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Credit card football: How the Steelers build a roster – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog

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PITTSBURGH — Kevin Colbert lives in two worlds as general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There’s the world of scouting reports, player intangibles and maximizing talent.

Then there’s the world of salary-cap projections, roster bonuses and dead money, all of which he likens to the use of a credit card.

“Sooner or later you have to pay it off,” Colbert said about the salary cap. “We can do things to create room, but the money never goes away. The money goes away if you terminate a player, but you still have dead money that accelerates into the given year. You pay that interest like a credit card.”

Not many understand the percentage yields on those magnetic stripes better than Colbert, who in 19 years with the organization has spent a billion-plus dollars on the way to two Super Bowls and 12 playoff appearances.

Colbert has faced nearly every scenario since joining the organization in 2000 as director of football operations, officially becoming general manager in 2010.

He helped extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract three times.

He drafted Antonio Brown in the sixth round, watched him become an All-Pro, absorbed $21.12 million in dead money by trading him, then flipped the third-round pick from that trade as part of a draft-day deal for linebacker Devin Bush.

He has straddled the salary-cap threshold only to create ample space in a matter of days thanks to veteran restructures.

He selected three Pro Bowlers from the same 2017 draft class but has missed on multiple cornerbacks.

He has exhausted every option trying to replace transcendent talent Ryan Shazier at linebacker.

All these decisions collide with a race against time.

Colbert is going year-to-year on a contract that expires in May 2020 but wants one more Lombardi, and he wants it with Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin. He’d like to think the work done from January to August will clear the path, but he dwells in uncertainty every preseason.

“We think we make the right decisions, but until we play, we don’t know,” Colbert said.

In a recent interview with ESPN, Colbert lays out some of the Steelers’ pillars for roster-building that he believes work out more often than not.

Mapping out future years is a must

The Steelers have $5.3 million in cap space in 2019, but that’s only part of the big picture. The front office projects four years out, and every contract negotiation is done through that prism.

“We keep a running total and look at, ‘OK, in 2019 if we do this (deal), it could affect what we do in 2021,'” Colbert said.

And 2022, a year in which no veterans are under contract. All of the Steelers’ big extensions expire by then. That probably will remain the case after negotiations with cornerback Joe Haden, whose looming extension is expected to run through 2021.

Predicting durability, aging requires some luck

Pittsburgh isn’t looking for two-year outs on their long-term extensions. It wants players good enough to fulfill four- and five-year deals.

Colbert identifies talent that he believes will get that done, and he’s betting that player maintains a high level of play into his early 30s. Studying trends can help but only guide so far.

“You also look at his history — the more durable a player is in college or early in his career, the probability of him being healthy moving forward is greater,” Colbert said. “But it’s still a matter of luck on both parts really.”

Steelers’ longevity contracts an unwritten selling point

The Steelers have been batting above .800 on players going deep into mega-deals, with Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive end Cam Heyward, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard David DeCastro the latest examples.

Pouncey and Roethlisberger just re-upped after playing out their long-term deals; DeCastro and Heyward are in years four and five of six-year pacts; Villanueva made Pro Bowls in the first two years of a four-year contract.

The Steelers hold this success rate in the back pocket during negotiations, but they don’t pull it out.

“If the agent does his homework, he can pretty much see we’ve had some success in signing our own, having them reach the end of those contracts more often than not,” Colbert said.

And they probably aren’t changing their guaranteed contract structure

The Steelers are known for offering no true contract guarantees beyond the signing bonus, a structure that was problematic for now-New York Jet Le’Veon Bell during his franchise tag holdout. Many NFL teams get creative with guarantees, maybe offering the first-year salary or more to sweeten the deal.

But Colbert is quick to point out: Players don’t have to accept their deals.

“Why would you vary from something that’s been successful for you?” Colbert asked rhetorically of the approach. “It doesn’t guarantee anything moving forward, but it leans toward being more successful than not.”

After 10 years with the Steelers, guard Ramon Foster believes the franchise’s intent for paying their players the full balance of a deal helps offset the guarantees issue.

“There have been maybe one or two guys here who haven’t gotten the majority of their contract. That’s it,” Foster said. “It’s a land of opportunity. If you are good enough, they are going to make a way for you.”

Colbert stresses this is what the Steelers do now, and he can’t predict how the league will shift. Forecasting an approach under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement starting in 2021 is too difficult. But for now, the process is clear-cut.

