What It's Like to Play Through an NFL Contract Year

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 18, 2016

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 18:  Brian Orakpo #98 of the Tennessee Titans runs onto the field before a game against the Miami Dolphins at LP Field on October 18, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Dolphins defeated the Titans 38-10.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

If we count only game days the NFL regular season is slightly longer than two weeks. There are 16 days, 16 games and 16 Sundays, Mondays or Thursdays to determine which teams are worthy of playing into the postseason.

Primarily, we focus on what those 16 games mean for each team. We concentrate on how the tale of each season is told on a week-to-week basis in 16 three-hour intervals.

We overlook what that means for the individual and the immense pressure fleeting opportunities place on players, especially those who are facing an expiring contract.

Working under a contract may sometimes feel like it’s the one and only way you can relate to an NFL player. The concept isn’t a foreign one, and instead it’s familiar to many hardworking people.

The difference is you have the length of a contract to prove yourself. You can work five days per week for six months or a year, each day growing into a role. That is where any thin thread between NFL players and the everyman ends, just as it always does.

Many players throughout the league are in the final year of their contracts right now and playing through what’s commonly dubbed a “contract year.” The name itself is a lie.

The contract year—which is currently being navigated by top-tier talents such as the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore, along with the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins for the second straight season—is one year long only in the sense that an entire year of days on the calendar tick away.

In truth, only 16 of those days matter.

That number can dwindle even further because of an injury. Then the league offers a mechanism to make a player prove himself all over again, repeating a contract year while under the franchise tag.

The pressure to produce, to win, to lead and to conquer each week is enormous enough under normal circumstances. Toss in the added weight of uncertainty that comes from not knowing where your future lies beyond the next 16 weeks and days, and a contract year can become…

    

A distraction

We often view NFL players as superhuman athletic machines. And physically that’s true, as merely making a roster can require looking like the Michelin Man but moving like the Road Runner.

For those unique talents, they’re paid handsomely. But that gushing money faucet can dry up to a slow drip when a contract year ends. Or it could flow even faster, but to make that happen, the player may have to move across the country.

How a player deals with the uncertainty looming as a contract year begins can depend on his background. Defensive end Derrick Shelby, for example, went undrafted in 2012 out of Utah. He then played sparingly in a reserve role for the Miami Dolphins over three seasons. When fellow defensive end Cameron Wake suffered an injury in 2015, Shelby was given an opportunity, and he pounced on it.

Derrick Shelby played primarily in a reserve role with the Miami Dolphins. He recorded nine sacks and 76 tackles over four seasons.
Derrick Shelby played primarily in a reserve role with the Miami Dolphins. He recorded nine sacks and 76 tackles over four seasons.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

He recorded 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles despite modest playing time while starting only nine games.

Football powers high above may have been watching over him because the timing was perfect. Shelby was playing through a walk year, and his late-season surge pushed the dollars he saw the following March to another level. The potential he showed in 2015 led to a four-year contract worth $18 million from the Atlanta Falcons, $7.5 million of which is guaranteed.

But the contract year didn’t change him as a player or person. He attributes that to being undrafted, which leads to a permanent sense of inner hunger.

“Each year I was scratching and clawing to make the roster,” Shelby told Bleacher Report. “But if you’re, say, a first-round player who’s been playing well, I can see how [the contract year] would tie into things.

“The thing about football is that it helps you breed mental toughness. You can have the contract weigh on you and affect you. But I think most guys are really good at focusing on the task at hand.”

That’s the goal, of course, and it circles us back around to the thin connection between NFL players and you, the contract worker clocking out every day. The focus is singular as you concentrate on this three-step long game: Do your job, do it well and earn the right to keep doing it.

A human element still lingers, though, and we can’t push it aside so easily. Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is one of the early-round picks Shelby referenced, which made his situation different in 2013.

“You try not to think about the contract and what could happen after the season,” Orakpo said. “But it’s there, and it’s in the back of your mind.

“So if you have a game when you’re not really performing or you didn’t put the kind of numbers up that you wanted to, you kind of start having self-doubt when you’re in a contract year. If you’re in the second year of a four- or five-year deal, then you have the seat kicked up and there’s not really too much stress about what can happen, because you know there’s at least some level of stability.”

Orakpo signed a five-year rookie deal with the Washington Redskins after they made him the 13th overall pick in 2009. He was selected to three Pro Bowls during that time and emerged as a premier pass-rusher. But he also suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in 2012 after only two games.

So during his 2013 contract year, he had to prove himself and check off two key boxes for a franchise that knew him well. Orakpo needed to show he had more than just a mended body—he had to be a dominant force again.

