Lack of new CBA deal slowing down progress
There will probably be more rookie holdouts than normal this year, but it shouldn't be cause for major concern.
Like those who annually procrastinate to meet the April 15 income tax deadline, draft choice negotiations in the NFL are typically made in panic mode.
Falcons general manager Rich McKay, always the successful procrastinator, came back from vacation late last week to start on deals for eight unsigned rookies. Five agreements were worked out on the eve of the opening of camp and all but first-round pick Roddy White had finalized deals by Monday evening. Other team's negotiators send out proposals to first-round choices acknowledging they have no idea how the rest of the first round will shape up. They're basically just stalling until there is a market.
However, unlike those last-minute tax preparers, NFL front offices and players face less severe penalties when their deadlines are missed. When a deal isn't completed, it results in a holdout, which is never welcome but doesn't hurt franchises, unless it goes on for weeks. Many holdouts, in fact, are quickly forgotten.
This year, though, teams face more obstacles and there's a likelihood of increased holdouts. The biggest hurdle is the lack of a new collective-bargaining agreement; the one in place leaves an uncapped year in 2007. Such a scenario means that paying out the signing bonus becomes tricky. For one, it can only be prorated for five years. Yet teams have to be careful of a higher cap number if a high percentage of the bonus is paid out in the pact's early years.
As a result, no first-rounders were signed by the time the Bears, Browns and Dolphins checked into camps on Sunday. The Patriots were the first to ink a deal, finalizing a pact with their first-rounder, Logan Mankins, on Monday afternoon.
Expect more stalling, but don't expect a Drew Rosenhaus-like holdout convention. Though it's hard to believe based on this summer's negotiating panic, the current system usually minimizes holdouts. Historically, the rookie pool promotes prompt arrivals, yet another reason owners should settle their revenue-sharing differences and extend the CBA.
The rookie pool is set by the NFL Management Council. To determine teams' allotments, the council calculates the salary slot of each pick, totals them for individual clubs and gives teams a maximum amount of cap dollars that can be spent on draft choices. The Dolphins, for example, were given $4.613 million to sign six choices. The 49ers had 11 choices and were given a league-high $6.168 million.
Before the days of the salary cap, holdouts were a big problem leaguewide. From 1987-91, the average number of rookie holdouts was 98 per year, more than 3½ per team. Late reporting veterans were a bigger problem. There were 758 veteran holdouts between 1987-91 for the league's 28 teams. Rookie holdouts averaged 11 days. Veteran holdouts averaged more than 20 days.
It took teams a few years to master the rookie pool system. There were 66 holdouts in 1996 -- the fourth year under the salary-cap system. But by 1997, a positive pattern developed. Rookie holdouts fell to 38, and heading into this year's training camps, that number hasn't been surpassed. That said, there has been a cause for concern.
In part because of Redskins owner Dan Snyder's restricted free-agency raid on the Jets for Laveranues Coles, John Hall and Chad Morton two years ago, more teams want to sign second-day draft picks to four and five-year deals.
Ideally, agents don't want to cut such a deal for their clients. They scream at the notion of a seventh-rounder being locked into a five-year deal instead of becoming a free agent. But they can scream all they want. Teams have ultimate leverage and force the longer contracts down. What seventh-rounder is going to hold out for two weeks when he isn't even sure if he's going to make the team?
At least eight teams are trying to squeeze four or five-year contracts on second-day rookie draft choices. Those working for Butch Davis of the Cleveland Browns in 2003 orchestrated the ultimate leverage coup. They told him, "Give us two weeks and we'll get you two extra years." Seven of Cleveland's rookies held out an average of two weeks before eventually signing the longer deals. Davis and the Browns got their way. The only problem was Davis didn't last two more years. He had an angry rookie class and a fractured team -- some negotiating victory.
As you can see from the weekend, deals get done in the rookie pool era even going against the odds. Sure, 2005 will produce the most holdouts since 1996, but they won't reach the triple-digit horror days before the start of the salary cap. As of Monday morning, 116 draft choices have agreements. However, only 16 of those chosen in the first three rounds have deals.
That's the problem with procrastination. It's the ultimate waiting game. Agents at the top of the draft didn't want to accept a deal until Tom Condon signed quarterback Alex Smith in San Francisco. Now that Smith's contract is done, Ronnie Brown of the Dolphins, Braylon Edwards of the Browns, Cedric Benson of the Bears are more likely to be in camp sooner than later.
That's understandable. No agent wants to sign a bad deal because the other agents will critique him and eventually use it as leverage in competing for future clients. Just as important, agents need to hold off so they can judge the increases compared to last year.
The rookie pool rose 4½ percent this year, and teams have been signing the lower choices for 4½ percent increases off the 2004 signing bonuses. That explains why rounds four through seven are finishing up. The only debates are those teams trying to get the fourth and fifth years on those deals.
First-rounders get bigger increases, so teams and agents will wait until the first set of deals get done. They'll study the Mankins deal. That will start the negotiations at the bottom of the first round and carry them through the middle. Most of the holdouts will occur in the top 11.
Despite the panic of a late negotiating season in 2004, only 33 rookies reported late, and eight of those late arrivals didn't miss a practice. A dozen teams didn't even have a holdout. Deals get done, and eventually that will happen this summer.
Fans and media covering teams experiencing holdouts will suggest the NFL go to a system similar to the NBA in which the rookie deals are slotted under predetermined terms. Holdouts don't happen in the NBA for rookies, and there are plenty of proponents of those plans in the NFL.
But don't expect it to happen. Several key members of the NFL Players Association might like some of the big riches of top draft choices to be distributed to veterans. There are two reasons the union won't go for it. Those bloated $50 million rookie contracts with escalators go to young players at key positions -- quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends or wide receivers. Plus, the union doesn't figure to abruptly change a system that affects just seven or eight players at the top of the draft.
What needs to change is that there must be more consistency in the length of rookie contracts. Don't be surprised if the union and management agree to standard contract lengths for rookies. First-rounders could get five or six-year deals. Second and third-rounders could get four-year contracts. Picks in the fourth round and later could get three-year deals.
Very few second-day draft choices end up as starters in positions such as left tackle, defensive end, quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback -- the key positions for big contracts. Why limit their chances of getting a payday by jamming fourth and fifth years on their contracts?
But those questions are for later negotiations. For now, settle in for a mild season of holdouts.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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