Leigh Steinberg remembers being a young agent years ago, long before he built a client list that at times has read like a who's-who of NFL quarterbacks, and representing one of the New York Giants' top picks in the draft. He eagerly called George Young, then the Giants' general manager, within a few days after the draft and said he was eager to get an early start on negotiations. He wanted his client to be signed and in training camp on time, Steinberg recalled telling Young, and perhaps he should make immediate arrangements to travel east and meet with Young. Maybe Young could recommend a good place to stay, Steinberg suggested.
"There was a silence on the other end of the phone,'' Steinberg said the other day. "He said, 'Leigh, call me in July.' And he hung up.''
So it goes in rookie contract negotiations in the NFL. The draft is conducted in April, but teams and agents don't get serious about hammering out deals until they're faced with the imminent opening of training camps in July. Every year, there is league-wide consternation that many of the prized rookies won't get signed to report to camps on time, and they'll fall behind and have their first NFL seasons -- and perhaps their careers -- ruined. And every year, most of the rookies get signed and get to camps on time, and practically no players have their rookie seasons or their careers affected.
Contracts for top picks are more complex than ever, with split bonuses -- usually a signing bonus payable immediately and an option bonus due in the deal's second year -- and voidable years and escalator clauses that can boost salaries later in the deal if the player reaches certain benchmarks.
There are additional constraints this year working against quick agreements between clubs and their top picks. The league-wide rookie pool -- essentially, a salary cap for rookies within each team's overall salary cap -- increased a modest two percent from last year, while an agent generally seeks a raise of eight to 10 percent for a client over what the player selected in the same draft slot a year ago received. And the signing bonus in a contract now can be prorated over only six seasons instead of the usual seven for salary-cap accounting purposes because the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the Players Association has only three salary cap years remaining on it (and rules allow the signing bonus to be amortized only three seasons beyond that).
Only five of the 32 first-round choices had agreed to contacts when today began. Only one top-10 selection -- Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, the 10th overall pick -- had agreed to a deal. Teams begin reporting to camps Tuesday. Still, Steinberg said he expects most negotiations to go relatively smoothly.
"Last year was the most efficient, fastest, least combative set of rookie negotiations we've had in the league in 20 years,'' he said. "Was that because it was a defensive-oriented top of the draft? Or was it because teams, players and agents have adjusted to the reality of the system -- that the rookie salary cap yields a certain level of salary and bonus and everyone just needs to accept the escalators and the rest of it? More challenging this year will be the presence of this record number of offensive superstars.
"What's drastically different in the first round this year is the presence of so many offensive players, so many offensive stars. That tends to mean contracts loaded with escalator clauses. Players and agents want to do contracts that stand the test of time. Those contracts are somewhat more complex, so that could slow things down. . . . [But] the trick of our profession is to get a player to camp on time with a maximum possible contract.''
The negotiations between the Giants and agent Tom Condon regarding top overall pick Eli Manning are particularly tricky because the team was assigned a rookie pool of $4.37 million based on having the fourth overall choice, which the club used on quarterback Philip Rivers before trading him to San Diego as part of a package for Manning. So the Giants and Condon must, in effect, squeeze a first-pick contract into a fourth-pick salary cap slot. But it can be done -- probably with a hefty 2005 option bonus to compensate for a lower signing bonus -- and Steinberg said there's nothing so unusual about an agent and a player believing they deserve more money than a team thinks it can afford.
"Historically, most players and their agents have maintained they should have been drafted higher, and it was a mistake and an injustice that he was picked where he was,'' said Steinberg, who represents Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback chosen 11th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Oakland Raiders appear close to wrapping up an agreement with agent Rick Smith for tackle Robert Gallery, the second overall pick. Smith said last week that he expected a deal to be done by early this week.
Kirk Chambers, a guard from Stanford drafted in the sixth round by Cleveland, made an unusual move by agreeing Friday to a one-year contract with the Browns. The deal is worth $255,000, including a $25,000 signing bonus.
Most other sixth-round picks have agreed to three-year contracts, and Chambers would have been in line to receive a signing bonus of about $75,000 as part of a three-year deal. But the Browns are insisting that their draft choices sign five-year contracts. That is the reaction that some teams have taken the past two years, after Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder raided the New York Jets' roster in restricted free agency in the 2003 offseason.
