In the 2020 offseason, the splashiest free agent the Minnesota Vikings added was Michael Pierce, a former Baltimore Raven and Samford Bulldog nose tackle coming off of a down season and otherwise solid career. But due to COVID-19 and his asthma, he has chosen to opt-out of the 2020 season.
Pierce was set to make $3 million in the 2020 season in addition to a $2 million cap hit from a prorated chunk of his signing bonus. Add a $100K bonus for being on the roster Week 1, and you get his projected $5.1 million total for 2020. So what happens to a player’s contract when they opt-out?
Pierce qualifies as a “high-risk” opt-out because of his asthma, so he gets a $350K stipend for the 2020 season. This isn’t a salary advance, as opposed to the “low-risk” category which is borrowed from the future year’s salary.
Not all of the details are finalized, but Pierce’s contract will more or less be tolled into future years. “Tolling” a contract can be thought of as delaying it one year. Pierce’s $3 million base salary and $100K roster bonus will become the terms of his 2021 season with the Vikings. His 2021 terms will become his 2022 terms, etc. Pierce is now under contract through 2023.
This frees up $3 million in salary cap for 2020 which could help the Vikings work out a Dalvin Cook or Anthony Harris extension, re-sign Everson Griffen, Josh Kline or simply roll into 2021 to pay for when Pierce comes back.
It gets more complicated with his signing bonus. Pierce received a $6 million signing bonus when he signed his deal in March, and he’s already been given access to that money. Normally, signing bonuses will have their cap hits spread out across the life of the contract. So of that $6 million, the Vikings would take a $2 million cap hit in 2020, $2 million in 2021 and $2 million in 2022, in addition to his base salary.
While his base salary and any bonuses slide forward, the signing bonus charges will stay where they are. So there will be a $2 million charge against the 2020 cap for Pierce. This could create a strange situation in the future when players who opted out will carry no dead money headed into their final year, since the signing bonus has already been paid off.
His 2020 base salary was fully guaranteed, and his 2021 base salary will be fully guaranteed as well. The last two years of his contract had no guaranteed base salary, the only dead money associated with those contracts is tied up in the signing bonus.
A few things aren’t quite clear in the NFLPA memo that outlines most of this protocol. That $350K stipend counts against Total Player Cost, or the segment of the NFL’s budget that the players get paid from, which would imply that it counts against the salary cap. But that’s not explicitly mentioned as the full terms aren’t finalized yet.
It’s also not 100% confirmed that the signing bonus proration will stay in place, but Pro Football Focus’s cap expert, Brad Spielberger, seems confident.
Michael Pierce will still receive an “accrued season,” which doesn’t mean much to the Vikings’ salary cap but will affect his benefits and minimum salary in any future negotiations.