In most years, franchise-tagged players have fully-guaranteed salaries. This year, the guarantee goes only as far as the season does.
The NFL and NFL Players Association has resolved the delicate balance regarding pay-as-you-play and fully-guaranteed salary by, for players with multi-year contracts, bumping the guaranteed payments into future years, if the season is cancelled after it begins. For players operating under one-year franchise tenders, there’s no future contract year into which the guaranteed salary can be shifted.
So what happens? According to the document negotiated and signed by the NFL and NFL Players Association, the player may — or may not — get his money back.
The relevant language appears at Paragraph No. 10, Section h of the letter agreement: “If a player does not have a future contract year after 2020, or does not have unprotected salary in his existing contract covering future contract years sufficient to exhaust his Guarantee Rollover Protection, and the player subsequently signs a contract covering the 2021 League Year (and any subsequent League Years), any unexhausted guaranties attributable to the plater’s 2020 contract will not roll over to the newly signed contract in the manner described . . . above. Instead, in such a case, a determination will be made whether the player exhausts the Guarantee by receiving less protected or unprotected compensation under a new player contract for any year through the 2023 season in an amount to exhaust the unpaid guarantee. If the player does not receive such compensation (for example, by not playing those years under a new player contract, or playing those years but not receiving any unprotected compensation in the unexhausted amount), the NFLPA pay create a Benefit from future Player Costs to protect a player who did not have an eligible 2021 contract for his unexhausted Guarantee and did not otherwise exhaust that guarantee through the 2023 season. At the NFLPA’s sole discretion, the NFLPA may create a Benefit for players with Guarantee Rollover Protection for 2020 but no eligible contract for 2021 through 2023 that satisfied the unexhausted guarantees.”
In English, this seems to mean that franchise-tagged players who make at least as much during the 2021 through 2023 seasons in non-guaranteed money as they lost as a result of a truncated 2020 season won’t get any of the lost money back. If, however, a player has fully-guaranteed contracts from 2021 through 2023, if he doesn’t play from 2021 through 2023, or if he doesn’t earn in those three years the money lost by a shortened season in 2020, the union has the “sole discretion” to make him whole.
As a practical matter, it apparently means that players like Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be SOL if, for example, half the season is canceled, he loses half of his $31.4 million guaranteed salary in 2020, and he otherwise makes back that amount ($15.7 million) in non-guaranteed money paid out in 2021, 2022, or 2023. This same logic applies to the other franchise-tagged players who have fully-guaranteed salaries in 2020, but no contract beyond 2020 into which to roll over the guaranteed payment that isn’t made this year, due to a shortened season.
Frankly, this clause should have made the opt-out right even more attractive for players like Prescott, who could have pressed pause on his career as a hedge against the 2020 season imploding, and then returned in 2021 with a fully-guaranteed salary of $31.4 million. None of the franchise-tagged players with one year contracts opted opt — possibly because they all didn’t fully understand this wrinkle to the side letter revising the labor agreement, possibly in part because the league managed (for the most part) to keep it all under wraps under after the opt-out window closed.