Bradford's epic deal ensures next CBA will have rookie cap

The moment the details of Sam Bradford's contract began circulating over the weekend, the general reaction among NFL executives and players was largely the same: Holy #$%@!

It was a seminal moment in the history of escalating rookie contracts. The idea that a player who had never taken an NFL snap, no matter how promising, had just pocketed a (legitimate) record $50 million guaranteed caused a unique visceral reaction. It's one not likely to be duplicated ever again.

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As the staggering contracts poured in -- $40 million guaranteed for Ndamukong Suh, $35 million guaranteed for Gerald McCoy and $36.7 million guaranteed for Trent Williams -- talk quickly turned to the negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement and the need for a serious recalibration on rookie spending.

Whether I was on Twitter, or doing an interview with a radio station or chatting with my wife, the pulse of the average American seemed to be somewhere between stunned disbelief and head-shaking consternation. The prevailing thought was that something has to change here.

It assuredly will.

There is no doubt a tight rookie wage scale will be a component of the next CBA, one that redistributes more money to current veterans and former players than what is now funneled into first-round picks. It's one of very few areas where there is sustained common ground between the NFL and NFLPA. They can't yet agree on the precise mechanism to accomplish it, but there's a tacit feeling it will be done.

For all the talk about CBA uncertainty and potential problems negotiating contracts -- big and small -- in this tenuous labor climate, the monster rookie deals sure came in rapid fire. Seems to me, this was a rookie signing season just like every other in recent memory. Sure, a few weeks back the pace of first-round signings might have been slightly slower than usual, but ultimately this was the same as it ever was.

The bulk of the deals were completed around the eve of a team's full camp opening, which is the norm. As we sit here now, still early in camp, only two first-rounders -- No. 6 pick Russell Okung and No. 9 C.J. Spiller -- remain unsigned. Again, this is to be expected. For all the trepidation teams might have had about pouring hundreds of millions in guaranteed payments to incoming players, it certainly didn't curtail the flow.

Draft picks were again pushing (or surpassing) 20 percent increases over their slot from a year ago. The fact we don't know the precise years of service time that will be required for unrestricted free agency in the next CBA, and we don't know exactly how the salary cap will function didn't really matter in the end. Teams knew generally what it would take to sign their picks and, as the existing system is set up, you do what you have to do. The timing and tempo of the entire process was similar to others under this CBA. In that regard, not much changed.

Guaranteed money for top 10 picks in last two drafts
2010
 
2009
Pk Player Team Guaranteed $   Pk Player Team Guaranteed $
1 Sam Bradford Rams $50M   1 Matthew Stafford Lions $41.7M
2 Ndamukong Suh Lions $40M   2 Jason Smith Rams $33M
3 Gerald McCoy Buccaneers $35M   3 Tyson Jackson Chiefs $31M
4 Trent Williams Redskins $36.75M   4 Aaron Curry Seahawks $34M
5 Eric Berry Chiefs $34M   5 Mark Sanchez Jets $28M
6 Russell Okung Seahawks Unsigned   6 Andre Smith Bengals $21M
7 Joe Haden Browns $26M   7 Darrius Heyward-Bey Raiders $23.5M
8 Rolando McClain Raiders $23M   8 Eugene Monroe Jaguars $19.2M
9 C.J. Spiller Bills Unsigned   9 B.J. Raji Packers $18M
10 Tyson Alualu Jaguars $17.5M   10 Michael Crabtree 49ers $17M


As in recent years, however, there weren't a whole lot of owners thrilled about it. It's been an issue with them for quite some time. When Colts president Bill Polian unloaded on the process during a radio interview this week, he was in essence speaking for the entire league.

"We need to change the rookie system because to have, for example, Sam Bradford paid $50 million in guaranteed money for never having taken a snap in the National Football League is just wrong," Polian told 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. "That money should go to veteran players who have earned it in the National Football League. That's a very stark example, but it exists. It's there, and it needs to be changed. And I don't think many other people, other than those such as agents who have a vested interest in the present system, would have a problem with that."

The proliferation of rookie salaries cuts particularly to Polian's core, as the man who negotiated Bradford's mega-contract, Tom Condon, also happens to represent Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who is entering the final year of his contract and is in line to become the highest-paid player in NFL history -- again. Bradford's $50 million guaranteed is the new standard -- it won't stand alone for long with Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees on the horizon -- and, just like that, a player yet to throw a pass has helped expedite the growth of high salaries around the league.

Anyone who tries to fault Bradford and/or Condon simply doesn't get it. As a wise man once said, don't hate the player, hate the game. The players and agents are operating based on the realities of this CBA and rookie system in the same manner as the teams are. It could all be gone in an instant. There are no guarantees that there will be a second contract, and in football especially, you cannot begrudge someone reaching for all of their value. And, in this marketplace, a player is only worth what he can get.

For a rookie to get $50 million guaranteed, some club has to be willing to give him $50 million guaranteed.

