Sides face tough bargaining over many issues
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Call it a Giant(s) step that was really only a baby step but one that, in time, likely will be recalled as the starting point for a quantum leap by one of the NFL's flagship franchises.

ESPN.com has learned that Tom Condon of IMG Football, which represents quarterback Eli Manning, huddled on Tuesday with officials from the New York Giants. It marked the initial face-to-face session between the two sides as they ease into contract negotiations for the first player chosen in the 2004 draft.

While the meeting didn't even flirt with substantive elements, and the two sides probably face tough bargaining over many issues, the relatively early start to negotiations is at least a promising sign. Most of the franchises with prospects in the top half of the first round haven't had anything more than telephone contact with players' agents.

The Giants report to training camp in Albany, N.Y. on July 29, and certainly want to have Manning signed and on the field for the first practice the next day. Manning is considered critical, of course, to the Giants' future.

It is not known when the two sides will meet again.

The San Diego Chargers, who swapped Manning to the Giants for quarterback Philip Rivers in one of the truly blockbuster deals in draft history, probably won't even kick off their groundwork discussions with Rivers' agent, Jimmy Sexton, until next week.

For both Manning and Rivers, chosen first and fourth overall, respectively, negotiations will be tricky because of their unique juxtaposition. Although chosen first, Manning is now with the team that actually owned the No. 4 slot in the first round. And the Giants have a rookie pool roughly $1.7 million less than that allocated to the Chargers.

With the league in the midst of its typical early summer lull, and teams having concluded formal offseason programs, the slow pace of overall draft pick signings is hardly unusual. Most of the team negotiators are due back from vacations next week and agreements with draft choices will pick up then.

As of Thursday afternoon, just 34 of the 255 draft choices have reached contract accords, and only five of those were first-day selections. Eleven of the 34 agreements struck are with players chosen in the seventh round and 14 teams have yet to sign even one draft pick. There is just one first-rounder, linebacker Jason Babin of Houston, under contract.

The latter of the Texans' two first-round selections, Babin was the 27th overall prospect to go off the draft board.

There is usually more anxiety on the part of fans over unsigned rookies than there is from team officials and agents. Most agreements aren't completed until two weeks or so before the start of camps and many franchises don't even start meaningful negotiations with the high-round choices until the reporting deadline looms.

That said, there are some unusual hurdles to overcome this year, especially for first-round choices. Primary among them: The rookie allocation pool is essentially "flat" again, with an overall increase of less than 2 percent. Second, teams can only amortize the signing bonuses over six years, instead of the seven seasons used in the past.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com