Buffalo Bills Release of Karlos Williams Highlights Contract Issues in NFL

Photo Credit: FanSided Inc., from USA Today Images

Last November, former Buffalo Bills running back Karlos Williams became the second player in NFL history to score in his sixth consecutive game to begin his career. Before the start of this past weekend, Williams was notified that he would be released from the Buffalo Bills roster.

The former Florida State Seminole was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 NFL season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy (Marijuana) and reportedly showed up to training camp between 30–40 pounds overweight. The Bills, then, opted not to have the ‘distraction’ of Williams return to the roster; even though Marcell Dareus, Buffalo’s highest paid player, is also currently suspended for Marijuana use but remains on the team and is given time to check into a rehabilitation facility.

That begs the question: do the Bills hate Williams or is there some other force at play that makes them have to appear to be more sympathetic toward Dareus?

There is a drastic difference in the contracts — in terms of both value and structure — which contribute to this sharp contrast in the Bills behavior, despite the underlying issue being relatively the same.

Comparatively, Williams and Dareus were at different contract periods in their career. Williams, who joined the Bills after graduating Florida State in 2014, was still living off of his rookie contract, where as Dareus had just signed his first major contract extension prior to the 2015 NFL season. Rookie contracts are essentially prewritten, they are (generally) worth substantially less than veteran contracts and contain limited financial protections for a player who is released or injured.

Dareus’ contract essentially has the best financial protection of all: insane ‘Dead Cap’ penalties. This means that, in each year of Dareus contract, there is a massive monetary amount that would have to be paid if Dareus were to be cut that season. This season, if the Bills were to release Dareus, they would owe him $47,000,000 in ‘Dead Cap’ wages. Conversely, Williams’ shoddy rookie contract had a much smaller number attached to his termination: $53,838. Essentially, it was over $46,946,000 cheaper to release Karlos Williams to clear a roster space.

While the disparity in protection between the two players is obvious, the route to this issue is more muddled. NFL rookie contracts were not always boiler-plate agreements (prewritten); however, after the lucrative contracts signed by first overall picks Sam Bradford (six years, $76 million) and Matthew Stafford (six years, $41.7 million), the NFL and NFLPA added the new contract formats into the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Today, as a result of these rookie contracts, players like Karlos Williams (who made only $650,000 in his lone Bills season) are put into an extremely vulnerable position contractually. And, while a player like Dareus deserves to keep his job and retain the benefit of the doubt, so does Williams.

There is a very real possibility that rookie contracts (as well as the league’s substance abuse policy) are serious points of contention entering the negotiation of the NFLPA and NFL’s next Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021. Williams’ story is microcosmic of how multiple policies and forces can work against players at once, and that needs to change if players are going to be given a chance to succeed.

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