The NFL owners’ biggest win during the 2011 labor negotiations was the implementation of a rookie wage scale.
It eliminated holdouts by slotting each draft pick into a predetermined contract. It locked rookies into their contracts for a minimum of three years. And it gave the owners better leverage over the players when negotiating their second contracts. Gone were the days of No. 1 picks sitting out most of training camp, or getting record-setting guarantees, before they played a snap.
But player agents and the NFL Players Association at least clawed back several small concessions over the years, as evidenced by the pace of this year’s draft signings. The contracts actually do have a little room for negotiating — the timing of payments, fully guaranteed years, and more.
Let’s take a closer look at this year’s rookie class and the contracts they are signing:
▪ Draft picks are signing at a break-neck pace this year. As of Thursday morning, just three weeks after the NFL Draft, 154 of the 262 picks had signed (58.8 percent). The players in Rounds 5-7 always sign fairly quickly because there isn’t much to negotiate — they get a slotted signing bonus and minimum salaries. As of Thursday, 104 of 119 (87.4 percent) of picks in Rounds 5-7 had signed.
But the first-round picks are getting their deals done in record time. Only six of the 32 picks hadn’t signed as of Friday morning: Seahawks tackle Charles Cross (No. 9), Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton (No. 14), Chargers guard Zion Johnson (No. 17), Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (No. 20), Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum (No. 25), and Patriots guard Cole Strange (No. 29).
As noted by former NFL agent Joel Corry, only seven of 32 picks had signed at this point last year, and none of the top five.And in 2020, when offseason workouts were canceled because of the pandemic, only two of 32 first-rounders had signed by now.
Salary-cap expert Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com said that “either teams are anxious to get things over and done with, or maybe just less haggling over the timing of the signing bonus payments.”
▪ Three specific groups of players have been slow to sign: Only eight of 32 picks in the second round, 14 of 41 in the third round, and two of 38 in the fourth round have signed.
In the second round, every player will get the first two years of his four-year deal fully guaranteed. But the agents are squabbling over the guarantee in the third year.
Last year, only the top two picks in the second round got three fully guaranteed years. This year, the fifth pick in the second round, Texans safety Jalen Pitre, already got three full years. Texans receiver John Metchie, the 12th pick in the second round, got 56 percent guaranteed in his third year. Last year, only the top seven picks got a partial guarantee.
In the third round, players don’t get any guarantee beyond their signing bonus, but agents are fighting for extra bonus money. The highest third-rounder to sign, cornerback Martin Emerson (No. 4 in the round), didn’t get any guarantees, but the Browns kicked in an extra $50,000 in offseason workout bonuses.
The sluggish pace of fourth-round signings is a new phenomenon. Usually there is nothing to negotiate — players get the slotted signing bonus and minimum salaries. But the fourth-rounders are holding fast and fighting hard for a little something extra. Texans running back Dameon Pierce, one of two fourth-round picks to have signed, got a $25,000 offseason workout bonus. It’s not much, but at least it’s something.
▪ The NFLPA’s best gains over the past 12 years have come with first-round picks. In 2011, the first year of the rookie wage scale, only the top 21 picks in the first round got four years fully guaranteed. By last year, it was the top 28 picks, with the final four getting partial guarantees in their final year.
This year, all 32 picks in the first round got four years, fully guaranteed. For Vikings safety Lewis Cine, drafted 32nd overall, it was a four-year, $11.5 million deal.
▪ Second-round picks also have made significant gains in guaranteed salary. In 2011, the first pick of the second round (Ras-I Dowling) got two fully guaranteed years and one partial guaranteed year. No player past the fourth pick got any guarantees in to the third year. The 24th pick of the second round (Shane Vereen) got one full guarantee and one partial.
Compare that with 2022: The fifth pick of the round (Pitre) got three years fully guaranteed; the 12th pick (Metchie) got 56 percent guaranteed in his third season; and the 32nd pick (Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto) got two full guaranteed years.
