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Roquan Smith’s Contract Dispute Shows How NFL Teams Squeeze Rookies

How “guaranteed” is “guaranteed money”? The stumbling block between the Bears and their rookie linebacker is becoming a common dispute in contractual negotiations.

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Roquan Smith, the AP First Team All-American inside linebacker out of Georgia who Chicago drafted eighth overall in April, is the only first-round pick who has yet to sign his contract and report to training camp. Considering the Bears opened camp 10 days ago and have their first preseason game on Thursday, this is a problem. It’s a lowercase-p problem, but a problem nonetheless, and it’s one the Bears brought upon themselves. The two sides aren’t even quarreling over a dollar amount, according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. Instead, the two sides are negotiating over the “guaranteed” in “guaranteed money.”

Smith’s eventual contract will be worth roughly $18.7 million on a four-year deal with an $11.7 million signing bonus, according to a projection by Forbes. The rookie wage scale sets salaries in soft stone, leaving little to negotiate in terms of dollar values. Thus, rookie contract negotiations are now about controlling the details of how, when, and—increasingly—whether that money gets paid.

In Smith’s negotiations, the spinning rainbow wheel freezing the deal is that Smith’s agents want the Bears front office to put in writing that the team will not void Smith’s guaranteed money if he gets suspended under the NFL’s new rule governing helmet contact, which prohibits players from “using any part of a player’s helmet to butt, spear, or ram an opponent.” Thus far, the Bears have declined to put such a clause in writing, only offering “informal” assurances. If Smith does get suspended without written assurance, his guaranteed money could be converted into regular money and he could be released down the line after earning a fraction of that $18.7 million. In other words, in the (extremely unlikely) circumstance that the Bears release Smith within the next three seasons, they would want to be paying him as little as possible when they cut him, and Smith getting suspended is one of the ways they could accomplish that. The eighth overall selection in the draft is missing real practice time because the team wants to save hypothetical cap space in anticipation of a move that will almost certainly never happen.

Smith, a three-down middle linebacker whose bread and butter is (1) playing fast and (2) making people go backward, is at particular risk of being flagged under the new rule.

The rule, which was voted on by owners in May and published in June (when owners also clarified that “incidental contact” will not be penalized), represents a crucial step for the league in addressing player safety, but nobody is sure how it will be interpreted or implemented on the field. When referees explained the rule change in an hour-long presentation to the Eagles this week, the defending champions left the meeting flummoxed and confused. The NFL already has a history of unevenly enforcing new rules around safety, and the leaguewide uncertainty about the rule makes Smith’s request a reasonable one. Would you want your money tied to a rule created by the people who can’t define what a catch is?

In a league that is notoriously anti-labor, Smith’s situation is the silliest example thus far of a team’s tricky negotiation tactics. Only a portion of the money in an NFL contract is guaranteed, but in recent years, teams have begun inserting language into rookie contracts that erases guaranteed money. Legal issues, personal-conduct policy violations, and positive tests for performance-enhancing or recreational drugs are examples of behavior that triggers the “guaranteed” money getting voided. In some contracts, the bar is much lower. Fines for violating team rules or even publicly criticizing coaches and teammates can void millions of dollars in guaranteed money if the teams choose to flex that contractual right. On Monday, Jets first-round pick (and, like Smith, a CAA client) Sam Darnold ended his holdout after the Jets made concessions that included removing language that could void Darnold’s guarantees if he was fined by the league, though his guarantees can still be erased if he is suspended.

This practice is on the rise, but only the Bears have taken it so far that they would let their first-round pick miss double-digit days of training camp. Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, the no. 16 overall pick (and another CAA client), got it written into his contract that the team wouldn’t void Edmunds’s guaranteed money if he was suspended for violating the new helmet rule. That the Bears won’t make the same promise for their new linebacker is a curious way to introduce a potential franchise player into the organization. Every day that passes is a day that Smith won’t get better at coverage recognition, run defense, and, ironically, tackling. If the Bears were really worried about Smith committing penalties, they’d have him on the practice field.