bad scenario for the NFL and its fans, it would not be a bad situation for the Steelers. Through my scenarios above, the Steelers would retain the rights of  Colon by issuing him a 1-year tender even though he had played five seasons.

Also losing out on unrestricted free agency would be Woodley, CB William Gay, TE Matt Spaeth, and P Daniel Sepulveda, all of whom are currently in their fourth seasons with the Steelers and would have become unrestricted free agents under the old deal. The Steelers can essentially retain their rights by offering 1-year contracts.

However, franchise tags will likely end after 2010 with no new CBA, so kicker Jeff Reed will likely become an unrestricted free agent after this season. More important, the Steelers’ No. 1 CB Ike Taylor will definitely be an unrestricted veteran free agent. Others set to join that list are veterans QB Charlie Batch, DE Nick Eason, OG Trai Essex, ILB Keyaron Fox, NT Chris Hoke, CB Anthony Madison, RB Mewelde Moore, OT Jonathan Scott and LS Greg Warren.

The Steelers have long been good to their veterans, so expect them to try to resign some of their own free agents but likely ignore signing those from other teams due to the labor unrest.

Assuming he can break out of his early-season funk and not get arrested for an alcoholic-related offense between now and January, Reed is likely to return. He is valuable to the Steelers due to his accuracy in Heinz Field, the most difficult stadium to kick in the NFL. However, those skills would be less valuable to most franchises and his poor kickoff length – although improved this fall – would also weaken Reed’s value on the open market.

Taylor is the most interesting case. He loves the Steelers’ organization, the Rooney family, head coach Mike Tomlin and especially long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is like a father figure to Taylor and has remained committed to him despite his frequent psychological ups and downs. Thus, it is assumed that Taylor would likely take a lesser deal to remain with the Steelers.

However, he will be a No. 1 CB hitting the open market, something that rarely happens. Plus, it will be a market without much talent, since 4th- and 5th- year players will not be included. But will a team be willing to pay a huge salary to an inconsistent players who will turn 31 before a 2011 season that may not be played?

Moreover, will the Steelers be ready to shell out another long-term deal for an aging defender on what is already the oldest defense in the NFL? My guess is yes to both questions, and the difference between the amount of money and years of contract between what another team offers compared to the Steelers will determine if Taylor remains with Pittsburgh after this fall.

None of the other veterans on that list are of great importance. Batch will likely retire and Moore – who has been a valuable member of the Steelers but has also seen his already-limited physical skills diminish over the last 2 years – will likely not be offered a contract by the Steelers.

My guess is Madison and Eason will again both be offered 1-year veteran minimum deals from the Steelers, which they will sign; although both may not happen until less confusion about the labor deal exists or a CBA is signed.

Hoke, who will turn 35 before the 2011 season, might get a better 1- or 2-year offer elsewhere but will likely return to the Steelers for a final season on a 1-year deal. With an expanded roster, the Steelers will be able to draft and groom a young nose tackle while keeping Casey Hampton and Hoke as a solid 1-2 rotation at that important position for a 2011 season which could include another Super Bowl run from this veteran-laden team.

Scott has surprisingly proved himself as a capable reserve tackle and will likely be offered a contract from the Steelers but receive little interest elsewhere. He will likely be back. The often-injured Warren may also return on a one-year deal, although the Steelers will again be looking for an athletic and younger upgrade at snapper.

Two interesting cases would be Fox and Essex. The Steelers would probably like to have both back for the right deals, but both may well be gone after 2010. Fox is a valuable special-teams member. However, he is one four Pittsburgh ILBs over 30 and will likely be passed by current rookie Stevenson Sylvester as the Steelers’ No. 4 ILB in 2011. My guess is he will sign a 2-year contract with another franchise, because Pittsburgh will at best offer a 1-year deal.

The Steelers would probably want Essex, but only at a contract equal for that of a valuable reserve offensive linemen. Due to his current injury, Essex may have already lost his starting right guard job to Doug Legursky. However, even if he reclaims that job, the Steelers will not give him starter’s money in free agency. Thus, he may look to sign elsewhere for more money and through his vantage point, a better chance to start.

Still, what team is going to give big money to a veteran considered by many as one of the worst starting offensive linemen in the NFL, particularly in a cloudy labor situation? In other words, Essex could be back on a market-friendly 2- or 3-year deal with the Steelers or they could just let him walk if they believe Ramon Foster will equal or surpass him as a player by 2011.