“We’re going to stay with what we’ve found to be a prudent way to run the organization,” he said. “If a player doesn’t agree with it, he doesn’t have to sign the deal.”

They don’t cap star power

Most salary-cap data says teams spend around 50 percent of their money on about 10 players. In fact, the dozen-plus teams with $10 million of 2019 cap space or less average about 6.5 rostered players with a cap hit of at least $8 million this year.

Colbert doesn’t budget for good players this way, though. Building a roster still comes down to identifying the right pieces for a winner and working hard to make the rest work.

“You never want to limit it, that’s for sure,” Colbert said. “The key is to have the right 10 players taking up that much (50 percent) of your cap. If you don’t have the right 10 players, you’re going to have issues.”

The free-agency process that ‘never stops’

The Steelers examine three key points with each free agent they are considering: What they think he will cost, what they are willing to pay, and what would make them walk away.

Colbert is in constant contact with Tomlin and his scouting staff about available players, and he relies heavily on vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan and football administration coordinator Samir Suleiman to lay the groundwork for deals.

The Steelers rank free agents, then try to match the ranking with appropriate value.

“Omar and Samir, they do a nice job handling that side of it,” Colbert said. “We talk all the time — ‘We’re interested in this player, we think he’s going to be worth this much.’ It’s their job to provide me the information to be able to manage the decisions that we feel are best for our football team. Once we place an evaluation on a free agent, then we try to guesstimate where he fits among the salary structure, what his market might be.”

Always ‘stay current’

Important to Colbert is sensing how the game is shifting on the field. His example: 2014 first-round pick Shazier, at 232 pounds, wasn’t a prototypical inside linebacker, but the Steelers sensed an increasingly more lateral game — especially in college — was prioritizing speed.

“You could sense this would probably leak into our league,” Colbert said. “We may have been a couple years ahead of where the game is now.”

Since then, the Steelers have drafted three safeties with an average measurable of 6-foot-1 1/2 and 211 pounds, and the 5-11, 234-pound Bush could pass for a hybrid safety.

Colbert is always looking for the next trend.

“We have to stay current with what is happening in our game,” Colbert said. “Sometimes we’re part of that. Sometimes it’s happening around us and we have to react to it. It’s a very cyclical game. Whatever happens on offense, the defense has to catch up and vice versa. We have to acknowledge that in our evaluations where we may value one thing — maybe size and strength more in the past — but now since the game has become more horizontal, you probably have to value speed and athleticism. It changes, but we have to stay not only with it, but try to be ahead of it.”

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Sources — CBA vote set to go to full NFLPA membership next week

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The NFL Players Association intends to hold a vote of its full body of players on a proposed collective bargaining agreement next week, a source told ESPN’s Dan Graziano.

The vote is still expected despite an NFLPA statement saying its board of representatives has declined to vote on a recommendation in hopes of further meetings with NFL management.

“Today, the NFLPA Board of Player Representatives did not take a vote on the principal terms of a proposed new collective bargaining agreement,” the statement read. “The Executive Committee looks forward to meeting with NFL management again next week before the Board takes a vote shortly after.”

The NFL has agreed to meet with the NFLPA on Tuesday at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, a source told Graziano, but it’s unclear whether that meeting will result in further discussion about terms. The NFLPA board of player representatives then plans to vote that night or Wednesday morning, with the full vote waiting until after the outcome of the board’s vote on a recommendation.

An NFL owner, however, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that owners would not be receptive to further talks on the proposed CBA.

Earlier Friday, the NFLPA’s executive council voted 6-5 not to recommend the proposal, as first reported by NFL Network and confirmed by ESPN.

A simple majority of the full membership would be required to approve the CBA. Anyone who paid NFLPA dues during the 2019-20 league year — an estimated 2,100 players — is eligible to vote.

Sources told Graziano there has been a discussion among union leaders and union lawyers on this point for several days, and they settled on having a full vote regardless of the recommendation of player reps.

On Thursday, owners approved the CBA, with more than the required three-fourths of the owners voting to ratify.

According to an NFLPA memo released Thursday, here are some of the proposal’s key terms that player reps and the union’s executive council will weigh when they meet:

• The elimination of any game suspensions strictly for positive marijuana tests.

• A reduction in the number of players subjected to testing for marijuana.

