Money Matters: The Woodley Dilemma

Because of the new cap rules, the Steelers find themselves in a tricky situation in extending LaMarr Woodley's contract before he becomes a free agent in 2011.

PITTSBURGH -- In an offseason chock full of controversy, almost no one can dispute that LaMarr Woodley has earned a lucrative contract extension. He's been a great fit in Pittsburgh's defense, on and off the field, seemingly from the moment the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2007 draft.

In any normal year, a new deal for the Pro Bowl linebacker would be a slam dunk as he prepares to enter the his final season under his rookie deal, and I have no doubt that both the player and the club would love to make one happen.

But the uncapped 2010 is anything but a normal year, and a new contract for Woodley faces a significant—and maybe insurmountable—obstacle in the form of the 30% Rule. Designed to prevent teams from giving out contracts in advance that stuff a disproportionate amount of compensation into a potentially uncapped year, it also has an awful side effect on players in Woodley's contract position. The relevant portion of the rule, as defined in the collective bargaining agreement, is as follows:

"No NFL Player Contract entered into in a Capped Year and extending into the Final League Year or beyond may provide for an annual increase in Salary, excluding any amount attributable to a signing bonus ... of more than 30% of the Salary provided for in the Final Capped Year, per year, either in the Final League Year or in any subsequent League Year covered by the Player Contract."

The short version of what this means now is that an extension for a player who has remained under contract from 2009 through 2010 can provide for an increase per year of only 30% of his 2009 non-signing bonus salary. Woodley made just $460,000 in 2009 as part of his rookie deal, the minimum salary for a third-year player. This currently limits his salary under a potential new deal to just $598,000 in 2010, $736,000 in 2011, $874,000 in 2012, and an additional $138,000 greater for every year thereafter.

On a new six-year deal, that means a maximum total salary of just $5,658,000. Obviously, that's a paltry portion of what Woodley stands to command. At the position of 3-4 OLB, Jerry Jones gave super-stud DeMarcus Ware the gold standard contract last year: a six-year extension worth $78 million. A more reasonable comparison may be the six-year, $62.5 million deal that Terrell Suggs signed with Baltimore last year, or James Harrison's five-year extension for $43,775,000 in new money.

The loophole in the 30% Rule is that signing bonuses do not count toward its calculations or limits. Essentially, teams can attach any amount of signing bonus to a contract and maintain compliance under the rule. But, it's simply not feasible to offer a player such as Woodley the $50+ million signing bonus that it would take to make up the balance on a six-year deal.

I won't rule out that somebody will devise a creative way around this dilemma, but I haven't seen it happen yet. New Orleans worked around other 30% Rule limitations last year by creative use of something called a completion bonus. However, I know of no other teams that have used that particular device since, so I suspect that the league office put the unofficial kibosh on it after the Saints slipped their deals through. Also, the Steelers organization has a track record of almost dogmatic adherence to the spirit of the league's accounting policies that goes beyond simple observance of the letter of the rules, so I'm skeptical that they'd be eager to play as fast and loose with unconventional structures as some other clubs might.

I could see the possibility of a team constructing a contract comparable to what they do for high first-round rookies, whose contracts are similarly constrained by the rookie salary pool and a 25% Rule that applies only to rookie deals. These deals typically feature a lot of their "base" value attached to performance thresholds that are deemed unlikely to be met by the CBA, but as a practical matter are very easy to achieve.

My guess is that this is what Cleveland did with Joshua Cribbs to work around the 30% Rule with his recent pay raise. But, it works with rookies largely because they have no body of work upon which to base the likelihood of achievement, and so the thresholds can be set quite low. Likewise, Cribbs has had limited statistical production of the relevant sort in his career, with a promise of greater offensive involvement yet to come upon which to base such compensation escalators. For a player like Woodley, coming off of a season of such strong achievement in every way that matters at his position, how do you construct that kind of a deal? If there's a way, I don't see it. Moreover, I can't imagine that an agent would ever go for it.

It's a relatively small number of players who are being impacted by this aspect of the uncapped year. With Santonio Holmes gone, Woodley is the only Steelers player for whom the rule presents any meaningful consequence, and is surely among the highest-profile players around the league to be so affected.

Surely nobody involved, from the front office to the player to the coaches to the fans, wants to see LaMarr Woodley wearing anything but black and gold next year or beyond. So, what are the options? I doubt very much that the expanded restricted free agency rules that apply in the uncapped 2010 will have any bearing on 2011. 2011 will either be controlled by some kind of new agreement—and I can't envision the union agreeing to any deal that extends what has been the most poisonous of pills for their rank and file—or else there won't be football in 2011, in which case restricted status will be irrelevant. So, counting on Woodley being restricted in 2011 is folly, to my mind.

I do think that it's likely that the next agreement will maintain the availability of a franchise tag, although possibly in a form less pleasant for teams than currently exists. So, that will probably be an option. Another that I wouldn't overlook is a short-term extension. It's unreasonable to make up the dollars required on a long-term extension with a gigantic signing bonus, but something like a $9 million signing bonus on a one-year extension with low base salaries would not be outlandish. It would, in essence, be like a proactive franchise tag. It'd be far from an ideal scenario for any party involved, but under the circumstances, it might be better than any of the alternatives.

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