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NFL Salary Cap: Players are temporary investments

With a new CBA in place, the fiscal landscape of the NFL is about to suffer a polar shift. Evolving inflation will be lanced thanks to a leveling salary cap.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent e-mail to WEEI 93.7 FM, Tom Brady responds to questions about his recent extension, shedding some light on the problems associated with the previous collective bargaining agreement.

According to Brady, "(all NFL players) make more than (their) fair share."

Perhaps my parenthetical paraphrasing appears implicit, but Brady appears to implicate every single one of his peers as being as overly compensated as himself.

Marc Sessler covered this report for, and assessed Brady as having played below fair market-value for most of his career. Unfortunately, the market-value most people hold current players to is obsolete. The new CBA has completely changed everything.

The old CBA fueled the winds of change which blew players all over the league-landscape through free-agency wind-tunnels. Even though a salary cap was in place, teams with sufficient cap space would overpay for free-agents, which would consequently pad the averages used to estimate following years' caps. Every year, free-agents would sign new contracts to be the highest paid player in the league at their positions; whether they were the best at their positions or not. Incoming draft picks were demanding outrageous contracts without having played any professional ball. The market was well within the grasp of the players.

The new CBA puts an end to all of its predecessor's enabling. Draft picks now receive four-year contracts with fifth year options for first-round selection, and pay is established by formula and not hype. Gone are the days of top-five picks signing contracts larger than established veteran peers. Free-agency is manipulated through minimum team spending limits, and a leveling cap.

The salary cap is currently expected to be nearly $123 million when the March 12th deadline arrives. The cap is expected to see a larger increase when new television contracts take effect; however, the cap will level off again afterward. Contract minimums and rookie wages will help teams by keeping the overhead for development much lower; but, both will only create a recession in free-agency.

Even though a salary cap was in place, teams with sufficient cap space would overpay for free-agents, which would consequently pad the averages used to estimate following years' caps.

Once teams have adjusted to the newly implemented cap floor this season, their spending will be set with only small increases to the cap in following years. In this CBA determined future, teams will be wary of signing players to unworldly contracts through back-loaded structure.

The old trick was to structure a player's contract to steadily increase throughout the contract, leaving large years at the end to make up the difference. This way a healthy player could restructure the big year through an extension - like Brady signed this year - or, the team could cut the player and shave the remaining non-guaranteed base salary off of their cap ledger. This mindset was based on a perpetually growing salary cap, but a leveling cap will force teams to level out contract structures as well, to ensure an ability to cover the cost in future, undetermined years.

Free-agents, if unwilling to accept deals lower than the previous CBA would have established their market value to be, will find themselves passed over for younger prospects at a fraction of the price. Teams are now forced to view their players as temporary investments.

In a conversation with WFAN and NFL Network contributor Paul Dottino, New York Giants Martellus Bennett hammered several points, which nailed some of the issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers and their salary cap situation.

"They have other priorities that come before little ole me. I'm just a small piece of what they're trying to do there. I've come to the conclusion that we are just temporary investments to the owners. Value money and growth over players. Just like any business. Employees aren't as valuable as we use to be. Everyone needs a job."

Perhaps Brady was accurate in his assessment of the average NFL player making more money annually than the average working-stiff, but even the players are experiencing the effects of a shrinking market, much like the housing market collapse of 2008. Now, players cannot hold free-agency against their original teams during negotiations, because most teams will be looking for cheaper options, unless addressing a need. Those willing to be cheaper options tend to remain employed, but the CBA prevents veterans from making less than new, incoming players.

The Steelers have experienced both sides of the issue this off-season. Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis are unrestricted free-agents. The team's current cap situation prevents them from strongly competing with these players' perceived market-values; but are these market values based on the cap in the future, or the cap of the past? Early estimates have projected Wallace to see offers near $10 million per season. With cap leveling setting in, are teams willing to invest a tenth of their total spending allowance on one player, for four or five years? Maybe teams attempting to get above the cap floor may offer free-agents large single or two year deals, but long term deals of this magnitude seem unreasonable knowing the only significant increase in salary cap future comes with the new TV deals.

The leveling cap policies may encourage players preparing to sign their second NFL contracts, to stay with their original team unless there is a significant demand for the individual's talents. Lewis, who could be the team's top corner for the next five seasons if a long-term deal can be reached. While many fall for the old CBA's fear of not being able to match the total worth of his deal, the truth is the total doesn't matter to the modern NFL layer; or at least not as much as guaranteed money.

Players like Lewis, Larry Foote and Ramon Foster could end up taking cheap deals to return to Pittsburgh more to guarantee their jobs, instead of demanding more compensation. Veterans like James Harrison, Willie Colon and Troy Polamalu could contemplate pay-cuts rather than marketing themselves in a new era, for the same reason; because they can be too easily replaced with a draft pick, by cap standards.

Teams will begin to employ strategies much like the Steelers are using this year: squeeze under the first cap deadline, survive free-agency and then let the draft dictate who could be released to clear the most possible cap space after June 1st. Many free agents could find themselves waiting until after the draft to discover their fates. Because of the cap, the draft has become paramount in roster management decisions.

If there is anything positive in this issue for players, the leveling cap should force players to appreciate their employment a bit more. Brady acknowledged players are well compensated, but also the responsibility which goes along with it.

"Athletes are always talking about money at a time when everyone else is struggling so badly to make it. We all make way more than our fair share. And I just think it reflects poorly on myself and my teammates. I really do just want to win, and that has and will continue to be the reason that motivates me and is the biggest factor in my decision-making process."

Perhaps the leveling cap will return every player's desire back to winning team sports, rather than just securing personal gain; although it should encourage each player to do as well as they can as often as they can, to prove worthy of pay-raises.

The influx of inexpensive youth could be numbering the days of the tenured veteran.