• “Gambling definitions” that ensure players receive a portion of gambling revenue brought in by the league.

• Alterations to training camp, including the “introduction to a 5-day acclimation period,” a limit of 16 days in pads and a limit of four joint practices in a three-preseason-games scenario.

Sources also told ESPN’s Schefter that the proposal includes a game-day roster increase from 46 players to 48, with overall rosters going from 53 to 55.

Teams would also be allowed to bring back three players from injured reserve each season, sources said, and practice squads would grow from 10 players last season to 12 in 2020 and 14 in 2022.

One of the NFL’s best players, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, took to social media Thursday night to voice his disapproval with the proposal.

Sources previously told ESPN that the proposed CBA would allow the league to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 at some point in the next four years (although no sooner than 2021) in exchange for financial and other concessions the players have sought in negotiations. One concession is that the preseason would be shortened, sources said.

In addition, sources said that starting in 2020, the playoff field would be expanded to seven teams from each conference, with only one team from each conference receiving a first-round bye as opposed to the two that currently do.

The league’s desire to expand the regular season has been met with harsh opposition from many players, who view an expanded season as an unnecessary increase in the risk to players’ health and safety. But union leaders have touted to players the benefits of the proposed new deal, which includes a higher percentage of league revenue going to players, improvements in the drug policy and discipline policy, higher minimum salaries, higher per-team spending floors, and relaxed offseason work rules — which were noted in the NFLPA memo.



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NFL CBA vote delayed – What you need to know, biggest changes in 2021 proposal, potential agreement timeline

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The process of negotiating a new NFL collective bargaining agreement, which began about 10 months ago, might be nearing an end. Or it might not. And unfortunately, that’s about as clear as we can be on this subject right now.

Thursday and Friday were weighty days for the negotiations between the NFL’s players and owners. On Thursday, the owners voted to approve the CBA proposal on the table, which has been negotiated between the two sides since last April. The current CBA ends after the 2020 season. That made it seem as if things might be proceeding toward a happy conclusion for both sides.

But on Friday, the players’ end of things turned chaotic, and left open the possibility that the two sides would not come to an agreement in time for the start of the 2020 league year next month.

You have questions. We have answers.


All right, so what happened this week?

All 32 of the NFL’s team owners gathered in New York City on Thursday afternoon for a two-hour meeting to vote on the terms of the proposed new CBA. In order to approve, they had to get “yes” votes from at least 24 of those owners, which they did, though the vote was not unanimous.

At the conclusion of that meeting, owners left without speaking to the assembled media at the hotel where they’d met and issued a printed statement saying they’d also voted to play the 2020 season under the terms of the current CBA if the players didn’t vote to approve the new deal. That statement said they needed to know by next week the rules under which they’d be operating when the new league year begins March 18.

The owners’ vote wasn’t unanimous? Does that mean anything?

Well, it doesn’t affect the process, but it reflects the fact that not all of the owners are comfortable with what they’re giving up in this deal. A source close to Thursday’s meeting said there were even owners who voted for the proposal who were still expressing doubts about it during the meeting.

But they passed it anyway. So what about the players?

So then on Friday, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) held a nearly three-hour conference call with its 32 team player representatives to discuss the proposal. Just before that call began, the union’s executive council — yes, the body in charge of negotiating the deal with the owners — voted 6-5 not to recommend the proposal to the rest of union membership, citing concerns over the NFL’s desire to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17.

The NFLPA had hoped the ensuing call would result in a vote by the player reps, but it did not. One source said that the executive council’s vote “confused” the board of player reps, and that most of the call was spent trying to figure out why they’d voted that way rather than discuss their own vote. Eventually, the player reps decided to table their discussions and attempt to continue negotiations with the owners.

A source said the union still plans to hold a vote of its full membership next week, though they would prefer the player reps to vote to recommend the deal prior to doing so. Officially, 21 of the 32 player reps need to vote yes for it to qualify as a recommendation. An NFLPA statement said: “Our player leadership looks forward to meeting with NFL management again next week before the Board takes a vote shortly thereafter.”

Are the owners going to go for that?

One owner told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday afternoon that “they won’t.” And the owners’ statement Thursday indicated that, if the players didn’t approve the current proposal, they would consider the offer rejected and would proceed with the 2020 season under the current rules outlined in the 2011 CBA.

