Negotiating the lower-round rookie deals

The seal has been broken on the 2010 draft with a few lower-round signings trickling in. The ever-proactive Bears have led the charge with three of their five picks now under contract.

The sequence

The annual mating ritual between agents and teams usually begins with a call during the draft acknowledging the selection and looking forward to negotiations.

From there, teams have different timelines with rookie contracts. Many are content to let the market fill in, marginalizing the negotiable dollars. Others try to cross off the to-do list to move on to more important things, including vacations. In my experience at the Packers and Eagles, I tried to do the later-round deals early to focus on the top pick and veteran extensions heading into camp.

Jumping in

Obviously, it takes two to tango. Many agents prefer to wait for the comfort of a fleshed-out marketplace. Some will put their toes in the water. Last year, with the LeSean McCoy contract, it was ripe for setting the market.

Despite his reputation, team negotiators like dealing with agent Drew Rosenhaus (as long as it involves a player they want to deal with). Drew is a deal maker. Drew, his brother Jason and I were able to negotiate an early deal for McCoy and christen the second round of the 2009 draft (we had earlier opened the fifth round with Cornelius Ingram’s contract). We celebrated at the Penrose Diner in South Philadelphia, where Drew received a mixed reaction from Eagles faithful dining there.

Standard deal

The typical later-round rookie contract is straightforward: a signing bonus and four years of minimum salaries, the fourth-year escalating based on performance. These performance thresholds -- different from team to team -- can consume more of the negotiation than anything else. Teams can, and will, always use the standard line “That’s what we do,” as consistency is the ultimate negotiating catchall. Some teams are consistent with their escalator language through the draft; others have tougher thresholds going down in rounds.

The rookie contract myth

The issue of rookie contracts is a red herring argument in the collective bargaining negotiations between the NFL Players Association and the NFL. A dozen or so players skew the scale, yet the vast majority of the 250 drafted rookies represent a fixed, cheap and reasonable cost for management. As for the NFL wanting to create a new system, it should be careful what it wishes for.

In the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookies will be sacrificed. They have no dog in this fight. The union, responding to pressure from its veterans, will serve them up. This year’s top picks may receive the last windfall deals for rookies.

The first signees

As for the few players who have jumped in the pool, there are no eye-popping contracts here. Let’s look at the bonuses of the few that have been done compared to the same pick last year:

Fourth round: Corey Wooton, Bears, $507,000; 3% increase from $492,400.

Fifth round: Joshua Moore, Bears, $198,000; 3% increase from $192,250.

Sixth round: Trindon Holliday, Texans, $96,000; 2.9% increase from $93,285. Ted Larsen, Patriots, $80,300; 3.6% increase from $77,510.

Seventh round: J’Marcus Webb, Bears, $60,600; 2.5% increase from $59,125. Phillip Adams, 49ers, $57,850; 3.3% increase from $56,000 (prorated from a three-year deal for $42,000).

A little means a lot

As relatively insignificant as these numbers are, they’re important to players and agents in this limited negotiation framework. Whereas with top picks the arguments are about hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars, here it’s about hundreds. I’ve seen negotiations stall within $50, with both sides having reached their limits. Yet as former general manager Bobby Beathard used to tell me, “At the end of the day, they all sign.”

Welcome to the not-so-glamorous world of negotiating low-round rookie contracts.

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Update: The Bears and 49ers have each signed sixth-round picks today. The Bears have come to terms with Dan LeFevour, the 12th pick in the round, and the 49ers have signed Kyle Williams, the 37th pick in the round. We will provide their bonus information when it becomes available.

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