Fooch's Update: From Ian Rapoport
By the way, the #49ers have known about Vernon Davis’ desire for a new contract for a while, at least back in February. Not news to them.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 29, 2014
Matt Maiocco is reporting that a source indicated Vernon Davis's absence from the 49ers offseason workout program is due to dissatisfaction with his current contract. Earlier today we discussed why it might be due to other reasons, but I don't think it is ever shocking when it ends up being due to contract issues.
When word first got out that Alex Boone was skipping OTAs because of his contract, I was quick to defend the right of an NFL player to try and get more money midway through his contract. NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed like most other sports. If a player struggles or the team decides they need more cap space, they can release a player and avoid having to pay most if not all future earnings. Various contracts will include some guarantees, but aside from a player signing a franchise/transition tender, we generally do not see fully guaranteed contracts for any player.
Some will be quick to point out the contextual difference between Boone and Davis. Boone signed a fairly low impact contract when he was still a backup. He has emerged as a strong presence in the starting lineup, easily exceeding the value of his contract. On the other hand, Davis is one of the top paid tight ends in the league in terms of the overall value of his contract. It drops to seventh for 2014 earnings, but part of that is due to Dennis Pitta getting an $11 million bonus this year as part of his deal.
It's important to note though that one important difference is that this could be Davis's last opportunity to get a sizable pay raise. He's getting up there in age, and while he seems to be fine from a physical standpoint, age catches up with everybody. Boone is 27, Davis is 30. That difference is pretty huge given the nature of the NFL. Davis might not want a significant boost in pay, but rather more guarantees given his advancing age.
In years past, rookies and veterans alike could become holdout candidates. That has changed with the new CBA. Rookies are not holding out anymore because the rookie wage scale sets a fairly significant bar to the crazy contracts we saw before 2011. Additionally, draft picks cannot renegotiate their contracts until after their third season, thus removing earlier holdouts.
Players after that third year (and of course players from pre-2011) are able to use holdouts as a measure of leverage. Of course, it is worth noting that Vernon Davis and Alex Boone are not "holding out" quite yet. If they miss the mandatory minicamp, and then sit out the beginning of training camp, then holdout becomes the more appropriate term. It is possible both players just want to make sure this is on the 49ers radar a bit more seriously. Even with a minicamp absence, we won't know just how serious this is until the start of training camp. I wouldn't be surprised if Davis was able to get a modest extension at some point before the season starts.
How to potentially reduce holdouts
The NFL and NFLPA resolved the issue of rookie holdouts through collective bargaining. I have to think there is an opportunity out there to use the collective bargaining process to potential cut down on veteran holdouts, while providing them a bit more security.
The NFL's television money is the golden goose, but being able to sign players to huge contracts, and then cut them without paying the full deal is pretty significant. I highly doubt the NFL will ever give in on fully guaranteed contracts.
What about potentially negotiating something like a cap amnesty type of program?
Say a player signs a 5-year, $30 million contract. The deal includes a $5 million signing bonus, and then base salaries of $5 million per year (just to keep it simple). In the current system, the team could fully guarantee the first year salary, then guarantee the second and third year salaries for injury immediately, fully if the player is on the roster at the start of each of the new league years. The fourth and fifth years are then left without any guarantees.
Under a potential cap amnesty program, if a player is cut for cap purposes or injury purposes, they are still paid X percent of their remaining contract but that money does not impact the team's cap space. It's money on the payroll, but for purposes of keeping your team in check with the cap, it no longer becomes an issue. It makes the NFL cap a little less of a hard cap, but you are not necessarily going quite as soft as the NBA cap.
In creating this program, players can feel a little more security with their contracts, while teams can still move past contract mistakes. If the team makes too many mistakes, they can avoid cap hell, but ownership will still see the impact of these mistakes in the bottom line. It limits the "get out of jail free" card that many football ops departments have at this point. They make a mistake, and when they can just clear the books of it, they get a chance to keep making their mistakes.
We frequently see older veterans told they need to renegotiate or be cut. This would not be quite the same issue as with Vernon Davis because at this point, the only way he gets cut is for injury, and even then that's unlikely given his dead money hits. However, this is an issue that goes beyond just Vernon Davis. The NFLPA would have a tough fight to get more guarantees in contracts, but there are ways it can be negotiated. It will require some backbone heading into the next CBA negotiation, but I would argue it's something worth discussing now with the owners.
The right kind of program could allow the league to cut back on holdouts, and also provide an example of recognizing just how significant injuries can be from a contract perspective. Given the contentious nature of the NFL/NFLPA relationship, this is not as simple as flipping a switch. And I would be surprised if it became a thing anytime soon. But it strikes me as a potentially logical way to address the situation. But logic does not always carry the day in labor/management negotiations!