BGA: Should we be concerned about unsigned rookies?

Bent, TheJetsBlog.com

Last year, on June 14th, the Jets announced that they had signed Jordan White, the last remaining unsigned pick from their 2012 draft class. Third round pick Demario Davis had signed on June 2nd and the rest of the picks, including first rounder Quinton Coples had been signed back in May. Here we are on June 17th in 2013 and the Jets’ three top picks remain outstanding. Is there any reason we should be concerned about this?

A look back at last year reveals that John Idzik’s Seahawks signed all of their draft picks in one go, in the first week of May. However, the Jets may have slightly different organizational philosophies and have always been a team that deals with their rookies on a piecemeal basis. A look at the NFL’s signing status page reveals that only eight first round picks have been signed, leaving 24 still unsigned. In terms of 2nd to 7th round picks, there remain 21 unsigned, of which Geno Smith is one.

As a general rule, we’re in an era where the basic parameters for rookie deals are more or less set in stone and there really isn’t much room for negotiation as a result. The rookie allocation – an amount set aside for rookie signings which counts against the cap but cannot be exceeded and does not allow for unused surplus to be used on veterans – is now so tight that that teams have no choice but to agree on a contract that slots in between the picks above and below it in terms of value, otherwise they won’t be able to fit all their deals under that rookie allocation. Note: If you release a draft pick without signing them, your rookie allocation is reduced accordingly, so it’s not possible to create more breathing room by doing that and spreading an allocation for six players across five contracts or whatever.

The new CBA places restrictions on the length of these deals. Also, all incentives are treated as likely to be earned and salary advances, option bonuses, buybacks, voidable years and renegotiating in the first three years are all prohibited under the new CBA, so you can’t use loopholes to get around the rookie allocation. There are also special rules that restrict the guarantee of future salaries and how much you can increase or reduce salaries by year-on-year, which means that there isn’t much wiggle room in terms of how these deals are structured, either.

There are still some key negotiation points, as set out in this article from OverTheCap.com. So, while we may already have a good idea about what these contracts will look like in terms of size, structure and guarantees and might therefore be wondering what the hold-up is, there is still work to be done.

After the jump, I’ll be looking at each of the remaining unsigned rookies and summarizing the details for those that did sign so far.

Let’s first summarize the details for the draft picks that did sign. The guys at OverTheCap.com have been tracking rookie deals from around the league, so you can see where these deals are slotted and where the gaps are that have yet to be filled in.

Signings already made

The Jets have already signed Tommy Bohanon (four years, $2.2m), William Campbell (four years, $2.3m), Oday Aboushi (four years, $2.4m) and Brian Winters (four years, $2.9m). Of the four, Winters is the only one not due to receive a minimum salary in years 2-4. The only difference between the other deals is the size of the signing bonus, which obviously reduces based on how late you were selected. Due to the way the CBA treats 3rd to 7th round picks, each of these four has a playing time incentive in the fourth year which will elevate the total value of the deal to approximately $4m for Winters and $3m for the others. That incentive will be earned if they play 35% or more of the snaps in any two of the first three years – or 35% overall for the first two years.

Note: The first draft this fourth year option for 3rd to 7th round picks applies for is 2011. So far, none of the 2011 class have earned this, although Jeremy Kerley is extremely close. Bilal Powell met the 35% criteria last year, so he will have a shot at it this year if he earns a role, but Kenrick Ellis and Greg McElroy would need to basically be full time players and Scotty McKnight is, of course, long gone. Anyone who meets the criteria will see their 2014 salary escalated to the same sum as the lowest 2014 RFA tender (around $1.5m).

Sheldon Richardson

On the basis of the deals made so far by the Jets and those going on around the league, nothing out of the ordinary seems to have taken place, so we can expect Richardson’s deal to fall in line with last year’s 13th pick and the slotting that has taken place so far. The 14th pick, Star Lotulelei was signed for $9.6m over four years, so we can expect Richardson to get slightly more than this – likely about $10m.

In the first half of the first round, players get 100% guarantees, so that’s not going to be a sticking point. Also, each first round pick from 11-32 automatically gets a fifth year option where the team can retain him for one more year with a salary equivalent to the average of the top 25 salaries (excluding the two highest) at his position. That option is exercised after year three, so the Jets will exercise that option for Muhammad Wilkerson – the first of their picks under the new CBA – at the end of this season (if they don’t extend him).

