Everyone Into the Rookie Pool!

With training camp mere weeks away, the race to sign draft picks ramps up a notch. The Hawkstorian, Seahawks.NET's Salary Cap Guru, takes a look at how the rookie pool has changed in the last year...and wonders if the NBA may have a better solution when paying its draftees.

As of today, July 11, 2005, a number of top NBA draft choices have signed their rookie deals - but not a single NFL #1 pick has signed. The obvious reason is that NBA rookie deals are pre-determined by draft slot. No negotiations necessary. I’m sure agents find their way into the transaction somehow, but the final dollars are never in question.

The NFL system is actually quite similar, except the powers that be have added an extra twist. First, like the NBA, they devise a fixed dollar pool. This rookie pool is established shortly after the draft and teams cannot exceed that pool when signing draft picks. Second, each draft selection is assigned a dollar value. Teams with more picks or higher picks are given more rookie dollars to spend.

So, with the rookie dollars slotted right from the start, negotiations should be a snap, right?

Wrong.

The NFL’s added twist is they make sure they don’t tell the players or agents what the dollar amount that is pre-allocated to each draft choice. If one player signs for less than their allotted amount, those dollars could be paid to another player, or retained by the team.

This system leads to the inevitable scenario in which high draft picks aren’t signed until right at the start of training camp. Here’s how it works.

It starts with the agent for the 7th round draft pick. This agent represents the 254th player chosen overall in the draft and knows that his client will be paid a bonus somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Since this might be the only money this player ever sees in the NFL, maximizing that bonus means everything to the player. The agent knows that the same player in the 2004 draft was given $21,200 up front. What he doesn’t know is how much money has been allocated by the league for that spot.

Consider that the rookie pool increased from 2004 to 2005 by over 5%. Also consider that minimum base salaries are unchanged, so that entire 5% increase will flow to players in the form of bonus payments. What the agent doesn’t really know is, how much of those dollars are slotted for his client. Supposedly, the teams aren’t even allowed to share that decisive piece of information.

And so, over the course of days or weeks (and in and out of a weeks and over a year - oh wait, wrong story…) the agent does his best to squeeze a few more thousands for his client. In this case, the agent for Doug Nienhuis secured an extra $5,000 in signing bonus for his client, which is a nice 23% increase over last year, but very little when compared to the entire pool of available dollars.

Meanwhile, some agents are waiting for early deals to take place, to get a sense of the “slotting” for that year’s players. Slotting should fall into place pretty easily, but with the rookie pool up, my guess is that it’s taking a little longer. And since higher-round picks want to know how many rookie dollars are left for them, they’ll wait for the lower-round slots to fill before they commence their negotiations.

If it works right, first round picks know where they stand about a week before camp, and since the basic dollars are fixed (total rookie pool minus whateveryonelsegot) the final contract should get hammered out over the few days before camp.

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As I finished writing this, I noticed that our friends at “profootballtalk” (you know; the guys who will brilliantly predict each year that THIS is the year coach Holmgren is fired, because sooner or later they have to be right) reported that there’s talk of the NFL moving close to an NBA draft-slotting system.

Such a system would be pretty easy to implement, with the one exception being those players chosen with the top 5 to 10 picks in the draft. Those players typically sign deals which not only maximize their piece of the rookie pool (which only really relates to first year cap dollars), but also adds second year bonuses, escalators and incentives that can push total contract values into $30 - $50M ranges over 6-7 years.

One solution is to limit all rookie deals to 3 years. Allow each player to have restricted free agency after 3 seasons. After that they can have the option of accepting a one-year tender and enjoying full free agency after 4 seasons, or they can negotiate a long-term deal with their current team. With more desirable players hitting the restricted market, I think you’d see more teams bidding for those players. You’d also see more teams locking up promising players after 2 seasons, which should help separate winning organizations from perennial losers.

Under this system, a guy like QB Carson Palmer would be entering a contract year. He would definitely be motivated to discuss his deal with the Bengals - because up to this point, he wouldn’t have landed that huge payday.

Also, imagine if the Koren Robinson saga could have been different - if he hadn’t been handed $6,500,000 as a 20-year old rookie. Suppose instead he had to earn his money by establishing himself in the first 3-4 years of his career. Under the status quo, he kept getting chance after chance because his contract forced the Seahawks to keep him around.

And that’s the last I hope I ever write about that particular subject.

Next time – why I am really, really, REALLY sick of the franchise tag.

If you have any salary cap related questions, feel fee to contact me at hawktorian@yahoo.com or visit our fan forum.


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