The floodgates have opened. The contract agreements completed Monday by teams with four first-round draft picks -- including top overall choice Alex Smith's record-setting deal with the San Francisco 49ers -- should result in the other first-round selections signing their deals in relatively short order.
Many agents are reluctant to complete deals before the market is set by other contracts, and now they have some basis for comparison. The biggest deal done Monday was Smith's, as the quarterback and his agent, Tom Condon, agreed in principle with the 49ers to the richest rookie contract in NFL history. The six-year contract is worth about $49.5 million, including approximately $24 million in bonus money. It contains incentives that could push its overall value to about $57 million.
That surpasses the six-year, $45-million contract that Condon negotiated for the top overall selection in last year's draft, quarterback Eli Manning, with the New York Giants. Manning's contract contained $20 million in bonus money, plus an additional $9 million in incentives that could push the contract's overall value to $54 million.
Smith is scheduled to sign and participate in a news conference today. The 49ers report to training camp Friday, and first-year coach Mike Nolan undoubtedly will give his prized rookie every chance to win starting quarterback job from incumbent Tim Rattay.
Condon has been overtaken by Drew Rosenhaus in the past year as the sport's most prominent agent, but he remains a top deal-maker. Last year he showed up at the Giants' training camp a few days before the players' reporting date and negotiated virtually around the clock with General Manager Ernie Accorsi to get Manning into camp on time. This year he made a final negotiating push last weekend with Paraag Marathe, the 49ers' point man in the talks, to ensure that Smith wouldn't miss any of his first NFL training camp. The two completed the deal Monday.
The 49ers had maintained early in the deliberations that Smith should sign for less money than Manning got. But Condon scoffed at that notion, and the team backed off.
The biggest obstacle for Condon and Marathe as the talks progressed was the salary-cap restriction they faced. Because the labor agreement between the NFL and its players' union has not been extended, salary-cap rules dictate that signing bonuses in players' contracts can be prorated over only the next five seasons for cap accounting purposes. Last year, signing bonuses in contracts -- like Manning's -- could be prorated over six seasons. But Smith's contract had to be squeezed into a salary-cap slot that wasn't increased to reflect that change, so the parties had to negotiate a wildly complex deal that got Smith more money than Manning and still kept the 49ers under their rookie-pool allotment (NFL teams have a salary cap for rookies within the overall salary cap).
Other deals should fall in line soon. Agent Todd France and tailback Ronnie Brown, the draft's second overall pick, seemingly were waiting to see what Condon and Smith got from the 49ers before completing negotiations with the Miami Dolphins, who reported to camp Sunday and began practicing Monday without Brown on hand. Dolphins Coach Nick Saban said Monday he was not really surprised by Brown's absence from the opening of camp, given the team's early reporting date.
"Understanding how important slotting is to top draft picks in terms of who got what . . . and how they fall into place, this is really a timing issue," Saban said.
Three other first-rounders -- cornerback Fabian Washington with the Oakland Raiders, defensive tackle Mike Patterson with the Philadelphia Eagles and guard Logan Mankins with the New England Patriots -- agreed to deals Monday.
Long First Day For Williams
Tailback Ricky Williams's first day back with the Dolphins was a long one. Saban scheduled two practices on the opening day of camp, one that began at 9:30 a.m. and another that ended at 9:30 p.m. The day ended with Williams -- wearing a T-shirt, shorts and no shoes -- standing under the lights on a field at the club's practice facility, playing with his young son Prince.
The "we have no grudges" comments made by other Dolphins players Monday about Williams were predictable, given that the team went 4-12 last season without its former Pro Bowl tailback. But it was more telling that some of the interaction between Williams and his teammates was warm -- at least by football-player standards.
"Guys were picking on him," said Larry Chester, the Dolphins' 330-pound defensive tackle. "He hasn't shaved in a while. Guys were kind of saying he looked like a little homeless guy. It was all in fun. No one was really going at him. It's the same way guys call me fat."
Most importantly, Chester and the other Dolphins players said that Williams showed on the practice field Monday that he can help them.
"He looked explosive, even quicker," Chester said. "I was kind of enthused again thinking, 'We have Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown in the same backfield? Oh, my God.' "
Saban said between the day's two practices: "It's one practice. But I can see why, in what he did today, that he's had a tremendous amount of success in the past. And I could also see that some additional work in the future would allow him to get back to being able to accomplish that level of expertise in the future. Both things were apparent to me."
Williams weighed in at 213 pounds when he reported to the Dolphins' camp. His listed playing weight before he retired last year was 226 pounds, and associates say he played at more than 230 pounds in recent seasons. Saban's staff might have Williams play at a little more than 220 pounds, closer to what he was as a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Texas.
"There was a time at Texas when he played in the low 220s and was very productive," Saban said. "That's our initial target, and we'll kind of evaluate it from there and see where it goes from there."
There already seems to be a bond between Williams and Saban. Williams said Monday that he has found Saban to be "open" and "very trusting of me." Saban approved Williams's request to address his teammates Sunday. He seems to be giving some space to his free-spirited running back, and he isn't taking the credit for Williams's return.
"I didn't convince him to come back," Saban said. "He made that decision on his own." . . .
Saban isn't tipping his hand about whether A.J. Feeley or Gus Frerotte will open the season as the Dolphins' starting quarterback.
"There's competition at every position on the field every day," Saban said. "I still think our focus at the quarterback position is to get both guys to play as well as they can play. At this point, there's less on trying to evaluate who's first, who's second and who's third, but more on an approach of how we can get everybody to be the best that they can be. . . . This is the opportunity that we have to improve both guys as much as possible, and we'll need to evaluate how they do and make a decision at some point in time in the future. I don't really have a timetable for that. I like to let things like this kind of work themselves out. I don't think you can force issues like this. We'll see what happens."
Price Isn't Right
Wide receiver Peerless Price has been a major disappointment for the Atlanta Falcons, and now he apparently has lost his starting job. When the Falcons began team drills Monday, Price lined up with the second-team offense while Dez White and Michael Jenkins worked with the starters.