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Agent’s Take: Ja’Wuan James paying the biggest price in midst of NFLPA’s fight over offseason workouts

The NFLPA’s dispute with the NFL over voluntary offseason workout programs took an unfortunate turn a couple of weeks ago when offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James tore an Achilles while working out away from the Broncos’ facility. James had previously been working out at the team facility before following the NFLPA’s recommendation to stay away or boycott these workouts. He was reportedly following a workout plan the Broncos recommended.

Last year’s workouts having to be done virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic reconfirmed to the NFLPA that in-person workouts during the offseason weren’t necessary. The optimal time for the NFLPA to get substantial concessions with offseason workouts was during negotiations of the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was ratified last March and runs through the 2030 season, when the league was desperate for the addition of a 17th regular-season game.

The Broncos exercised their rights by promptly placing James on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list (NFI). The maneuver ended James’ season and put him at financial risk. An injury suffered by a player away from an NFL team facility while working out on his own is considered a non-football injury.

Teams don’t have to pay players on NFI during the season but can elect to do so. The skill, injury and salary cap guarantees in NFL contracts aren’t applicable to non-football injuries. Contracts are considered fully guaranteed when all three of these guarantees exist but can void for a laundry list of reasons.

Several NFL players, most notably 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, expressed surprise in a tweet at the possibility of James not being paid, raising questions about whether players were fully informed by the NFLPA or their individual agents on the potential negative consequences of injuries away from team facilities. The Broncos took the harshest possible stance late last week by releasing James with a post-June 1 designation.

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James signed a four-year, $51 million contract with the Broncos as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. The deal had $32 million of guarantees, including a $12 million signing bonus. James was scheduled to make a fully guaranteed $10 million in base salary this season. His contract tolled when he opted out of last season because of the pandemic, meaning his contract was frozen where his 2020 contract year became his 2021 contract year and additional years in the contract were also pushed back one year. As a voluntary opt-out, James received a $150,000 salary advance that’s supposed to be offset against any money earned in the future from playing in the NFL. Five million of James’ $11 million 2022 base salary was guaranteed for injury with the full guarantee kicking in next March on the fifth day of the 2022 league year.

Had James been hurt while participating in the Broncos’ workout program, his injury guarantee would have provided payment for this season. NFI wouldn’t have been a consideration. Placing James on injured reserve (IR) because of his season-ending injury would have been appropriate. James also would have been eligible to receive the additional payment for the 17th game, which would have been $588,235 in his case, by remaining on IR since his contract was in existence before the new CBA and hadn’t been substantially renegotiated or modified. Players on NFI don’t qualify for a 17th-game check.

By releasing James with a post-June 1 designation, the $6 million of signing bonus proration from James’ 2022 and 2023 contract years will not accelerate onto Denver’s 2021 salary cap. It will be a 2022 cap charge. With the post-June 1 designation, the Broncos are required to carry James’ full $13 million 2021 cap number until June 2 even though he is no longer a part of the roster and $9.85 million of his $10 million salary will come off Denver’s books at that time leaving a $3.15 million cap charge consisting of the $3 million in 2021 signing bonus proration and the $150,000 advance from his 2020 opt out.

Upon his release, James tweeted the following to the NFLPA:

The expectation is the NFLPA will file a grievance on behalf of James for at least the remaining $9.85 million he was set to make in 2021. Under CBA rules, 40 percent of the disputed amount ($3.94 million) would be a cap charge while a grievance was pending.

James faces an uphill battle of prevailing. In a grievance, the NFLPA may challenge the Broncos placing James on NFI contending he should have been put on IR instead. This would be because James was following workouts provided by the Broncos even though his injury occurred away from the facility. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith mentioned a settlement as a potential option when addressing James’ situation earlier this week at the Sports Lawyers Association’s annual conference.

James should consider exploring whether it makes sense to purse a legal claim against the NFLPA rather than filing a grievance. The reason James is in his current predicament is because he took the NFLPA’s advice about offseason workouts to his detriment. There isn’t anything preventing the NFLPA from indemnifying James or any other player from any financial losses suffered because of an injury sustained from staying away from workout programs at their urging. Otherwise, James in particular could just be collateral damage in the NFLPA’s fight over offseason workouts. 

Nonetheless, the workout boycott has led to some favorable changes for the players, at least for this offseason. Some teams have shortened the length of the workout program by one or two weeks. Others have agreed to less intensity during the 10 days of organized team practice activity allowed where the sessions are at a walkthrough pace instead of going full speed. 

The Packers moved their mandatory minicamp up a week from June 15-17. The Colts and Eagles cancelled their mandatory minicamp. The better the teams making accommodations to players do during the 2021 season, the greater likelihood of these changes becoming permanent.