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Curious Case of Earl Thomas’ Grievance

Earl Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Eric DeCosta.
photo: Twitter/@MarkWJZ
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There’s presently a lot of uncertainty and a lot of misunderstanding regarding the status of Earl Thomas’ grievance over his $10M “guaranteed” 2020 base salary, so we’ll try and shed some light on it, or at least, lay out what we know.

WHAT WE KNOW

In August, the Ravens released Thomas a day after an on-field scuffle with fellow starting safety Chuck Clark. The incident, which led to Thomas’ banishment from the practice field, was described as a “sucker punch.” The following day, the Ravens released Thomas, publicly stating “we have terminated S Earl Thomas’ contract for personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.” This language was a clear indication that under the terms of the NFL’s CBA, the Ravens intended to withhold payment of Thomas $10M guaranteed salary.

The next step was for Thomas to file a grievance against the Ravens for withholding the salary. On October 19, 2020, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reported that Thomas had indeed filed a grievance:

And, that’s where things get murky.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED

As explained here and confirmed by former NFL agent Joel Corry of CBS Sports, the filing of a grievance triggers a provision of the CBA that places 40% of the grievance amount on the team’s Cap. The relevant language is contained in Section 5(e) of Article 13 of the CBA, which states:

That amount, once added to the team’s Cap, remains in place until the grievance is resolved. If the team prevails, that amount is credited back to the team on the team’s Cap in the year that the grievance is resolved. If, on the other hand, the player prevails, the other 60% of the grievance amount hits the team’s Cap once resolved.

But, that didn’t happen and the $4M (40% of $10M grievance) was never applied to the Ravens Cap. 

There was a $5M charge on the Ravens’ 2020 Cap for Thomas, but that was the $5M Bonus proration from Thomas’ $20M Signing Bonus (which is divided by the four years of the deal and counts $5M each year). This amount has often mistakenly attributed to part of Thomas’ grievance by many in the media, but this amount, in fact, had nothing to do with the grievance and is a normal charge that remains on the Cap after a player is release and was on the Ravens’ Cap from the moment of Thomas’ release. 

And, it was the only charge for Thomas that ever hit the Ravens’ 2020 Cap. The $4M, 40% grievance amount that should have been applied to the Ravens’ Cap never happened and the Ravens conducted their Salary Cap business for the remainder of the season as if they knew it wasn’t going to be applied. In fact, they took their Cap all the way down to $486K by the end of the season.

NOW IT’S 2021

There is a $10M charge for Thomas on the Ravens’ 2021 Cap, which again has often been misattributed to Thomas’ grievance.  This amount is Thomas’ final two $5M bonus prorations (2021 & 2022) from Thomas’ Signing Bonus. Because Thomas was released after June 1 of last year, only his 2020 Bonus proration remained on the 2020 Salary Cap, while the $10M for the remaining prorations was applied to the 2021 Cap. Again, this is normal Salary Cap accounting and has nothing to do with Thomas’ grievance.

More importantly, this $10M is not something that can be rebated to the Ravens if they win Thomas’ grievance.  It’s a sunk cost that is based on his Signing Bonus and has nothing to do with the grievance, so there’s no rebating involved.  

In January, Ravens’ GM Eric DeCosta, responding to a question about the Thomas grievance, said:

This would confirm that the grievance was, in fact, filed and that it is still pending, but it’s still a mystery why the procedures laid out in the CBA weren’t followed. 

More importantly, though, it appears that the $10M grievance amount is still at play and the entire amount could impact the Ravens’ Cap at some point in the future if the grievance is decided in Thomas’ favor.

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