CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 13: Matt Forte #22 of the Chicago Bears points to the stands while celebrating after scoring a touchdown during the game against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field on November 13, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Free agency and the draft dominate the NFL offseason. Contract skirmishes and player holdouts are another part of the story between April and September. Which contract situations are likely to get worse before they get better?
On Monday, fans will get a glaring reminder that football is a business, just in case the lesson of last year's lockout failed to drive that point home. Offseason workouts start and so do player holdouts. More than a few of the game's biggest names will not be on the field Monday, sitting out as a statement of their worth and plying a little leverage toward a bigger and better contract.
To fans high on spring's hopefulness, a holdout looks like a road hazard on the way to the promised land. The negotiating tactic is naturally greeted with a reaction somewhere along a spectrum between indifference at the rigmarole of contract negotiations and outrage.
This year a new rule could change the way holdouts work, for spring workouts at any rate. The new CBA contains a provision allowing veterans who have not signed their franchise or restricted free agent tenders to report to offseason workouts.
"The agreement is a similar concept to what is used with rookies when they are drafted and haven't signed their contracts," said Joel Corry, a former player agent who helped create Premier Sports & Entertainment agency. He also knows a thing or two about holdouts, having represented Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell in their holdouts.
Corry wrote about the new participation agreement last week at the National Football Post.
By signing the agreement and showing up for the workouts, players can avoid costly fines all while hanging on to his ability to hold out as part of contract talks. It also guarantees a one-year salary in case of injury. Training camp is not subject to the exception; players need to have signed contract in hand for camp and the regular season.
There are advantages and disadvantage for players. In the case of teams with a new coach or coordinator on board, a player can still get to camp and start learning the new playbook, starting on the same page as his teammates. However, players reporting to camp via this route risk losing whatever advantage they might gain in contract talks.
"It is unusual for franchised player to do so," Corry said. "Putting on my agent hat, I probably wouldn't advise a veteran who has been franchised to sign one because it might undermine contract leverage."
This year's list of franchised players flirting with a holdout is long on household names, none more recognizable than New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. At the end of last week, there was confusion about how close Brees and the Saints were to a new contract. Saints owner Tom Benson said Friday that the two sides were close. A weekend report in the Times-Picayune said the two sides had not talked in weeks.
New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker is believed to be skipping this week's workouts, but a Friday report said that he will most likely sign the franchise tender ahead of training camp. "It might make sense for Welker since he was reportedly thinking about signing his tender even though he wants a long term deal," Corry explained.
Another expected absence this week is Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe. Still looking for a long-term deal, he has yet to sign the tag. His public utterances about his team's offseason changes have brimmed with more positive feelings than even Stuart Smalley could muster. Most see Bowe as an unlikely candidate for a lengthy holdout.
The situations with Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, Falcons corner Brent Grimes, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, Broncos kicker Matt Prater, Ravens running back Ray Rice and Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer all seem to be taking the normal course for players that get the franchise tag.
Raiders safety Tyvon Branch and Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee missed their team's voluntary workouts last week, which started a week earlier since those team have new coaches. Nothing out of the ordinary is happening with Branch and Scobee either.
Redskins tight end Fred Davis and Browns kicker Phil Dawson are the only franchised player that have signed their tenders. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, and Giants punter Steve Weatherford agreed to long-term deals after being franchised.
Players have until July 16 to sign a long-term deal with their team. If no deal happens by then, teams and players are restricted to the one-year franchise tag, and extensions must wait until after the regular season. Teams have an advantage in getting deals worked out with players, and usually do, lest front offices get a reputation for not rewarding their best players. That makes it tricky to lure future free agents.
The trickiest situation among franchised players is with Bears running back Matt Forte. Chicago made Forte an offer that did not suit his demands. What really rubbed salt in the wound was the Bears' acquisition of free agent running back Michael Bush.
The move sets up a potential game of brinksmanship between the two sides. WIth the addition of Bush, the Bears upped their leverage in talks with Forte. If the stalemate looks particularly grim during the draft, Chicago could always move him to a team willing to meet his salary demands. Chicago could also realize they need Forte and up their offer, or Forte could sign and try again next year.
Restricted free agents are far less likely to hold out or use the participation agreement.
"A lot of restricted free agents sign their tender before minicamp so it's somewhat of a moot point with them," Corry said. "The bigger concern with a RFA is that the team has the right to switch the tender to 110% of the previous year's salary on June 15th if they haven't signed. A restricted free agent should probably just sign his tender after the draft unless he is adamant about playing on a long-term deal."
Enter Mike Wallace. Extended a first-round tender by the Steelers, the receiver wants a long-term deal, specifically a deal on par with what the Cardinals gave Larry Fitzgerald. Pittsburgh seems unwilling to pay that. The situation has an eerily similar feel to the prolonged battle between Vincent Jackson and the Chargers in 2010. Already his agent has floated the possibility of a trade, and the Steelers might have to consider that if they are unwilling to let him walk as an unrestricted free agent next year ... or go through a another RFA battle should Wallace prove willing to sit.
This week's round of workouts are voluntary, in name only. It is also the first official contact with the team under the terms of the labor deal struck last July. In truth, players absent from team facilities this week are holdouts in name only. Nevertheless, it is an incursion into the game's labor-management realities, the very thing most fans are trying to escape from themselves for a few hours every Sunday.