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Show him the money

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

There is an interesting subplot to the on-again, off-again story of whether Matt Leinart will replace Kurt Warner as the Arizona Cardinals quarterback.

Not that Leinart should or will soon. According to two sources within the Cardinals organization, coach Denny Green is really just putting some pressure on Warner after his back-to-back subpar performances against Seattle and St. Louis.

But if Green does make a change, Leinart stands to be the beneficiary of a jackpot-type contract.

Yahoo! Sports has analyzed the contracts of all 32 first-round picks to determine the best and worst deals done this year.

Readers should take this analysis with a grain of salt. Actually, an entire shaker would be helpful. Some agents are faced with greater obstacles than others, such as teams with rigid policies.

For example, the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins both refused to sign players to five-year deals. Thus, Eagles defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who was selected No. 14 overall and is represented by veteran agent Gary Wichard, and Dolphins safety Jason Allen, who was No. 16 and is represented by veteran agent Mitch Frankel, both had to sign six-year deals.

Sandwiched between Bunkley and Allen is St. Louis Rams cornerback Tye Hill, who got a five-year deal. Shorter deals are preferred because they allow a player to become a free agent faster while still in his prime earning years.

There are other quirks. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys don't like to include lots of incentives in their deals. Thus, No. 9 overall pick Ernie Sims of the Lions has very little "backside" on his contract where he can earn extra money. But Sims' contract does void from six to five years, an important concession agent Todd France was able to get.

Likewise, linebacker Bobby Carpenter, the No. 18 overall pick by Dallas, has zero incentive money built into his contract. However, agent Jimmy Sexton got Carpenter more signing bonus ($7.5 million) than each of the three players selected in front of him (Hill, Allen and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway).

The bottom line is this, as one agent put it: "I could sit here and pick apart every contract in the first round and tell you why it's terrible. The reality is that 10 percent of the contracts are really good, 10 percent are really bad and 80 percent are decent deals."

With that in mind, here's a look at the best deals:

1. Leinart, Arizona: Leinart was the No. 10 overall pick and was the last player to sign a contract after a holdout of nearly two weeks. Along the way, agent Tom Condon had to fight the penurious Cardinals on a number of issues, beginning with the length of the contract, the amount of guaranteed money and the way the escalators in the contract were triggered. At one point, the Cardinals were even asking for "offset" language. Therefore if they cut Leinart before the end of his deal, he would have to pay them back any signing bonus he might receive from another team. By the end, Condon got a deal that could pay Leinart $40.36 million over six years, more than any player except the top three players selected. He got all of that without Leinart having to perform at a Superman level.

Leinart can make $15 million more by simply playing a minimum amount of time in any of his first four seasons (that's either 35 percent of the offensive downs as a rookie or 45 percent in years 2, 3 or 4).

But the real key to the deal is an escalator for the fifth year and another in the sixth. The first escalator raises Leinart's base pay by $8.5 million in 2010 if he either plays 55 percent of the offensive snaps in two of the first four seasons or 70 percent in any one season (the Cardinals must also reach a team qualifier – which states an area of statistical improvement – under those two scenarios, but that's not considered difficult). The second escalator raises Leinart's deal by $11 million in 2011 if he plays a minimum amount of the plays and the team reaches a qualifier.

Of course, those salaries are not guaranteed, but they will put Arizona in a tough position of either having to cut Leinart right away and give him a chance to go elsewhere; pay him based on even the most modest performance; or come back to him to renegotiate the deals. That puts Leinart and Condon in a much stronger position down the line.