▪ Finally, just because a player hasn’t signed yet doesn’t mean he’s holding out. Players will sign a participation agreement that still locks them into their slotted contract should they suffer an injury during rookie minicamp or offseason workouts. Technically, the agreement allows the teams to negotiate some of the guarantees for future salaries, but it has not been an issue. In 2015, Dante Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of minicamp, but the Jaguars still signed him to the same rookie contract.
Owners look for tomorrow’s leaders
The impending sale of the Broncos will certainly be a big topic of discussion at this coming week’s owners’ meetings in Atlanta. And the owners surely will confer with commissioner Roger Goodell over a handful of important issues — the Congressional investigation into the league and Commanders over workplace harassment; the Deshaun Watson legal saga; new stadium projects in Buffalo and Kansas City; and more.
But for maybe the first time, there is pretty much nothing leftover from the annual meetings in March. No rule changes were tabled for further discussion. No Super Bowl or draft sites will be awarded this coming week. The docket is fairly wide open.
So the NFL is instead using the two days to advance an important cause. The league announced plans this past week to host a Coach and Front Office Accelerator that will bring 60 female and minority prospects for head coach and general manager, with representation from all 32 teams.
The Patriots will be sending pro scouting director Steve Cargile, who has risen up the team’s scouting department since 2011, and defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington, who has been with the team for five years.
The candidates will have opportunities to network with owners and other executives, and will participate in workshops that include the business of football, partnering with the media, branding, a roundtable session with owners, and more.
The program comes as the NFL continues to struggle with its diversity record at head coach and GM, in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black. For the 2022 season, the NFL has six minority head coaches (four Black), and seven minority GMs (all Black).
“The program helps ensure that clubs receive exposure to high-performing, up-and-coming NFL talent and candidates get a chance to learn the business on a working level from team owners and executives,” Goodell said.
Las Vegas is a winner for fans
The 2021 season marked the first year that fans could watch the Raiders play in person at Allegiant Stadium, and it ended up being a fascinating experiment.
Because it’s Las Vegas, and it’s new, the Raiders are the hottest ticket in the NFL. TickPick said at one point last season that Raiders games marked eight of the top 10 most expensive games on the secondary market for the entire regular season. This year, in the week-plus since the schedule was released, the Raiders have the highest secondary-ticket price in the NFL ($595), well ahead of the second-place Dolphins ($387), per Logitix. The 49ers at Raiders ($777) and Broncos at Raiders ($555) are the most expensive games of the season so far, and Texans at Raiders is No. 5 ($404). The Las Vegas trip will surely be a popular one for Patriots fans this December.
Yet the Sports Business Journal dug up a fascinating stat about Raiders games via the Las Vegas Stadium Authority. Despite the high demand for tickets, the Raiders still had a no-show rate of 14.3 percent last year, which SBJ called “extraordinary” and estimated was two to three times higher than expected. Three late-season games against the Bengals, Commanders, and Broncos had between 17-19 percent no-shows.
Industry experts pinned it on a number of factors — the stadium’s strict vaccine requirement, the lack of corporate gatherings because of the pandemic, and a large number of tickets distributed to casinos, who give tickets to fans who are less invested in the game. But with games on Sunday afternoons, a few fans probably change their plans after a hard weekend partying on the Strip.
Plans for the holidays
The schedule-makers are becoming increasingly grinchy to teams when it comes to the holidays.
The 2022 season will be the first time the NFL has a slate of games on Christmas, with six teams slated to play that day. Twenty-two teams (including the Patriots) will play on Dec. 24, but will at least be home for Christmas morning.
The Patriots are all about the holidays this year. Their Week 3 home opener on Sept. 25 against the Ravens will end just before the beginning of Rosh Hashana at sundown. They play the Vikings on the road on Thanksgiving night. And their Dec. 18 game at the Raiders coincides with the first night of Hanukkah.
The NFL will also hold Monday night games on Columbus Day (Oct. 10), Halloween, Kwanzaa (Dec. 26), and a full slate of Week 17 games on New Year’s Day.
Playing on holidays can affect fans trying to attend games. Giants owner John Mara isn’t thrilled that his team is playing a home game on Rosh Hashana.
“I made my feelings known to the league as soon as I saw the schedule,” Mara said this past week. “We have always requested the league take the Jewish High Holy Days into consideration when formulating our schedule. Not sure why it happened this year.”