All of this goes out the book in the unlikely even that a labor deal is reached between now and March that would result in players like Woodley, Colon and Spaeth hitting the open market. In that scenario, franchising and/or resigning Woodley to a huge, long-term deal would be priority No. 1 for the Steelers. They will not let him leave under any circumstance.

But that could dilute remaining dollars for signing other players, including Taylor. However, the market for a veteran like Taylor could be less due to the slew of younger, more coveted players hitting the open market.

These many possible scenarios is why it is so hard to do any Steelers mock drafts for 2011, because we do not know what their needs will be. Lose Taylor and CB is No. 1 on that list. Otherwise, an offensive lineman will be the No. 1 need, with tackle clearly the top need if Colon signs elsewhere, although his market value will be limited coming off a major Achilles injury.

Finally, one last note and it is a gripe I still hold against the Steelers organization: The unlikelihood of 4th, 5th- and 6th- year players becoming unrestricted free agents after 2010 is why it was even dumber for the Steelers to give away their top playmaker in Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a token fifth-round pick.

Yes, he was suspended for four games to open this fall and is one toke away from a year-long suspension. Yes, he is an idiot off the field. But the Steelers had a much greater chance of winning the Super Bowl this year with Holmes than without him.

Moreover, some argued that he only had 12 regular-season games left with the Steelers. But that is likely not true, assuming no CBA is reached before March. All the Steelers had to do was issue him a 1-year mid-level tender after 2010 and he would remain the property of the Steelers. Another team would have to give up a first-round pick to sign him.

Moreover, if he acted like a fool off the field, the Steelers did not have to issue him a tender and could let him walk. All in all, a very, very dumb move by the Steelers’ front office, which was clearly a PR decision based on the attention given to the baseless, non-criminal allegations levied at franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Let’s hope that move does not cost Pittsburgh a Super Bowl this year, because Holmes’ proclivity for big plays at the most opportune moments will be sorely missed in the playoffs.

Note: I will refer back to this detailed thesis in the coming months when making Steelers mock draft projections, since all will have to be classified under what would happen with or without a new CBA and depending on when one is reached.

This entry was posted in 2010 steelers, 2011 mock draft, Free Agency, Front Office. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Bobbidybobbob

    This is a very interesting read, but it would be nice if I could read a post from Ted where he didn’t find a way to complain about the Santonio Holmes trade. We get it, you hate it, but It’s time to move on, man.

  • Cols714

    Interesting. I was thinking on my way to work that I really wish the Steelers still had Holmes.

  • Mike L

    Holmes was traded to make room for Mike Wallace and give him more reps as a #2. Watch the Atlanta game and see how Wallace draws both safeties downfield with his corner to give Ward space underneath. At some point you have to move on. Would the Steelers have received more for Holmes last year, of course but Holmes likes his ganja and apparently takes money from agents. Poor showings by traded WRs like Roy Williams have driven down the value of WRs. By next season, Wallace will not only have replaced Holmes on the roster he will show that he is a better player than Holmes. Have faith.

    • yoni

      Wallace may be better than Holmes at some point (50/50 imo) but it’s not as if Holmes blocking wallace was a problem for our offense. Holmes can make plays at the short, intermediate and deep levels of the defense–truly an all-around WR–while Wallace is an expert at going deep. From a football standpoint, there was no reason to trade Holmes. It was clearly a PR move and any attempt at saying otherwise reeks of desperate rationalization.

    • Anonymous

      Would you rather have Holmes or Randle El?

      OTOH, would you rather have Holmes or McFadden?

  • Don

    Woodley and Gay are only in their 4th seasons, Hills his 3rd…

    • Ted

      You are correct about Hills. That correction has been made. Woodley being in his fourth season is why he would have been up to be UFA under the old CBA, Gay as well.

      • Ted

        I meant he would have been up after the 2010 season. He was a RFA after 2009 and would have been even under the old deal. Again, Don, thanks for the correction. The Steelers may not even tender Hills as a RFA next year if Starks, Adams and Colon are slated to return, along with a rookie draft pick.

  • Steve

    I’m with Mike L. on Wallace vs. Holmes. Watch the Ravens game again and see how often Wallace was getting open against an elite D. Yes, that may have been a function of the Ravens focusing on stopping the run, but Wallace is showing us he has what it takes to be among the best. Recall also his Holmes-like TD catch on the last play of the Green Bay game last year. He’s already proven he’s a clutch performer, and as a result, I don’t miss Holmes nearly as much as I thought I would.

    • Cols714

      Holmes was pretty much going to end up as Hines’ replacement in two years with Wallace then taking over the starting duties. They will miss him this year.

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