And don't fault the Rams, either. From the moment they landed the first overall pick, they knew what was to come. They are at the mercy of the system, and with Matt Stafford getting nearly $42 million a year ago from the Lions, it was just a matter of how close to $50 million Bradford got. There wasn't any way around that (Condon did the Stafford deal as well). They got their potential franchise quarterback into camp on time for the first full practice. That was their organizational goal.

Furthermore, if Bradford is the player many talent evaluators believe he will be, three years down the road I'm sure some knucklehead like me will be on the television talking about him out-performing his contract and being a bargain. Because Manning and Brees and Brady will have been paid by then, and $22 million per season will be the new $15 million per season for elite quarterbacks. That's just how it goes.

But a restrained rookie scale might curb some of that and, more importantly, divert more funds to established players who have out-performed their lower-round rookie deals but have yet to see that level of compensation. An adjusted rookie pay scale wouldn't solve all the problems various parties have with the existing system. And it won't be enough to create the kind of progress it will take to hammer out a new deal.

It is, however, a necessary component of any new CBA and, over time, a case could be made that all successful NFL players, to say nothing of the teams, will benefit from it. Those college players about to enter their junior or senior seasons, however -- the draft class of 2011 -- might be wishing they had been born a year or two sooner.

REVIS ON AN ISLAND

By not showing up for the start of Jets camp this week, corner Darrelle Revis effectively walked away from future guarantees in his salary of $20 million, beginning in 2011. So suffice it to say, it's hard to see him ending his holdout without recouping that money and finding a way to put more than the $1 million he's slated to earn in 2010 in his pocket.

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From what I'm hearing he is very much stuck with regards to his stance. Jets owner Woody Johnson handled the situation with aplomb in the media, and the sides have continued their dialogue. But it's going to take a sizeable financial commitment if all this is to be mended.

Specifically, three years and $30 million, with a good portion guaranteed, would do it. It would buy the sides time to figure out a deal that would keep Revis a Jet for the duration of his career. It would send a message to the locker room about the lengths the club will go to to retain its young, talented core. It would ease the stress of a rabid fan base that sees it's Super Bowl hopes riding with this delicate negotiation.

The Jets don't have to do anything, of course. Revis has a perfectly valid contract with three years remaining. If he sits out past Aug. 10 he loses a year towards his free-agent status. That's generally a strong deterrent.

But this case is different in that the team approached the player right after the season about tearing up his contract. There is no debate over his merits, his place in the game and, to some degree, his worth. The three-year stopgap means the Jets don't have to beat Nnamdi Asomugha's $15.1 million a year (at least not yet) and, with expectations so high and a new stadium to fill and PSLs to sell, finding some way to appease their best player.

Generally, that means coughing up a lot more money.

TURNING A BLINDSIDE EYE

One of the true mysteries of this offseason to me has been how the Chargers figure Marcus McNeil would ever play out 2010 for his tender (roughly $600,000) and their utter reluctance to work toward a long-term deal.

McNeil played out his entire rookie contract, never said a word, didn't get in trouble, no DUI, no major issues with coaches, and he definitely out-performed that contract, getting two Pro Bowl nods. In the meantime, a tackle like Donald Penn, who has yet to reach the Pro Bowl, received an extension worth a max of $8 million a year. Elite left tackles don't play for relative chump change, and I'm not sure how anyone could expect them to.

If the Chargers want to marginalize receiver Vincent Jackson, so be it. He's had the DUI issues, and I can understand the sentiment that a quarterback as good as Philip Rivers can cultivate talent at the receiver spot and make good players great. But I also know there's no way Rivers is going to block for himself and protect his own blindside, and the falloff between McNeil and those battling to take his job is steep.

FOUR-DOWN TERRITORY

» Aubrayo Franklin is in no hurry to sign his franchise tender, I'm told. Could be a while before that goes down. If the 49ers were to offer assurances he would not be franchised again -- and we're assuming there will be some sort of franchise mechanism in the next CBA -- it might expedite his return. Franklin wouldn't be averse to a trade as well -- if it came with a long-term deal attached, one could only imagine he would welcome it -- but the odds of that happening for the talented defensive tackle are slim to none, a fact he is well aware of.

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» I've been cautioning against the mounting sentiment that Dez Bryant is a guaranteed starter for quite some time. He could ill afford missing a month or more after a lost 2009 season in college, and far too many people were underestimating the competency and trust offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has in depth receivers like Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd. Bryant is a great cog as a third-down target and someone who could make an impact in the red zone and certain specific packages. But he's going to need time to master that offense, to say nothing of getting healthy.

» I would not be surprised if the Ravens ended up re-signing corner Frank Walker at some point in the next few weeks. Other teams have shown some interest in him as well, Dallas included. I have heard the Cowboys are monitoring several DBs, in fact.

» Count me among those who would still be utterly stunned if Brett Favre isn't under center for the Vikings at some point in 2010, even if it's not in Week 1 for the "Remember Me Bowl" with the Saints.