Will Rams ‘just say no’ to rookie mega-deal?

First, Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to announce today the discipline of Ben Roethlisberger. As discussed here, the decision is being closely watched by all teams and players, ready to judge it as it relates to a star player, a white player and a player not criminally charged. The punishment will be based on a pattern of behavior that has tarnished the brand of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the league. As I’ve written, I would expect the punishment to be conditional, meaning a maximum number of games (4-6) that can be reduced based on Roethlisberger meeting certain standards of behavior from now until the season.

On to the top of the draft…

Rams fortune?

The chances that the St. Louis Rams will have the first pick of the NFL Draft under contract by the time the selection is made Thursday night appear slim and none, with slim booked on the next flight out.

Although there is always the possibility that the Rams may trade away the pick and give another team the blessing/curse of having the No. 1 overall selection, that’s unlikely. Either way, whether that player – likely to be quarterback Sam Bradford – is under contract or not, it will be one to watch.

Every year, there are reports of the team with the first pick having discussions with agents for the top group of players, theoretically trying to impose leverage by demonstrating options. Bradford claims that those talks have not occurred with the Rams. I doubt that, but whether they have or haven’t, recent history shows that it doesn’t really change the negotiation.

Stafford’s stash

Last year, the Lions had discussions with a couple of players prior to the draft, with at least one willing to take less than Matthew Stafford. The Lions went for the higher-priced player and signed him before the draft.

Stafford became the latest poster boy for what ails the rookie compensation system, becoming the league’s highest-paid player – not rookie, player -- in the all-important category of guaranteed money. He still retains that title.

Stafford’s guarantee of $41.7 million is in three forms:

Option bonus: $17.4 million
One-time incentive: $9.1 million
Guaranteed salary: $15.2 million

Note: The one-time incentive “virtually” guarantees the amount for the minimum qualifying performance.

Stafford received a stunning 39-percent increase in guaranteed money from the $30M of Jake Long in 2008 (although Long received a five-year contract compared to Stafford’s six).

Bradford’s bounty

With the same agent – Tom Condon – representing Bradford and Stafford, a new threshold will likely be sought. Don’t be surprised if the “ask” here is for the round number of $50 million, which conveniently would be exactly a 20-percent increase.

Whether that deal is done today, tomorrow or later doesn’t matter. I think teams lose leverage when they announce they want to have a contract completed before the draft. The Rams have avoided such declarations.

Just say no?

With the Rams going through ownership uncertainty and transfer, an interesting question is whether they will take a stand regarding the top of draft madness and “just say no” to the trend continuing from year to year with the signings.

The external pressure from fans and media to sign the top pick, along with internal pressure to get the player under contract, are powerful forces the agent can capitalize on. It will take a strong organizational decision from the top down to hold the line in the face of signing a splashy new rookie.

Last year for rookie mega-deals?

Ultimately, the NFL and the NFL Players Association will sell out the top rookies to achieve gains elsewhere in the labor negotiations.

The only voice defending these deals is that of the agents, who use these contracts as recruiting tools for the next year’s top players. When Condon was the agent and close friend of now-deceased former NFLPA boss Gene Upshaw, the voice of agents – or at least that agent -- carried weight.

New NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith has appeared to support veteran players criticizing these deals, perhaps willing to serve up the rookies for the greater good.

What will happen

Will the Rams give Bradford, their presumptive pick, a record-setting contract that will be fodder for another year of railing against rookies making more than productive veterans? Or will the Rams put a stake in the ground and just say no, using their unsettled ownership situation as a ready-made excuse for not agreeing to Bradford’s demands?

2010 has already demonstrated restraint by many NFL clubs. This makes the possibility of similar restraint in dealing with the top rookie deals, starting with the Rams, at least a plausible one. Stay tuned.

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