Another of Bill Belichick’s imprints on the NFL happens in training camp, when teams get together for a few days of joint practices in advance of a preseason game. A decade ago, Belichick and the Patriots were pretty much the only ones doing it. Now they are common across the league, with many getting announced over the past couple of weeks.
Among the joint practices announced so far: Patriots-Raiders, Falcons-Jaguars, Dolphins-Buccaneers, Titans-Buccaneers, Dolphins-Eagles, Lions-Colts, Chargers-Cowboys, Titans-Cardinals, and Browns-Eagles.
That means Tom Brady will practice for a couple of days against the Dolphins, whom he almost joined as an executive, owner, and quarterback this offseason. He will also square off against his old buddy Mike Vrabel, the Titans’ head coach, for a few days.
Buccaneers left guard Ali Marpet still had a bright future ahead when he decided to retire this offseason after seven seasons. He won a Super Bowl in 2020, was named to a Pro Bowl in 2021, and had two years and $20.6 million still left on his contract. But Marpet, 29, knew it was time to get out, after playing in 107 of 115 games in seven seasons.
“The biggest reason for me was the physical toll, I didn’t want any more of that,” he told The Guardian. “I loved playing football. But one of my strongest values is health, and if I’m really going to live out what’s important to me, it doesn’t make sense to keep playing. There are also the unknowns of the head trauma of the NFL and how that plays out. Plus, your joints, the aches and pains that come with surgeries and all that stuff.”
Former seven-year offensive lineman Ross Tucker chimed in on Twitter with an insightful quote: “You’re much more likely to regret retiring too late than you are too soon.”
Just a heartbreaking situation to watch this past week with return specialist Tarik Cohen, who suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon while livestreaming a workout. Cohen, a 5-foot-6-inch dynamo, has had nothing but bad news since signing a three-year, $17.2 million extension with the Bears in September 2020. He tore his ACL and MCL and suffered a tibial fracture just days later, missed the 2021 season, and was released in March after making $9.6 million on his deal. Now his Achilles’ injury will likely ruin any chance he has of signing with a team this year. Cohen had five rushing touchdowns, nine receiving touchdowns, and one punt return touchdown in his first three seasons with the Bears . . . Speaking of injured players, Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL in the Super Bowl and his availability for the 2022 season is unknown, but Rams coach Sean McVay told “The Rich Eisen Show” this past week that “I really want Odell back on our team.” The Rams already have Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, and Van Jefferson as their top three receivers, giving them the luxury to wait for Beckham to hopefully get healthy for the second half of the season . . . If Russell Wilson can beat the Seahawks in Week 1 and the Chargers in Weeks 6 or 18, he will join the club of quarterbacks who defeated all 32 teams. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre are the only QBs who can lay that claim . . . The Ravens will have a new punter for the first time since 2005 following the retirement announcement of Sam Koch, whose 16-year tenure is the longest in Ravens history. Koch’s 256 games are the sixth most for a punter in NFL history, and he won a Super Bowl and was named an All-Pro in 2015. The Ravens take their punting seriously — they were choosing between punter Jordan Stout and receiver Calvin Austin with the 140th pick in the fourth round, and went with Stout, making him the first punter off the board . . . The oversaturation of Brady continues. Calling for your own celebrity roast? How Michael Scott of him . . . Danny Woodhead advanced through local qualifying for the US Open this June in Brookline, but Tony Romo didn’t. He shot plus-3 to finish tied for 26th at the qualifier at Wild Rock Golf Club in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. . . . Nice job by the Buffalo Bills Foundation and NFL Foundation stepping up and contributing $200,000 each to response efforts following last weekend’s racially motivated shooting. Members of the organization, including Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and coach Sean McDermott, paid their respects at the memorial and spent time handing out food to the affected community . . . Great line from Eli Manning as Patriots owner Robert Kraft was honored with the Sports Business Journal’s Lifetime Achievement Award: “My mom, Olivia, sends her apologies. She said if it weren’t for her, Robert Kraft would have at least 10 Super Bowls.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.