So, what’s the hold-up on Richardson? Well, there are three factors at play here. The first is the offset language issue mentioned in Jason’s article from OTC about negotiation points linked to above:

This is something that will only come into play in the first 15 picks in the draft. The top picks in the draft will have their contracts fully guaranteed. What that means is if they are cut the team needs to pay them a check for future guaranteed salary and the player can then go find another job. If a contract contains offset language the team will get a credit, or payback, based on the amount of money the player earns with another team. If the contract contains no offsets the team does not get a credit for money earned elsewhere. As an example if a player has $5 million guaranteed, gets cut and finds a new job for $3 million the team that cut him is only on the hook for $2 million rather than 5 if there is offset language. If there is no offset language the player earns $8 million as there is no payback credit to his original team.

As the article goes on to say, more and more agents have managed to negotiate deals with no offset language in recent years. It’s perhaps not a major issue and one that not many teams are likely to dig their heels in on, but certainly something worth watching. Of course, it’s only an issue if your player is a complete bust that doesn’t make it through four seasons. Even if that is the case, the kind of money at stake is a lot lower than when the Jets had Vernon Gholston on the team and were compelled to keep him a year longer than most expected because they were paying him several million either way. Richardson’s third and fourth year salaries are unlikely to exceed $2m each.

The second sticking point is that the 12th pick, DJ Hayden is yet to sign. Rather than negotiate terms now, the Jets may prefer to wait until the pick immediately before Richardson is inked, so that they can narrow the deal parameters even further and let Hayden’s agent do most of the work. That feeds into the offset language issue too, because if Hayden has offset language in his deal, then that might make it easier for the Jets to include it in Richardson’s contract. Hayden’s injury concerns (recent abdominal surgery) could be what are holding up the Raiders in terms of completing his deal.

The final sticking point would be Dee Milliner. Since Milliner is also unsigned and they’ll be on the same team, this might impact the timing of the deal, any offset language or the way the deal is laid out. They won’t want to be seen to prioritize one over the other or show any favorable treatment that could put an early dampener on their relationship with these players’ respective agents.

Geno Smith

Geno Smith’s deal should be pretty straightforward. He’s slotted to earn around $5m over four years and second round picks are the only ones who don’t have a fourth year escalator or a fifth year option – it’s just a basic four year deal. Picks 34 through 38 are all signed, as are 40 through 42. So, what’s the hold up with the 39th pick?

This comes down to Smith’s decision to change agents. As was widely reported, Smith fired his agent and then hired Kim Miale of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation agency. While Idzik said last week that the NFL’s pending investigation into Jay-Z’s role in this hire is not holding up his deal, it was a factor because the change occurred at a time where the Jets were prioritizing their negotiation of rookie deals, so they were unable to negotiate with Smith at that time. The rookie deals were then placed on the back-burner while the offseason program was conducted and will presumably now be re-prioritized.

Dee Milliner

Like Smith, Milliner changed his agents right at the time where the Jets might have been ready to negotiate with him. Now that the 8th pick – Tavon Austin – is signed, things should be set up for his new agent, Pat Dye, to negotiate with the Jets.

The offset language issue should be relevant again here. Austin signed a deal with no offset language, but that wasn’t a surprise because the Rams don’t usually include offsets for their first rounders anyway. Last year’s ninth pick – Luke Kuechly – also got a deal with no offset language, but the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th picks did not, so it will be interesting to see what happens with the Jets and their two first rounders.

When they do finally settle on a deal, it will of course be a four year pact with 100% guarantees. Based on his slot in the draft, Milliner is going to end up earning about $12m or so over four years. However, he will also have that fifth year option which, as a top ten pick, will net him a salary in year five equivalent to the average of the ten highest paid cornerbacks in the league.

Conclusions

There doesn’t seem to be any reason for panic at the moment. While there are a few finer points that will need to be agreed upon and one or two other dominos that need to fall, there’s no reason to believe these deals won’t get done in time for camp.

In the past, the Jets have left things late, signing their last few deals in the days leading up to camp, but that hasn’t been the case since the new CBA came in. Hopefully, they will make this a priority so that they can avoid any last minute hiccups which could potentially jeopardize everyone being in camp on time.

Thanks to Jason from OTC for his input into this article.