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2021 CBA: What issues are on the table and how could they effect the NFL’s future?

Labor negotiations are already underway. Here’s what you need to know about them.

NFL Labor Agreement Signed Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On July 25th, 2011 — just as training camp would typically open for teams across the league — the NFL finally approved a settlement from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to end the lockout and resume league activities. The Hall of Fame Game was the only on-field casualty of the work stoppage, keeping the NFL’s streak of uninterrupted regular season play intact, a streak that extends back to the 1987 players strike that led to replacement players and a 15-game regular season for one year.

The league and its players association have until the end of the 2020 NFL season to reach an agreement that would keep that run alive, but negotiations have already begun. At least two meetings have already been reported and the fact that the two sides are beginning work so far in advance of the deadline is encouraging despite NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith’s recent letter to agents and players advising them to save money and prepare for a year long work stoppage (much of what you’ll read in the media about these talks will be posturing from one side or the other).

The 2011 CBA is almost universally viewed as a massive win for the franchise owners. Not only did the owners get a bigger percentage of league revenue — pushing what had been close to a 50-50 split of the league’s earnings to a 53-47 split in their favor — but they also got the addition of the franchise and transition tag which gave them considerable leverage in contract negotiations with star players and the revised rookie wage scale which slashed the cost of young drafted players on their first contracts.

The change to the rookie wage scale ended up having massive ripple effects throughout the league when it came to team building. Not only were rookies significantly cheaper than they had been previously, but by rule, they were not allowed to sign a new contract until after they’d been in the league at least three years. There was no option for an instant star like Russell Wilson to get paid what he was worth after a year or two. He was stuck making about $500,000 per year despite his value being about forty times that amount.

Draft picks became more valuable than ever and the make up of rosters materially changed as a result.

Rather than leaving more money for mid-level veterans to extend their careers into second and third contracts, the unintended result was the near extinction of the NFL’s veteran middle class. Stars got paid more, but the solid role players were replaced with cheap rookies.

In exchange for their concessions to the owners in 2011, the players got a few things. One of those items was less time at work. The offseason schedule was reduced by five weeks total, with the number of OTA practices dropping from 14 to 10 and a strict regulation on the number of padded practices teams could hold.

While this certainly helps the players to some degree — less wear and tear on their bodies and more free time — it doesn’t really hurt the owners to give this up. If you want to argue that it hurts the quality of play, that’s reasonable, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that has had a huge impact on the bottom line. NFL business has boomed since 2011 and remains strong heading into this CBA negotiation.

The other big items for the players came in the form of a increase in league contributions to a retirement fund and the raising of the cap floor that teams are required to spend on players every year. Those are certainly wins, but it’s hard to see them being as significant as what the owners were able to take away from the table.

Clearly, the CBA is of massive importance to the league, it’s players, and it’s fans. The results can change the course of franchises or disrupt the conventional wisdom of what the best team building strategies can be. Teams that are smart enough to figure out the soft spots in the new agreement first will be able to seize an advantage over others. So what are some of the items that will be haggled over during the next 21 months and how might they impact how we view the game as fans?


This is the obvious issue and it’s important to remember that this is central to the negotiations even if it’s not the most fun topic to talk about as fans. As discussed above, some of the other rule changes can impact how money is distributed, but at the end of the day, the revenue split between owners and players is a crucial point of this discussion.

The only interesting outfall from the revenue split for fans would be the effect on the salary cap. A larger split for the players could mean a higher salary cap. That could be a good or bad thing in the short term for your favorite team depending on their current situation against the cap and the types of players that they have coming up for new contracts.

An 18 Game Regular Season

This topic has been kicked around since before the current CBA and it figures to come up again in these negotiations. The league seems to be angling for a pivot from 4 preseason games and 16 regular season games to 2 and 18.

It’s pretty clear why this would be attractive to owners. While they currently get nearly the same gate revenue from preseason games as they do regular season games — thanks to the ridiculous practice of selling tickets at the same price for meaningless glorified scrimmages — there is a lot of additional money to be made in TV contracts by converting two preseason tilts to regular season action. With the current TV deals set to be up for bid after the 2022 season, the fallout from this CBA will directly impact the value of those bids.

The NFLPA will resist this change in the name of player health and safety, arguing that 18 games just means more opportunity for injury and they’ll be right. As Mike Vrabel constantly reminds us, “the injury rate in the NFL is 100%”. Adding two more games of wear and tear before the playoffs will only serve to make these seasons seem more like battles of attrition rather than contests of skill.

