Commentary

Next CBA will alter rookie landscape

Originally Published: June 17, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

When the next collective bargaining agreement finally comes to fruition, don't expect to see dramatic changes to how free agency is structured.

The rookie pool is a different story.

Sources say the four-year wait for free agency will remain. Owners are willing to change the mandatory floor of the salary cap to 90 percent, and it's not out of the question for that percentage to grow a percent or two to get the deal done. Thus, if the 2011 salary cap is $120 million, the floor would be $108 million. The cap would be about $7 million less than 2009.

Sure, there is going to be resistance from some owners, but that is only natural. High- and low-revenue owners aren't going to agree on most things because of the economic impacts on their bottom lines. Low-revenue teams have tougher bottom lines when it comes to handling those salary floors. Commissioner Roger Goodell just has to make sure three-quarters of the owners or more are ready to move forward and get this deal done for the good of the game in the next two to three weeks.

In the meantime, draft choices wait and wait for a chance to get into a team facility and begin their pro careers. They also want to see how their financial futures are going to be handled.

It's clear there will be reduced compensation for draft choices. Although the owners, according to sources, are willing to let agents do rookie contracts, those contracts won't be the same as in past years for high first-round draft choices.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the first pick in last year's draft, received $50 million in guarantees. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, the first pick in 2009, received $41.7 in guarantees. Miami Dolphins tackle Jake Long received $30 million in 2008.

The expectation is that high first-round picks could take a 50 percent reduction in guarantees. Cam Newton, whom the Carolina Panthers picked first, might be about to get $25 million in guarantees. The dispute between owners and players -- which is only a mild disagreement -- is over how long those contracts should be.

The players would like first-round picks to be given no more than four-year contracts, with three-year deals being given to later-round picks. Owners want four-year contracts from Rounds 2 through 7 and five-year deals for first-rounders.

Plenty of compromise points are available. Owners make a good argument in saying a $25 million guarantee is strong enough for a team to control that player for five years. Players counter by saying five-year control is an eternity.

That issue could be resolved by allowing draft choices in the middle of the first round or lower to make the fifth year an option bonus and give them some ability to hit free agency in the fifth year. First-round running backs locked into five-year contracts rarely get second contracts with the teams that draft them because the wear and tear of the position makes them less marketable after five years of pounding.

There could be another interesting idea owners might be able to forge into a new CBA. Owners know agents will try to find to ways to get around rookie pool rules and squeeze bigger deals into future caps. Owners, according to sources, are pushing for a concept that if rookie compensation grows too much, then a hard rookie pool -- much like in the NBA -- could go into effect.

Owners wanted a hard rookie pool. If a new, reduced system becomes too costly, then the owners could get their way if both sides can agree upon that concept.

The key to everything is getting a deal done in the next two or three weeks. Plenty is at stake. Teams need to decide on the locations of their training camps by the early or middle part of July. If camps can't start close to on time, preseason games could start getting canceled.

The NFL generates $700 million from the preseason. That's roughly $22 million per team. All of a sudden, that $9.3 billion revenue pie starts to get smaller and smaller.

The good news is that owners and players are talking and moving toward a deal.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer