If the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers had known how favorable the contract rules were going to be at the time of the 2011 NFL draft, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick might have been first-round picks.
As a result, there's a chance that if quarterbacks such as Geno Smith or Matt Barkley slide to the end of the first round, some team with a high second-round pick may trade up for them. A couple of other quarterbacks, such as Ryan Nassib or Mike Glennon, could also end up being late-first rounders rather than second-round picks where most draft analysts expect them to be taken.
"If you're going to take high-value positions, like cornerback, defensive end and especially quarterback, this system is set up to take those players at the end of the first round," a contract negotiator from an NFC team said.
That may seem counterintuitive to the seemingly logical assumption that the lower you draft a great player, the better value he is, particularly in a salary-cap system. But that's one of the many glitches in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement between players and management.
"If you're one of those teams at the top of the second round and you like one of them, go get them," an AFC executive said this week when discussing the possibility of Smith and/or Barkley slipping to the second round. "If it was me, I wouldn't hesitate. First, unless I have the first pick of the second round, I'd worry about somebody jumping me. Second, I'd rather have control of that player for an extra year."
Essentially, the contracts for players drafted at the end of the first round give teams a club option for a fifth year at an extremely controlled price. While that advantage also existed under the previous system, many of the tactics that agents and players used to get around that in the past have been eliminated.
And teams have basically had to pay little or nothing for those tactics to go away.
"The system is so favorable for the teams that there's no reason to wait on a player you might like," the AFC executive said. "… Yeah, it might cost you another $1 [million] or $2 million up front, but I'll pay that anytime for a year of control over the player's contract."
To an extent, this situation has existed for a long time. Under previous versions of the CBA, all first-round picks had five-year contracts and, at one point, even six. The difference is that previous CBA rules allowed players, particularly quarterbacks, to void years on the contract if they reached certain statistical plateaus, such as games started or playing time threshold. In 2006, for instance, a significant holdup in the negotiations between the Cleveland Browns and first-round pick Brady Quinn was over language in the contract.
All of that has been eliminated now because of the CBA that was agreed upon in July 2011 (three months after Dalton and Kaepernick were drafted).
Additionally, teams control the fifth year. In the past teams had to pay a larger up-front signing bonus in exchange for getting the fifth year in the contract. Now, teams don't have to exercise the option on a fifth year until after the player's third season (and before the start of his fourth). Furthermore, the fifth year isn't even fully guaranteed. If the player gets hurt, he gets paid. If he's simply not good enough, a team can cut him.
Subsequently, the financial terms work to teams' benefit as well.
For the top 10 picks in the first round, the fifth-year salary is the average of the top 10 players at his position. For picks 11 to 32, it's the average of the third through 25th highest-paid players at that position.
By contrast, there is no option for a player in the second round with four-year deals, meaning that the only way a team can keep that player is by putting a franchise tag on him. The franchise tag is the average of the top five players at the player's position.
While that's a lot of technical talk, Dalton and Kaepernick provide prime examples.
In 2011, Dalton and Kaepernick were taken in the second round with the No. 35 and 36 picks, respectively. Dalton received a four-year deal that included a $2.29 million signing bonus. Kaepernick received a four-year deal with a $2.26 million signing bonus. Those deals were slotted under the current system.
By contrast, the final two picks of the first round in 2011 were defensive end Cameron Heyward by the Pittsburgh Steelers and offensive tackle Derek Sherrod of the Green Bay Packers. Heyward received a four-year contract that included a $3.37 million signing bonus. Sherrod got a four-year deal with a $3.30 million signing bonus.
In the short run, Dalton and Kaepernick may be cheaper. However, it's in the long run where there is a significant difference.
Unlike Heyward and Sherrod, there is no fifth-year option on the contracts for Dalton and Kaepernick. Thus, the Bengals and 49ers will likely have to either re-sign those players as soon as possible (which can't be until after their third seasons) or put a franchise tag on them.
This year, the franchise tag for quarterback was either $14.8 million (non-exclusive) or is estimated to be roughly $19.3 million (exclusive rights).
But if Dalton and Kaepernick had been taken at the end of the first round, the club option salary (based on this year's figures) would have been closer to $10.8 million, according to NFL Players Association figures. Furthermore, those players would have had no chance at free agency because they would still be under contract.
That's a savings of roughly $8 million and a huge chunk of leverage for a team that could result in tens of millions in savings over a long-term deal. And again, that's just based on this year.
In other words, if you think a quarterback has a chance to be a good starter …
"I wouldn't even hesitate to trade up. It's so worth it to get that guy," the AFC executive said. "Don't even think twice."
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