Signing rookies early benefits player & team

Holdouts should be all but history and thanks to the draft slotting system, salaries are all but set in stone, leading to early signings that could improve the quality of play from the incoming draft class.

The late general manager George Young, a teacher in a former life and longtime student of history, used to suggest that signing draft choices could generally wait until Bastille Day, the French celebration of independence, on July 14.

But with the collective bargaining agreement negotiated last summer, a 10-year deal that includes a rookie wage scale, most of the 32 teams could have their draft picks signed sealed and delivered by a much earlier and more relevant holiday.

The Fourth of July.

That used to be the unofficial start of the rookie signing period. Team executives would return tanned and refreshed and golfed-out from their vacations, and with training camp looming, would finally get to the negotiating table. Now, because of the rookie wage scale, most deals might get done before team officials pack up the golf clubs for a week or two on the links.

Less than two weeks since the three-day draft concluded, dozens of the 253 players selected in the 2012 draft, including a pair of first-rounders have signed their initial NFL contracts. There figure to be a lot more to come in the next week.

WR Alshon Jeffery
Joshua S. Kelly/USP

It wasn't a surprise when the Chicago broke first from the chute with an agreement for second-round wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, because Bears' contract negotiator Cliff Stein, a former player agent, often leads the league in finishing off his draft class first, and he has unofficially set a goal of May 14 for completing all his deals. But in the days since Jeffery agreed to terms, there has been a spate of signings, and first-round picks Bruce Irvin of Seattle and San Diego Melvin Ingram agreed to deals.

There are a lot of things for team and league executives to like about the CBA -- the retention by commissioner Roger Goodell of his far-reaching power in deciding on some categories of sanctions, which might be unwisely tested in court, one of the foremost tenets of the new deal -- but the rookie wage scale has to be foremost among the NFL's victories at the bargaining table.

The CBA essentially slots contracts -- formally, not the way they used to be -- assigning a salary cap value to each of the 253 draft spots. The system, a copy of which was obtained by The Sports Xchange, and which details that virtually all the choices will receive four-year contracts very similar to those of the corresponding spots in the 2011 draft, leaves little or no wiggle room for negotiation.

Contract values are generally less than 1 percent of the deals completed in the same slots a year ago. The result: Quicker deals, since there is no real haggling, and likely no holdouts.

"The numbers are what they are," acknowledged Irvin, the initial first-round choice to sign, "and there's not much you can do with them. So why not just sign the thing and (officially) start your career? You might as well get started."

A year ago, when the lockout mandated that everything happen in a blink, the draft choices were expeditiously signed. This year, things are happening at warp-speed. No one is happier with the system than coaches, who don't have to fret about having a player miss training camp. Many of the signings, in fact, may be completed by the time some franchises commence their OTA programs.

"It's a boon," allowed one NFC coach whose team hasn't yet signed its top pick, but expects to in the coming week. "No more waiting for guys. You can immediately get them into the flow with everybody else."

Because of their cap crunch (an unusual situation around the league), and the need to wait until June 1, when their spending ceiling is credited with the rebate for releasing veteran cornerback Terence Newman, the Dallas Cowboys will have to wait to sign first-round choice Morris Claiborne. The former LSU cornerback has been assigned a 2012 cap number of $2.957 million. But the Cowboys, traditionally one of the last teams in the league to begin agreeing to contracts with their draft choices, usually well after July 1, can get their other six picks signed.

The wage scale has essentially erased the fireworks from negotiations. Yet for coaches and team negotiators, it's arguably made the Fourth of July a much more enjoyable holiday.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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