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Friday, September 6, 2002
Updated: September 7, 8:53 PM ET
Holdouts, teams differ on market value

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

No sports salary system is going to be perfect. Trying to mix free agency with fiscal responsibility is a difficult marriage. Top players want annual salary increases. Owners want profits. Because the sport involves competition for talent, the player usually wins in the end, but the salary cap allows NFL teams to come up with a good chance for profit.

One nasty problem is developing in sports best system, the NFL. On the eve of the NFL season, two of the top 12 players in the draft -- Bryant McKinnie (Minnesota) and Wendell Bryant (Arizona) -- are holdouts. They could hold out well into the season.

Quentin Jammer (San Diego), the No. 5 overall pick, finally ended his standoff with the Chargers on Saturday by reaching an agreement in principle on a six-year deal.

In Kansas City, defensive tackle Ryan Sims missed the Chiefs entire training camp and, then, after agreeing on a contract, he spent an extra week on the sidelines because of the collusion suit that had been filed against the Chiefs over thier negotiations with him.

Quentin Jammer
Quentin Jammer's prolonged holdout could cost the Chargers.
For years, the holdout dance has usually lasted until the Tuesday before the opener. Usually, the team steps up, kicks in the extra dollars and the player may not accept the best deal, but he accepts a market deal. This year there is a different feel and it's been there from the beginning. The Vikings and Cardinals believe the market has outpriced sensibility and they won't go all the way to settle the dispute.

Sure, maybe last-minute settlements could happen before Sunday's kickoffs, but even if they occur, the NFL draft, as we know it, has concerns that will carry into next April. Before getting into the symptoms of the illness, it should be noted upfront that there might not be an immediate cure unless owners want to trade off bargaining chips in the collective bargaining extension. That's not necessarily going to happen.

What you might see next year is more top-12 picks being dangled in trades and fewer teams wanting to move up to take them. Worse, more teams could draw the line and say they don't want to meet the market price of these top 12 players and create more holdouts.

Even more embarrassing could be what was hinted last April. A team or two might pass on their selection and let the next team chose and allow the passing team to move down the first round to get a better price. Remember the confusion when the Cowboys worked out their trade with the Chiefs that was submitted at the last minute that allowed the Cowboys to move from the sixth pick to the eighth. The league announced that the Cowboys had passed only because they didn't have all the details of the trade because they were handed in as the clock was expiring.

Two or three teams were considering passing because of the growing cost of draft choices, but they didn't. But in the end, the Cowboys decision to move down two spots still had its problems. The Cowboys gave safety Roy Williams, the eighth pick in the draft, a nice contract. He received $9.3 million in signing bonus guarantees and about $12.4 million over the first three years.

That became the market. The Vikings, who drafted McKinnie ahead of the Dallas pick, said no to that market, and spent the summer offering $8.1 million in signing bonus, $1.2 million less than the Williams' deal. The Chiefs ended the Sims holdout by stepping up and going about five percent above the sixth pick of the 2001 draft and paying him $13 million over the first three years of the draft.

Jammer was the fifth pick, and the Sims' deal pretty well confirmed that the "slot" should have been around $13.3 million to $13.5 million over the first three years. The Chargers initially were offering about $12.6 million. Jammer was asking for around $13.5 million.

Here is why it's going to be hard to fix the slotting system. When owners and players sat down to hammer out the salary cap system, the players agreed to a rookie pool system that allows slotting. The NFLPA agreed with owners that a system should be created to prevent holdouts. For the most part, that system has worked. There were 28 rookie holdouts this year but only five that lasted longer than six days. Last year, there were only 19 rookie holdouts. Only nine lasted longer than six days. In 2000, there were 35 rookie holdouts, 15 lasting longer than six days.

Though the impact to the individual teams is immense, it's going to be hard to get a consensus to make major adjustments in the salary cap system to help less than a handful of players every year. I'm just being a realist here. What should and could be done is balanced by what can really be done.

Obviously, the draft compensation system needs to be reviewed. Sure, the simple solution is to go to the NBA rookie pay scale that involves very little negotiation. Simple is easy here. How much do you dig into the collective bargaining agreement to come to the aid of four or five teams a year that are going to have rookie holdouts?

For the holdouts of McKinnie and Bryant, let's be honest. Both sides are right in their positions. The agents will be fired if they take less than the market value for where they were selected. The teams are right in saying that the cost of top first-round picks has gotten out of control and they have the right to draw the line, but also, they have to be faulted if they don't want to pay the market.

Teams knew the market price for where they were picking going into the draft. To come back now and say rookies make too much may be a fair argument, but the price is what is. Drafter beware.

Look at the trades and waiver wire moves of the past week and see the names of former first-round picks who have washed out since 1999 -- Troy Edwards of the Steelers, Cade McNown of the Bears, Reggie McGrew of the 49ers, Erik Flowers of the Bills, etc.

In retrospect, there were simple answers to the current problems in Arizona and Minnesota. Trade the pick, but that is easier said than done. Other teams know the price, too. Normally, the first-round choice gets a five percent increase even though the rookie pool was negotiated to be flat.

The carryover effect could be negative in future drafts. Teams with top 10 picks are looking at $4 million a year players over the first three years of their contract, and they aren't getting any guarantees that the players will be any good. In NFL free agency, a veteran has to be really good to get $4 million a year or better.

The system has a glitch. It needs to be fixed, but don't hold your breathe that it will by next year's draft.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.