He did all of the above and then some. Orakpo has recorded two seasons with double-digit sacks, and one came in 2013 (10). He also finished with 60 tackles, which still stands as a single-year career high.

His reward for that? The franchise tag, and he was asked to do everything all over again. Which is why contract years can also be…

   

A nuisance with franchise-tag frustration

Orakpo was denied long-term security and headed into his age-28 season set to play under the franchise tag. That age isn't old at his position yet, but it’s not young, either. It placed him in a murky-age middle ground after he had carried the burden of that added contract-year pressure for one year already.

He succeeded despite the extra mental weight. Then the former Texas Longhorns star expected relief from it that never came.

“It all goes back to putting more pressure on your performance,” Orakpo said. “I tried not to play with pressure or think about what can happen. I just wanted to help my team win games. But then when you insert the business side into everything, it kind of deflects you from your main purpose.

“That’s the part that sucks, because you really aren’t out there trying to just play for money. You really want to win ballgames and perform your best. But now you’re adding a whole different level of pressure.”

In the end, Orakpo became an example of why the franchise tag is viewed by players as the cold, evil villain lurking at the end of a contract year. Halfway through the 2014 season, he suffered another pectoral injury that brought his year to a screeching halt.

Brian Orakpo played only two games in 2012, and he also missed nine games in 2014.
Brian Orakpo played only two games in 2012, and he also missed nine games in 2014.Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say the Redskins made the right decision. They used the severely slanted leverage given to them by a tool originally intended to buy time in negotiations; however, now it often robs players of long-term security as they continue to sacrifice their bodies each week.

The player had done everything in his power to push through the mental and physical gauntlet of a contract year and earn his payday. There was no magic injury looking glass to peer through after Orakpo had just completed a healthy and productive year.

So he signed like a dutiful team soldier and then was hacked down by the worst-case scenario.

“That’s the frustrating part when franchises do that to us NFL players,” Orakpo said while reflecting on his franchise-tag experience that led to two straight contract years. “No other league has that type of stipulation over a player. It’s unfair, and I really feel like we need to do away with the franchise tag or at least use it for the correct reason.

“You want to get what you deserve, and that’s my philosophy on it. When you grind and put in the work, and then you have the numbers and work ethic, you want to be rewarded for it, and there shouldn’t be a stall on that process once your contract is coming to an end. If that’s the case and the team is unsure, then let the player go to free agency and test his status instead of keeping somebody in limbo and making them prove it all over again.”

The franchise-tag cloud can hover over players of Orakpo’s caliber during a contract year. Then there are those on Shelby’s level who have always felt like they're in a contract year and play like it.

No matter your situation, the act of balancing mind and play over money is…

    

All about focus

NFL players are caught in a loop throughout their careers, one that expands as they get older. It’s not a loop in the time is a flat circle sense. No, in this loop, the process of getting a new contract feels like it comes back to the beginning as you pile up more and more experience.

“For me, it seemed kind of similar to your transition from college to the pros,” Atlanta Falcons guard Andy Levitre said about his contract year.

The Buffalo Bills allowed Levitre to enter a contract year and walk after the 2012 season. He then signed a six-year deal with the Tennessee Titans worth $46.8 million and was later traded to the Falcons in 2015.

The Bills used a second-round pick (51st overall) to select Andy Levitre in 2009.
The Bills used a second-round pick (51st overall) to select Andy Levitre in 2009.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

“You’re not really sure what’s going to happen, just like you don’t know where you’ll get picked in the draft,” he said. “So really in the same sense years later for me it came down to controlling the things you can control—which was just focusing on playing my best—and then letting the chips fall where they may.”

But what level of control is there for the player as the countdown begins on those 16 days? You can rise and grind all year and then produce on a Pro-Bowl level, only to be shackled by the franchise tag as the quest for a deserved reward begins again.

“It’s definitely a distraction, but you try to be a team player,” Orakpo said. “You just want to get this thing done and move forward. But obviously the business side kicks in, and that’s what takes away from the ultimate goal. It creates tension and frustration between the player and the franchise.

“I see the purpose of the franchise tag on both sides, though I’m clearly for the player. It sucks, and it’s not something I wish for anybody to go through. If you perform at a high level, then you should get paid, move on and win more ballgames. Period.”

It’s never that simple, though, and it never will be.

Players justifiably want to get paid after tip-toeing through their contract year, which is a minefield lined with egg shells. But salary-cap restrictions give teams incentive to dodge those payments. The road to a championship isn’t paved with doled-out dollars. Instead, Super Bowl rings are earned by managing both money and, perhaps more importantly, risk.

So contract-year distractions and the need for a hyper-focused approach will always be a part of NFL life for players. Uncertainty is an accepted job hazard, along with the possibility of needing to battle those demons again because of the franchise tag.

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