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What happens to Calvin Ridley’s contract if he doesn’t play again in 2021?

We crack open the CBA to determine what Ridley’s extended time on the nonfootball injury list means for the team’s future.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons (and the rest of the NFL) are entering Week 13 of the NFL season. That means the Falcons play only six more games to finish out the season, most notably with three NFC South tilts. At 5-6, the Falcons are still in the mix for a Wildcard berth, even if that may feel unlikely.

Those playoff odds likely improve if Calvin Ridley, the team’s only top-flight wide receiver, returns to the team. Ridley, who left the team to focus on his mental health, has been on the non-football Injury list since Nov. 5. Head coach Arthur Smith refused to give any indication of when Ridley might return after Sunday’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. There have been no updates since Ridley’s Oct. 31 social media post regarding him stepping away from football.

With only six games remaining, and Ridley still not practicing, it may be possible Ridley misses the remainder of the season. The priority for Ridley will be taking care of himself and the team has shown that to be their priority, as well, so we’re not moving forward with any expectations one way or the other. There is the question of whether RIdley’s contract will remain in its fourth year status or if it will turn into the fifth year option the Falcons picked up in 2022, however, which carries implications for this team’s salary cap next year.

What does that mean for Ridley and the team? We cracked open the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA to find out.

Are the Falcons paying Calvin Ridley?

Ridley was placed on the non-football Injury list on Oct. 31. Under Article 20, Section 3 of the CBA, the answer is that they can but are not required to.

A player who is placed on a Nonfootball Injury or Illness list (“N-F/I”) will not be entitled to any compensation under his contract while on such list but, except as provided below, his contract will continue to run while in such status. (emphasis added)

The relevant portion of what is provided below falls into two buckets.

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.

In the first bucket, a player could have his salary withheld if in the final year of his deal. In the second bucket, a player returning to health would have to be paid. Ridley does not fit in either exception, meaning the Falcons do not have to pay Ridley his salary. We have no indication of whether they are or not at this point, but the CBA does not require it.

Will Calvin Ridley’s contract toll?

First, we should explain what tolling means. In certain limited scenarios, a player’s contract can toll instead of run. For example, if Ridley’s contract tolled, it would mean the Falcons could pretend 2021 never happened, and Ridley could go into 2022 under Year 4 of his contract. That would mean the Falcons would get 2022 at his 2021 salary instead of his fifth-year option salary.

That would be good news for the Falcons, who would get another season of affordable play from Ridley, assuming he returns to football. It would be less rosy for Ridley, who would see his option salary and free agency delayed another year.

If Ridley was in the final year of his contract, the contract would toll. Instead, because the Falcons exercised the fifth-year option on Ridley’s contract, he is not in the final year of his agreement. His contract appears to have been extended as soon as the option was exercised.

If Ridley went on the N-F/I list at the start of the season, then was healthy enough to return by Game 6, the Falcons could have decided to pay Ridley’s salary but keep him on the N-F/I list to toll his contract. This was likely intended to prevent forcing a team from activating a player who missed all or most of training camp, preseason, and the start of the season.

The CBA did not anticipate a player stepping away from football in the middle of the season. The Falcons can withhold Ridley’s checks if they’d like, but his contract won’t toll. Assuming his return, Ridley will cost the Falcons about $11.1 million in 2022.

Do the Falcons save any cap space in 2021?

The Falcons have somewhere around $35 in free cap space, which is just enough for Terry Fontenot to buy some Bud Heavys and try drinking away this cap headache. Thanks to some “creative cap moves” by the prior regime, every cent the Falcons can save is big news.

Spotrac currently has the Falcons with $1.27 million in free space, the NFLPA has the Falcons with $2.88 million, and Over The Cap at a slim $861,000. Suffice it to say, regardless of the calculation, the Falcons are at the bottom of the league in available cash.

The difference between the Physically Unable to Perform (“PUP”) list and the N-F/I list is on the former the player is still paid, while the latter the player does not have to be. Let’s acknowledge again that we don’t know what the team is doing with Ridley’s contract currently, but if Atlanta is not paying for each game Ridley misses while on the N-F/I list, the Falcons should receive some cap relief. Aaron Freeman pointed out that not doing so might be a bad look for the organization in a recent episode of Locked on Falcons, but again, we have no indication either way. With a base salary of only $1.966 million across all 17 games, Atlanta could save about $115,647 per game, which will roll over into 2022’s cap.

Ridley missed one game not on the N-F/I list, meaning so far he has not participated in five games, which would translate $578,235 in additional cap space in this scenario. If he misses six more games and is not being paid, the Falcons should have an extra $1.27 million in cap space rolling into 2022.

What should we expect?

We are in uncharted territory and really only know of the administrative issues put forth by the CBA. We do not know what Ridley or the team eventually do or even necessarily what they are doing right now under these unprecedented circumstances.

Hopefully this at least answers the most common question we had here at The Falcoholic and that we had seen from fans, which was whether his contract will repeat its fourth year in 2022 or whether he’ll be playing under his fifth year option if he returns. Regardless of the contract status, Ridley’s mental health should clearly come first, and we hope he is able to return when and if he is ready.