With their collective bargaining agreement set to expire in March, the National Football League's players and team owners are headed for a labor war. The players are demanding a bigger piece of the league's $8 billion revenue pie while the owners want to maintain their current share.
If a new agreement can't be reached, the owners might choose to cancel the 2011 season. In the event of a lockout, the owners could get by on television contracts worth $4 billion annually, which would continue to be paid out. Owners have a $900 million war chest on top of that to help pay the interest on stadium debt.
Players figure to have a tougher time surviving an extended lockout. The union has amassed a lockout fund of $200 million, but collectively the NFL's 1,700 players stand to lose roughly $4.5 billion in salary and bonuses if the whole season is flushed away.
The players with the most to lose are those with the highest base salaries for the 2011 season. Our list doesn't include some of the biggest NFL stars because their contracts usually feature hefty signing bonuses that are paid up front, though the money gets allocated over the life of the contract for salary cap purposes. Players fight for big money up front since yearly salaries usually are not guaranteed in the case of an injury – or a lockout.
The player with the highest base salary for 2011, and therefore the most to lose from a full-season lockout, is Denver Bronco Elvis Dumervil(notes), who is due $14 million in 2011. The outside linebacker signed a six-year, $61.5 million contract extension in July after leading the league with 17 sacks in 2009. The contract includes $43 million in guaranteed money and runs through 2015. A lockout would be doubly painful for Dumervil, who is sidelined for the entire 2010 season after tearing a pectoral muscle in training camp. He still gets paid in full this year despite the injury.
Many of the players with the most to lose are recent draft picks who signed deals with high annual base salaries, such as New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes), who ranks third on our list. The first-round draft pick out of USC became the highest-paid player in Jets history before playing a single NFL down when he signed a five-year, $60 million deal in 2009 that included $28 million guaranteed. The Jets' investment paid off early as the team made it to the AFC Championship game in Sanchez's first year. Sanchez would lose $13.5 million next year from a lockout.
Miami Dolphins tackle Jake Long(notes), currently in his third year, is due $10.7 million next season, putting him eighth on our list. Fourth-year pros Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings (ninth) and Calvin Johnson(notes) of the Detroit Lions (10th) would lose $10.7 million and $10.5 million, respectively.
The one issue the NFL Players Association and the owners seem to agree on is that rookie contracts have grown excessive. Owners would like to pay less for unproven players after dozens of expensive draft day busts like JaMarcus Russell(notes) and Ryan Leaf. The union proposed that rookie contracts be shortened from a maximum of six years to three or four years. This would free up $200 million, which the union wants split between veterans and benefits for retired players.
The NFL could also institute a rookie pay scale similar to the National Basketball Association, where the first overall pick is awarded a pre-determined amount and each successive pick gets paid slightly less. In theory, the system would reduce the number of rookie holdouts and free up money (it would also reduce the need for player agents). Don't expect Stanford's Andrew Luck, the current favorite to be the 2011 top pick, to see a contract close to Sam Bradford's(notes) six-year, $78 million deal this year with the St. Louis Rams.
It is not just young guys who would lose big in the event of a lockout next year. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes), fifth on the list, is owed $11.6 million in 2011. His division rival Carson Palmer(notes) of the Cincinnati Bengals is in line for $11.5 million (sixth) as part of the $119 contract he signed in 2005. Meanwhile, Indianapolis Colts sack machine Dwight Freeney(notes) could lose $11.4 million (seventh).
We did not include players with expiring contracts, who could turn out to be the most hurt if a new CBA reduces future player contracts. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Earlier this year, Colts owner Jim Irsay stated that Manning "is going to be the highest-paid player in the league." Yet Irsay and Manning have put off negotiations until after the season.
If a deal is not reached until after a new CBA is in place, players around the league will look to Manning's new contract as a litmus test for how much owners will be paying under the new system. If the Colts get stingy with the four-time MVP, what hope does the rest of the league have?
The top five:
1: Elvis Dumervil, Broncos linebacker
2. Mario Williams, Texans defensive end
3. Mark Sanchez, Jets quarterback
4. Reggie Bush, Saints running back
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers quarterback
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