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Three Falcons Kickers, Three Contracts

Another look at the Matt Bryant - Shayne Graham - Nick Rose trinity and why this week's roster move is a danger signal. (Sorry, it's long and there's quite a bit of math...)

Remember this guy?  He kicked this 54-yarder to help end Carolina's unbeaten season last year.  And he's back...
Remember this guy? He kicked this 54-yarder to help end Carolina's unbeaten season last year. And he's back...
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: This piece was submitted on Sunday and published today, which we think makes the research even more compelling.

The Falcons pulled the pin on the Nick Rose grenade this week, releasing the undrafted free agent rookie kicker.  They also resigned kicker Shayne Graham, who also came aboard last year as the replacement for incumbent Matt Bryant, who finished the 2015 season on injured reserve status.

I believe that the roster move has more to do with Matt Bryant than Nick Rose. A look at the contracts, especially Bryant's, and the cap ramifications might help make it a little more clear. Or perhaps things will become even more complicated. Let's dive in and see what happens.

First contract: Matt Bryant

Bryant is in the second year of a three-year contract extension. He received a $1 million signing bonus, with the cap hit spread over the three years of the extension. An interesting feature of his contract is that he has a $31,250 per game bonus, which comes out to $500,000 per year. In other words, Atlanta's front office pegged $500k of his pay each year to whether or not he's able to play.

The twist is that sort of bonus counts as an incentive clause, sort of like a clause where a running back might receive a bonus if he rushed for 1,000+ yards. There's no way to know before the season begins whether players will actually earn those bonuses, so for salary cap purposes the league defines these bonuses as "likely to be earned" (LTBE) or "not likely to be earned".

It's based on whether the player met the criteria to earn the bonus in the previous season. If he did, the incentive bonus is deemed LTBE, and it is charged to the team's salary cap up front.

To keep the explanation from getting too long-winded, the team was charged the full $500k against last year's cap because Matt Bryant had played every game in 2014, making the full bonus LTBE for 2015.  Since he didn't play six games, the team got a "refund" on the cap space in the form of an adjustment to this year's cap.

This is why the two major cap web sites (Spotrac and OverTheCap) disagree on his cap figure for 2016.  One of them (OverTheCap) factors in this adjustment while the other does not.   They also disagree on the number of games involved -  Spotrac claims that 11 games of the bonus are LTBE for this season.

I believe both sites have errors, but OverTheCap's calculations almost work out if it's 10 games. Bryant appeared in 10 games last season, so the adjustment should be 6 games of bonus ($187,500) as extra cap space for Atlanta's 2016 salary cap and 10 games of bonus deemed as LTBE for 2016.

(If anyone follows those web sites closely, I believe OTC accidentally added the 6 game adjustment to the cap cost rather than adding the 10 game LTBE portion and then subtracting the 6 game refund. That would give exactly the figure that they list as his total cap cost.)

A second important factor in his contract is that he was due a $800,000 roster bonus, payable if he was still on the roster as of March 13. That forced the team to make a big decision on him early in the offseason. Other players with upcoming roster bonuses (William Moore, Paul Soliai) were released before those bonuses came due.

But Atlanta opted to keep Matt Bryant and pay the $800k. With two seasons of prorated signing bonus also remaining (but with six games of per-game bonus coming back to the team), paying that roster bonus kicked his total dead money cost up to $1.28 million if he's released.

So it was a significant decision -  and paying it meant that the team fully intended for Bryant to be the team's place kicker in 2016.

Second contract: Nick Rose

This one's pretty simple. Rose was an undrafted free agent signed to the minimal contract allowed by the CBA.   Like other rookie prospects, his base salary was to be $450,000 for this season. But that only applies if the rookies make the roster.  Salaries don't begin until week one of the regular season.

Until then, players only receive small per diems for the days the team holds practices during minicamps and OTAs and on a weekly basis during training camp and preseason. Starting with the first day of training camp, the rookies make a whopping $1,000 per week.

In most cases, a team will be quick to release a prospect once the coaching staff has determined that the player is unlikely to make even the practice squad. It's a professional courtesy to set him free in that situation -  he's not making much money, he's risking significant injury, and he's losing the opportunity for his agent to try to land him elsewhere.

Kickers and punters tend to be the exception to that rule.  Many teams want to have an extra specialist in camp for practice purposes.   Having the extra guy gives you lots of extra flexibility -  you can do two sets of kickoff or punt drills simultaneously, getting more reps for more prospects.  You can have the extra guy handle the practice kickoffs while the "real" kicker is practicing kicking field goals.  Or you can save wear and tear on your regular punter or kicker by having them alternate reps with the extra guy.

The extra camp kicker/punter has essentially no chance of making the roster, and he knows it.   One extra "payoff" that he gets is the chance to appear in preseason games.   This gives him game film, which he hopes will help him down the road, such as trying to land a spot with an Arena League team or perhaps a CFL team, or perhaps a more serious opportunity if some NFL team suddenly needs a kicker at a later time.

So, Rose has had some kickoff, field goal, extra point, and even some unexpected punting in game film.  That's his true reward for spending training camp with the Falcons.

