‘Offset language’ a sign of times in NFL

ASSOCIATED PRESS The Eagles' Lane Johnson is among the first-round draft choices who has yet to sign because of haggling over contract language.
ASSOCIATED PRESS The Eagles' Lane Johnson is among the first-round draft choices who has yet to sign because of haggling over contract language.
Posted: July 17, 2013

IF THERE'S nothing for agents and NFL general managers to fight about, they'll invent something.

That's all you really need to know about the issue of "offset language," which so far has kept seven of the top 10 first-round draft picks from signing, including the Eagles' Lane Johnson, selected fourth overall in April.

New Eagles coach Chip Kelly is scheduled to greet rookies for training camp at NovaCare in 6 days. There's a decent chance Johnson won't be there then, though sources close to the situation say they don't think a prolonged stalemate is likely. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and Johnson's agent, Ken Sarnoff, declined to comment for this story, but league sources say the Eagles are among the teams who very much insist on offset language for their rookies - 2012 first-rounder Fletcher Cox's contract includes it - and it's obvious player agents, inclined to fight for every scrap in an NFL landscape where rookie deals are capped far below the levels top picks got before the 2011 CBA, are doing their best to avoid including it.

"Everything is about precedent; everyone in the NFL is worried about precedent," said ESPN and Sports Illustrated analyst Andrew Brandt, a former player agent and former executive with the Packers and the Eagles. If the Eagles don't get an offset provision from Johnson, then the agent for next year's Birds first-rounder, who might not be taken as high, surely will try to use the Johnson precedent.

Three of the top 10 2013 draftees have signed so far - second overall pick Luke Joeckel, with the Jaguars, fifth overall pick Ziggy Ansah, with the Lions, and eighth overall pick Tavon Austin, with the Rams. There is no offset language in those contracts, reports indicate.

We're talking here about an issue that seems almost moot, as an NFL team official noted yesterday. Offset language only comes into play when a player is released with time remaining on his contract. The standard rookie contract is 4 years. The issue would be, if you release a draftee after, say, 3 years, and he signs elsewhere, does he get the money you agreed to pay him, plus the deal from his new team, or is the money from the new team deducted from the total you owe him? You can only subtract the new contract from your team's obligation if you included offset language when your deal with the player was signed.

Some NFL contracts have the language, some don't. Michael Vick's 2011 deal had it; if the Eagles hadn't renegotiated with Vick in February, and instead had released him, their $3 million 2013 obligation would have been offset by whatever he got from a new team. But the Eagles will pay Nnamdi Asomugha $4 million this year to play for the 49ers, who are paying him $3 million, for a total Nnamdi take of $7 million. That has to rankle, in the second-floor NovaCare offices. No wonder one management figure yesterday referred to the no-offset situation as "double-dipping."

How many top 10 picks get released before their contracts are up? Not many. Which is why this seems like a silly thing to fight about. But most observers think the owners "won" the 2011 lockout and CBA, and a lot of what we're seeing now from the players' side is akin to guerrilla skirmishing from a defeated army, scattered in the trees.

Brandt said one thing to keep in mind is that in contract negotiations, "It's always about worst-case scenarios," fine-print things lawyers worry about.

The rookie salary cap instituted in the 2011 CBA was supposed to make rookie holdouts a thing of the past, and it more or less has - last year, only the Jags' Justin Blackmon remained out of camp for more than a few days, and that impasse apparently had to do with language protecting the team should Blackmon get another DUI.

"The goal of the new CBA in making rookie contracts easier has been achieved in its primary point, which is money," Brandt said, which means issues like the offset are unlikely to stymie signings for very long past reporting dates.

But it's unlikely the Eagles, who have signed all their draftees other than Johnson, are going to easily cave on offset language. And Sarnoff certainly doesn't want to give up on this issue before he knows, say, whether the Dolphins are successful in requiring an offset in the contract of third overall pick Dion Jordan. Miami also is a stickler for offset language, and got it last year in the contract of eighth overall pick Ryan Tannehill, the only top 10 pick who had to agree to such a stipulation.

The Dolphins and Jordan have a strong incentive to settle; Kelly's ex-Oregon defensive end underwent shoulder surgery and missed all the spring work. He's behind, and missing part of camp could effectively keep him out of the rotation as a rookie.

Johnson was here all spring, but he, too, needs every rep he can get. You might recall that Johnson, a converted quarterback, has played only 2 years at offensive tackle and needs a lot of work on technique. As Johnson progressed during the spring, the Eagles moved Todd Herremans to right guard. They probably wouldn't move Herremans back to tackle, if Johnson weren't signed by the time vets report July 25, but someone like 2012 fifth-round rookie Dennis Kelly could step in and prove hard to displace.

Last year, the fourth overall pick was another offensive tackle, Matt Kalil, who signed with Minnesota for $20 million guaranteed the day before camp was to open.

Reports indicated Kalil's deal did not include offset language.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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