Rookie pay a hot topic that has been brewing for years

It was early in training camp in 2004 when the Chicago Bears headed to Western Illinois University for three days of joint practices with the St. Louis Rams.

Lovie Smith was in his first year with the Bears and the scrimmage sessions with his former team gave him an extra chance to evaluate his roster.

During that trip, then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue dropped in on the camp. He met with the teams and held a small press conference in a hot and humid gymnasium, and I asked him about his thoughts on the rapidly escalating contracts for draft picks. Eli Manning, the New York Giants quarterback, was drafted No. 1 overall that year. He ended up with a $54 million, six-year contract, a deal that included $20 million guaranteed. The rookie contracts had taken off in the five or so years leading up to that draft class, and seemingly no ceiling was in sight.

Tagliabue couldn’t have brushed aside my question much faster than he did. It wasn’t something he considered an issue. And he didn’t really want to talk about it. So much for that line of questioning. At least then.

Fast-forward nearly seven years and we’re in month four of the NFL lockout and rookie contracts are very much an issue in play. Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported that the topic was raised in face-to-face meetings between NFL owners and players last week at the clandestine meetings held in Hull, Mass. It’s something that needs to be handled in the next collective bargaining agreement. Sam Bradford, the St. Louis Rams quarterback, received a contract last year with $50 million guaranteed as the No. 1 overall pick.

Owners want to reduce the contracts for draft picks and for good reasons. They’ve all paid big money for draft busts at some point. The first round is a 50/60 proposition, at best. A system that guarantees Bradford – even as talented as he is and as promising as his future looks – is off when veterans don’t command nearly the same pay. You better believe Peyton Manning and Drew Brees will be using Bradford's deal in part to get their next contracts.

But a solution isn’t going to be easy. Gene Upshaw, the late and former head of the NFLPA, explained it to me in simple terms later. The draft picks were members of the NFLPA too. The union didn’t see any problem with its members being paid because if the contracts were reduced, there was no mechanism in place to ensure that money went into the pockets of other players, the veterans.

So that’s the issue at play here. How will the players agree to a salary system for draft picks that doesn’t cost players money? As Breer pointed out, the players have concerns about the length of contracts for draft picks too because they want to get to free agency as quickly as possible.

Plenty is left to hash out. That much is for sure. Fortunately, the sides are scheduled to meet for the fifth consecutive week in the coming days.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

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