Rookies sacrificed in new CBA

Salaries not what they once were, which leads to speedy negotiations

Originally Published: May 15, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

As the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement starts to play out, there may be no more notable difference in the business of the NFL than the timing and ease of rookie contract negotiations. The new CBA has, for at least a decade, radically simplified and shortened the negotiation of these deals.

Rookie sacrifice

We knew that incoming players were going to be sacrificed in the recent CBA negotiations. They had no champion; both owners and veteran players believed they made too much. It was clear that the NFL Players Association was going to reduce compensation to these players, especially top picks, to forge gains elsewhere if it could.

Now, players at the top of the draft make less than half what their 2010 predecessors did. Indeed, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will combine for less in total contract value ($45 million) than 2010 top pick Sam Bradford earned in guaranteed money ($48 million).

The rookie pay makeover did not stop there. All drafted players must now sign four-year contracts, eliminating the entire category of the fourth-year restricted free agent. Further, there are no renegotiations of rookie contracts until after a player's third year, removing any holdout possibilities for a high-performing young player before his fourth year. The new rookie pay system is written as though the owners were given a blank slate to achieve what they wanted.

Speedy negotiations

Several teams -- including the Ravens, Giants, Packers, Panthers -- have already signed their entire draft classes. This is in stark contrast to the previous CBA in which some teams would not even begin negotiations until late July, and many first-round picks signed the day before training camp.

In the past, teams were allotted a rookie cap with no specific guidelines on each pick. The new system specifies percentages of the rookie cap for each draft choice, giving every negotiation an easy marker. Thus, the negotiations have essentially become "maxing out the slot," where the two sides take the allotment number, back out the minimum salary and figure out the maximum signing bonus, prorated over four years.

This year's rookie contracts are looking very much like last year's. In fact, the initial first-round draft pick to sign, Bruce Irvin, received the same bonus as the corresponding pick last year. The increase of $15,000 in the minimum salary for the first year -- from $375,000 to $390,000 -- accounts for the small increase in the rookie cap number.

Also, in the prior CBA, first-round contracts contained clauses such as option bonuses, escalators, buybacks, voidable years, salary advances and vanishing guarantees. Thankfully for negotiators on both sides, those days are gone.

In the past, when -- as both an agent and team official -- I negotiated an early rookie contract, I wondered if it would "hold up" in the slot. Now there is little guesswork.

New negotiation area: fourth-year guarantee

The one interesting area of negotiation in first-round contracts has become whether the four years are fully guaranteed or not. In 2011, many teams privately cursed the Buccaneers when they rewarded the first pick in the round to sign, the 20th pick Adrian Clayborn, with a fully guaranteed deal. Despite that precedent, teams drafting immediately before the Bucs -- the Patriots, Chargers and Giants -- were able to avoid a full fourth-year guarantee.

This year, the Chargers and Bears bucked the Buccaneers' precedent from 2011, guaranteeing a little more than half of the fourth year with the remainder in a non-guaranteed March roster bonus in the signings of Melvin Ingram and Shea McClellin, the 18th and 19th picks respectively. Interestingly, the Bears' guarantee of fourth-year compensation is less than that of the Giants for the same pick last year, although the Giants had the Bucs' full guarantee right behind them.

These limited areas of dispute, though, are minor compared to the complexities of the prior rookie contracts in the previous CBA. The signings of draft picks by teams before their May minicamps, something unheard of two years ago, may now become the norm because contract negotiations for incoming players have never been easier. My sense is this is the way both owners and veteran players want it. Welcome to the new world of rookie contracts.

From the inbox

Q: What's the most difficult rookie contract you negotiated?

Dave in Pennsylvania

A: In terms of complexity and amount, it was A.J. Hawk, the fifth pick in the 2006 draft. Never having negotiated a contract that high in the draft, I found the amount of bells and whistles typical for top-five picks to be astounding.

In terms of the uniqueness of the negotiation, it was Aaron Rodgers in 2005. We spent very little time negotiating the "front side" of the contract -- bonus and salary -- yet dozens of hours trying to forge an equitable level of escalators in future years not knowing when, or if, Brett Favre would retire. We even tried to tie the escalators to Brett's potential retirement, but the NFL Management Council would not allow it.

Q: What do you think the chances are for the NFLPA with the two grievances about the player suspensions from the bounty scandal?

Bill in Tampa, Fla.

A: The first grievance, to be heard Wednesday, focuses on whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is prevented from imposing discipline due to Article 3, Section 3(b) of the CBA entitled "Releases and Covenants Not to Sue."

The NFL will argue that Article 3 "released" further lawsuits, as part of an overall settlement with the CBA, rather than any conduct prior to Aug. 4, 2011, no matter how egregious. However, the language is fairly general and the NFLPA hopes the arbitrator will take the broadest interpretation possible.

The second grievance, to be heard May 30, contends that since this matter involves "non-contract bonuses" -- bounties -- this is ultimately a salary cap issue and therefore governed by the "cap arbitrator" rather than the commissioner. While there is a cap issue here, the arbitrator may have a hard time separating cap from conduct, the latter an area clearly in Goodell's purview.

In both cases, the NFLPA is trying desperately to move this discipline out from under Goodell and into the hands of arbitrators. Or, at the least, the independent "on-field" arbiters of discipline, Ted Cottrell and Art Shell. I still think the odds favor these matters ending up right back in front of Goodell, although one never knows what an arbitrator will do.

Q: If these appeals do end up in front of Goodell, what chance do the players have to get their suspensions reduced?

Jeff in Detroit

A: Slim, Goodell is not likely to back off his ruling after a three-year investigation. However, as with the appeal of Sean Payton, Goodell could allow for a lesser financial penalty for the players if they use their time away properly.

This is a hallmark of the Goodell tenure. As he did with Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick, Goodell holds out a carrot for "embracing change" during time away. In the case of Payton and/or the players, my sense is there would be an incentive for making appearances and/or doing some type of work on behalf of player safety and head injuries. We will see.