By all accounts, the Minnesota Vikings will likely place quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on the Physically Unable to Perform (“PUP”) list to start the season. This may give them to option to push the final year of his contract into the next year, through a process outlined in the 2011 Comprehensive Bargaining Agreement, referred to as “tolling.”
This would essentially extend him another year, using the terms from this year of his contract. This would also give the Vikings the opportunity to activate Bridgewater’s fifth-year option and retain control of him for an additional year beyond the 2018-19 season.
But placing him on the PUP list may not be enough to toll his contract. If Bridgewater is physically healthy enough to engage in football activities, the Vikings could face a problematic legal battle. There’s certainly incentive for the young passer, his agent and his union to start one.
Because Minnesota didn’t activate the option last summer before the deadline for 2014 draftees, Bridgewater would be slated to be a free agent at the end of this season without tolling. If his contract tolls and the Vikings activate the option next summer, he would be a free agent at the end of the 2019-20 season — so instead of seeking an open market this March at the age of 25, he would be hitting FA for the first time in the March of 2020 at the age of 27.
That’s why the NFL Player’s Association is pushing back on the Vikings’ plan to toll Bridgewater’s contract; if Bridgewater can perform, he might not be subject to the rules that allow the Vikings to toll his contract.
Initially, everything seems straightforward. The rule is worded in what looks like plain language:
Any player placed on a Physically Unable to Perform list (“PUP”) will be paid his full Paragraph 5 Salary while on such list. His contract will not be tolled for the period he is on PUP, except in the last year of his contract, when the player’s contract will be tolled if he is still physically unable to perform his football services as of the sixth regular season game.
If a player is placed on the PUP list, that player cannot be activated until after the sixth week of the NFL season, which would force Bridgewater’s contract to toll under what is presumably the Vikings’ interpretation of the rule.
But, as former agent and CBS Sports’ contract expert Joel Corry points out, it’s not about whether or not Bridgewater is actually on the PUP list, but whether his body is capable of performing football services.
The CBA references the PUP list in a specific way every time the designation is mentioned, which emphasizes its as a status tagged onto a player’s contract; that’s why it’s capitalized each time it’s referenced — it’s a term that carries a specific meaning throughout the document. The phrase “physically unable to perform football services” in some form, without capital letters, also appears multiple times in the 2011 Comprehensive Bargaining Agreement.
That includes the very next section of the CBA when it describes the Nonfootball Injury designation, in a very similarly worded rule:
A player on N-F/I who is in the final year of his contract (including an option year) will have his contract tolled. However, if the player is physically able to perform his football services on or before the sixth regular season game, the club must pay the player his negotiated Paragraph 5 Salary (pro rata) for the balance of the season in order to toll such player’s contract.
The CBA also uses the phrase to clearly reference non-PUP statuses, like when discussing midseason injuries for practice squad players, worker’s compensation due to injury, injury arbitration processes for players put on injured reserve or who meet an injury settlement and so on.
The phrase “physically unable to perform football services” is independent of the player status of being on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
So, while it is possible that placing Bridgewater on the PUP list at the beginning of the year could set in motion events that lead to his contract tolling — and therefore significant team control—but it may not be enough by itself; if Bridgewater can physically play, the contract designation might not impact his ability to hit free agency this year.
That of course leads to an awkward problem; Sam Bradford is also hitting free agency in March in addition to (potentially) Bridgewater. There is no reasonable chance that the Vikings could afford the cap space to retain both. Even with the $39 million in projected cap space they have next year, per Over the Cap, they couldn’t hope to retain two quarterbacks in a market where players, who at a minimum are expected to compete for a starting job, earn $15 million a year (or more) and middling quarterbacks with more to prove earn $20 million.
The largest cap liability devoted to quarterbacks this year belongs to the Arizona Cardinals, who have just over $29 million devoted to passers. The Vikings will not want to pay two quarterbacks $20 million just for one of them to back the other one up. Nor will either quarterback want to sign when they might be assured a place to start elsewhere.
Ultimately, the sooner Bridgewater can get healthy, the better. The Vikings will be able to evaluate him in practice and possibly in games, and be put into a better position to determine his value than any other team on the market. They’ll know the details about how his injury has affected him and whether or not he’ll have cleaned up any parts of his play.
But even good news and fast progress comes with complications, and the Vikings should be prepared to deal with those.