Little went smoothly or according to convention when quarterback Eli Manning entered the NFL in April by steering a draft-day trade to the New York Giants, telling the San Diego Chargers that he wouldn't play for them.
Now he faces another potentially turbulent period as his representatives and Giants officials negotiate his first contract, pushing to get him to training camp on time next week but confronting a maze of problems trying to squeeze the deal into the framework of the league's salary cap.
Executives in other front offices around the league are experiencing similar headaches this week, as contract deliberations with most first-round picks intensify. All teams are facing a salary-cap crunch with their top draft selections, and some observers say it will be more difficult than ever for clubs to reach agreements quickly enough to have prized rookies in camps on time. But cap issues are even more difficult for the Giants because they obtained Manning after he was selected by the Chargers with the top choice in the draft, not before.
Each NFL team is assigned a rookie-pool allotment, essentially a salary cap for rookies within the overall $80.6 million salary cap for next season; each club's allotment is based on its number and quality of draft picks. The Giants were assigned a rookie-pool allotment of $4.37 million, ninth highest in the NFL, based in part on them having the fourth overall selection in the draft, which they used on quarterback Philip Rivers before trading him to San Diego as part of the package for Manning.
If the Giants had swapped selections with the Chargers and chosen Manning first, they would have been given a new rookie-pool allotment to reflect the draft's top pick. Now, they must try to fit a contract for the top pick into, roughly, a fourth-choice slot. And they must do so while dealing with Tom Condon, perhaps the NFL's most powerful agent.
"We've got fourth-slot money, and you can't change that,'' Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said by telephone yesterday. "But I don't think it's going to be a problem. We and Condon can be creative enough to overcome that. Obviously this is not a player that you're going to cut early in his career, so you can do some things with the structure of the contract to overcome it. That, so far, has not been a problem. . . . We have a good relationship with Condon. If there is a delay, I don't expect it to be a major one.''
All teams are in a bind this year because the league-wide rookie pool of $120.76 million is up a modest 2 percent from last year (it's up 3.78 percent if one discounts compensatory picks, those awarded to teams before the draft based on last year's free-agent losses). Agents generally seek an increase of 8 to 10 percent for a client over what the player drafted in the same spot received a year ago.
And, under salary-cap accounting rules, teams can prorate the signing bonuses this year only over the next six seasons, instead of the usual seven. (There are only three salary-cap seasons remaining on the current collective bargaining agreement, and rules allow clubs to prorate signing bonuses only three years beyond that.)
"There are going to be some difficult negotiations for the first-rounders this year,'' one agent said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to affect future dealings with teams. "And Manning and Rivers will be particularly difficult.''
The Chargers actually have too much salary cap space, with a league-high rookie-pool allotment of $6.025 million based on having the top pick -- and with the fourth choice, in Rivers, to sign. The question will be whether Rivers and agent Jimmy Sexton try to get some of that extra money.
Condon and the Giants will have to be creative. Contracts have become increasingly complex, with agents seeking option bonuses and roster bonuses to supplement any givebacks on the amount of the initial signing bonus. Condon is known for getting megacontracts for his players. He negotiated the seven-year, $98 million deal that Manning's older brother, Peyton, signed with the Indianapolis Colts in March; that contract included an NFL-record $34.5 million signing bonus.
Condon has opened talks with the Giants and no doubt is seeking to top the deal that quarterback Carson Palmer signed with the Cincinnati Bengals three days before he was the first pick in last year's draft. Palmer's contract with the Bengals included a $10.01 million signing bonus and a $4.01 million roster bonus payable after 22 months. But he counted $2.5 million against the Bengals' salary cap last season, or 47.7 percent of their 2003 rookie-pool allotment of $5.238 million. Even if Eli Manning's contract surpasses Palmer's, the Giants probably will have to find a way to get his rookie-year impact against the salary cap closer to $2.1 million -- or shortchange their other rookies.
The Giants desperately want Manning on hand when they report to camp in eight days in Albany, N.Y. Manning, who knows he has a chance to earn playing time as a rookie, wants to be there on time. But neither side wants to give too much to make it happen. Andrew Kessler, an associate of Condon's at IMG, said yesterday that Manning's representatives did not wish to comment publicly on the negotiations.
Tackle Robert Gallery, the second pick in the draft, likely will sign with the Oakland Raiders by early next week. "I haven't found it to be any more difficult than other years,'' said his agent, Rick Smith. "You work things out.''
Only two first-round picks had reached contract agreements with their teams yesterday. Houston defensive end Jason Babin received 8.5 percent more guaranteed money in his deal than the player picked in his draft spot -- 27th -- a year ago. New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the 21st overall choice, also received significantly more guaranteed money but in return gave the Patriots an extra season on the contract -- six years instead of five.
"It's slow all the way through,'' Accorsi said. "We've signed one draft choice. Another one is close. We don't have a lot of movement with even one of the seventh-rounders. When the [rookie] pool is flat, the pool is flat and there's nothing you can do about it. Agents sometimes don't want to accept that, but it's just a fact of the negotiations.''