NFL teams not only got a serious change in the way they were allowed to pay top draft picks as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, they have been shortchanging lower-round draft picks as well.
Or teams have at least found a way to take advantage of agents and players who are not fighting for every dollar.
Much of the problem last year revolved around the hurried efforts to get deals done after the CBA was agreed to in late July with training camp starting just days later. However, many agents are concerned that the trend is continuing this year.
According to information from multiple agents and NFL Players Association contract data, NFL teams combined to save more than $8 million in salaries for players selected from the third to the seventh rounds in 2011 based on the rookie cap.
Given the terms of contracts that have been negotiated so far this year and taken into consideration last year's deals, teams are projected to save upwards of a combined $10 million in 2013 and 2014.
While the money in question is not due to be spent on players unless the athlete reaches the second and third years of his contract, many agents believe it's symptomatic of a larger problem in the league and throughout the player-agent business.
"You have all these players signing right now because everybody says, 'These contracts are slotted, it's so easy,' " an agent said, alluding to the fact that 116 of the 190 players drafted from the third to the seventh rounds this year had already signed as of Wednesday afternoon. "But then you look at these deals and see how much money is left on the table, money that the players didn't get, and you shake your head. … It may not seem like a lot of money in the big scheme of the NFL, but it adds up."
Or as another agent put it: "You might only be talking about $50,000 or $60,000 for some players, but this might be the only chance they have to get that money. A lot of these guys will be lucky to get through three years. It's not the millions that everybody thinks about, but that's not really how it works for all players."
The most egregious example from 2011 was Denver Broncos linebacker Nate Irving, the third pick of the third round. According to the formula agreed upon by the NFL and the players' association, Irving's maximum salary for the 2012 season could have been $512,188.
Instead, Irving received the second-year minimum salary of $465,000. That's a loss of $47,188. In 2013, the difference was $94,375 ($649,375 possible salary vs. a $555,000 actual salary). Over the second and third years, that's a total difference of $141,563 in salary Irving could have potentially received, assuming he plays three years with Denver, a strong possibility for a third-round pick.
Agent Fletcher Smith, who represented Irving, said he couldn't recall all the particulars of the negotiation with the Broncos. Smith said he battled the team on details such as the contract split in the first year in case Irving got hurt and on incentive language.
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However, there was a point that signing Irving took priority over holding out because Irving was hoping to win a starting job. Incidentally, Irving saw little time for the Broncos last season, finishing with just four tackles.
"Do you really want to hold out a rookie over a few thousand dollars when he has a chance to start?" Smith rhetorically asked. "You really have to think about that."
Overall, of 191 players drafted from the third round down in 2011, only 13 players received a full maximum increase in the second and third years of their contracts. However, that had more to do with what team they were drafted by. Eight of the 13 were drafted by either the New England Patriots or Jacksonville Jaguars.
A total of nine players, including Irving, drafted in the third round lost more than $100,000 in possible salary. They were represented by both veteran agents (such as Smith and Drew Rosenhaus) and relatively inexperienced agents (such as Terry Watson).
This year, Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce, who was drafted in the third round, failed to get more than the minimum salaries in the second and third years of his deal.
In later rounds, the amount of lost income decreased as signing bonuses decreased. Still, such players are subject to the same problem.
"If you have a seventh-round pick and you don't think the team is going to budge because that's their history, there's a point at which it's not wise to sit around and wait," Watson said. "The players and the agents don't have all the leverage in this situation."
The bottom line, one source said is: "Nobody was immune, which makes you think it was really about the rush to get everybody signed. The teams just wouldn't relent and they're still not."
One NFC general manager said his team was simply following the lead set by others.
"You're still talking about rookies who are making a lot of money," the GM said. "I think teams are conscious of that and they're not going to get out of line with any of these deals."
Another part of the problem is that some agents are simply in a rush to get deals done. The belief is that those agents may be concerned about losing a player if they don't get a contract signed early. If a player changes agents, the original agent may have problems recouping any money he has advanced the player for training and/or living expenses.
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"You're talking about agents who have put $30,000 out there to train a player, even a sixth-rounder," another agent said. "If that agent is under pressure to make sure he gets the deal done to get his money back, he's not going to wait around to get the best deal."
Agents are allowed to charge a maximum of 3 percent of the contract. For instance, on a four-year, $2 million contract, an agent stands to make a total of $60,000.
The risk of waiting longer to get the player another $100,000 (which equates to another $3,000 for the agent) over the length of a deal is not worth the risk of losing the player.
"It's a vicious cycle," the league source said. "The agent is worried about losing the player and cuts a bad deal. But then you have problems down the road because the player doesn't make all the money he's supposed to make."
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