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Will playing a 17th game increase players’ salary cap hit?

If the NFL adds another game, the players will get an extra check. If the players get an extra check, how does it affect the salary cap?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I am the kind of person when a question comes into my mind I’m not satisfied until I do everything I can to answer it. I was thinking about the NFL doing all they can to increase the salary cap for the 2021 year season and how the added revenue from a 17th regular-season game is the biggest factor moving forward in getting the 2021 salary cap as high as possible.

But what about the players salaries for the 17th game? Will this mean all the numbers we have been calculating for players counting towards the salary cap will increase?

I started to dive into the question, and quickly realized it was not an easy answer. One thing I knew for sure was players were going to be paid for playing an extra regular-season game.

In an article published right after the two sides agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement last March, ESPN’s Dan Graziano published the following:

What about existing contracts that run into seasons that could expand to 17 games? Will those be adjusted?

Yes. Any player who is under contract when the new CBA is signed and remains on that contract in a year in which the league plays 17 games will receive a bonus of 1/17th of his salary if he’s on the roster on the date of that 17th game.

So, to make it simple: If your current contract says you’re scheduled to earn $17 million in 2021, and the league expands to 17 games that season, you get an extra $1 million as long as you’re on the roster on the date of that 17th game.

Alright. So players are obviously being paid for the extra game if the NFL goes to a 17-game season this fall. But I found myself asking more questions. Will the pay increase be based on their combined cash payout for the year, or simply their base salary?

Using Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as an example, he is set to have a roster bonus of $15 million on the third day of the new league year and have a $4 million base salary. Would his extra paycheck be based on the $19 million or the $4 million? And will this new money count towards the salary cap this season?

Of course, I used Roethlisberger as an example because chances are this is not the salary he’s earning this year. The Steelers have already said things are going to be re-worked or the two may decide to part ways. I just wanted to make sure I threw that in there before people started to flip out about anymore money going Roethlisberger‘s way.

In order to answer this question, I dove into the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2020. Yes, I did my best to read through page after page in order to find out what was going on when it came to salaries and adding an extra game.

In order to help gain some knowledge with the interpretation, I sent a message to the staff at BTSC asking if anyone else interpreted things the way I did. The other person who is crazy as I am and willing to dive into these kind of questions is Geoffrey Benedict. Together, we did our best to piece together different parts of the CBA in order to answer the question to the best of our knowledge.

First off, it appears the players who are on a league-minimum salary will not be gaining an extra paycheck when the NFL goes to a 17th game. Here is the exact section referencing the situation in the newest CBA:

Beginning in the 2021 League Year, for the duration of this Agreement only, in any League Year in which seventeen regular season games are played, any player whose NFL Player Contract specifies a Paragraph 5 Salary that exceeds the Minimum Salary for a player on the Club’s Active/Inactive List with such player’s own number of Credited Seasons, as defined in Section 2 of this Article, shall be eligible to receive an Additional Game Check

So if these are the players who are eligible to receive an extra check, those playing at the league minimum are not. Why would the NFL and the Players Association agree to this? From what we understand, it’s because they decided to raise the league minimum contract numbers in order to compensate for the 17th game.

So what about all the other players? Does the extra amount they’re going to be paid for the additional game now increase the salary cap for every player who it applies? Is this going to make teams have bigger issues with the salary cap?

We were actually surprised when we found what we believe to be the answer. The way the NFL has it set up for the payers to be paid for the extra game comes from funds that do not count towards team’s salary caps. The money to pay for the additional game check will start off coming from the Performance-Based Pool set up by the NFL. Beyond that, it will be taken from other places. Here is how it is explained:

In the 2021 League Year, if the $48 million taken from the Performance-Based Pool is insufficient to fund the League-wide Cost of the Additional Game Check, the shortfall shall be funded by the 2021 Rookie Redistribution Fund, as provided in Article 7, Section 9, up to the total amount of the Fund for that League Year (i.e., up to $64 million). If the combined amount taken from the 2021 Performance-Based Pool and the 2021 Rookie Redistribution Fund (i.e., $112 million) is insufficient to fund the League-wide cost of the Additional Game Check, the shortfall shall be funded as a new Player Benefit that will be treated in the same manner as any other Player Benefit Cost. In the 2022-30 League Years, the League-wide Cost of the Additional Game Check shall be funded by the Rookie Redistribution Fund for the applicable League Year. If the Rookie Redistribution Fund for the applicable League Year is insufficient to fund the total cost of the Additional Game Check in that League Year, the shortfall shall be funded as a new Player Benefit that will be treated in the same manner as any other Player Benefit Cost.

So it appears any player playing in the 2021 NFL season who signed their contract before the new CBA was ratified will have an additional game check coming to them which will not count towards the salary cap. As for other players who signed their deal since the new CBA was ratified, such as Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, the stipulations for their salary came with an understanding of adding a 17th game and was written into the contract.

Not having the extra game checks count towards the salary cap is a very fair idea since not everyone will receive one. Having teams with a different number of players under contract pre-2020 CBA versus those post-2020 CBA should not benefit or be penalized based on that ratio.

Another interesting aspect of the 17th game and how it comes to salaries and the salary cap has to do with player restructures. If a player restructuring their contract is going to shift their base salary to a signing bonus in order to benefit the team, they could be losing out on money which would have been coming to them in a 17th game.

Using Stephon Tuitt as an example, his base salary for 2021 is $9 million. So he would get a little over an extra $540k as is. If he restructures to a minimum base salary and takes the signing bonus, he’s set to lose that money as he would not be eligible for the additional game pay. So the first thing the player may want to do is have a base salary slightly higher than the league minimum. Additionally, they would probably have to pay Tuitt the difference he would be set to lose in the signing bonus to make up what he would have been paid had he not done a restructure. Also, that difference, if added to the signing bonus, would now count toward the salary cap. So if the Steelers are going to do a restructure of a player playing on a contract signed before the new CBA, it needs to be worth it.

It should be noted that a restructure of a player like Cam Heyward whose contract was signed since the new CBA would not create an issue at all. Additionally, any player who would be signing an extension would now be operating with a new contract signed under the new CBA.

Wow. This was an awful lot to unfold just to answer simple questions. But after diving in and getting help from Geoffrey Benedict, we came to the conclusion that the numbers for players towards the salary cap prior to the NFL adding the 17th game will stay the same even though they will be paid more money.

As for the question of if a player like Ben Roethlisberger would have their 17th game check be based on $19 million cash to be paid or $4 million base salary, since it doesn’t affect the salary cap we really don’t care.