Although no deals with any of the 64 players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft have been consummated yet, and most first-round agreements aren't likely to occur until just before training camps open at the end of July, draft signings are on a record pace for the second straight year.
Through June 30, 117 of the 255 players chosen in April had either signed or agreed to contracts. From a percentage standpoint (45.9), that's the most contracts completed before July 1 and an increase of more than 20 percent over the pre-July 1 deals from a year ago (97 of 256, or 37.9 percent), which was the previous mark.
This increase reinforces a number of notions. Among them:
In general, teams have placed greater emphasis on completing contracts earlier.
Club negotiators prefer to clear the decks as they prepare for more contentious negotiations with first-rounders.
Prospects chosen in the middle and late stanzas know that the long odds of securing a roster spot are somewhat enhanced if they are fully entrenched in a franchise's offseason program and are in camp on time.
Players and agents, who have bills to pay, need their money (or their commissions) sooner in a slumping economy.
The reality of a longtime "slotting" system that essentially pigeonholes player contracts and establishes a tiered paradigm based on the round in which a prospect is selected and his relative position in that round has arrived.
"Let's face it, we're not trying to re-invent the wheel here," said Atlanta-based agent Hadley Engelhard, who has reached agreements for two clients (Mike Williams and E.J. Wilson), has two more who are close to deals, and two others for whom franchises will wait until after the July 4 holiday to commence negotiations. "If a team presents [a proposal] that falls in line, and is going to hold up in the market, a lot of guys have no trouble doing something early."
ESPN.com has examined the details of all but five of the 117 pre-July agreements, and there was just one deal in which a player received a contract equal to or worth more than the player/players chosen above him. In terms of deals outside the first two rounds, the market value for players has been established and everyone has fallen into lockstep.
The only case in which a player received a signing bonus even equal to the prospect in front of him was in the fourth round. And that was mitigated by the fact that both of the players -- linebacker Keenan Clayton (No. 121 overall) and quarterback Mike Kafka (No. 122) -- were selected by the same franchise. Both players, chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles, received $466,786 signing bonuses. The New England Patriots' fourth-round selection, tight end Aaron Hernandez (No. 113), received a signing bonus of just $200,000, less than half of the $501,000 bonus earned by the player in front of him, tailback Joe McKnight of the New York Jets. But the complicated deal signed by Hernandez, which was structured to protect the Patriots because he allegedly failed a drug test while in college at the University of Florida, also includes $700,000 total in roster, playing time and workout bonuses that the player must earn.
All 112 of the contracts reviewed by ESPN.com included minimum-base salaries -- $320,000 (for the first season), $405,000 (second), $490,000 (third) and $575,000 (fourth, if applicable).
Of course, the big challenges lie ahead for team negotiators and player agents, and the probability of a lockout in 2011 and the potential contract language required for addressing it likely will be factors in discussions involving high-round choices. For now, though -- with St Louis cornerback Jerome Murphy (four years, $2.728 million, signing bonus of $937,739 as the first pick of the third round) being the highest pick signed thus far -- the pace of agreements has been pretty impressive.
And that's even though only a dozen of the top 98 prospects have signed, and 60 of the completed contract agreements have been with sixth- or seventh-rounders.
Two years ago, only 63 players had agreed to contracts before July 1, so the current pace represents an increase of nearly 90 percent since 2008. That certainly reflects a shift in thinking for both sides involved in negotiations.
"Times have changed," New England owner Bob Kraft, whose team has agreements with five of its 12 picks, recently told local media members. "In most cases, there really is no reason to wait."
That seems to be an increasingly popular sentiment.
From 2003-2006, an average of just 23.5 contracts were consummated before the beginning of July. In the four-year stretch from 2007-2010, the average was 85.8.
Only a few years ago, negotiations with players in any round typically didn't begin until after July 4. But as of June 30 this year, only six franchises had yet to sign a single prospect. All half-dozen of those teams are franchises that historically wait until after the holiday to open negotiations with rookies.
The Chicago Bears, who typically waste little time in reaching agreements, have been the first club to sign all their draft choices in four of the past six years. The Bears, who had only five selections overall in 2010, were aided by the fact they had no first- or second-round choices for the second consecutive year. Still, senior director of football administration Cliff Stein has set the standard in recent years for signing picks early.
Over the last few seasons, a trend has developed of inking non-first-round draftees to maximum-term deals of four years. Only a few years ago, the standard in the league was to sign middle- and late-round choices to three-year contracts.
But last year, only 30 of the 224 players selected outside the first round received three-year contracts. Of the 117 picks signed through Wednesday, just 15 got three-year deals. Pittsburgh, which historically signs middle- and late-rounders for three years, accounted for eight of those contracts. One agent said he had been told that Arizona, which normally signs its later choices for three years, will switch to a four-year term for 2010. The Kansas City Chiefs, who last year signed all five of their choices taken after the fourth round to three-year contracts, this week agreed with fifth-round safety Kendrick Lewis for four years.
"I think, for both teams and agents, there's just so much quantifiable information now," said veteran agent Pat Dye, Jr., of Atlanta-based Profiles Sports. "With the positions [on base salaries] so well-defined for those players[(outside of the first two rounds], you're usually negotiating over just one component, the signing bonus. And so you can get to a point where it's time to say, 'OK, let's do it.' Anymore, with all the information, you really can look into the crystal ball."
Through Wednesday night, 17 teams had each signed at least four picks and 14 had accords with five or more draft choices. The Bears are believed to be the first franchise in modern league history to finish deals with their entire draft class by the end of May.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.