NFL’s rookie contract disputes are a thing of the past


With rookie contract terms mostly set, there’s little to haggle over, which gets first-year players like Blake Bortles into training camp without a delay. (John Raoux/AP Photo)

Remember back when significant numbers of rookies reported to NFL training camps late because of contract-negotiating stalemates?

It’s a thing of the past, a rapidly fading NFL memory.

When the league’s franchise owners and the NFL Players Association agreed to a new rookie pay system as part of their labor deal in 2011, the main purpose was to curb the then-burgeoning amounts of guaranteed money being paid to unproven players just entering the league so those funds could be directed instead to veterans.

But there also was an effort made to simplify the negotiating process for rookie contracts to speed things along and help ensure the players would get to their first NFL training camps on time.

The rookie compensation system certainly appears to be working as intended. The contracts are less lucrative, and the players are signing their deals much sooner.

When cornerback Justin Gilbert agreed Wednesday to a contract with the Cleveland Browns, it left only one player league-wide who was drafted in May – Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan – still unsigned.

Last year, three drafted rookies remained unsigned on July 27. In 2012, it was five rookies unsigned on that date, by which all NFL teams typically have opened their training camps.

Compare that to 67 drafted players being unsigned on July 27 in 2010, the final year that rookies were signed under the previous system, and 94 in 2009. (The labor deal in 2011 wasn’t completed until late July, and rookies were signed that year as part of a whirlwind of activity as training camps were about to open, hence the big blip on the chart below.)

Few NFL executives seem to long for the good old days, when contract negotiations with rookies rarely got going in earnest until just before training camps opened.

“Does anyone miss that? Nah, I don’t think so,” said one front office person who oversees his team’s salary cap. “But be careful what you wish for, I guess. Guys like me are gonna be obsolete. These contracts pretty much negotiate themselves.”

Gone are the days when a prized draft pick could have his career get off to an ominous start with a contentious set of rookie-contract negotiations. Heath Shuler, the third overall selection in the 1994 NFL draft, missed 13 days of his first training camp with the Washington Redskins and ended up lasting only three seasons with the team. Fellow quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the top overall draft choice by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, missed his entire rookie-year training camp and played only three seasons with that club.

Now teams begin signing their rookies soon after the draft and most of the work is done long before training camp. The contract length for rookies taken in the draft is set at four years. The deals of first-round picks contain a fifth-season team option. Most complex contract provisions are prohibited, although a standard escalator clause is included in the deals of third- through seventh-round selections. The exact value of each draft pick’s contract is not predetermined. But teams are given a minimum contract value for each of the players they choose in the draft, and they’re given a rookie salary cap figure for the upcoming season and for their rookie class over the four years of their original contracts.

There is little left for teams and agents to negotiate. Agents have haggled with teams, at various points since the new system went into effect, over whether or not certain rookies’ contracts would be fully guaranteed, and whether or not deals would contain offset language to limit a club’s financial obligation to a player if he’s released and signs with another team. For the most part, however, rookie deals now fall into place quickly and with little consternation. And the first-year players and start their first-ever training camp on schedule.

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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