Last week, the OBR’s Jared Mueller reached out to suspended Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Gordon for clarification on Gordon’s contract status with the Browns for 2016 and beyond should he be successful in his bid for reinstatement to the NFL following his season-long suspension for his most recent violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Gordon’s answer? That he doesn’t know.
Mueller did add that our Browns insider, Lane Adkins, believes that should Gordon be allowed back with the club for 2016 that the team would control his rights for two years before he reaches the point of being an unrestricted free agent. But how? What does that all mean? As we take deep dives into salary cap and contract issues here at the OBR, it seems like a good time to examine Gordon’s situation from that perspective to clarify why Gordon should be with Cleveland until at least 2018.
When Gordon was suspended by the league for 10 games in 2014 and by the team for its Week 17 contest, that left Gordon with only five games accrued on the season. This is crucial, because, per the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA, a player needs three accrued seasons to be considered a restricted free agent the following year (or the next season he plays, in Gordon’s case) and four to be an unrestricted free agent. The criteria for an accrued season? Six or more games in the season while on the active or inactive roster, on injured reserve or on the PUP/reserve list. Suspensions do not count.
So whether as an intentional move to continue to control Gordon’s rights a year longer than they otherwise would have (or, even more nefariously, to keep Gordon a year further away from a potentially large payday) or a coincidental consequence for that final-game suspension, Gordon was one game shy of that third accrued season in 2014. This means, unless there is some type of appeal made on Gordon’s behalf by the players’ union about that final one-game suspension in 2014, that Gordon will be a restricted free agent following the 2016 season and an unrestricted free agent following the close of 2017’s.
This has a major impact on Gordon’s potential career earnings. In 2013, Gordon was the NFL’s top receiver, with 1,646 receiving yards on 87 catches and nine touchdowns. And it’s not impossible to assume he can be that again, given how hard he’s been working to make his return to the field a productive one. It’s one thing for Gordon to be over two years away from hitting the open free agent market as it is, but it’s another altogether when combined with his suspension history. Any contract paid out—especially high-value ones to high-talent players—is always a balance of risk and reward. And when the risk-reward balance includes the very real possibility of another Gordon slip up, another season-long (or longer) suspension, committing a large chunk of salary cap to him is a difficult move to make.
But, on the other hand, this buys Gordon time. It buys him two seasons of proving that he’s a changed person but still the same player, which could actually help him get a high payday in 2018. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that the Browns could have his services for up to two seasons at a mere pittance. With Gordon’s 2015 salary will “toll” to 2016 now—or rather, what he was owed this year will now be his payday next season, which is worth $1,068,406 in salary plus another $564,115 in prorated signing bonus. It’s not a small contract, but it’s not very big either relative to what he’s capable of doing on the field.
Keep in mind, though, that Gordon’s RFA status for the 2017 offseason also doesn’t preclude the Browns from signing him to a higher-value, long-term deal then. There’s no guarantee that Gordon is definitely going to lose money because he has only two accrued seasons to his name rather than three. There is simply the chance. That shouldn’t be minimized—this is something the NFLPA can pursue if they so choose—but it also serves to highlight how up in the air things are for Gordon’s future. Though his 2016 payday should be pretty straightforward should he be reinstated for the start of the new league year, Gordon’s big contract, should he ever receive one, could wait until 2018 though it doesn’t necessarily have to.
All contract information via Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.