The primary aim of the NFL’s year-old rookie pay system was to limit the amount of guaranteed money in the contracts of players selected early in the draft. It immediately became clear when the new system went into effect last summer that it was accomplishing that goal. Top draft picks signed deals worth much less than the contracts of prized rookies in previous years.
But the system also was designed to streamline contract talks between NFL teams and their rookies, making those deals much less complex and negotiations simpler. It has taken longer to find out whether that would happen, but the quick pace of signings that followed last month’s draft strongly suggests that rookie contract negotiations indeed are much less complicated.
Through Monday, 124 players chosen in the NFL draft had signed contracts with their teams. Before the current rookie pay system went into effect last July, the number of draft picks who signed each year by the end of May often was in single digits to the low teens. Two years ago, 13 draft choices signed contracts in May.
Under the new system, the sport’s traditional timetable for signing rookies has changed dramatically. Gone are the days when agents for draft picks and teams’ front office executives would put off serious contract talks until July, then negotiate frantically to complete sometimes-elaborate deals in the hope of getting rookies to training camps on time.
This year, many teams are signing their rookies in time for May minicamps.
“That’s one of the true advantages right there,” New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said at a news conference during his team’s rookie minicamp last weekend.
Veteran agent Bruce Tollner completed a four-year, nearly $8.3 million deal with the Chicago Bears for defensive end Shea McClellin, a first-round pick last month, and said all but one of his firm’s drafted clients have signed contracts. Tollner said Wednesday he thinks this will be the new timetable for completing rookie deals.
“It makes too much sense for a lot of teams, when you know where it will be, just to get it done,” Tollner said. “It has been simplified, and that’s a good thing. It’s nice for these guys to get the deal done, know what that will be and focus on making the team.”
Creative negotiations, Tollner said, now will come during talks for a player’s subsequent NFL contracts.
This is the first full offseason with the rookie pay system in effect. NFL players were locked out for 4-1/2 months last offseason. When the lockout ended in late July and the new rookie pay system went into effect, teams quickly signed their rookies during a whirlwind few days of player-acquisition activity.
The top overall pick in last year’s draft, quarterback Cam Newton, signed a fully guaranteed four-year, $22.025 million contract with the Carolina Panthers. The top selection in the 2010 NFL draft, quarterback Sam Bradford, signed a six-year, $78 million deal with the St. Louis Rams that included $40 million in guaranteed money. NFL officials and owners said during the labor negotiations that they didn’t want to guarantee so much money to unproven rookies, and instead wanted to redirect that money to veteran players under the salary cap system.
With no increase this year in the overall salary cap, rookie contracts are expected to be comparable to deals signed last year, with perhaps modest increases. So quarterback Andrew Luck, the top overall pick last month, is likely to sign a contract with the Indianapolis Colts that resembles Newton’s deal. Quarterback Robert Griffin III, taken second overall by the Washington Redskins, probably will sign a deal roughly in line with the fully guaranteed four-year, $21 million contract that linebacker Von Miller, last year’s second selection, signed with the Denver Broncos.
The top eight picks, including Luck and Griffin, and 13 of the top 14 selections remained without deals as of Wednesday. So the move toward earlier signings has not yet made its way to the draft’s most prized rookies.
Under the rookie pay system, the length of drafted rookie contracts is set at four years. The deals of first-round picks contain an option for a fifth season. Undrafted rookies sign three-year deals. The contracts of players drafted in the third through seventh rounds contain a standard escalator clause, but other complex contract mechanisms such as buy-back clauses are prohibited.
The precise value of each contract is not predetermined, but each team is given a rookie salary cap figure for the upcoming season and a cap figure for those rookies over the four years of their original contracts. Teams are given minimum contract values for each of the players they draft.
Some agents remain upset with the system. One agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to damage his relationship with certain team executives, said the new system is “a knockout” victory for the league and owners.
“Why would you set up a system where you would rather be the first pick of the second round than the last pick of the first round?” the agent said. “The part about, ‘Why should we compensate you? You haven’t earned anything yet,’ I get that. But it didn’t have to be this bad.”
Still, there remains work for teams to do. Last summer, one negotiating point between agents and teams became whether contracts would be fully guaranteed for certain first-round picks. That could be an issue in some talks this year. Six of this year’s 32 first-rounders had agreed to contracts when Wednesday began.