That being said, more money from TV means more money for players too and I think there are some areas that could be negotiated to make this work for both sides. For example, the NFL could add an extra bye week to each team’s schedule to help players get more opportunities to rest and recover during the season. I’d love to see a scenario where all teams had a mandatory bye week prior to appearing on Thursday Night Football so instead of getting teams on primetime playing with just four days rest, you’d get two fresh teams off eleven day breaks with another ten days off following that appearance.

Adding a second bye week seems like a great deal for all parties. The players get more rest during the season and the league gets 20 weeks of regular season football to sell to their broadcast partners. You’re essentially getting paid for three extra weeks of action while only asking the players to provide two more weeks of work. It’s a win-win.

Another potential olive branch the owners could offer to help ease the player’s concerns about an 18 game schedule would be an expansion of both the gameday roster size and the active roster size. Right now the league allows teams a maximum of 53 players on the active roster during the season with just 46 players selected to be available on gameday. Bumping those numbers to 60 and 52, respectively, could give teams the chance to spread out snap counts and help keep spots available for guys who are working their way back from injuries. It also creates more jobs for players and opportunities for guys to extend their careers.

Regardless of whether the two sides can agree on an expansion to 18 games, I think a second bye week and a shortening of the preseason makes sense. Compared to other professional sports, the NFL plays the highest rate of exhibition games relative to the number of regular season games. The NBA and NHL both play a preseason schedule that is less than 10% of their regular season workload while MLB and MLS check in around 20-24% (including various cup matches for MLS teams). The NFL plays a full 25% of their regular season slate for warmup, 31% for two unlucky teams who get chosen for the Hall of Fame Game.

It would be one thing if teams were actually using these games to get ready for the regular season, but they aren’t. Sean McVay famously held the vast majority of his starters out of the preseason completely last season, choosing not to risk injury to key players. That’s a trend that seems to be growing among the league’s coaches. Those that do play their stars, usually use a pattern that sees the top units on the field for a drive or two in game one, a little over a quarter in game two, close to half of game three, and none of game four. By the second half of the fourth preseason game, coaches are doing everything short of kneeling to run the clock out faster.

There’s no good reason for four preseason games. Yes, you’ll hear some stories about guys using the fourth preseason game to make the roster and kickstart their career, but it’s not as if that will change if we just have two exhibition games. Teams would adjust their approach. Maybe you’d see the starting unit for a full half in game one and then game two becomes the opportunity for the back of the roster guys to make their case. Having less time to waste might even — gasp — improve the quality of play in these games.

Playoff Format

The NFL has reportedly expressed interest in expanding the playoff field from 12 teams total to 14. That would mean eliminating the first round bye for the two seed in each conference and getting two extra playoff games.

I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that idea. It makes getting the one seed extraordinarily valuable, but rewarding the best regular season team in each conference doesn’t seem like a huge negative to me. Allowing 14 of the 32 teams to participate in the postseason would keep more teams alive later in the season (a good thing) and give two extra home playoff games to NFL cities every year (also a good thing).

NFLPA President Eric Winston also wants the NFL to change the way they seed the playoffs overall. Instead of guaranteeing the top four seeds to division winners, he would propose that teams be seeded in each conference based solely on regular season record. Last year, that would have vaulted the 12-4 Chargers from the fifth seed to the second seed and given them two home playoff games instead of having to travel to Baltimore and New England.

Testing for Marijuana

With laws and mindsets about marijuana beginning to shift in the United States, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the players push for it to be removed from the banned substances list that the NFL tests and doles out punishment for. By the time this next CBA comes to an end, there is a pretty good chance that this is a legal recreational substance across all 50 states so it makes sense to try to get this CBA to reflect that.

More importantly, there has been some significant research — including some that has been championed by former Titan Derrick Morgan — that indicates that marijuana can be an effective safer alternative to opioids for players to help manage the physical pain associated with playing football. Besides pain management, there are also hints that CBD (cannabinoids) may help reduce the effects from concussions.

The league talks a lot about player safety and has taken steps to try to reduce concussions in recent years. This would be one step to show the players some good faith in that shared goal.

Guaranteed Contracts

This is a topic that gets talked about a lot, but it’s also largely misunderstood. People talk constantly on sports radio and other outlets about how unfair it is that NBA and MLB contracts are always fully guaranteed, but NFL contracts are not.