Players are eligible for restricted free agency after three NFL seasons, so a four-year contract prevents a player's team from having to worry about him going on the restricted free agent market. Players are eligible for unrestricted free agency after four seasons, so a five-year deal takes a player off the unrestricted free agent market for a year as well.
For that reason, Chambers and agent Don Yee balked at a five-year deal, and the Browns are giving their sixth- and seventh-round picks the option of accepting one-year contracts. Those players would receive smaller signing bonuses and wouldn't be eligible for free agency after their first and second NFL seasons if they take one-year deals, but they would preserve their eligibility for restricted free agency after three seasons and for unrestricted free agency after four seasons.
The Browns reason that most sixth- and seventh-round picks don't last three NFL seasons, so any money saved now on signing bonuses probably is worth it.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Antonio Bryant had a clear-the-air meeting with Coach Bill Parcells today and the team plans to keep Bryant on its roster heading into training camp. It was the pair's first get-together since the practice-field confrontation last month in which Bryant threw a jersey into Parcells's face. Peter Schaffer, one of Bryant's representatives, said by telephone his understanding was that the meeting went well and Bryant would remain with the club. . . .
The Minnesota Vikings might hold another workout this week for Brock Lesnar, the professional wrestling headliner attempting to earn a training-camp look with an NFL team as a defensive end. . . .
Condon and Jets officials plan to try to negotiate a contract extension before the season for quarterback Chad Pennington, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. But Pennington's camp has indicated that it will cut off talks during the season if there's not a deal in place by the end of August. . . .
The Steelers announced today that they'd signed Coach Bill Cowher to a two-year contract extension running through the 2007 season.
"We are excited about extending Bill's contract to continue the stability and success that he has brought to our team over the past 12 years," Steelers President Art Rooney II said in a written statement released by the team. "He is a terrific person in addition to being an excellent football coach. We are happy Bill will be our coach for the next several years."
The Steelers went 6-10 last season and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in six years after reaching the postseason in each of Cowher's first six seasons as their coach, and Cowher's job security was questioned in Pittsburgh and around the league. The Steelers made no move toward negotiating an extension during the offseason after never forcing him to coach in even the second-to-last year of a deal, but the club moved quickly in discussions recently with Cowher's agent, Phil de Picciotto.
The Miami Dolphins plan to intensify negotiations with agent Drew Rosenhaus this week on a prospective multi-year contract for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, the reigning AFC sack champion who says he won't sign the one-year, $1824 million tender offer that the team made to him in restricted free agency and won't report to the club without a long-term deal. The team's veterans are scheduled to report to training camp Friday.
The Dolphins remain adamant, at least for now, that they won't trade Ogunleye, even to fill their void at tailback left when Ricky Williams told Coach Dave Wannstedt on Friday that he's retiring. The Dolphins appear interested in Chicago's Anthony Thomas, a former 1,100-yard rusher slated to be a backup this season, but the Bears probably would want Ogunleye to be part of such a trade.
The most intriguing option for the Dolphins is Edgerrin James, the former University of Miami standout now with the Indianapolis Colts. James is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season and the Colts might not be able to re-sign him then. They gave quarterback Peyton Manning an NFL-record $34.5 million signing bonus this offseason and also face the prospect of wide receiver Marvin Harrison being an unrestricted free agent in the spring. But the price tag for James in a trade presumably would be hefty and the Dolphins probably wouldn't want to give up too much, particularly given the belief by some within the organization that Williams will return to football after a sabbatical. Steinberg, who represents Williams, said by telephone Sunday that Williams perhaps could return to the NFL at some point, and Williams remains under contract to the Dolphins for three more seasons.
The most sensible trade partner for the Dolphins is Minnesota. The Vikings have depth at tailback with Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Moe Williams and rookie Mewelde Moore.
Wannstedt said Sunday that Travis Minor, Williams's backup who never has made a start in three NFL seasons, would open camp as the Dolphins' top tailback. The team also could sign a free agent, likely from among James Stewart, Stacey Mack and Trung Canidate.