Bottom line for Leinart's loot

Originally Published: January 5, 2006
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

On Jan. 14, 2005, Matt Leinart shocked many in the sporting world when he announced he would return for his senior season at the University of Southern California.

Vince Young, Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart and Vince Young share some words after Wednesday's game.
"I think college football and this whole atmosphere here and being with my fans and my teammates … is ultimately more satisfying and will make me happier than any amount of money," Leinart said that day.

Hope you're happy today, Matt. You didn't repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner, your senior season ended with a loss to Texas in the national championship game, and the amount of money you walked away from when you returned to campus might be as much as $4 million.

Leinart said after Wednesday night's game that he has no regrets, and that's good. But we thought it might be instructive to go through a few scenarios concerning his future and crunch some numbers. And maybe, just maybe, Leinart's story can serve as a cautionary tale for Texas junior quarterback Vince Young, who now faces the decision about whether to return to Austin for his senior season.

Most projections for the 2005 NFL draft had Leinart as the top quarterback, ahead of Utah's Alex Smith. After Leinart bowed out, Smith was drafted by San Francisco as the first overall pick and received $24 million in guaranteed money from the 49ers.

If the Houston Texans, who have this year's No. 1 draft choice, select Leinart, the financial ramifications of his return to college might be minimized. Smith received a 20 percent increase in guaranteed money compared to the signing bonus that Eli Manning received as the No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft, so we figure, conservatively, that Leinart could expect at least a 10 percent increase over Smith's deal. That would net him a $26.4 million bonus this year, or $2.4 million more than he would have made last year.

But, although Leinart didn't do anything to play his way out of the No. 1 spot during his senior season, it has been widely speculated that his teammate, junior running back Reggie Bush, will turn pro early and surpass him on the draft chart this spring. (Interestingly, just after Leinart's announcement a year ago that he would stay at USC for the 2005 season, an ESPN.com SportsNation poll showed that 52.6 percent of the 94,911 fans who voted said they believed he had made the right decision. But 62.3 percent of those people also believed that Leinart would be the top pick in the 2006 NFL draft, anyway.)

Leinart calculator disclaimers
Four caveats to keep in mind as you digest our projections for Matt Leinart's first professional football contract:

1. The signing bonus, of course, is the only guaranteed portion of the contract.

2. Total contracts of different players cannot be compared, not only because they sign for varying numbers of years, but more importantly because very few contracts stay in place through the length of their term.

3. Bonuses are arbitrary. We've used information from previous years to try to determine standard increases, but agents exist to create wiggle room.

4. The percentage of increases that have become standard over the years might not apply this year. Teams could be more reluctant to give more guaranteed money as a result of uncertainty over the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires at the end of this season.
The most likely scenario is for Leinart to fall to No. 2 in the draft and be selected by the New Orleans Saints, who are likely to be looking for a quarterback. Even though the Longhorns' Young might go pro early and maximize the value of his outstanding performance in the Rose Bowl, sources tell ESPN's Chris Mortensen that Leinart would still be the favorite over Young at the second spot in the draft.

So let's take a look at the increases in guaranteed money over the years for the players chosen at the No. 2 spot. Last year, the Miami Dolphins gave Ronnie Brown a $20 million signing bonus. The year before that, the agent for No. 2 pick Robert Gallery negotiated for as much as $18.5 million of his client's contract to be guaranteed; and the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, Charles Rogers, received $14.4 million. That's an average increase of $1.8 million per year over the last three years, which would project to a $21.8 million signing bonus for Leinart as the No. 2 pick -- just $2.2 million short of the guaranteed money given to Smith as the No. 1 pick the year before.

The team picking third in this year's draft, the Tennessee Titans, also is in need of a quarterback and likely would look at Leinart if Young skips over him into the No. 2 position. In 2003, Andre Johnson received a guaranteed $13.5 million in the No. 3 slot, which is the same amount Joey Harrington received the year before. In 2004, Larry Fitzgerald was guaranteed $12.5 million, with the potential to move that number up to nearly $20 million by reaching various incentives. In the most recent draft, Braylon Edwards received $18.5 million from Cleveland after being taken at No. 3.

Based on the previous four years of data, then, Leinart might expect an increase of at least $1 million as the third pick, which would put his guaranteed money at close to $20 million.

So at the very worst, Leinart's senior season at USC could have cost him $4 million. That's a lot of loot to pay for a ballroom dancing class, which was the lone course he took during the fall term.

Then again, there's another way to look at it, a way in which Leinart might not have lost anything after all. Our cost of living calculators say that the $24 million Alex Smith earns in San Francisco would be worth $31.2 million in New Orleans!

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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