The last picks standing

First, I ask for your indulgence to note the passing of Eunice Shriver last week. Shriver was the founder, defining voice and embodiment of a movement that will hopefully live on in perpetuity: the Special Olympics. She used her name and influence for something that resonates with every sports fan and pulls at the heartstrings of everyone of the power of hope. She was the Special Olympics.

I grew up and went to school with her sons, who were and are very involved with the Special Olympics. I remember attending an event in an area of Washington, D.C., that can charitably be described as rundown. There were gangs, sirens blaring and chaos all around us, but she cheerfully stood there handing out sandwiches to the participants and hugging every competitor.

Eunice Shriver gave thousands of people a chance. She believed in them more than they believed in themselves. She will be missed

The Last Picks Standing

As we have now entered the start of preseason games with a handful of first-round picks still unsigned, it’s time to take stock of what’s going on.

There usually ends up being a draft pick or two who, from the moment they’re selected, look as though they might have the makings of a long absence from training camp.

This year, there are two rookie deals that – from the moment the players were drafted –shaped up as difficult and challenging negotiations. What’s interesting is that Darrius Heyward-Bey, picked No. 7 overall by the Raiders, is an important factor in both.

49ers/Michael Crabtree

This negotiation, which I discussed last Monday, set up as a holdout from the moment Crabtree slid past the top five in the draft. The fact that the team is the 49ers is not really the issue; Crabtree would be holding out from most, if not all, teams as a player picked far below what he thought he would be.

Eugene Parker is one of the better agents in the business. He is professional and respectful. I negotiated two No. 1 picks with Eugene over a four-year span (Ahmad Carroll in 2004 and Justin Harrell in 2007) and know him to be tough but fair. Both of those picks were done without a holdout situation.

A top-10 pick, however, is a different animal for Eugene, and my sense is that Crabtree and his camp are different clients. The agent and the player have strong principles about value and will hold tight to them for, it appears, as long as it takes. Parker seems to have no interest in paying attention to either the B.J. Raji contract, done right before him at No. 9 ($18 million guaranteed), or the Eugene Monroe contract at No. 8 ($19 million guaranteed). Rather, this negotiation has been about nearing, matching or outdistancing the Heyward-Bey contract at No. 7 ($23.5 million guaranteed), a strong contract for a player Crabtree feels is not at his level.

The 49ers, of course, will stick with the slotting system that has been part and parcel of the draft compensation system since its inception, willing to slot in behind Raji.

Parker and the 49ers appear at a standstill. Parker will wait and presumably has a client with no worries about missing August. What can the 49ers do? They can pull the offer or reduce it and hope it brings the situation to the head. Parker, however, knows they won’t and will continue to wait for the right deal.

With the Crabtree negotiation on hold, the next pick, Aaron Maybin of the Bills, waits and watches. Maybin’s clear preference is to slot in behind the Crabtree deal whenever that happens, assured that the deal will look good and the player and agent will not be trumped by a more superior contract right above them.

We’re headed toward a battle of wills and a question of who will blink first with Crabtree and, by extension, Maybin.

Bengals/Andre Smith

A bit higher in the round at No. 6, the Andre Smith/Bengals negotiation has always appeared to be destined for drama. Smith was picked right behind Mark Sanchez, who had a strong deal with $28M in guaranteed money. The Bengals can rightfully play the “quarterback premium” card with the Sanchez deal, but that doesn’t appear to be the issue.

After Smith’s eventful offseason and musical-chairs games with agents, he now has to deal with a traditionally tough team in the Bengals.

As to this negotiation, the Bengals feel that the Monroe contract – another offensive lineman two picks away -- more accurately set a standard for guaranteed money ($19M) rather than the Heyward-Bey contract ($23.5M) sandwiched in the middle.

The Bengals, as well as some other teams, are fans of the Jaguars, who stood their ground on a holdout last season by Derrick Harvey in the same part of the draft. The insanity at the top of the first round came to a grinding halt with the Harvey deal.

The two picks above Harvey in the 2008 draft, the sixth and seventh selections, had increases in their APY (Average Per Year) of the following:

Vernon Gholston of the Jets, 48 percent
Sedrick Ellis of the Saints, 39 percent

This is not to say that Harvey didn’t get an appropriate increase from the 2007 draft (he received a 19-percent increase); it is to say that his increase was in the more normalized range compared to picks above Harvey. The Bengals would like the Jaguars and Monroe to set the market for Smith and the Bengals rather than the Heyward-Bey contract that seems to be a factor in both of these rookie absences.

Regarding these last few rookie negotiations, as the Snickers commercial says, “This may take a while.”

Whither Strasburg?

The 49ers and Bengals may be wishing the NFL had the system now in place in Major League Baseball. There, a deadline of midnight tonight takes care of any lingering drama about whether players will sign with their teams. After midnight (sounds like a song), any unsigned draft choices from the 2009 MLB draft will have to wait for the 2010 draft to sign with a team. The deadline in baseball serves as a leverage point for both sides to end the rhetoric and haggling and do a deal -- or not.

Stephen Strasburg was the presumptive top pick in the MLB draft and represents more than a draft pick to the Washington Nationals.

Although they’ve had a surge of late, the Nationals have been a long-running sad-sack franchise back to the days of my childhood following the Washington Senators. Yes, I was a diehard Senators fan and cried when they left Washington (for the second time) and moved to Texas. Although they were the worst team in baseball, they were a team nonetheless. As the venerable Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich said of losing the team at the time, “Halitosis is better than no breath at all!”

Now, Strasburg’s agent, the inimitable Scott Boras, and the Nationals enter a showdown as the hours tick away. Both sides have already agreed to shatter the previous signing-bonus record for a draft choice in baseball, the $10.5M received by Mark Prior years ago. The National have reportedly made an offer in the $15-$16M range. Boras, who sees this negotiation as a chance to use his formidable leverage to create an entirely new way of paying rookie players – i.e., more like veteran free agent players – is scoffing at that record-breaking number.

This one is up to Boras and Strasburg. In the event the record-setting offer by the Nationals is not enough to bring him under contract by midnight, Strasburg will be looking at a year in an independent l eague or overseas, somewhere besides Major League Baseball. Perhaps he should realize that halitosis is better than no breath at all….

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