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The New CBA Will Change How the NFL Operates—We Just Don’t Know How Yet

The NFL’s next decade will look very different from the previous one. It’s not just about adding a 17th game to the regular season, or two playoff games. The smartest teams will find the roster-building advantages in the new deal and use them to their advantage, just as they did the last time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL, more than any other league, changes with each new collective bargaining agreement. Nothing in the past decade affected how teams build more than a clause in the 2011 deal that slashed the salaries of top draft picks, launching a decade of so-called discount quarterbacks—from Russell Wilson to Patrick Mahomes—who shined at the most important position in sports for the price of a pretty average veteran linebacker. Football is a sport based on value, and teams will win and lose based on how quickly they understand what the CBA means for team-building.

There’s a new CBA, and with that, changes to how teams pay and value players. On Sunday, the NFLPA announced that players voted yes on a proposed agreement by a thin margin of 1,019-959. The immediate changes include two more playoff games this season, one in each conference; boosts to minimum salaries across the board (around 60 percent of NFL players are on minimum deals); a percentage point increase for players in the revenue split with owners, now up to 48 percent; no suspensions for marijuana; fewer padded practices in training camp (now at 16, down from 28), and the ability for the league to add a 17th game starting in 2021.

The vote ends a contentious monthlong debate over whether players gained enough in the new deal to play a 17th game. Superstars like Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, and Russell Wilson did not think they did. NFLPA executive committee member Ben Watson said negotiations were “Contentious to the final hour. Men were engaged. Of that I am proud.” Packers safety Adrian Amos said the NFL is “about to have players pulling a Kawhi out here,” referring to Kawhi Leonard–style load management once the NFL goes to 17 games. That might be an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt the sport will change with the addition of an extra game.

Over time, smart football teams will always beat dumb ones. Learning how the new CBA works and finding advantages within it will be one of the challenges for the best teams moving forward. But 2020 will not be easy. This offseason is in the running to be one of the weirdest in NFL history. The last CBA negotiation in 2011 resulted in a lockout that lasted through offseason activities, which pushed the start of the official league year to July, compressing all veteran transactions into a period of a few weeks. This offseason, however, is not simply about condensing the league’s calendar. The 2011 negotiation differs from the current one because it was taking place a year later in the CBA cycle, meaning there would have been no games played if a deal wasn’t struck. The current vote took place a year before the deal was set to expire, so teams would have simply played under the old CBA if it was voted down, limiting the threat of a work stoppage. Until the deal passed, teams had to plan for two drastically different worlds: Under the old CBA, for instance, teams could tag two players, meaning the Cowboys could easily keep quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Now they can tag only one player. Teams negotiating long-term deals would have had less certainty about a potential lockout next year, or how much cash would be infused into the salary cap in the coming seasons.

In short, no one knew anything. Beyond the team-building implications, it is worth noting there is a global pandemic that has caused massive disruptions all over the world and has left the NFL on pause in key areas of its business. Most teams have ordered their personnel to work remotely and have halted air travel. Rookie pro days are canceled, as well as the league’s annual owners meetings scheduled for later this month. The NFL draft, scheduled to begin April 23 in Las Vegas, seems unlikely to take place in its usual form with huge crowds with top prospects flying in and representatives from every team in attendance. Free agency, scheduled to start this week, hasn’t been pushed back yet, but teams still face some logistical hurdles: Players couldn’t undergo team medicals like normal with limited air travel and facilities closed.

But teams can start building their rosters knowing what set of rules they are operating under: A few hours after the announcement of the new CBA, the Ravens agreed to send a fifth-round pick to Jacksonville for star defensive lineman Calais Campbell. The Titans, according to ESPN, were “working hard” on a deal with quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the hours after the vote. Shortly after, a deal was struck. More moves are expected both Sunday and early this week. As The Athletic’s Mike Sando wrote last week, without a new CBA, big spenders like the Falcons, Steelers, and Vikings would be “handcuffed” if they had to operate under the existing agreement because of their lack of cap space. The cap situation for these teams remains tight—the NFL management council told teams shortly after the deal was announced that the salary cap will be $198.2 million in 2020, $10 million more than last season—but at the very least, these teams have clarity on future increases to the cap and know what they can do with it.

So, who benefits? Right now, the league gets to take its newfound labor certainty to TV networks as it tries to wrap up billions of dollars in new television deals. Once that happens, more money will be transferred to the players. They will receive 48 percent of TV money right now, and that could increase half of a percentage point with “media kickers” if the broadcasting deals rise 60 percent. The players’ share of revenue could rise to 48.8 percent if TV revenue increases 120 percent, though that’s a lofty goal. Even in the face of economic uncertainty, TV deals will likely rise exponentially, because football is by far the most valuable property networks can have. This will increase the overall pie and will make stars who are negotiating deals into the next half-decade remarkably rich. Stars like Prescott know that huge spikes in TV money are coming to increase the cap and can negotiate accordingly. He bet on himself to reach the end of his contract, and even though he’s likely to be franchise-tagged this offseason, he will operate in a market with teams that will have a lot more cash to spend. Mahomes, who is probably the most valuable player in the sport after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, will negotiate with the wind at his back once the NFL negotiates its new TV deals. Crucially, however, contract structures preventing players from having true free movement remain in place. The franchise tag—perhaps the biggest detriment to superstars getting their true worth—is unchanged. In theory, teams can control first-round picks for the first eight years of their career. So while Mahomes will likely set a new standard with his next contract, it’s still hard for him to reach free agency, which depresses the dollar amount of whatever he stands to earn.

Whether the gains players have accrued in this new deal are enough to add a 17th game and two extra playoff games is still a matter of debate. Said tight end Eric Ebron: “Can’t believe we agreed to that lol. We can only play this game for so long and y’all didn’t want everything we could get out of it? Smfh. 2030 y’all do better.” Bills tackle LaAdrian Waddle said the CBA is the “biggest L I took since Super Bowl 52,” which he lost as a member of the Patriots. Saints punter Thomas Morstead, on the other hand, suggested that the COVID-19 global pandemic and the economic fallout that has come with it should bolster the case for the CBA, since players now have certainty in an “uncertain climate.”

Patriots star Stephon Gilmore said he’d have to increase the amount of massages he receives from four a week to six.

Teams will have to prepare differently with an extra playoff team per conference. Those who think they are close to a playoff spot might approach their moves in the offseason, or the midseason trade deadline, differently. Remember, teams like the Matt Cassel–led Patriots in 2008 and the 2012 Bears would have made the playoffs under this new structure. It will change the sport a lot.

Of course, everything will change a lot; that’s what happens when the NFL implements a new CBA. Teams will probably struggle with the decrease in practice time, just as they did at the beginning of the last deal. Smart teams will have to set the market on what a good deal looks like with an influx of cap space and cash. The offseason essentially starts now, and we’re about to find out what 2020 and beyond looks like.