New rule causing logjam of 3rd rounders

There are 12 third-round draft picks unsigned as training camp nears. What gives? The 25 percent rule is causing agents to pause, writes Len Pasquarelli.

More than a week after wide receiver T.J. Graham signed his initial NFL contract with the Buffalo Bills, an agreement completed July 9, the deal has yet to impact the logjam at the top of the third round.

The presumed reason: While the four-year, $2.9 million contract appears to be market value, or even slightly better in some ways, Graham's deal does not address the stated aim of agents who have clients in the early part of the round.

That is, the goal of maximizing the so-called "25 percent rule" on annual base salary increases.

The four-year, $21.09 million contract that quarterback Robert Griffin III signed early Wednesday, with the second overall choice and Heisman Trophy winner winning the "offset language" battle with the Washington Redskins, could spark action at the top of the first round, where seven of the initial eight choices remain unsigned. But the Graham agreement so far hasn't precipitated other movement at the beginning of the third round.

With camp openings looming, nearly 89 percent of the 253-player draft class have deals already, but the third-round gridlock persists.

A former North Carolina State standout and the sixth pick in the round, the 69th overall selection, Graham remains the only pick among the top nine players taken in the round to reach a contract agreement. None of the five prospects drafted ahead of Graham, nor the three directly after him, have contracts. Of the 29 draft picks who were still unsigned on Wednesday morning, a dozen are in the third round, just one fewer than in the first round.

Graham's contract includes some concessions from the Bills, like base salaries that are slightly higher than the league minimums in 2014 and 2015 and $90,000 total in offseason workout bonuses for the final three seasons of the deal, but falls short of the goal articulated by many agents with clients representing top nine players in the round. The Sports Xchange reported two weeks ago that the unusual impasse at the outset of the round was a result of players and agents attempting to maximize the 25-percent annual salary bumps permitted by the CBA.

Agents for most of the unsigned third-rounders acknowledged that as the primary hang-up to agreements.

All 32 teams will be in camp by the end of the month.

According to the formula for determining the maximum 25 percent raises -- 25 percent of the player's signing bonus, added to his first-year base salary, and then 25 percent of the total of the two -- Graham was eligible for annual increases of $139,453. Based on his first-year league minimum base salary of $390,000, Graham would have subsequent salaries of $529,453 (for 2013), $668,906 (2014) and $808,559 (2015) if the 25 percent was "maxed out." Instead his bases for the final three seasons, 2013-2015, were $480,000, $580,000 and $690,000 respectively.

The salary of $580,000 for 2014 is actually $10,000 higher than the NFL minimum for a player in his third season ($570,000), and the $690,000 base for 2015 is a $30,000 bump over the fourth-year minimum of $660,000. The Bills sweetened the pot as well by including workout bonuses of $30,000 each for 2013-2015.

Including the workout bonuses, the Graham contract totals $2,901,252. Had he been able to "max out" the 25-precent salary increases, the total would be $3,068,170 even without the bonuses, a difference of $166,918.

The last of Buffalo's draft choices to sign, Graham received a signing bonus of $671,252, exactly the bonus pegged for his slot under the rookie wage arrangement that is part of the new CBA, and a $4 increase over the signing bonus for the player in the same slot last year, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston. Graham's per-year average of $725,313 represents a healthy 12-percent increase over Houston's deal, a function, in part, of the increase in minimum salaries from a year ago and also the workout bonuses, which Houston did not receive.

But the contract numbers on the Graham deal, disseminated to the agent community this week, were greeted less than enthusiastically by some of the representatives with unsigned players in the third round. Said one: "It's a nice enough deal, definitely, but it doesn't get done what we've been shooting for."

Notable is that only one player in the third round, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, has received maximum 25-percent salary increases so far. The 12th player chosen in the round, Wilson clearly received a "quarterback premium" on his deal, but agents for other players above him want the same accommodation. It has created a sticky situation in the round, where such impasses are unusual.

On the other hand, the Griffin contract provides the agents with clients at the top of the first round with considerable ammunition. Last month, The Sports Xchange reported that the stalemate at the top of the round was attributable to the agents' contention that "offset language" -- which would permit a team to reduce its liability if it released a player and he signed with another club -- not be included in contracts for those top players.

The top overall choice in 2011, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, did not have "offset language" in his contract. Likewise, Panthers' linebacker Luke Kuechly, the ninth pick this year, did not have the language, prompting agents for players above him to demand the same.

As was the case with Griffin, who received a signing bonus of $13,799,344, the money figures for the first picks are pretty much settled, with little wiggle room. Griffin, for instance, received exactly the signing bonus slotted for him, with base salaries of $390,000 (for 2012), $1.34 million (2013), $2.3 million (2014) and $3.26 million (2015). All four seasons are fully guaranteed.

The contract should clear the way for other first-round agreements, although there still exists a mini-logjam at slot Nos. 22-25, because of a stalemate between players and teams over salary guarantees. It will be interesting, though, in light of the Graham agreement, to see how the rest of the third round shakes out, to see if the agents for players there remain stubborn in pursuing 25-percent increases.

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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