Well, it finally happened. The league, for now, has locked out the players and the NFLPA has decertified. Negotiations have broken down and the "he-said-she-said" is well and truly in full swing. After the initial disappointment of hearing how respective parties could not come to some form of agreement on how to divide a $9billion pie, I looked at this in a micro way from a pure Patriots perspective as it relates to the upcoming draft. Currently, as we all know, the Patriots hold the 17th and 28th picks in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, together with the 33rd and 60th overall picks (or two picks in each of the first two rounds if you will!). It has been a staple of recent drafts for Bill Belichick to manipulate his way up and down draft boards. With regards to some of the higher Patriot picks, there has been a tendency to trade down, to the chagrin of many fans. Whether you agree with this tactic or not, with the breakdown in labour negotiations, the likelihood of a trade down or trade for future picks with one of the Patriot's prime picks has clearly increased...
Some fans are already screaming at the prospect of trading down. "We need impact talent!"; "We're wasting Brady's prime years by trading down or into the future!" Both valid points and each has its own merits. But, given current circumstances, it seems the most logical thing to do from a financial perspective.
First of all, picks at 17 and 28 do not come with contracts that can destroy franchises or tie up too much money in cap room. It's widely accepted that outside the top 10 selected players in the draft, salary figures are quite reasonable for first round players. However, with three particularly high picks in the upcoming draft, it seems there are too many unknown variables to blindly enter into contracts which could harm the makeup of the roster.
First of all, let's consider the salary cap. As everyone knows, the 2010 season was played without a salary cap in place. However, when a new CBA is agreed, there will be a salary cap put in place. There are too many positives for both players and owners in having a salary cap, that it is simply a part of the game as we now know it. The players want a cap as it provides a floor to stop some owners from simply using the profit sharing nature of the league to pay their players peanuts so the owners can increase their margins. The NFL itself doesn't want this since it will clearly dilute the overall product if there are bottom dwelling teams whose owners are simply trying to increase their own profits. And of course, most owners want a cap ceiling to prevent owners such as Dan Snyder from paying extortionate salaries to buy a title. So I think we can safely assume there will be a salary cap when a new CBA is negotiated.
What the cap figure will be is anyone's guess. In 2009, the salary cap was set at $128million, a 10.3% increase from the approximate $116million in 2008. While it would be easy to say that the cap may increase by similar percentages had there been a cap in 2010 and thus in 2011, the process would repeat. However, the cap figure in 2008 was increased $7million (or just 6.4%) from the 2007 figure of $109million. This fluctuation was in part due to the huge increase of over 15% from the salary cap from 2006-2007 (actually the reason why the owners are kicking up a fuss at the moment, saying the players increased their share in a badly negotiated CBA). So while the cap figure has increased, the percentage of this increase is difficult to predict.
Compounding this difficulty is the well publicised desires of the league owners to take an extra $1billion dollars from the $9billion revenue the league currently generates (they already take $1billion, so this would take their cut to approximately $2billion). Whether the owners can get this much money back from the players is irrelevant. The fact is that whatever money the owners can recoup from the players pot will directly affect any salary cap figure set. Therefore, while there may be an increase in the figure from the salary cap, I would not expect any increase to be a significantly great one.
So, in 2009 the salary cap was $128million. Looking ahead, the comprehensive www.patscap.com outlines the projected salary cap for the 2011 Patriots. In their analysis, the Patriots are currently due to have a cap figure of $112,110,338 with 65 signed or tendered players on the roster. While this figure is approximately $16million shy of the 2009 cap, it doesn't account for players who the Patriots may agree future contracts with, for example Logan Mankins, Gerard Warren, Kyle Arrington, Matt Light or Kevin Faulk (to name a few). If a new CBA is only agreed after the draft, which is looking more and more likely, the idea of not knowing what the cap will be and having a number of veterans the team may wish to resign does not lend itself to a strategy of drafting and signing three or four high pick players.
Another confusing aspect to the upcoming draft is a potential rookie wage scale, which the owners seem to be pushing for in any new CBA. Obviously, if there were some assurances that there would be a rookie wage scale in place with a new CBA, this could allow the Patriots to make selections knowing they will not be hamstrung into contract negotiations affected by what other teams may agree with their draft selections. However, with no assurances or indications forthcoming, it would be irresponsible to take a leap of faith and assume a rookie wage scale will be in place with a new CBA. An unknown cap figure and potentially spiralling contracts for rookies somewhat unbound by any wage scale just doesn't add up.
Bill Belichick consistently says that he will do what's in the best interests of the team. With no CBA, it may well be in the best interests of the team to look at trading one of the current top 3 picks the Patriots currently possess for future draft picks which can then be used once a CBA has been agreed and the Patriots can be assured they have not made any cap mistakes.
I'm not saying that they will or that the definitely should trade into the future, but that prospect seems much more logical with a cloudy CBA future. For anyone in disagreement, ask yourself this question: your employer says your salary is being reviewed with a view to an increase. Without knowing the value of this increase, would you go out and buy a new car and book a vacation to Mexico? Just something to think about...