Uncharted waters ahead
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When the players union's DeMaurice Smith yells "collusion'' because no first-round draft choices are signed as camps open, I kind of chuckle.
Because "collusion'' has been a fact of life as long as there's been free agency in the NFL. Except that it's called "slotting.''
That is, No. 1 gets more than No. 2; No. 15 gets more than No. 16 and No. 31 gets more than No. 32 and both team and agent know it.
Yes, a few rookies always hold out deep into camp, often because they have inexperienced or ambitious agents -- as with Michael Crabtree last season -- try to argue that their clients are outside the slotting process because they "should have'' been drafted higher. Sure Crabtree should have been taken much higher than Darrius Heyward-Bey, who went No. 7 to the Raiders. Heck, Louis Murphy, Heyward-Bey's Oakland teammate, was No. 124 overall and he had 34 catches to Heyward-Bey's nine.
But instead of collusion, blame this year's lag on labor uncertainty: neither the agents nor the owners really know what kind of contracts to proffer. So it took until Thursday, when Dez Bryant, No. 24 overall, signed with Dallas, to start the collection of first-round picks. That should quickly lead to more.
Without a union contract -- and lockout or not, there eventually will be one -- they don't know how to structure a deal. For example, since free agency began in 1993 -- or shortly thereafter -- first-round picks usually signed five year contracts, putting them a year past free-agent eligibility when they expired. The trade-off was more guaranteed money up front so that those who were busts (and there were a lot) at least had a pretty good nest egg when they were sent packing.
But this year, no one is quite sure what the new labor contract will look like, while free agency after four years is likely to continue, no one is sure. So a lot of agents and a lot of teams are balking over the length. That's one reason Sam Bradford didn't sign with the Rams before the draft -- his agents, Tom Condon and Ben Dogra, are smart cookies and didn't want to lock him into a deal of the wrong length. If he is the franchise quarterback he's supposed to be, they want to be able to restructure his contract when he proves it.
Nonetheless, things will get done to avoid many protracted holdouts because first-rounders usually have experienced agents who know that they only hurt the player and delay his progress toward what they hope will be stardom. Usually, the signings start at the top and bottom and move toward the middle. Again, that's "slotting'' -- once No. 3 is signed, No. 4 usually knows what his deal will be. Same with Nos. 27 and 28. And once things fall into place, there are usually only a few guys left -- the JaMarcus Russells (who took the money and played horribly) or the Crabtrees, who should emerge in his second year to become the player he should be been in his first. Yes, he had 48 catches in 11 games, but he might have had 70 if he'd been with the 49ers from the start.
In any case, I attribute a lot of the angst to the usual problem -- media over-scrutiny.
It will get done.
A little later perhaps but ...
It will get done.
July 23, 2010; 12:10 AM ET
Collective Bargaining Agreement
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