Whether it's pigskins or politics, the one thing you know about pundits is that they've got to assign a winner and loser in everything, and assessing the NFL's new labor accord certainly isn't out of bounds.
For now, at least, we'll defer in declaring victory for either side in the NFL-NFL Players Association labor negotiations. Certainly we don't buy easily into the notion being spun by both parties that everyone came out a winner. Just call owners Mike Brown of Cincinnati or Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and ask them if they feel triumphant. Plus, we're just not smart enough to digest quickly the "term sheet" we received Friday morning, which lays out the basics of the CBA extension. We want to hold off on our first-take, knee-jerk reaction that the NFLPA really stuck it to the owners with what looks to be a fairly lopsided deal.
It does seem, though, that some winners can be identified after a tedious process which included more stops and starts and speed bumps than Manhattan rush-hour traffic.
Among them: Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms; linebackers Lance Briggs of Chicago and Cato June of Indianapolis; wide receivers Brandon Lloyd of San Francisco, Donte' Stallworth of New Orleans, Kevin Curtis of St. Louis and Nate Burleson of Minnesota; San Diego guard Kris Dielman; Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor; and defensive end Robert Mathis of the Colts, to name a few.
Those players are among a group of young veterans who, minus an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, would have been bound to their current teams through the '08 season. Now, because of the accord struck Wednesday evening that allows them to escape two more indentured years, they could cash in handsomely as unrestricted free agents next spring.
Here's why: One of the quirks of the "uncapped" year, which the league would have entered into in 2007 without the CBA extension, stipulated that players would have needed six accrued seasons in the league's pension plan to be eligible for unrestricted free agency. In the past, a player needed only two elements, four seasons in the NFL and an expired contract, to qualify for unfettered free agency. The extension, which removes the scheduled "uncapped" season in 2007, returns the free agency rules to normal.
So all the players listed above, assuming they don't sign long-term extensions before 2007, can play out their current deals this year and bargain as unrestricted free agents next spring, if they so desire. Many of the affected players acknowledged they were unaware of the free-agency ramifications that would have been set into place by the "uncapped" 2007 season.
Several players who were questioned about it at the Pro Bowl said the NFLPA had never explained fully that element of the "uncapped" year. Of course, it's a moot point now, and suddenly a big-time money matter.
"It's big for anyone who is a restricted free agent this year, who signs a one-year qualifying offer as such, and then heads into [unrestricted] free agency in '07," said agent Hadley Engelhard, who represents Mathis, a former fifth-round draft choice who has notched 25½ sacks for the Colts the past three years as a situational pass rusher, including two straight seasons with double-digit sacks. "To have been tied to a team for two years beyond the normal free agency terms would have been pretty difficult. And it definitely would have translated into a lot of money."
Probably, in fact, millions of dollars.
As a restricted free agent for 2006, the Colts tendered Mathis the highest-level, one-year qualifying offer of $2.069 million. Mathis could have signed a longer-term deal elsewhere, but the Colts could have matched it or accepted first- and third-round draft choices as compensation from the club that signed him to the offer sheet. Even for a proven pass-rusher like Mathis, most teams would have been scared off by the compensation and would have steered clear of him. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, with an "uncapped" season in 2007 and Mathis' unrestricted free agency delayed until after the 2008 campaign, Indianapolis would have had the prerogative of just making him a restricted free agent qualifying offer for 2006-08. Assuming the high-level qualifying offer increases every year, as it historically has done, and Mathis was forced to sign it three times, he would earn about $6.8 million for the 2006-08 seasons.
But if Mathis goes into the unrestricted free agent market next spring, a 25-year-old pass-rusher free to bargain with every franchise in the league, he could make more than that in a signing bonus alone. For a kid who played at Alabama A&M, and whose mother nearly passed out when he brought home his rookie signing bonus check of $126,750 in 2003, Mathis figures to make a lot of money thanks to the extension to the collective bargaining agreement.
And he likely isn't the guy who will benefit most. Indeed, the extension to the labor agreement means that most of the young players cited are going to dramatically expand their savings accounts in 2007.
After discussing a longer-term contract with Tampa Bay officials, Simms re-signed with the Bucs for just one season at $2.1 million before the extension was struck. Now, with the CBA extension in place, and the prerogative to play out his one-year contract and become an unrestricted free agent next spring, Simms essentially can dictate his own future if he continues to improve in 2006 the way he did in 2005.
Let's assume Simms retains the starting job in Tampa Bay this year, takes the Bucs to a second consecutive playoff berth, and goes into unrestricted free agency next spring at just 26 years old. There are less than a handful of starting-caliber quarterbacks, guys who have lined up and played, who have ever hit the open market at such a young age and with their best seasons still ahead of them.
Tampa Bay could keep Simms off the market by signing him to a long-term extension or using the franchise designation to keep him, but he's going to make a lot of money either way, if he continues to progress in 2006. Simms could certainly be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the labor extension.
Briggs, 25, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, is a little different, in that he is still playing under his first contract (he signed with the Bears in 2003 as a third-round draft choice). But his contract expires after this season and, without the CBA extension, he, too, would have qualified only for restricted free agency in '06. Now, unless Briggs signs an extension with the Bears, and talks toward that end are ongoing, he can hit the unrestricted market next spring.
Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo has expressed some optimism that the team can sign Briggs to a long-term deal, and agent Drew Rosenhaus acknowledged that negotiations have been promising. But the extension to the CBA suddenly shifts some of the leverage to Briggs, because the Bears lose the bargaining chip that the prospect of an "uncapped" year in 2007 provided them.
"That angle of the CBA negotiations, as much as any element, was something that we were obviously monitoring," Rosenhaus said. "Not just for Lance, but for all our younger clients in a similar circumstance -- guys who would have been subjected to being restricted free agents by the consequences of the 'uncapped' year. So getting that resolved, providing these guys the potential to be unrestricted, yeah, it really is huge."
Huge enough to make the young veterans affected by it the most undisputed winners in the Wednesday extension to the collective bargaining agreement.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.