|Friday, July 20
Updated: July 21, 7:21 PM ET
CBA inertia? It's a first-rounder's main problem
By Len Pasquarelli
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Defensive linemen Kevin Henry and Glen Steele and fullback Nick Williams were placed on the league's "Physically Unable to Perform" list here Friday. They are the trio of Cincinnati Bengals veterans still recovering from injuries that will keep them sidelined for at least a couple more weeks in a training camp that officially begins Saturday morning.
As for the Bengals' much-ballyhooed rookie Justin Smith, well, the former Missouri defensive end is part of a burgeoning group of first-round choices that comprise a rather bothersome contingent.
Call it, for lack of a better term, the "Fiscally Unready to Perform" list.
Seven camps will have opened by Sunday and, by next Friday, two-thirds of the teams will have commenced their summer workouts. Yet top overall selection Michael Vick remains the lone No. 1 choice signed to a contract and it is anyone's guess when another first-round choice will agree to terms on his first NFL deal. With maverick owner Al Davis put in his place, a new realignment plan secured for the 2002 season and labor peace all but ensured through the 2007 campaign, the NFL is in an invincible position among sports leagues.
Unfortunately, the process of signing its first-round draft picks is marked by inertia.
"I guess you can say we're hitting an 'oh-fer' right now," said agent Tom Condon, who along with partner Ken Kremer represents a league-record six first-round choices. "Six picks and six guys without contracts. You hate to have that, but that's the situation we're in. It's pretty small consolation, but we're in the same position as everyone else, except for (Vick). I've been doing this a long time and it's hard to recall any year that's comparable to this one."
In a league that characteristically operates with a deadline mindset, where both agents and team negotiators privately agree that little hard bargaining is accomplished for first-round choices until there is a gun pointed at everyone's heads, completing deals for the highest-profile rookies is in most years a laborious undertaking. Yet at this same point a year ago, nine first-round choices had agreed to contracts.
It's been nearly three months since Vick autographed his contract with the Atlanta Falcons, and what has transpired since then is the most significant first-round drought in league history.
There are myriad reasons for the lack of activity in the first round, but most of the pertinent ones revolve around the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the fact only three "capped" years remain under the current labor pact, and an esoteric guideline known as the Deion Sanders Rule.
The league and the NFL Players Association recently reached tentative agreement on a three-year extension to the CBA, but approval by the union and also league owners is not anticipated until sometime in the fall, too late to affect the currently sputtering negotiations with first-round picks. Because the two sides are still operating under conditions of the existing CBA, teams are allowed to prorate signing bonus over just six years, instead of the seven years used in 2000.
That means, unless teams and agents are mutually creative, signing bonuses cannot be as large as they were a season ago.
One need look no further than Smith, whom the Bengals desperately want in camp, as Exhibit A: To the fourth-overall selection in the 2001 draft, Cincinnati has offered a six-year contract worth $17.25 million and including a $7.5 million signing bonus, ESPN.com has confirmed through NFLPA documents it obtained. But the Bengals also had the fourth overall choice last year, in Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick, and he banked a signing bonus of $8.47 million.
While the offer to Smith represents a 4.5 percent increase in per-year average of the deal, and a 7.6 percent bump over the first-year salary cap value, the fact is the signing bonus is nearly 12 percent less than the upfront money that Warrick received. The disparity is in part the Bengals' refusal to grant the customary 8-9 percent increase in average and cap value, but is primarily a function of having seven years to prorate a deal in 2000 and just six years now.
ESPN.com also has confirmed that the Arizona Cardinals have made a six-year, $19.13 million proposal to offensive lineman Leonard Davis of Texas, the second player chosen in April, and the signing bonus in that proffer is $8 million. But that is 25.6 percent less than last year's second pick, linebacker LaVar Arrington, received in his signing bonus from the Washington Redskins.
Neither the Bengals nor the Cardinals are noted for structural creativity in first-round deals, and that puts them and their choices at a disadvantageous position in this market. To make up for one less year of proration, most choices in the top half of the first round will have to sign two-tiered deals, contracts that pay them a signing bonus now and another one in 2002. Vick signed such a contract, getting $3 million in his initial signing bonus and another $8 million by next March, when the Falcons will "buy back" some guarantees in latter years of the deal.
"Unless you do some kind of a two-tiered bonus, or get guarantees on base salaries in some late years of the contract, it's tough to deal right now," said agent Pat Dye Jr., who represents three first-round choices. "This is a strange year, because never have so many teams been so far over the cap, and had to maneuver just to get square with the spending limit. Then you throw in the six-year proration period and the 'Deion Rule,' and things really are a mess."
In its simplest form, the Sanders rule stipulates that a player's signing bonus can represent only a certain percentage of the contract's overall value. The fact there are only three "capped" seasons remaining in the current CBA, at least until the three-year extension is approved, makes all of the permutations of the Sanders rule significantly more difficult. Agent Ralph Cindrich likened the maneuvering to "mathematical contortions" because of the current constraints.
Said Condon: "Part of the problem is that this is the year of the switches and we all got caught up in that in-between part of the transition from the current CBA and the pending extension. The fact is, when the extension is finally approved, 2002 will be dramatically better than 2001 as far as bargaining. But the downside is, last year was also better than 2001, so we're stuck in the middle of a pretty untenable situation."
At least publicly, no one is pushing the panic button, but some team or agent is going to have to step forward boldly and break the logjam. Agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents three No. 1 choices, acknowledged that player representatives by nature prefer to follow someone else's lead. That is typically the case with the NFL's "slotting" system, a stair-stepped approach in which the contracts are graduated based on a player's draft position.
"But agents all want to wait," Rosenhaus said. "There's a fear factor involved in being the guy who goes out and does a deal. You're always thinking, 'OK, what if the guy behind me does a deal for more money now?' But it's not all the fault of the players and agents, OK? I think we have seen an unprecedented level of offseason participation by draft choices this year. Most of these teams have had these players in mini-camps for months, and have had plenty of time to get them into the system and evaluate them.
"So if a first-round draft choice misses a couple days of camp, it doesn't matter as much. It matters a lot more to teams that they get a guy signed at their price."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.