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NFL Combine Takeaways, Day 3: CBA Talk Is Overshadowing Everything Else

The proposal for the document that would govern the league for the foreseeable future is headed to the players for a vote, but some stars aren’t happy. Plus: Tua looks to be healthy—could Washington be interested?

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The NFL season never ends. While the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory is still fresh, the NFL combine, this week in Indianapolis, gives us an opportunity to start looking forward. To keep you informed, a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide a collection of thoughts from each day of the event.

Collective Bargaining Overshadows Day 3 of the Combine

The combine is supposed to be about the stuff that matters: running in a straight line, doing many bench presses, or answering questions from reporters with a rehearsed line that was written by an agent’s assistant. You know, athletic stuff. But Day 3 of the combine has been overtaken by business. The league’s owners and the players union are in the midst of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that would govern the NFL for the next decade. That includes the split for the league’s revenue, which is expected to hit $25 billion annually by 2027. There are a lot of nitty-gritty details to the CBA, but most of it comes down to splitting that money, and money is revealing the players’ fault lines.

The NFL’s owners approved the deal last week—that’s why you heard the league may change its playoff formats as soon as next season. On Tuesday, the NFL’s union leadership (composed of a player representative from each team) voted to send the proposal to the full union by a slim majority (17 voted yes, 14 voted no, and one rep abstained). Now the players must vote on whether to accept the proposal. NFLPA president Eric Winston has not set a timeline on when that vote will take place, though it could come in days or weeks.

The sooner the deal is done, the sooner the owners can turn around and negotiate a new deal with TV networks (and tech companies?), which represents the bulk of league revenue. But one of the key sticking points is that owners want to add a 17th game to increase that revenue. Players prefer not to add any games, but considering the owners pushed the idea of 18 games for years, 17 is a form of compromise.

Occupy Ball Street

It is snowing in Indianapolis, and the collective bargaining negotiations have gotten icy. The talks to land a new deal between the league’s owners and players union had been chummy until the past few days, when several players began expressing frustrations about the deal as it currently stands. On Wednesday, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson—the highest-paid player in NFL history—said he would vote against the proposed CBA.

Winston, the NFLPA president, responded directly to Wilson’s tweet.

Wilson is one of the latest star players to criticize the process, which has highlighted a fundamental dynamic influencing the negotiations: wealth inequality among NFL players. For all the differences between the NFL and every other industry, it has remarkable similarities to the rest of American society. The middle class is disappearing, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is as wide as ever. This CBA negotiation seems to be splitting the NFL’s richest players from the league’s rank-and-file. The players publicly resisting the changes, including Wilson and J.J. Watt, are among the wealthiest in the league and have earned more than $50 million before taxes. But the new CBA would bring up the league’s minimum salary, which is a significant raise for the lowest on the totem pole.

Sports labor negotiations are often pitted as millionaires vs. billionaires, which makes it tempting to hand-wave the whole process.

But that framing is incorrect. Sixty-five percent of NFL players earn less than $1 million per year, according to NBC’s Peter King, and the average career is roughly three years long, according to the NFLPA. Factor in taxes and agent fees and most football players don’t reach millionaire status. In a league with roughly 1,700 active NFL players and nearly 3,000 players on rosters in August, the roughly three dozen players earning $1 million a week are quite literally the NFL’s 1 percent. Those fault lines among the players may be reflected in the vote.

Tua’s Hip

Of the football news that did happen on Wednesday, the most important concerned Tua Tagovailoa’s hip. The Alabama phenom was examined by team doctors and is expected to make a full recovery from his hip injury from last season, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Tagovailoa had one of the best college football careers ever, and if he were fully healthy, he would have been in consideration with Joe Burrow for the no. 1 pick. The news suggests Tua has a strong chance of being taken in the top 10, and perhaps even in the top five. For all the hoopla about the combine’s athletic events—running in straight lines!—the medical checks are the main reason NFL teams stage the combine. Teams want their doctors to be able to examine players, especially the ones who might garner one of the top picks in the draft.

Washington Bringing in Tua?

The Bengals are widely believed to be a lock to draft LSU quarterback Joe Burrow no. 1. Washington was pegged as a near-lock for Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young at no. 2, but that may not be the case anymore.

“We’re bringing in Burrow and were bringing in Tua, and we will see both of their workouts,” Washington head coach Ron Rivera told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. “That’s just the way it is, you just don’t know. … Everything is an option. We’re not closing the door on anything. One of the things that [vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith] and I talked about is we have to go through the process because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen in front of you and you don’t know what’s going to happen with you.”

Washington drafted Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins with the 15th pick last year. But longtime team president Bruce Allen was fired after the season, and Rivera was brought in to change the team culture. There is a chance that Rivera sees this draft as the last time Washington will have the chance to take a QB for a long time, and being committed to Haskins just because the old regime was committed to him doesn’t make much sense.

It’s certainly possible that Rivera is just doing due diligence. It makes sense to interview any quarterback who might be a starter in the NFL just to have the profile down, and it makes sense to drum up interest in the quarterbacks so other teams may want to make a trade with Washington. This is the smart decision from Washington, which isn’t usually said.

Joe Judge Verdict: Remaking Giants Defense

The Giants released linebackers Alec Ogletree and Kareem Martin on Wednesday. Of the $18 million owed to the pair, $13 million will be cleared in cap space while roughly $5 million will become dead money. Cutting Ogletree was necessary. He was going to be the fourth-most-expensive inside linebacker this year at $10 million, but his production likely wouldn’t have matched that salary. Among linebackers with at least 100 snaps graded by PFF in 2019, Ogletree’s overall defensive grade ranked 84th. The move was needed, but also symbolic. Trading for Ogletree in March 2018 was one of Dave Gettleman’s first big moves as general manager. It was a dubious decision at the time to send a fourth- and a sixth-rounder to the Rams for one of the league’s highest-paid linebackers who also had a reputation for being a liability in coverage. Moving on from Ogletree suggests that Gettleman is open to moving on from his mistakes.

Earlier this week, Gettleman indicated he’d be open to trading down in the draft, which he has never done in seven drafts as a GM with the Giants and Panthers. This might be a strong example of the influence of new Giants coach Joe Judge, who spent years in New England, where trading down for draft picks is the norm. The Giants have had a strange couple of years with Gettleman running the team, and that tenure began by trading for Ogletree. Ogletree’s departure might be a sign that the Giants will be doing things differently with Judge in the building.