More than 25 percent of draft picks have signed so far

7/1/2007 - NFL

Despite the absence of signings in the first two rounds, NFL franchises are actually setting a relatively blistering pace this year in completing contract agreements with their draft picks.

With the calendar having now turned to July, a time when rookie negotiations typically heat up, more than 25 percent of the prospects selected in the draft have already reached terms on their rookie deals. Sixty-six of the 255 players selected in the April event have either signed their first NFL contracts or agreed to terms.

At 25.8 percent, the pace of signings is nearly triple what it was a year ago, when only 9.4 percent of the 2006 draft class, just 24 players, had reached agreements by the end of June. In the past four years, just 12.8 percent of the draft picks had signed contracts before the start of July, the traditional bargaining period.

"Some teams, like Chicago, are just really proactive in trying to get [contracts] done," said Rick Smith, the agent for tailback Garrett Wolfe, the Bears' third-round choice and the first draft pick in the league to reach a contract accord this year. "From the player's standpoint, if the numbers are right, why wait?"

One notable caveat: There isn't a player signed yet from the first or second rounds.

The highest-drafted player to sign so far is Kent State cornerback Usama Young, chosen by New Orleans with the second selection in the third round, the 66th player taken overall. One of the fastest rising prospects in the two weeks preceding the draft, Young signed a three-year, $1.76 million contract, which included a signing bonus of $621,000, on June 12.

The third round, in fact, has been an especially active one, with 10 agreements so far among the players selected in that stanza. That means 10 players selected on the opening day of the draft have reached terms on their rookie deals. In the four previous drafts combined, just 11 first-day players had deals in place by the end of June. Three of those were first-round picks. The 66 players who have reached terms so far is 10 more draftees than had contracts in place on July 1 the past two years combined.

A breakdown on contract agreements to this point in other rounds: 16 in the fourth round, 14 in the fifth round, four in the sixth round and 22 in the seventh round.

With the NFL in a lull period now, and front-office executives from nearly every franchise on vacation, the pace of draft choice signings will likely slow for a while. And substantive negotiations with first-round picks probably won't commence for at least two more weeks. The Oakland Raiders have yet to begin serious dialogue with quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the first player chosen. But the early pace bodes well for the league as a whole and means that several franchises have been able to clear the decks as they prepare for their most difficult negotiations.

The New Orleans Saints, for instance, have signed six of seven picks, and senior football administrator Russ Ball, the primary negotiator for the Saints, can now focus his efforts on striking a deal with first-round wide receiver Robert Meachem. The 27th prospect chosen, Meachem and his agents are basically locked into a 2007 salary cap charge of $992,630, because that's all the room New Orleans has remaining from its rookie pool allocation of $2.378 million.

In 2006, New Orleans didn't sign a single draft pick until July 17.

In fact, leaguewide, 172 of the 255 picks in last year's draft didn't sign contracts until after July 19. Of those, 119 players, including 20 first-round picks, signed deals after July 25.

"I don't think that we set out [this year] saying, 'Hey, let's get this done before July 1,' or anything like that," said Saints' general manager Mickey Loomis. "To be honest, I'm not sure I can put my finger [on the reason for the early signings]. But Russ Ball has worked hard on a number of the deals, and we've had some agents who were just very receptive to getting something done."

The Saints aren't the only team that has been busy at the bargaining table. Chicago, which has been the first team in the league to have all its draft picks under contract in each of the past two seasons, has signed seven of its nine selections. Jacksonville has struck accords with seven of 11 picks and Miami with six of 10.

The early flurry of signings aside, many franchises still prefer to wait until July, when the league's deadline mentality kicks in. That is evidenced by the fact that 14 teams, nearly half the franchises in the league, have yet to sign a draft choice.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.