The other day someone asked me around the start of training camp, “How many first rounders have signed already?” Immediately I thought there had to be at least half of the 32 picks, but I was totally taken aback when I realized the number was a whopping four players.
As of July 27, top quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (first overall pick by the Lions) and Mark Sanchez (sixth overall pick by the NY Jets), plus Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack (No. 21 pick) and Steelers DT Evander “Ziggy” Hood (No. 32 pick), are the only first rounders acclimating themselves to NFL training camps rather than being stuck at the negotiating table.
I don’t know if it is the threat of an uncapped year in 2010, impending CBA talks including a possible rookie wage scale, rookies and their agents showing their greedy ways, the “domino” effect where rookies are waiting for the guy in front of them to sign, or first-year guys having jitters about singing their college fight song in the players cafeteria.
But for the first time since rookie holdout heydays in the early '90s, there are more stuck on the sidelines than ever.
Of course, team management and players’ agents will say the current rookie holdout trend that we are experiencing has everything to do with the current adherence to the rookie “slotting” system.
The system that is in place today causes both the teams and agents to rely heavily on the deals of the players selected the previous year in the same slot, plus agents also have to wait to see the deal of the player taken before their client in the current draft class.
But something else is going on with the 2009 NFL Draft class' first-round players—and it has a lot more to do with the teams and agents getting stuck on voidable years in a contract.
The odd thing is every team is given a “rookie pool” to operate within their own salary cap, so you would think the process of signing your first rounder would not be so difficult.
Here is how the rookie salary cap works. On a league-wide basis, the rookie pool—created within Article XVII of the CBA—is the total amount of money that can be spent on rookies, except for the minimum base salaries given to undrafted rookies. Each team’s rookie pool is its portion of the league-wide total and is determined by the number, round, and position of the draft choices it uses.
See the league-wide allocations for the 2009 NFL Draft Class on the ESPN website. The total rookie pool league-wide for the 2009 NFL Draft class was $150.755 million, which represented an increase of about seven percent over the 2008 rookie pool.
A record 12 teams each earned rookie pools of $5 million or more. So as each team’s rookies sign from lower rounds, teams should know exactly how much is left for year one of the rest of the team’s drafted rookie class.
For example, the Lions signed Stafford to a six-year, $78 million contract with guarantees of $41.7 million. Stafford’s deal will count $3.1 million against the Lions' rookie cap, leaving $4,974,992 left over for the team’s other nine draft picks.
Unfortunately, the NFL’s rookie system is flawed in that the pool is restrictive, often causing rookies’ agents to try inventive ways to dictate their price, terms, and incentives before even negotiating. There have been rumors that the NFL in the next version of the CBA will adopt a strict NBA-like rookie pay scale, where given a player’s draft spot, the rookie will make a set amount for a set number of years.
The possible addition of a hard rookie cap in the next CBA would be welcome news to NFL veterans, where the current system allows a rookie like Matthew Stafford to make more than three-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning before he has even stepped on the field.
Most veteran agents know that they are usually only hurting their rookie clients by allowing them to hold out. NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, a longtime personnel director for the Cowboys, said of rookie holdouts, “Any player who misses more than three days of camp is taking a serious risk.”
Brandt added, “What rookies see at OTAs and minicamps doesn’t compare to what they see at training camp. Everything is accelerated 100 percent.” Often rookie holdouts have proven Brandt’s words correct, as injuries (hamstrings especially) and missed time often spell disaster to a rookie’s chances of making an impact in year one.
A rookie holdout can also sometimes derail a player's entire NFL career before it even begins. This unfortunate fact was shown by the classic case of former Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, who held out for 43 days entering the 1990 NFL season and never really got the traction or learning needed to be a quality offensive lineman in the NFL.
Mandarich was dominated from the start of his rookie year to the finish, only played in nine offensive series, and was eventually released by the Packers after several disappointing seasons.
Last year Jaguars defensive end Derrick Harvey held out for the majority of training camp, and when he did arrive, the Jags got a different player then they thought was selected in the draft.
Harvey was out of football shape and never really caught up from missed training camp time, producing only 3.5 sacks for the season. Of course, Harvey’s holdout did not make him beloved with his teammates, who were already sweating in training camp and many of whom were going to make less than the unproven first rounder.
