NFL team executives are watching the negotiations between the Jacksonville Jaguars and first-round holdout Derrick Harvey with great interest. Ultimately, they're monitoring whether the traditional "cliffs" for rookie contracts will be maintained.
Or whether teams will continue to act as if they have no choice but to jump off those cliffs.
In recent years, there had been a significant gap between how much guaranteed money was received at the No. 3 and No. 4 slots. The same applied between the No. 7 and No. 8 picks. However, in part because of a salary cap that's grown from $85.5 million in 2005 to $116 million for this upcoming season, rookies drafted in the top 10 are increasingly cashing in and the line of divisions are threatening to be diminished.
For example, Sedrick Ellis signed a reported five-year, $49 million contract with the New Orleans Saints. The No. 7 overall pick received a reported $19.5 million guaranteed, up from the $17 million guaranteed that Minnesota's Adrian Peterson received in the same slot last year.
Jamaal Anderson signed a reported five-year deal worth $31 million that included $15.4 million guaranteed as the eighth overall pick with the Falcons last year. Yet, Harvey's representatives are apparently seeking terms close to that of Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard ($18 million guaranteed), according to a report in The Florida Times-Union last week.
With Cincinnati's signing of linebacker Keith Rivers Tuesday, Harvey is the last unsigned first-round pick.
"The deals in front of [Harvey] are outrageous," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio told the newspaper. "What's happening at the top of the first round is ridiculous."
Starting with the $30 million guarantee for No. 1 overall pick Jake Long of the Dolphins on a five-year contract and continuing with a record $34.5 million as part of a six-year deal for No. 3 pick Matt Ryan, each of the top six picks in this draft received guarantees of at least $20 million. That's double the number of rookies to reach that level in 2006 or 2007. Beyond the guaranteed money, there has also been a jump in the amount rookies can make by merely reaching "minimum play time" (25 percent as a rookie and 35 percent after that).
"Just because one team makes a mistake when it negotiates a contract, why should we all have to pay for that?" a league executive, requesting not to be identified, asked rhetorically. "But that's exactly what's happening and this year is the worst. Even after everything that commissioner (Roger Goodell) said this offseason, it's like one team panics and thinks it has to get a guy signed and then everybody has to do the same thing."
From the perspective of veteran players, the increases for rookies are a growing annoyance – a view contrary to that of NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, who says the lucrative rookie deals are good for all players.
"I read what the union says, but I think if you took a player poll it might tell a different story," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said last week. "It might tell a very different story. I've seen what Gene has said, he's very open on it. I personally disagree and it would be my guess that over 90 percent of the guys disagree. That's just a guess.
"I think Gene makes some good points and I would be open to hearing everything he had to say about it. But truly and honestly, at first glance, when you say that the highest paid left tackle in the league is the kid from Michigan (Long) and not Walter Jones, I have a problem with that. The highest paid left tackle in the league should be Walter Jones, not Jake Long, period, in my opinion."
Hasselbeck's opinion is in line with many who have expressed sentiments that a drastic overhaul in the format of rookie contracts is needed. In addition to the idea of implementing structured pay scales by draft slots, similar to the NBA, at least one NFL exec thinks shorter contracts is the solution.
"They should all be three-year contracts and we should just live with having to make decisions on guys a lot sooner," said a second team executive. "We're smart enough that we can make decisions about a guy after three years. Really, we all have a pretty good idea after one year if a guy is going to make it and be a contributor. You just don't know if he's going to be a contributor or a star."
Until then, teams have to deal with the trickle-down effect of the Long and Ryan contracts.
This year, the gap between Ryan's deal and No. 4 pick Darren McFadden of Oakland was increased significantly. While Ryan – whose deal far exceeded the reported $22 million-$23 million guaranteed that Joe Thomas received as the No. 3 pick with the Browns last year – received a record $34.5 million in virtual guarantee, McFadden received $26 million.
McFadden's deal, which was negotiated by agent Ian Greengross, represented an $8 million increase in guaranteed money over the contract for 2007 No. 4 overall pick Gaines Adams, who signed a six-year deal with Tampa Bay. In addition, McFadden is expected to pocket $23 million in the first 14 months of the contract, an enormous cash flow advantage.
While some agents have been critical of the McFadden deal because he won't make as much in the later years for minimum play-time incentives, that criticism comes off as hollow. McFadden can make $42 million over the six years of his deal in minimum playing time and another $8 million in reasonable incentives. That's a total of $50 million if McFadden is simply a decent player.
Or as one agent put it: "The people who talk about minimum play time on six-year deals ignore the fact that if all the player is doing by that year is playing the minimum, he's not going to be on the team."
While Ryan can make $66 million over the same period, much of that can be put off to the "quarterback premium" that teams have been willing to pay.
McFadden's deal then led to a sharp increase for No. 6 overall pick Vernon Gholston, who was the next-highest drafted player to sign.
Gholston received a five-year contract with $21 million guaranteed in a deal negotiated by agent Ben Dogra. Moreover, Gholston can earn $32 million on minimum play-time. Gholston's contract is a significant increase from the deal for 2007 No. 6 overall pick LaRon Landry, who received $17.5 million guaranteed, $21.4 million on minimum play time. However, Landry had a series of incentives based on minimal achievement (similar to the McFadden deal) which make his contract reasonably worth $27.9 million.
Thus, the Jets lumped Landry's incentives into the deal for the basis of the contract with Gholston. The Jets generally do not believe in paying incentives for individual performance, such as rushing, receptions, tackles or sacks, a source said. The belief, which began in the late 1990s when Bill Parcells took over as coach and was in charge of football operations, is that incentives should be tied to team performance.
In addition, the Jets have preferred that their contracts feature more cost certainty so that they can predict future spending. In short, the team has generally preferred to pay up front rather than have a contract become exorbitant in the future. In 2003, the team structured a contract for defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson which eventually made his contract difficult to deal with and the Jets traded him to Denver this offseason.
The other issue for the Jets regarding the Gholston deal is that it features the second-highest guarantee in Jets history behind guard Alan Faneca, a 10-year veteran who signed with the team as a free agent this offseason.
"It puts you in a delicate situation when a rookie is the highest paid player on your team," another team executive said. "You can have a lot of resentment over that."
The bottom line to all of it is this: It seems that the vast majority of people involved in the process are seeking change.