2. Defensive end Mario Williams, Houston: Give agent Ben Dogra a lot of credit for sealing a great deal early on for Williams when almost everyone expected the Texans to take running back Reggie Bush. As soon as Dogra saw the chance to have Williams become the No. 1 pick, he made sure it happened. That was significant considering that Williams might not necessarily have gone No. 2 or even No. 3. Dogra didn't just secure his client $26.5 million in guaranteed money and a reasonable chance at $54 million with only minimum playing time. If Williams had slipped to the No. 4 pick, his guarantee might have been $10 million less and his expected earnings might have been only half of what he's projected to make. Beyond that, Williams' contract set the stage for both Bush and No. 3 pick Vince Young to each get approximately $26 million in guaranteed money.

3. Bunkley, Philadelphia: Wichard made the best of a very bad situation. Beyond the fact that the Eagles wouldn't budge on a six-year deal, the player selected directly in front of Bunkley, Cleveland Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, signed the worst deal of the first round (more on that later). The result was a holdout that finally allowed Bunkley to get more guaranteed money than Wimbley ($9.5 million vs. $8.67 million), better cash flow over the first four years of the deal than either Wimbley or No. 12 pick Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens, and nearly $3 million more in expected earnings compared to Wimbley. Beyond that, Bunkley can have his 2011 base pay increased to whatever the franchise tag is for defensive tackles.

Honorable mention: Running back Joseph Addai, the No. 30 overall pick by Indianapolis, might have been the fourth back selected, but his contract stacks up very favorably compared to all the backs (except Bush). Not only did Addai, who is represented by Ian Greengross, nearly match the guarantees, base salaries and four-year cash flow of New York Jets center Nick Mangold, the No. 29 pick, but Addai's incentives are excellent. Addai can reasonably earn $9.72 million over his five-year contract. That's nearly $1 million more than Mangold and more overall than six of the nine players picked immediately ahead of Addai. Addai's incentive clauses, which are key since he has a chance to fill Edgerrin James' shoes, all kick in at lower levels than the two running backs selected ahead of him (D'Angelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers at No. 27 and the New England Patriots' Laurence Maroney at 21). For instance, Addai starts to earn incentive money once he reaches 750 yards rushing. Maroney doesn't earn any incentive money until he rushes for 1,200 yards).

Now, here are the worst deals:

1. Wimbley, Cleveland: It didn't take long for agents around the NFL to jump on the work of agent Joe Linta after this deal was signed for the No. 13 overall pick. Wimbley received $9.3 million in guaranteed money as part of this deal. As for cash flow in the first four years, he got $10.48 million. As for incentives, he can reasonably expect to make $13.45 million over six years.

By comparison, Bunkley received more guaranteed money ($9.775 million). As noted, Bunkley has better cash flow in the first four years. But the real comparison is that Ngata, who signed only a five-year deal rather than the six that Wimbley took, also has better cash flow ($10.9 million) and can reasonably expect to make $13.2 million.

Yes, there is a chance Wimbley could play six years and earn only $250,000 more than Ngata makes in five years.

2. Quarterback Jay Cutler, Denver: To his credit, agent Bus Cook did build a $12 million roster bonus into the contract for the 2011 season that is based on only minimum playing time and a team qualifier for Cutler. But what Cook didn't get was the same type of increase in 2010 that Condon later received for Leinart, who was taken one pick ahead of Cutler. The result is that Cutler, who played impressively in the preseason, can make $28.8 million over six years compared to $40.36 million for Leinart if they perform at roughly the same level. Beyond that, Cutler did not receive full skill guarantees for his money, leaving him about $1.5 million behind Leinart in that category. In short, Cutler's contract does not leave him with the same upside as Leinart.

3. Offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson: This is a tough one for agent Don Yee, who fell victim to the classic "dropoff" theory that goes with the first round. As the theory goes, there are points along the draft where contracts drop off significantly from one to the next. In this case, Ferguson's deal at No. 4 overall is considerably less than that of No. 3 pick Vince Young. In guaranteed money, there is a $10 million drop. In expected earnings, there's a $20.5 million drop, although Ferguson can make up about $10 million of that with a reasonable contract escalator for 2011. How did that happen? Generally speaking, a quarterback is going to earn more than an offensive lineman in this situation. Also, many agents say it's because Yee does club-friendly deals. In this case, it's simply because Yee got the deal done before Young was signed in Tennessee. By any reasonable measure, Yee got a good increase over the 2005 deal signed by running back Cedric Benson at No. 4. What Yee didn't expect was for Tennessee to step out so strongly on Young's contract.