A source later told ESPN that the owners had agreed to meet with the players Tuesday at the combine in Indianapolis, but it’s unclear whether that meeting will result in further discussion about terms or whether the owners will tell the players to take the current one or leave it. After the meeting with the league, the NFLPA player reps plan to hold the vote they’d hoped to hold Friday. And after that, the entire body of NFL players will vote on whether to ratify the current proposal.

What’s the main sticking point?

Put simply, the players don’t want to play 17 games. They feel it’s asking too much in a sport that is already ridiculously tough on their health and safety. Sources close to the situation said the reason the NFLPA executive council voted not to recommend the deal was because of concerns some of its members still have over the idea of an expanded regular season and doubts some of them have over the owners’ projections for how much more revenue it would generate.

The meeting in Indianapolis between the two sides is likely to address these issues directly, possibly giving members of the board of player reps a chance to hear the owners’ side of the issue. It’s unlikely that vocally anti-17-game executive council members like Richard Sherman and Russell Okung will be convinced, but it’s possible that meeting could help convince enough player reps to vote in favor of the proposal.

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Jeff Saturday reacts to the news of the full NFLPA membership voting on the CBA proposal.

What happens if the players don’t approve this?

The expectation is that the owners would then proceed to negotiate new deals with their television network partners — the current deals are set to expire over the next couple of years — and hold off on further CBA negotiations until next offseason.

Some members of the NFLPA leadership have tried to convince members that this would lead to an offer next year that isn’t as favorable to the players as this one is. Those opposed to the deal have expressed a belief that the owners are bluffing and that they need the new TV deals badly enough that they would offer more concessions if the players went back to them with more demands.

Could the owners be bluffing?

Theoretically, yes, but that’s a tough gamble to make when you’re negotiating against people who have the astronomical wealth that NFL owners have. The fact that there was dissention in the room when the owners met Thursday indicates that some in their ranks think they’re already giving up too much. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the players don’t vote to approve next week the owners will make good on their threat to pull the deal and float it into next offseason.

Does the fact that the player reps didn’t vote Friday mean this is all over? No deal?

No, because the NFLPA’s rules don’t require the executive council or the board of player reps to recommend the proposal in order for it to be approved. Article 6.03 of the NFLPA constitution says that a recommendation from the board of player reps (defined as a vote by at least two-thirds of them to recommend) may accompany a CBA proposal presented to players for approval, but all that is required to ratify it is a majority vote of all of the players in the union.

‘All of the players in the union’ sounds like a lot. How many players are we talking about here?

It is a lot. Any player who paid NFLPA union dues during the 2019-20 league year is eligible to vote. The union estimates that number at about 2,100 players. Of course, it’s not expected that all 2,100 will vote, but all 2,100 will have the opportunity to vote.

A source estimated Friday that the vote by the full body of players would take no more than “a couple of days” to complete and would be conducted electronically, either via e-mail or through DocuSign or some similar service.

So they need 1,051 votes to ratify this thing?

No. The NFLPA constitution says a CBA can be ratified by “a majority of the members of the NFLPA voting for ratification or rejection.” That means all that is needed is a majority of the players who actually cast votes. If only, say, 500 of them vote, they’d need 251 to vote yes in order for the deal to pass.

What happens if they pass it?

The new, 10-year collective bargaining agreement would wipe out the final year of the old one and begin with the start of the 2020 league year on March 18. It would run through the 2029 season. Provisions of the new deal, such as higher minimum salaries, an additional $100 million in new player costs, changes to the drug program and more would take effect immediately on March 18. The league also likely would add one playoff team in each conference beginning with the 2020 season.

And the regular season would expand from 16 games to 17?

Not in the 2020 season. The proposed new deal allows the owners the option to expand the season to 17 games at some point, but their window for doing so runs from 2021 to 2023. So the soonest we’d see a 17-game season would be 2021.

Another important note: The deal specifies that 17 games is the maximum number of regular-season games that can be played in any season during the life of the deal. So there’s no expansion to an 18-game season until at least 2030.

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Dan Graziano presents the details behind the NFL owners and players holding two separate CBA meetings, and explains some of the biggest changes on the table.

What’s the owners’ hurry to get this done now?

Those TV deals, mainly. The 17-game season provision and the expansion of the playoffs allows the owners to go to the TV networks with more inventory. Offer more football, you’d expect to get more money for it. They’d prefer to go into those negotiations knowing for sure they have that added inventory. Otherwise, the uncertainty about the future of the league’s schedule, the future of the relationship with the union and the possible effects a presidential election could have on the U.S. and world economies would combine to create less favorable negotiating ground.

