The rookie salary structure agreed upon in the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to make signing first-round draft picks easy. Contracts were supposed to be done before anyone even thought about training camp.
Yet with camps slated to begin in roughly two weeks, nine of the first 11 picks are still unsigned, including No. 1 Andrew Luck and No. 2 Robert Griffin III. For the reason why, one can point to the battleground called "offset language." And that takes us back to the contract of St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, the 2011 first-round selection whose deal triggered the fight.
Quinn, chosen 14th overall, has no offset language. Neither does the No. 1 pick from that draft, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton. This is what high draft picks want.
What is offset language and why does it matter? It's slightly complex.
Thanks to the new CBA, first-round contracts are four-year deals with a fifth-year option for the team. That option must be picked up by the March following the player's third year. Once that is exercised, a player's fifth year of the contract (as much as $10 million) is guaranteed for injury. Essentially, teams will make decisions on their first-rounders after Year 3, determining whether or not they want to be on the hook for the remaining money.
But in the fourth year comes the debate over offset language. If there is offset language, it allows the team to save money when releasing a player. Let's say a first-rounder is due $2 million in his fourth year. If he's released, and then agrees to a $2 million deal with a new team, the original team is completely off the hook. He receives $2 million from his new club, and the team that drafted him washes its hands of the situation. If there is no offset language, the discarded player receives the guaranteed money from his original team and the full salary from his new team. The original team can't merely allow the new team to pay the remaining guaranteed money as part of the new deal.
OK, that was a lot to digest. To put it simply ... Offset language is what teams covet. No offset language -- double-dipping -- benefits the players.
"That's what's probably holding everybody up, because the money's the money," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said in June in remarks that still ring true. "I think everybody wants to be consistent at the end of the day. That's what's holding everybody up. What's going to be the flavor of the day?"
What Jones meant was: What is the trend of this year's signings? Offset or no offset?
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With both St. Louis and Carolina following last year's model and agreeing to contracts without such stipulations in 2012 for defensive end Michael Brockers and linebacker Luke Kuechly, respectively, it's created a quandary for all the other top picks.
Still, no one has expressed alarm. No one is worried that deals won't be struck.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted recently the two sides were "close" on Luck's contract. But only Kuechly (No. 9) and Stephon Gilmore (the Buffalo Bills' No. 10 selection) have signed in the top 11.
Quinn's contract was negotiated by Tony Fleming and Sean Kiernan of Impact Sports, and that was the impetus to a standoff between highly regarded players (and their agents) and the teams who picked them. They fought for their guy, and the Rams put faith in the player by agreeing. St. Louis did it with Brockers, too. Newton, with the most leverage as the 2011 draft's top pick, had no offset language in a deal negotiated by agent Bus Cook. The Panthers followed through by doing as much for their 2012 first-rounder, Kuechly.
That affects the top 10 picks because Creative Artists Agency (which features high-powered agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra) reps Kuechly -- as well as Griffin, Trent Richardson (No. 3), Matt Kalil (No. 4) and Mark Barron (No. 7). Perhaps the battleground is that Condon and Dogra want no offset language for all of their guys, considering one of their guys (Kuechly) already got it. It seems fairly obvious that Luck and agent Will Wilson desire a deal without offset language.
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Last year, in the whirlwind post-lockout signing period, it didn't appear clear if this issue would stick. Quinn's contract was negotiated quickly without offset language, an example of his reps fighting every minor issue of the contract. Same with Newton. No one else had it (aside from a variety of players in various parts of the draft who have some portion of their deals not offset, according to Pro Football Talk).
From the standpoint of teams, they don't want to give in to a precedent set by two contracts last year. Yet agents who saw other players in similar positions last year receive no offset language want a repeat -- that includes Cook, the agent for No. 6 pick Morris Claiborne.
Now, both sides are at a standstill, and nine of the top 11 picks remain unsigned.