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Two days after San Francisco 49ers team president Jed York opened the door for a détente with unsigned NFL draft pick Michael Crabtree(notes), the standoff still lingers between the team and agent Eugene Parker. And as the clock ticks, the lack of sympathy from the rest of the NFL only becomes more apparent.
On the heels of York's offer, Yahoo! Sports reached out to highly placed personnel men from seven NFL teams, polling them on whether they'd support the establishment of draft pick protection. Crabtree has become the fourth top-10 pick in the past eight years to hold out into the regular season. Cornerback Quentin Jammer(notes), signed with the San Diego Chargers after the team's week 1 game in 2002. Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie(notes) didn't sign with the Minnesota Vikings until Nov. 1 that same year. And quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) missed the season opener for the Oakland Raiders in 2007. So a simple question was posed: In light of threats about Crabtree re-entering the draft in 2010, would personnel men be in favor of adopting some form of Major League Baseball's practice, which awards an additional draft choice to franchises which failed to sign a first- or second-round pick the previous year.
The answer? A resounding no, with all seven men coming out strongly against the idea.
"We shouldn't become a league that rewards failure," said one NFC North executive. "Why would I want to end up with a lower pick in [a subsequent] draft because another team couldn't sign a player? … We've had very, very few [holdouts] like Crabtree, and fewer times where a player actually went back into a draft."
The last first-rounder to sit out an entire season was Kelly Stouffer, drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) with the sixth pick in 1987. The former Colorado State quarterback had his rights traded following the season to the Seattle Seahawks, where he spent five seasons.
"If you can't find a way to sign a draft choice, it puts you in some bad company," the aforementioned NFC executive said. "Somewhere along the way, you really [messed] up."
Asked if that was meant to be a poke at the 49ers, he replied: "Read your history. Things like this are never one-sided."
He wasn't alone in that cynicism. While public and media sentiment have been overwhelmingly against Crabtree and Parker, all seven executives agreed the impasse marks a significant failure by the 49ers, too. While second-guessing is easy in hindsight, it didn't stop some from suggesting that they saw a nasty impasse coming as soon as Crabtree slipped out of the top five and then had Oakland's Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) selected in front of him at No. 7 – particularly considering Crabtree was represented by Parker, who has a history of holdouts with draft picks.
"[Crabtree] didn't even work out for teams, and he still had it in his mind that he was the best player in the draft," the NFC North executive said. "People were in his ear telling him that from jump street. Honestly, I thought it could have been a problem if Seattle would have taken him [at No. 4]. Then they would have been asking for No. 1 money."
Added an NFC general manager: "He was represented by Eugene Parker. That was kind of a giveaway right there."
That lack of compassion appeared to be the foundation of why executives weren't receptive to the idea of pick protection. As a fraternity, many executives subscribe to an every-man-for-himself attitude – feeling that when it comes down to business, it's up to you to protect yourself. It can sound like a cold philosophy, but it is a distrust that stems from dramatically spiking rookie salaries inside the draft's top 10 choices, and a finger-wagging nature that often ensues after teams sign what are considered to be "bad deals."
The New York Jets, for example, continue to be heavily criticized amongst other front offices, largely because they have a history of lavishing contracts that were considered too favorable or "over slot" to rookies. Three Jets contracts in particular – Dewayne Robertson(notes) in 2003, Darrelle Revis(notes) in 2007 and Vernon Gholston(notes) in 2008 – have all been consistently lamented as bad deals in many other personnel departments. And by extension, such deals have fostered a belief amongst many executives that other teams can't be trusted to make good decisions and negotiate solid deals.
"Sometimes the teams negotiating are just as much at fault as the agent," an AFC executive said. "Conceptually, [pick protection] is a fair idea if the agent is holding an unfair gun to the head of the club. But the reality becomes, how do you determine that? Because there are some clubs that do some stupid [stuff] and aren't negotiating in good faith. The bad faith negotiating happens on both sides of the ball. To me, the bigger problem lays in what has happened historically. This top 10 [financial] mess is a top-10 mess because agents have squeezed teams and teams have caved. Predecessors with organizations and clubs have had no [guts] whatsoever."
Another AFC executive echoed those sentiments – that too many teams lack the intestinal fortitude to negotiate correctly.
"It's spelled out very clearly for both parties," he said. "If you don't sign with us, we're out a player and you can move on with your life. And we'll give you a timetable of your life as a draft pick. Your money is there now and it will be decreased over time – decreased, decreased and decreased. That's it. Game on."
And that's how many executives feel the 49ers should be conducting themselves now – with a defiant stance that forces Crabtree to follow through with his threat to re-enter the draft. Indeed, some say it's a decision that should have been made before Crabtree was even selected at No. 10. Once he was available to San Francisco at that pick, executives suggest the franchise should have been prepared to make one of three decisions: draft him and walk away if he wouldn't sign for No. 10 money, draft him and overpay him, or pass on him and select another player.
"Part of the art of the draft is making sure you pick the right guy," the aforementioned NFC general manager said. "You owe it to the owner and the organization to pick the right guy in the right situation. Traditionalists are going to look at [Crabtree and his agent] and say 'You should have known with this guy.' … Just because he's the best player on the board at the time you pick, you can't just throw caution to the wind and say 'well, we'll be the one to change him.' "
- Eugene Parker