However, in a recent appearance on the Dual Threat Podcast with Ryen Russillo, DeMaurice Smith set the record straight on where guaranteed contracts actually come from. The CBAs in basketball and baseball don’t state that players have to have guaranteed contracts. The practice of giving guaranteed contracts in those sports came about as a matter of custom over the years.

Essentially, the NFL doesn’t have guaranteed contracts because the players have never been able to command them. It’s a byproduct of a sport where rosters are nearly four times the size of basketball rosters and more than double the size of a baseball team before you even factor in the ten man practice squad. In addition to having much larger roster sizes, football also has a much higher injury rate than those other sports. That means that each individual player is less valuable to a football team than the individual players for basketball and baseball.

Besides, even if the NFLPA could get NFL to stipulate that all contracts must be fully guaranteed, you’d just see a backlash in shorter deals with less money for most players. The five year, $50M deal with $30M guaranteed would become a three year, $30M deal. Again, the stars who hold the leverage over teams would reap the rewards while the role players suffered. In a league where there are nearly 1,700 active players, what percentage are bonafide stars? Five percent? Less?

Another reason that owners are hesitant to give out big time guarantees on contracts is the NFL rule that owners must put the entire amount of guaranteed money into an escrow account as soon as the deal is signed. This can create a cash flow issue even for the extremely wealthy when they are asked to set aside $100M or more in liquid assets on some deals rather than paying as you go. Removing this impediment could make owners more comfortable with putting large guarantees in front of players.

Rookie Wage Scale

We talked up top about the unintended consequences of the slashing of the rookie wage scale in the last CBA, along with the ban on renegotiating contracts before finishing your third season in the league. It will be interesting to see if the two sides decide to revisit this topic to re-establish some balance between rookie contracts and veterans.

I think it would be in the players best interest to push for a substantial increase to rookie wages. It seems like it would be a tough sell to convince a body made up of veterans to commit to giving more of their money to rookies who are not yet in the league, but the numbers suggest that evening the playing field back out could help veterans stay in the league longer.

Roger Goodell’s Role in Player Discipline

This has been another hot topic of debate in recent years. Goodell’s uneven distribution of justice has been the primary reason that he’s one of the more unpopular commissioners in professional sports. It seems likely that the NFLPA will push to claw back some of his power to dole out suspensions and fines during this cycle of CBA negotiations.

There are some, like Clay Travis, who think the NFL should be out of the player punishment business altogether, and I think there is some merit to that argument. If the league is going to continue to police their own, they need to do a better job of drawing bright lines around what warrants a suspension and what doesn’t along with how long suspensions should be.

Stadium Credits

During the last CBA, the league was able to secure an appropriation of money to go towards stadium credits. This is effectively a fund to help owners who want to build new stadiums. The last agreement set aside up to 1.5% of revenue per year for owners to use towards new builds. This is a league wide fund that is shared among the 32 teams.

It’s expected that the league will want to keep these credits in place or possibly even up them from 1.5% to a bigger slice of the pie. This will be something to keep an eye on for Titans fans. While Nissan Stadium is still in perfectly fine condition right now, it’s over 20 years old and could be considered for replacement before the end of the next CBA. A higher stadium credit percentage could help the Titans pay for a new home if they decide they need one.

The Franchise Tag

The franchise tag has been very unpopular with players, causing several hold outs (including Le’Veon Bell skipping an entire season). There will be a loud contingent of the NFLPA membership that will want to push for it’s elimination, but again, this only truly effects a very small percentage of players so I don’t know how big of a priority this will be compared to other, more wide ranging benefits.

Owners like it because of the leverage it gives them in negotiations, but also because of the fact that it protects their identity as a franchise. A superstar can’t simply play out their rookie contract and then walk to New York or Los Angeles like they often do in other sports. It gives the small market teams a better shot to keep elite talent long term.

I doubt that the franchise tag is going to be eliminated because it is far more important to the owners than it is to the vast majority of the players. Maybe we see it tweaked to eliminate the option to franchise tag a player for multiple years in a row though.


This isn’t a fun topic for fans either, but NFLPA is likely going to push for something like universal healthcare for it’s players. With each passing year we know more and more about the impact that the sport has on the human body and it’s only getting worse as players get bigger, faster, stronger year in and year out. From CTE to just general aches and pains, it’s rare for these athletes to walk away from the game without some long term health issues.

The last CBA addressed this issue to a large degree as the league offered long term healthcare options free of charge to vested players (three or more credited years on an active roster), but they may ask for that insurance plan to provide more coverage than the current one does.

What do you want to see from the new CBA?