First-rounders are cashing in

While we all wonder when the two last picks standing – Andre Smith of the Bengals and Michael Crabtree of the 49ers – will put their signatures on documents that will provide them with long-term financial security, I thought I’d look at three other picks in the top 10 who have actually done so. Smith and Crabtree will eventually sign – believe me, they will.

Earlier in the offseason, when the first and fifth picks in the draft -- quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez – inked their mega-contracts, a familiar outcry was heard about how rookie contracts are ruining the sport. At least one veteran quarterback was happy to see it, however. Stafford’s outrageous $41.7-million guarantee – still the largest guarantee in the history of the NFL – was Exhibit A for agent Tom Condon in his recent negotiation for Eli Manning, pointing out the same inequities that the league and management point out about the rookie system that Condon and others are exploiting.

Beyond the quarterbacks, there have been some interesting deals at the top.

Tyson Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs

The contract for the third pick in the 2009 draft has the fingerprints of Tyson Jackson’s agent, Eugene Parker, all over it.

Parker is all about getting the shortest deals possible (with, of course, the most money possible). While many picks at the top, such as Stafford, opt for the maximum allowable six-year term to secure the greatest possible bonus money, Parker is always insistent on a five-year deal. He really wants deals to be four years but can’t find any support among his agent peers to try to get to that length. I’m sure he’s trying in vain with the 49ers to procure a four-year deal for Crabtree.

Parker believes the true value in professional football is having not one, but two opportunities for a highly leveraged contract in a player’s career. His recent deals for Larry Fitzgerald and Greg Jennings, in my opinion, are masterpiece contracts for the players since they provide top-of-market wide receiver earnings with an opportunity to hit free agency again in four years, at age 29, thereby maximizing their high earning potential.

Jackson received a five-year deal from the Chiefs with a total value of $49 million, or an APY (average per year) of $9.8M. He has another $8 million of upside based on his performance on defense and sack production, giving the five-year contract a maximum value of $57M, of which $31M is guaranteed. The guarantee is $3M more than Sanchez two picks behind him, another contract done for five, rather than six, years.

It’s hard to compare Jackson’s deal to the pick last year, which was a “quarterback-premium” deal for Matt Ryan with the Falcons.

Aaron Curry, Seattle Seahawks

At No. 4, Curry went for the biggest possible bonus and guarantee in taking the six-year deal. And he and his agents at Octagon also did quite well.

Curry’s six-year deal with the Seahawks is worth a total value of $48.1M, or an APY of $8M. Curry also has $12M of potential upside based on performance and sack production, giving him a six-year contract with a maximum value of $60M.

Curry’s guaranteed amount is $34 million. That’s $3M more than the pick above him, Tyson Jackson, albeit with another year on the deal.

Curry’s deal is eerily similar to the contract given recently to Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel. That’s where we’ve come: Top picks in the draft are paid similarly to the going rate for franchise quarterbacks.

Last year’s fourth pick, Darren McFadden, received $26M in guaranteed money, meaning that Curry was able to garner an increase of more than 30 percent over last year. This also means that next year’s fourth pick in the NFL Draft can reasonably expect to receive guaranteed money on a six-year contract in the range of a 30-percent increase over $34M, or about $44M, which would eclipse Matthew Stafford as the highest guaranteed contract in the NFL! And that, of course, would be for the fourth pick, which would be bettered by the top three.

These geometric annual increases that teams are agreeing to with the top picks in the draft appear to be a vicious spiral with no end in sight -- unless and until collective bargaining negotiations do something about it.

As I’ve written, the vast majority of rookie contracts represent a fixed and reasonable cost for NFL teams, but the disproportionate pay at the top is mind-boggling.

B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers

A bit further down, the Packers came to terms with the ninth pick in the draft, B.J. Raji.

Although written as a six-year deal, it’s really a five-year deal since the sixth year is just there to contain proration for the second-year option. The sixth-year voids with minimum playing time.

Raji will receive a total value of $22.5M, with $17.7M of that amount, or 79 percent, guaranteed. While Raji’s increase over Keith Rivers’ deal last year is a relatively reasonable 14 percent, the fact that nearly 80 percent of the contract is guaranteed is cause for concern among management. As the picks go further down in the round, this trend continues, with many of the picks receiving around 75 percent of their contracts guaranteed.

This has become a rallying cry for the union and the players as much as the eye-popping numbers at the top. First-round picks are becoming a new class of players in the NFL, with virtually guaranteed contracts, and are moving toward the model set in the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Whether it’s the amounts or the percentage of guarantees, rookie contracts at the top of the draft are setting off alarms throughout the league. Theoretically, teams have the leverage – the players are not going to go back to school or play another sport – but year after year, teams have a hard time saying no to these prized possessions.

Coming soon: More analysis of contracts for first-round picks as well as a deeper look inside the Eli Manning deal.

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