One of the latest trends in NFL contract negotiations could help teams make voluntary offseason workouts mandatory.
NFL Players Association lead attorney Richard Berthelsen said the union has become aware of an increasing trend among players drafted after the first round. Teams are attaching a clause to contracts that requires players to participate in offseason conditioning programs in order for players to achieve contract escalators at the end of their deals.
"It's something we're seeing more of this year," Berthelsen said. "It started to come up last year with smaller amounts of base compensation attached to it. Now the amounts are getting larger, and it's our belief that this is another situation where teams are trying to take away money that players have already earned."
Or as one agent put it: "It's another way that teams are circumventing what's in the collective bargaining agreement. Teams want as much control of their players as they can get, including taking away any choice about what the players do in the offseason."
Several teams have clashed with players who chose not to work out at the team facility in the offseason. Last week, the New York Giants and tight end Jeremy Shockey again squabbled over Shockey's decision to work out in Miami during the offseason.
Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield and coach Brad Childress have talked about Winfield's choice to work out elsewhere this offseason. In many cases, veteran players have separate workout bonuses in their contracts based on the players working out at the team facility.
Rookies generally can't have workout clauses in their contracts because of salary cap rules, an NFL team executive said. Thus, teams feel the only way to compel drafted players to work out at the team facility early in their careers is to attach a clause requiring participation.
The problem in this case, Berthelsen said, is that teams are trying to take away money earned in other ways.
"You're talking about punitive measures," Berthelsen said. "We've had a number of cases where we have successfully argued that teams shouldn't be allowed to do that, and this could be another situation like that."
Berthelsen noted the recent "Ricky Williams Rule" that doesn't allow teams to take performance pay away from players once it is earned.
There hasn't been a test case for Berthelsen to argue because the trend is so recent. But this is how the situation could play out for some players over the next few years.
Because teams are signing players to four-year deals in order to avoid restricted free agency, players have received contract escalators that increase their base salary in the fourth year of the contract if they perform to certain levels.
The reason is to cover players who might automatically get a large bump in salary under the restricted free agent tender rules.
For instance, if a player becomes a starter as a rookie or second-year player, there's a good chance his salary for the fourth year of the contract would increase from approximately $550,000 to $1.1 million or higher. Most escalators are based heavily on playing time.
But under the current trend, the escalator can be affected significantly well before it ever kicks in. If a player doesn't work out with his team in the offseason after his first, second and third year, teams are reserving the right to withhold some or the entire escalator. In essence, failure to work out with the team in any or all of those three years could cost a player $550,000 or more.
"What you were seeing early on was teams taking away $50,000 of the escalators, but it's getting to be more and more," an agent said.
San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said he was unaware of the trend and that his team had signed only one draft pick so far. Smith said his major concern was that draft picks sign contracts that were four years long (players drafted after the first round can sign a maximum contract of four years).
"You get a player and you're done with that first three years in a hurry," Smith said. "It goes like that and all of a sudden, you're faced with free agency and worrying about whether you're going to lose him."