But even though many of his field goal attempts made that left turn at Albuquerque, the timing of his release is a bit curious.  Matt Bosher was banged up in last Thursday's game. Without another punter on the roster, he's forced back into action in this coming game -  and under normal circumstances the team has Bosher handle kickoff duty as well as punting.  (He's already back in practice and fully participating, because hey, it's Matt Bosher. But it wouldn't have been a bad idea to be a little extra cautious and make sure he's fully healed.)

Keeping the camp scrub around for at least one more week (until the roster cut to 75 players, which comes between the third and fourth preseason games) would make a lot of sense.  Rose could handle any kickoff or punting activity in practice, and having him available on Thursday would allow the team to rest Bosher for the entire week.

In return, Rose would get a third game of game film to help his cause. It's still preseason, so it wouldn't be a disaster for the team if he got another field goal opportunity and missed again. With that in mind, his release and replacement suggests there might be more to the story.

Third contract: Shayne Graham

Like Bryant, Shayne Graham is also a veteran kicker. He made his debut in 2001 and has appeared in 178 games over 15 seasons.

But for veterans and rookies alike, salaries do not kick in until week one of the regular season. Until then, the veterans are making $1800 per week in per diems (as opposed to $1000 per week for the rookies) but no salary at all.

And that in itself is noteworthy.  If we were bringing him in just for the last two weeks of preseason, Graham would only be making $3600 - which would also have to cover his living expenses while he's here, as the training camp portion of preseason is now over and the players are on their own.

He wouldn't bother coming here if that's all the team wanted. Financially, he'd be better off simply going ahead and filing his retirement papers.

And in spite of a few slips, such as a pair of incidents at the Combine or the awful handling of Joe Hawley's release, the Falcons make a point of trying to be a first class organization.  They wouldn't waste Graham's time by bringing him in just for preseason work.  If they just wanted an extra leg for another week or two, they simply would have kept Rose.

So whatever might be going on with Matt Bryant, the situation is suddenly looking serious. Graham is here for a reason, and it isn't because a camp scrub missed two field goals and shanked a punt.  While releasing Rose suggests there's more to the story, signing Graham in his place absolutely screams it.

One more peek at Bryant's contract...

Week one of the regular season means more than just the start of regular salaries.  The "vested veteran" rule also comes into play. That weekend, players on the roster who have four or more seasons of league tenure also have their base salaries for the season become fully guaranteed.

Pretty sweet, huh? But it can also work against players on the fringe, as it gives teams extra incentive to unload higher priced guys at the roster cut deadline if they aren't really fitting in with the team's plans.

Matt Bryant's base salary for 2016 is $1.55 million. If he's here for the first game of the season, the team is stuck with that cap cost - even if he hurts himself during the game and immediately goes on IR.

The team would also have those 10 games of per-game LTBE bonus on this year's cap if he's on the roster to start the season. They'd get cap space back next year for games he couldn't play, but it would still be an additional cap charge for this year.

As mentioned before, it appears that both OverTheCap and Spotrac have issues in their calculations, or at least missing details. If the team did release Matt Bryant before the start of the regular season, they'd have the $800k March roster bonus and two years of $333k prorated signing bonus as dead money while getting back $187,500 in cap space from last year's charged cap on 6 games of his per game bonus.

It comes out to a net of $1.28 million in total dead cap if they release him, with $333k of that amount deferred to next year.

But if they keep him, they immediately take on an extra $1.86 million in cap charges, with $1.55 million of that guaranteed.  So if he's suddenly coming up a bit gimpy, the team could easily be rethinking their plans in spite of having paid that $800k roster bonus in March.

Meanwhile, back at The Branch ...

I haven't seen any news on Graham's contract terms from the team or from our regular mainstream media, but both Spotrac and OverTheCap are reporting that he signed a basic one-year deal at the CBA minimum of $985k.

Those specific details are significant because of a unique loophole in the cap rules known as the Minimum Salary Benefit. It's an agreement between the NFL and NFLPA intended to make it easier for old geezers like Graham to stick around a little longer, as long as they're willing to play on the cheap.

The terms are pretty strict and the benefit isn't as significant as it used to be, but it works out like this:

If you sign the veteran player specifically to just a one year contract at the CBA minimum salary for his level of league tenure, with no more than $80k in total bonuses (signing bonus, roster bonuses, workout bonuses etc -  combined) and no more guaranteed money than the minimum base salary of a player with 2 years of tenure ($600k for this year), then that player's cap cost will be the same as that of a player with 2 years of tenure.

So Graham's base salary is reportedly set to be $985k but his cap figure would be $600k, giving the team a $385k discount on the salary cap.

It's not an overwhelming savings in itself, but it adds to the potential total savings -  and it's particularly interesting when you put it all together.

If the team releases Bryant, they incur $1.28 million in total net cap costs (factoring in the refunded LTBE charge from 2015).  The team would avoid $1.86 million in additional cap charges this year by releasing him while incurring $600k in cap charges by taking on Graham as his replacement.

Combine the savings from Bryant with the costs of keeping Graham, and they come out with a net savings of $1.26 million if they make the switch -  which would almost exactly offset the $1.28 million total dead money they would incur from Bryant's release.

If the Falcons are suddenly nervous about keeping Bryant for another year and considering cutting their losses, bringing in Graham would be a perfect way to do it. The decision on Bryant isn't set in stone (obviously, as he's still here), but the move to bring in Graham is certainly an interesting sign.