Former Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson said at the time, “He’s slotted. I have a hard time understanding what is the problem.... To me, basically it’s how bad a guy wants to be in camp to take the high end of the slot or the low end or meet in the middle.”
The one rookie that I am most interested in following at the negotiations table is former Texas Tech star receiver and San Francisco 49ers draftee Michael Crabtree—quickly looking like a prima donna after missing work in OTAs and being yelled at this offseason by head coach Mike Singletary for his attitude.
The 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft is reportedly seeking a contract worth much more than the usual salary slot for a No. 10 pick.
Hopefully Crabtree and the other 28 remaining unsigned 2009 first rounders will come to terms soon. It would be a shame if players miss too much time and basically throw away their first seasons—see the aforementioned case of Mandarich in 1990, former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith in 1999, and Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell in 2007.
Current signing status of 2009 first-round picks, including their agent(s) and signing terms, if applicable:
1. Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford — Tom Condon — signed April 25 with the terms: six-year, $78 million contract with guarantees of $41.7 million.
2. St. Louis Rams OT Jason Smith — Ben Dogra/Michael Lartigue — currently unsigned
3. Kansas City Chiefs DE Tyson Jackson — Eugene Parker — currently unsigned
4. Seattle Seahawks LB Aaron Curry — Andy Ross/Mike Sullivan — currently unsigned
5. New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez — David Dunn/Andrew Kessler — signed June 11 with the terms: five-year, $60 million contract with guarantees of $28 million.
6. Cincinnati Bengals OT Andre Smith — Alvin Keels — currently unsigned
7. Oakland Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey — Tom Condon/Ben Dogra — currently unsigned
8. Jacksonville Jaguars OT Eugene Monroe — Sanat Shah – currently unsigned
9. Green Bay Packers DL B.J. Raji — David Dunn — currently unsigned
10. San Francisco 49ers WR Michael Crabtree — Eugene Parker — currently unsigned
11. Buffalo Bills DE Aaron Maybin — Joel Segal/Chafie Fields — currently unsigned
12. Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno — Tom Condon/Ben Dogra — currently unsigned
13. Washington Redskins LB Brian Orakpo — Ben Dogra/Michael Lartigue — currently unsigned
14. New Orleans Saints CB Malcolm Jenkins — Ben Dogra/Tom Condon — currently unsigned
15. Houston Texans LB Brian Cushing — Tom Condon/Ben Dogra — currently unsigned
16. San Diego Chargers LB/DE Larry English — Todd France — currently unsigned
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Josh Freeman — Ken Kremer/Ron Freeman — currently unsigned
18. Denver Broncos DE Robert Ayers –Tony Agnone/Edward Johnson/Richard Rosa/Noel LaMontagne — currently unsigned
19. Philadelphia Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin — Jim Steiner — currently unsigned
20. Detroit Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew — Sean Howard, currently unsigned
21. Cleveland Browns C Alex Mack — Tim Younger/Marvin Demoff — signed July 25 with terms not disclosed other than the contract was a five-year deal with an over 10 percent jump from 2008’s No. 21 pick (Atlanta offensive lineman Sam Baker)
22. Minnesota Vikings WR Percy Harvin — Joel Segal –currently unsigned
23. Baltimore Ravens OT Michael Oher — Jimmy Sexton, currently unsigned
24. Atlanta Falcons DT Peria Jerry — Bus Cook — currently unsigned
25. Miami Dolphins CB Vontae Davis — Todd France — currently unsigned
26. Green Bay Packers LB Clay Matthews — David Dunn/Mark Humenik/Joby Branion/Justin Schulman — currently unsigned
27. Indianapolis Colts RB Donald Brown — David Dunn/Mark Humenik/Joby Branion/Justin Schulman — currently unsigned
28. Buffalo Bills C Eric Wood — David Dunn/Mark Humenik/Joby Branion/Justin Schulman — currently unsigned
29. New York Giants WR Hakeem Nicks — Peter Schaffer — currently unsigned
30. Tennessee Titans WR Kenny Britt — Todd France — currently unsigned
31. Arizona Cardinals — RB Chris Wells — Adam Heller/Brian Kopp — currently unsigned
32. Pittsburgh Steelers DL Evander “Ziggy” Hood — Andy Ross/Mike Sullivan — signed July 25 with terms: five years with $6.1 million guarantee and a base salary of $8.7 million, which could raise to $11.3 million based on incentives, according to sources
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).