Fair enough. So then what incentive do the players have to do it now?

That’s the question that many in the NFLPA leadership who oppose this deal are asking. The CBA doesn’t expire until March of 2021, and the players have done fine under the current deal. Sure, there are things in the new proposal they’d like to get started now, such as higher minimum salaries and favorable changes to the drug and discipline policies. But there’s so much opposition to the idea of expanding the regular season to 17 games that players are willing to hold off on the new deal’s benefits in order to make sure they’ve received enough in return.

So what would the players get under the current proposal, if they approved it?

A lot of stuff that doesn’t grab headlines but could impact a large majority of the NFLPA’s membership. Minimum salaries, for example, would rise by as much as 20% in the first year of the deal and continue to go up throughout it. More than half of the league’s players play on minimum-salary deals.

The deal also would increase the players’ share of league revenue, increase offseason pay, lighten offseason and training camp workloads and establish new benefits for former players and practice squad players. There would be no more game suspensions for positive marijuana tests, and the league and union would establish a neutral arbitrator for most discipline cases, instead of having the commissioner preside over all of them.

What’s the money breakdown for each side?

The players’ share of league revenue would remain at its current level of 47% this year, though the league would add roughly $100 million in “new player costs” for 2020. Starting in 2021, the players would be guaranteed at least 48% of league revenue. That number would jump to 48.5% in any season in which the league plays 17 games, and there’s an additional escalator that could push it even higher if the league makes a certain amount of money off its new TV deals.

The NFL generated an estimated $15 billion in revenue last year, so going from 47% to 48.5% means an extra $225 million per year for the players if revenues remain flat, which they are projected not to do.

The NFLPA estimates an increase of roughly $5 billion for players over the course of the 10-year deal. For the owners, the profit would come from those still-to-be-negotiated TV deals and is difficult to estimate, though the new deal would enable the owners to once again take money out of the revenue pool to use for stadium construction and renovations.

If this doesn’t pass, are we looking at another work stoppage?

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a lockout as we did in 2011, when owners opted out of the previous CBA and barred the players from work in an (ultimately successful) effort to drive down the players’ share of league revenue. And the odds of the players going on strike seem quite low. So, no, probably not a work stoppage. And even if there is one, it wouldn’t be until after the current deal expires next March.

Never say never, but the more likely outcome is that the owners would instead impose work rules outlined in their last, best good faith offer and keep the league going under those rules until a new agreement with the players was reached. And while the players could challenge that in court, there’s no guarantee they’d win it.



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NFL to allow betting lounges in stadiums, but no gambling

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Starting this season, some NFL stadiums will be allowed to have betting lounges, and teams may accept sponsorships from sportsbook operators, as the league continues to get more comfortable with the expanding legal sports-gambling market in the U.S.

Retail sportsbooks are still prohibited at NFL stadiums, and there will not be any physical betting windows. However, stadiums in jurisdictions with legal sports gambling may offer betting lounges, showcasing mobile betting options, according to Chris Halpin, chief strategy and growth officer for the NFL.

“We’re allowing betting lounges,” Halpin told ESPN on Friday. “Similar to daily fantasy lounges today, in an adult, discreet area, there will be a betting setup, but we’re not going to have betting windows.”

Under the new league policy, teams can designate official sportsbook sponsors and display signage in stadiums with some restrictions. The word “sponsor” must be included in reference to sportsbooks, and sports betting signage remains prohibited in the lower bowls of stadiums.

Previously, casino sponsorships were allowed, but references to sportsbooks were not. In January 2019, the NFL named Caesars Entertainment as the league’s first official casino sponsor, a deal that did not include sports betting. Teams have accepted casino sponsorships for years, but without sports betting.

Sports Business Daily first-reported the change in NFL policy.

Legal sportsbooks are operating in 14 states, including four that are home to NFL teams: Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Several more jurisdictions, including NFL hubs Colorado, the District of Columbia, Illinois and Tennessee, are expected to launch sports betting this year.

“We feel good about how it’s evolved state by state,” Halpin said of the growing American sports betting market. “We’re more and more excited about how sports betting is developing, and we’re now doing more in the space. We’re very positive about how it’s developing.”

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