While the idea of boycotting the NFL scouting combine later this month remains a long shot, at best, four sources said over the weekend that momentum for some type of protest is growing and is expected to be a point of discussion Monday during a conference call between NFL Players Association officials and agents.
The idea of a boycott or similar action is in response to NFL's hard-line offers regarding the slotting of rookie contracts, according to the sources.
While it's widely believed that a fix is necessary for the explosion in guaranteed money for top draft picks, the union and agents are increasingly frustrated by the NFL's hard-line approach.
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah declined to comment on the possibility of a boycott or other action.
"Our conversations with contract advisers [agents] are confidential," Atallah said.
That said, at least three prominent agents said something must be done to make sure the NFL doesn't go too far in curtailing rookie wages.
"I'm all for getting those contracts for the top six to 10 players under control; we all see that it's a problem," one prominent agent said. "But what the league is talking about, it's criminal. Five years and a flat amount? For a lot of guys that's their whole career. We all get it, [disappointing] guys like JaMarcus Russell(notes), Aaron Maybin(notes) or even Matt Stafford getting hurt, there's a lot of risk for the clubs.
"But if a guy plays and plays well, there should be ways for him to make up the difference. The league isn't even talking about [playing]-time incentives for these guys. It's ridiculous and, ultimately, it hurts the veterans because you need the best players making real money to help bring everybody up."
Two union sources also have said in recent weeks that the offers from the league have included no bonuses or incentives of any kind. For example, under the owners' initial proposal, the No. 1 overall pick would get a five-year deal worth up to $19 million, with $6 million guaranteed. Under the current system, 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford(notes) received a six-year, $72 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.
"There's a place in between," one agent said.
Another agent who said he talks to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Smith is quickly warming to the idea of disrupting the combine, scheduled for Feb. 24-March 1 in Indianapolis. According to the Sports Business Journal last week, Smith sent a memo to agents and other NFLPA staff members explaining the problem with the NFL's approach on slotted contracts for rookies.
The NFLPA is scheduled to hold a conference call with agents on Monday, and the union has discussed the idea of talking to some of the players who are expected to be drafted in the first round about not showing up. However, a union source said the plan would be difficult to pull off.
"It would have to be all the players or it's not going to work. As soon as one agent says, 'My guys are working out,' it falls apart," the source said.
Two top agents said they don't think the protest will happen.
"You're talking about players who have been training for two months and now, all of a sudden, they're all not going to work out? That's not happening," the agent said. "To me, it would be great if they would do it. If all the agents would agree, I would do it. But I just can't see all the agents and players going along with it. Not at this point."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no comment on the issue.
One of the objections to the league's five-year proposal is that it would keep those players from reaching free agency at the peak of their careers. The owners have had that proposal on the table for more than a year and have yet to budge from it.
The union has countered by asking for three-year slotted contracts, similar to the NBA, or even four-year deals for first-round picks. Again, the NFL has rebuffed those requests.
But the worst part of the owners' offer, according to the sources, is that it does not provide a way to reward successful players. In other words, while every agent understands the problem with overpaying someone like Russell or Maybin or Vernon Gholston(notes), there has to be a way to reward players like Bradford, or the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh(notes) and Calvin Johnson(notes).
"You can't go from having Bradford being able to make $72 million over six years to the next No. 1 pick making $19 million over five and that's it, even if he's as good as Bradford the first year. It's not right and it hurts all the players, not just the rookies," the agent said.
The idea of boycotting the combine was initially thrown out at a meeting of agents and NFLPA executives on Feb. 4. The idea initially gained little traction, which is why many agents still discount it.
"There are other things you can do to hurt the NFL besides boycotting the combine," one of the aforementioned agents said. "Just go there and refuse to work out. Could you imagine the programming the NFL Network would have if nobody worked out? Or how about not going to New York for the draft or allowing anybody to do interviews on draft day? Imagine what the draft would be like in prime time with no players there. … If you really want to hurt the NFL, that's what you do."