Dishonorable mention: Two contracts stuck out as curious. The first was the deal for No. 19 overall pick, cornerback Antonio Cromartie of the San Diego Chargers. He and agent Jason Fletcher took a drop of approximately $900,000 in cash flow over the first four years of the contract compared to Carpenter one pick ahead. That wouldn't be so bad, all things considered, if Cromartie had reasonable incentives in the contract. In this case, he doesn't. All of the incentives are at high thresholds, such as 85 percent play time or nine interceptions per season. … The other deal that was odd was the one for No. 23 overall pick Davin Joseph of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joseph's deal, which was negotiated by Dogra, does protect the player if he's not very good, giving Joseph a reasonable chance to make $10.65 million. However, because approximately $1 million is backloaded into the fifth year of the deal, Joseph doesn't make a lot over the first four years. If Joseph is really good, a lot of that money in the back of the contract could disappear if he renegotiates before the deal is up.

ON THE T.O. MESS

While the police have ruled the reported suicide attempt of Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens as an accidental overdose, the issue does give rise to some thoughts about players and mental health.

In short, the NFL would be wise to come up with a formal policy regarding players who go through such situations. There have been plenty of examples, such as former center Barrett Robbins and former defensive linemen Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood.

League spokesman Greg Aiello said the league has no policy regarding how players who attempt suicide are dealt with before returning to the field. NFL Players Association spokesman Carl Francis said players do have to see their individual team's director of player development, who can refer them to further examination.

That's a start, but only a start. Any report, including the one with Owens, should result in a player having to meet with an independent physician who can recommend a plan of action. At least that would be a start.

SHORT ROUTES

  • Two agents complained last week that it would be a violation of their First Amendment rights if the NFLPA decides to put in a no-contact rule between agents and college players until college players have used up their eligibility or declared for the draft. NFLPA staff counsel Richard Berthelsen scoffed at that notion: "Any licensing agency or employer has the right to put into a contract or agreement language like this as a condition of employment. Just because I have my freedom of speech doesn't mean that I can hold a press conference in front of our building to denounce someone on my own time … First Amendment guarantees are designed to protect individuals from the government restricting what they say."
  • Speaking of agents, new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Sunday that the league had some discussion about ways to more aggressively monitor marketing agents, such as the ones who reportedly gave money to New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush while he was in college. Currently, agents aren't under the purview of the NFL and marketing agents aren't controlled by the NFLPA. "We had some talks about it. Our concern is protecting the players," Goodell said.
  • Along those lines, NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw said he hoped to have a policy in place where marketing agents would have to register with the union. The union already does this with financial advisors. "True marketing reps are not regulated by the union and neither are financial advisors," Upshaw wrote in an email to Yahoo! Sports. "One school of thought is to register the marketing reps just like we do financial advisors. We can close the loop on the marketing reps just like we did on runners."
  • The NFL wasted no time in suspending Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman for the year after he was arrested on a DUI, even though he has yet to be convicted. Thurman was already serving a four-game suspension for violation of the substance abuse policy. Yet, the league has taken no action on wide receiver Koren Robinson, who served a four-game suspension in 2004. The main reason for the difference in treatment is that penalties under the substance-abuse policy can be negotiated down, but players often give up certain rights along the way to get reductions in penalties. For instance, if a penalty is reduced, part of the agreement can be that any further violation is an automatic suspension. Even simply testing positive for drinking alcohol can be a further violation. In this instance, the league is actually doing Thurman a favor by having him serve his four-game suspension and one-year suspension concurrently.