As much as the NFL offseason can look like a mad scramble of players changing teams and scenery, it is also a meticulously researched trial of negotiation and financial problem solving.
In the front offices of Redskins Park, like in all team headquarters, strategies to attain players—through trades, free agency, the draft, etc. – and keep current roster members are consistently being updated and reworked.
But between March, when the new league year begins, and May, the end of the draft, player contracts and their projections for the fiscal year become top priorities. It's the point in the offseason that requires shrewd business.
Nobody knows this better than Eric Schaffer, the Redskins' Vice President of Football Administration and General Counsel, who admits this is his "busy" time of year as the chief negotiator of player contracts.
Before the free agency window began on March 10 this year, Schaffer dedicated time with general manager Scot McCloughan and the Redskins' group of professional scouts to begin analyzing prospective free agents as well as determining which Redskins free agents fit with the 2015 roster.
Schaffer then opens up the stacks of binders in his office and begins a long sorting process, examining spreadsheets of specific positions to determine the market. Looking at players' rankings, he then estimates a contract amount that seems appropriate for the Redskins to offer.
"The first couple days of free agency, especially a guy going into his second contract, those guys are never going to have more leverage in their careers than probably those first few hours," Schaffer said. "That's why we have to be particularly careful at that time. We just want to pay the players relative to how much we believe they can help us win."
The parameters for Schaffer's budgeting are outlined by the league and fluctuate year to year. For instance, the 2015 base salary cap for each team is $143.28 million, nearly $10 million more than 2014 due to a combination of enhanced league and television revenues along with new structure to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Teams are required – over a four year span from 2013-16 – to spend an average of 89 percent of the cap.
While some of the Redskins' notable free agent signings (like this year's lucrative deal with cornerback Chris Culliver) seem to take significant amounts off that figure, re-arranging guaranteed contracts and signing bonuses help alleviate some of those burdens.
Schaffer, who consistently keeps a three-year budget, tries to account for a newly signed player's guaranteed money up front if it makes logistical sense. However, if the team doesn't have the budgetary leeway, he will amortize the signing bonus over the length of the contract.
For example: if you gave out a five-year contract with five million dollars guaranteed, the team will usually account for one million dollars over the course of each year. If that player is cut after his second year, however, the team would have to eat an additional three million dollars at signing bonus acceleration in year three. That can be significant, and it's the risk in a long-term contract.
"You're trying to avoid potential acceleration on your team," Schaffer said, "and keep that number as low as you can."
That's why finding players through the NFL Draft is a more appealing strategy for teams needing to fill roster vacancies. It's been especially true since the new rookie wage scale was implemented by the CBA in 2011. It significantly reduced first-year player contracts.
For instance, in 2010, quarterback Sam Bradford signed a six-year contract with a base value of $78 million and $50 million in guarantees as the first overall pick. The next year, quarterback Cam Newton, the first player drafted in 2011, signed a fully guaranteed four-year, $22 million deal, including a $14,518,544 signing bonus.
"The [amount of] time for rookie players was so different," Schaffer remembered of working with rookies' agents. "It took a long time – negotiations -- there was more room and leeway. Now you are negotiating, but it's just the range of what you can negotiate isn't as great. The process is better from the team's perspective because the idea is that this is the player's first contract and you really don't want any hiccups to get him here and get him working."
The Redskins currently own the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 draft and, based on the previous four years, should expect to pay an average of $18 million guaranteed to whomever they select. Teams that have a specific need or like a
Check out photos of the entire 2015 Washington Redskins offseason active roster in action.
specific player may be willing to spend that money. But, according to research by VOX, trading down and acquiring draft picks in later rounds isn't as significant a sacrifice as you might assume.
Looking at 1,078 trades made between 1990 and 2008, on average, the chance that the first player chosen will start more games than the second one picked at his position is 52 percent. Compared to the third, it's 55 percent, and compared to the fourth, it's just 56 percent.
Nowadays, every pick has its own economic weight attached. According to Forbes, the average cost of falling one spot in the draft between picks 1-8 is roughly $1.39 million per spot.
Still, collecting draft picks, in the first or seventh rounds, is a much more viable option than unloading the bank on veterans.
"There's only so much magic you can do to work the numbers. The bottom line is you've got to hit on your draft picks," Schaffer said. "That's why you can't keep every guy. For certain guys on your team that might just be role players, you might be paying a role player one million to two million dollars, but you can only have so many of those. You've got to think about it in terms of managing a roster.
"Succeeding in the draft is everything, more than succeeding in free agency."
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