First-Rounders May Be Late Signing, but They'll Show Up
So far, it hasn't been, a product of the reason the signings were slow in the first place: The uncertainty that prevails in the NFL in the last year of the labor contract. But expect a lot more deals as training camps open.
Right now, the basic problem is simple: Neither agents nor teams know exactly what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like, especially if there is a lockout for part of 2011, which makes it difficult to specify when bonuses will be paid -- even if no games are missed, a spring lockout means there would be no payment when the next calendar year begins. So they are moving slowly on details of rookie contracts to make sure both sides are protected whatever happens during the labor dispute that's been on since the owners opted out of the old deal more than a year ago -- one reason quarterback Sam Bradford (pictured with commissioner Roger Goodell), the No. 1 overall pick, didn't sign early with the Rams, is because of that uncertainty. And he has the most to lose, upward of $40 million in guaranteed money..
But the slow-motion talks are also the result of the current hostile climate.
Last week, for example, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players' Association, suggested there was collusion among teams to hold down the rookie contracts, an allegation vehemently denied by teams and by Jeff Pash, the league's executive VP. Several agents say privately that they've advised by the union to go slowly, but a union official said Monday that's untrue, that far more agents than usual are calling the NFLPA for advice and may be misunderstanding what they are hearing.
Nonetheless, the fact that only one of the 32 first-round picks has signed as camps open isn't totally unusual -- as teams begin training, they often come in sudden bunches under a "slotting'' system that is, in fact, an unwritten system among teams and agents that lines up picks like dominoes. That is, No. 1 overall gets the most, No. 255 gets the least and everyone in between is paid on a scale. Thus, Bryant's signing as the 24th overall pick, should set up the bottom of the first round -- No. 23, Bryan Bulaga of the Packers should get a little more and Tim Tebow of the Broncos should get a little less.
Under the old system, it didn't always work exactly that way. And it probably won't this year.
For example, Bryant, who reportedly got more than $11 million over five years with $8 million guaranteed, is a skill player, a wide receiver, and the Packers might argue that Bulaga as an offensive lineman might not be entitled to more money. In Tebow's case, there is often a "quarterback premium,'' especially for those with as high a profile as Tebow had at Florida -- his Broncos jersey has been the No. 1 seller this spring, not unusual for a high-profile rookie QB (Eli Manning, for example, was the best seller his rookie year, ahead of his brother Peyton.)
And Bryant's contract is a little different -- it reportedly does not have bonus money in the second season because of the uncertainty about 2011.
Nonetheless, the money is out there.
Colt McCoy, a third-round pick, signed a four-year deal with Cleveland that could be worth up to $5 million, depending on playing time, achievements, etc. That's well above the norm for a player taken 85th overall, but again reflects a premium for a high-profile college quarterback who could become a starter fairly soon.
But while second-and third-round players are signing now, as of this Monday, no first-rounders other than Bryant had been signed, unusual on the eve of training camp. "It's going more slowly than usual,'' Pash conceded. "But that's because of the uncertainty. They will get done.''
Dallas was the first team to open camp because it opens its exhibition season a week before other teams, in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 12. Other teams will certainly have their players signed on the first or second day of camp as they open up. Judy Battista of the New York Times reported Sunday that 18 of the 32 teams signed their first-round picks last season between Aug. 1 and 10th and there's reason to believe the same thing could happen this year.
Beyond that, it depends in many cases on the experience and savvy of the agents. Most know that the longer a player stays out of training camp, the less likely it is that he will play a lot as a rookie and the longer it will take for performance bonuses to kick in.
For example, Tom Condon, who represents Bradford, has never had a rookie hold out very long and he represents a long list of elite players, including the Manning brothers, Matt Ryan and many others. On the other hand, Michael Crabtree, who held out until the first week of October last season, was also represented by a veteran top-line agent, Eugene Parker. He argued that Crabtree "should have been'' the first receiver taken, even though he wasn't.
There may be a holdout or two that lasts that long this season or there may not be -- there always are hard-line agents and there certainly are hard-line teams. But the owners who want to be successful -- Jerry Jones in Dallas, of course -- know that the coaches want the rookies in camp, especially for the early exhibitions when they get more playing time.
"If they aren't there or aren't signed that presents a problem in evaluating them,'' Wade Phillips said after Bryant arrived. "Getting them in is a big step from a coaching standpoint.''
From a winning standpoint, too.