NFLPA's DeMaurice Smith tells agents to 'collude' on offers to ensure teams not limiting salaries with reduced cap, source says

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told NFL player agents Thursday that they should work together during the upcoming free-agency period to ensure that teams aren't taking advantage of the reduced 2021 salary cap to limit player salaries, a source who was on the videoconference told ESPN.

Speaking on the videoconference, which replaced the annual all-agent seminar the NFLPA holds each year at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, Smith told the agents that the union expects this year's cap to be pretty close to the $180 million "floor" negotiated by the NFL and the NFLPA, and that the 2022 and 2023 caps could be affected as well by the pandemic-related revenue losses that resulted in this year's cap reduction, the source said.

Because of that, Smith said, agents this year should push back on teams trying to cut players for cap reasons and should consult with one another and with the NFLPA's cap department on the offers they're receiving from teams for free-agent players. The source relayed Smith's message to ESPN and said Smith told the agents it was OK for them to "collude" in free agency in order to ensure the best possible deals for players.

Collusion, of course, is an illegal corporate practice in which the league's teams are prohibited from engaging. But there are no laws or rules against workers (in this case players) exchanging information about who's offering how much. And that kind of information can only help agents know more about what's out there in terms of potential destinations and deals.

Smith began his remarks by telling the agents that things would look much grimmer right now had the players not ratified the new collective bargaining agreement one year ago, the source said. Without a CBA in place, he said, the league would be looking at a cessation of operations in a couple of weeks, when the league year ends, and the owners would have little motivation to negotiate a new deal, much less mitigate the 2021 revenue losses by artificially raising the salary-cap floor.

With the CBA in place last year, the union was in a position to negotiate the terms of the COVID-influenced 2020 season. As part of that negotiation, the league and the union agreed that this year's salary cap would be no lower than $175 million per team, even if the revenue projections on which the cap is annually based indicated that it should be lower. Last week, the league and the union agreed to raise that cap floor from $175 million to $180 million, with the final figure still to come. Smith said the final figure likely depends on the outcome of the new TV contracts the league is negotiating, but based on the information the NFLPA has, he expects the final figure to be significantly lower than last year's $198.2 million.

Future caps will be affected because the league and the union have agreed to "borrow" from those caps to offset this year's reduction. Since the 2021 cap won't have dropped as much as it organically would have without the negotiated "floor," the difference between what the 2021 cap is and what it could have been will need to be applied to future caps. The league and the union have already agreed to negotiate the difference out of the 2022 salary cap, and the 2023 cap could be affected as well, since the union is pushing to spread the losses out over as many years as possible instead of dealing with them all at once.

Smith also told the agents that the 2021 offseason program will have to be collectively bargained between the league and the union, as the 2020 offseason program was, because of the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the source said. Last year, all OTA and minicamps were held virtually, and training camp, though it started on time, was structured with significant COVID-inspired changes. It's unclear how similar the 2021 offseason will be to the 2020 offseason, but Smith told the agents Thursday that all aspects of the offseason except for the draft would be subject to collective bargaining.