The NFL Players Association wants players to chose not to attend voluntary offseason workouts. Whether and to what extent this strategy works will hinge in large part on the agents who represent NFL players.
Agents have a duty to each player to represent his best interests. And agents won’t care nearly as much about the collective message the union wants to send when it comes to helping one specific player maximize his football earnings.
Plenty of players have workout bonuses, for example. The payments usually range from $100,000 to $500,000, and they require 90-percent participation in the offseason program. As one agent told PFT on Tuesday night, “If I have a player with a workout bonus, I’m telling him to go in.”
Some within union leadership would say that the agents who have negotiated workout bonuses into player contracts already have forfeited their clients’ ability to boycott voluntary offseason drills. With so many players routinely showing up, however, why balk at the possibility of getting a six-figure payment to do what the player was going to do anyway?
Then there’s the much bigger issue of young players trying to earn roster spots. Said the same agent, “If I have a young player trying to make the team, I’m telling him to go in.”
There’s no reason for a young player to do anything else. The NFL is a unique industry that has a unionized labor force of nearly 2,900 until (ironically) Labor Day weekend, when more than a third of the rank and file lose their jobs. Some get hired as lower-paid practice-squad employees. Ultimately, however, there are only 1,696 jobs on active, in-season rosters.
So if a young player with a low salary wants to make an impression on the folks who’ll ultimately hand out those 53 jobs per team, what should the young player do? The answer is easy and obvious: Show up. Get reps. Earn trust. And, potentially, win a job.
Although the ongoing pandemic is the stated reason for the recommended boycott of offseason workouts, it’s possible if not likely that this is a strategy aimed at making it harder for younger, cheaper players to establish a foothold with the coaching staff. This year especially, with the salary cap more than $25 million lower per team than it would have been, a team that can, for example, keep a young player at $700,000 over a veteran at $7 million will do it, saving $6.3 million in cash and cap space.
For the younger players, then, the offseason boycott becomes an opportunity. An opportunity to develop. To grow. To enhance standing. Potentially, to have a job come September.
With agents keenly aware of that dynamic, most if not all young, fringe players who are being advised by their union to stay away will be directed by their agents to show up. That dynamic alone could cause the entire effort to collapse.
Even though three teams already have issued statements that they’ll stay away, those teams are two weeks or so away from drafting rookies and signing a crop of undrafted free agents. Those new players most likely will show up in Denver, Seattle, and Tampa Bay — and in any other city whose veteran players prefer to protect their roster spots and game checks by giving the younger players reduced chances to take them.