April 30, 2017
Had Philadelphia Eagles rookie second-round pick Sidney Jones not tore his Achilles during his pro day back in March, the Birds would have strongly considered drafting him with the 14th overall pick. Instead, because of the injury, Jones slid to pick 43, where the Eagles snatched him up.
In Howie Roseman's press conference following the selection of Jones, the first question he was asked was whether or not Jones would be able to return to the field in his rookie season.
"I think that's to be determined," he said. "Obviously, he got a report from [orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Anderson] that we saw that showed how well [his Achilles is] healing and it was an optimistic report, but we're going to take it slow. We're just going to make sure we get 100 percent of Sidney going forward because this is an extremely talented guy at an important, hard-to-find position."
Leading up to the draft, in a piece by Matt Bowen of ESPN, Jones confidently proclaimed that he would play this season.
When asked about the pitch he's giving NFL teams, Jones said, "I'm going to be back on the field in six months. ... I'll be ready to play. The doctor said I'll be running in four months. From there, it's just getting my strength back. I'll for sure be playing this season in my mind."
In Jones' first press conference after being drafted, his tune was markedly different.
“The plan is not to rush me back at all," he said. "We have to take it slow. I’ll be back on the field when [the team] feels confident. We’re not going to rush anything. Of course, I would like to play as soon as possible, but there’s no rush.”
The Eagles would be wise to plan on Jones not playing at all in 2017.
Why? As it was astutely pointed out by friend of the site and amateur CBA expert Sam Lynch, if Jones misses all of 2017, he will be a restricted free agent (as opposed to an unrestricted free agent) after 2020.
From the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement:
Any Veteran player with three Accrued Seasons, but less than four Accrued Seasons shall, at the expiration of his last Player Contract during such period, become a Restricted Free Agent.
So what is an "Accrued Season?" According to the CBA:
For the purposes of calculating Accrued Seasons under this Agreement, a player shall receive one Accrued Season for each season during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games, but which, irrespective of the player’s pay status, shall not include games for which the player was on: (i) the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, (ii) the Reserve PUP List as a result of a nonfootball injury, or (iii) a Club’s Practice Squad.
Jones' rookie contract will be a four-year deal that is already pre-determined by his draft slot. Under normal circumstances, he would be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of those four seasons. However, if he were to miss the entirety of the 2017 season, that would not count as an "Accrued Season," thus making him a restricted free agent at the end of his contract.
In Jones' case, the Eagles would have two different options to retain Jones when he is a restricted free agent. They could place either a first- or second-round tender on him. In 2017, a first-round tender cost $3.91 million, while a second-round tender cost $2.746 million. Those figures will rise each year, but will still be far more cost efficient than if Jones were an unrestricted free agent, assuming he's worth keeping.
Jones would be free to negotiate an offer sheet with other teams, which the Eagles would have the ability to match. Should the Eagles choose not to match the offer sheet, allowing the player to leave, they would be compensated with a draft pick from the signing team corresponding to the level of tender placed on the player.
So what does all of that mean?
If the Eagles were to place Jones on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and just leave him there for the entirety of the 2017 season, he would not earn an Accrued Season for 2017, thus guaranteeing less than four Accrued Seasons at the conclusion of his contract, making him a restricted free agent. Despite his injury, the Eagles would be able to retain Jones for five season (presumably four healthy seasons) before he would become an unrestricted free agent.
Jones is going to miss the entirety of minicamp, OTAs, training camp, and the preseason. Even if he is able to play in October, as the most optimistic prognoses project, he will be way behind mentally and (likely) physically. It's unlikely he'll be able to come in and help the team substantially at that time.
Therefore, the benefit of controlling his rights cheaply for five years instead of four probably outweigh any gains of Jones playing in 2017.
UPDATE: In 2013, the NFL made PUP/NFI rule changes. They state:
The day after a club’s sixth regular season game (including any bye week) and continuing through the day after the conclusion of the 11th regular season weekend, clubs are permitted to begin practicing players on Reserve/PUP and Reserve/NFI for a period not to exceed 21 days. Players may be activated up to the day after the conclusion of the 21-day period.
That period of 21 days would not count toward a player's necessary six or more regular season games needed to earn an Accrued Season, per a source.
In other words, the Eagles could theoretically keep Jones on the NFI list up until the second half of the season, allow him to practice for three weeks, and then activate him in games for less than six weeks at the end of the season. That way, they would have the benefit of Jones playing at the end of the season, while also ensuring that he is a restricted free agent at the end of his rookie deal.
It should be noted, however, that that tact would almost assuredly alienate the player, and draw ire from the NFLPA.