Devin Fuller got his first taste of the NFL’s business side during his rookie minicamp.
One of the receiver’s would-be teammates had a bad practice. Not much later, that player got pulled out of a meeting. Not much after that, the player was no longer Fuller’s teammate.
“I was like, ‘Wow, so it’s like that?’” Fuller said.
In the coming weeks, as training camps break and the regular season beckons, it will be like that for hundreds of rookies and young veterans vying for the NFL’s most-vulnerable roster spots. They are the interchangeable backups and special teams players whose current health, glimmers of untapped potential and cheap contracts factor into their value every bit as much as their playmaking ability.
There will be about 1,200 cuts before the Aug. 31 deadline for teams to trim their rosters to 53 players. For the multitude of veterans whose dreams end before Game 1 of the regular season, there’s a chance to walk away with something more than a pink slip at the end of their NFL careers, even if those careers lasted only a couple seasons.
The NFL Trust is a multi-pronged benefits program created out of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the players union. With a budget of around $29 million a year, it offers players with two or more credited years on NFL rosters stipends for education, health screenings, gym memberships and even free training for players such as Fuller, who haven’t given up on making a roster again.
“I wasn’t surprised it existed, but I was surprised at all the things it offered,” said Fuller, a seventh-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2016, who spent two seasons on injured reserve and has never been on an active roster.
The Trust came into being in 2013, after the league and union negotiated a number of benefits designed to better the retirements and recognize the efforts of the thousands of NFL retirees.
With a board of directors composed of executives at both the NFL and the players union, this nonprofit also provides career counseling and a state-of-the-art health screening that gives players a sense of where they stand after their years in football.
“The fact is that when you leave the NFL, there are no avenues out there where you can apply that skill set and keep on working,” executive director Bahati VanPelt said. “Nobody is going to take his shoulder pads, helmet and cleats and move across the country and walk into the HR department and say, ‘Here I am, I’m ready to play football.’ We’re approaching these players as they get ready to compete in a completely different space.”
While the average NFL salary hovers at around $2.1 million, according to Forbes Magazine, that number is skewed by the enormous sums paid to the top players, along with the way those contracts are structured — often with huge signing bonuses up front but not as much guaranteed money on an annual basis.
The majority of players, however, hover at or slightly above the league minimum, which this season will be $378,000 for a rookie and $473,000 for a fifth-year player. For most, getting to that fifth year takes hard work and some luck. An Associated Press analysis of career lengths found that, since 2005, the average amount of playing experience on an NFL roster has shrunk from 4.6 to 4.3 years. In 2005, there were 784 players with three years’ experience or less on opening-day rosters and 714 with five or more years. In 2018, the gap widened to 852 and 644.
It means a player making the league minimum or slightly more, if he got a signing bonus as a rookie, and then was good (and fortunate) enough to stay on the active roster for an entire season, might clear $3 million over four years, before hitting retirement at 25.
“There’s a perception that NFL players leave the game the way that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis leave the game,” VanPelt said. “But in reality, we know most guys, the teams will move on from, as opposed to them moving on from the teams.”
Fuller landed an “extern” job at The Trust, tasked with helping spread the word about some of the benefits that not all players knew existed.
After the 32 NFL teams make their cuts, a few hundred players will wait a few hours, or days, and then be re-signed to practice squads, at lesser pay. Some will get spots on other teams’ 53-man rosters. Many more will wait longer for the phone to ring. For a good number of them, it never will.
“It’s something guys need to hop on,” Fuller said. “It’s stuff they’ve earned, not stuff that’s just being given to them. It’s stuff that players who are thinking about retiring need to know about, or players who are already retired need to take advantage of.”