WASHINGTON – While the NFL Players Association and owners remain far apart on the most critical issue – how to split approximately $9 billion in revenues – the two sides have reached agreements on a couple of smaller issues.
According to two sources familiar with the negotiations, the league and the union have reached a basic compromise on a rookie wage scale that will replace the current rookie salary cap. The owners backed off the idea of requiring first-round picks to sign five-year deals, instead limiting the contracts to four years before a player could become a free agent. The agreement is also expected to include a stipulation limiting the amount of guaranteed money and signing bonus offered to draft picks.
In addition, the league agreed that all players drafted after the first round would be limited to three-year deals, but teams would be allowed to put restricted free agent tags after the three years. That's essentially similar to the current process where players can be tagged as restricted free agents after a three-year deal, although the existing rule allows players drafted after the first round to sign four-year pacts.
The key change is for the players in the first round. Currently, the first 16 players taken in the first round can sign for up to six years. The next 16 players taken can sign up to five years.
The reason the union wanted shorter deals is that it allows good players to get to free agency faster. While the owners and players agreed that high picks such as quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell(notes), Matthew Stafford(notes) and Sam Bradford(notes) were paid too much under the old system, it was important to the union that good players who proved themselves got a chance to cash in faster and avoid the risks of injury. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) are among recent late first-rounders or second-round picks who have sought (and in the case of Johnson, was granted) new contracts because they felt they had outperformed their rookie deals.
In the process, the NFL backed off its desire for what would have been potentially onerous contracts. For instance, the league's first proposal called for the top pick in the draft to get a maximum five-year, $19 million deal. Only $6 million of that would have been guaranteed. The deal would have included no bonuses for play time or achievement, such as making the Pro Bowl.
That would have been in stark contrast to the six-year, $72 million deal that Bradford received last year. That deal included $50 million guaranteed.
"We all saw the problem with the current system, but you have to give a guy a chance to get paid if he's a good player," one source said. "After three years, you pretty much know if a guy is a good player."
In addition to the rookie wage scale, the NFLPA is also expected to agree on stronger language to allow teams to recoup money from players who get in trouble with the law, such as then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick(notes) or Plaxico Burress(notes) with the New York Giants. In the Vick case, he was allowed to keep approximately $20 million in signing-bonus money despite going to prison for dog-fighting and related charges.
In essence, the NFLPA received strong support from other players who said that players such as Vick and Burress should not be allowed to keep money in those situations.