Rookies finding their path to payday is blocked ...
by Alex Marvez
(Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He's covered the NFL for 13 seasons as a beat writer and is the president of the Pro Football Writers of America.)

Updated: May 22, 2008, 11:09 AM EST 13 comments add this RSS blog email print FOXSports.com's Alex Marvez was among a select media group invited to a four-hour NFL Players Association seminar Wednesday focused on the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the first of a three-part series, Marvez addresses how the NFL's opting out of its current labor deal is making an immediate impact on some of the top unsigned picks in April's draft:

ATLANTA — Negotiating a new labor deal or finding a successor for Gene Upshaw aren't the most pressing priorities for the NFL Players Association.

Of utmost importance: Formulating contract mechanisms that may prevent holdouts from two of the top unsigned 2008 draft choices.

The NFL's decision to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 has made an immediate impact on St. Louis defensive end Chris Long (No. 2 overall pick) and Oakland running back Darren McFadden (No. 4). Unless the NFLPA can unearth CBA loopholes, both will have to settle for shorter contracts with less guaranteed money than earned by players chosen in those same slots in 2007.

That could lead to more complicated negotiations and increases the possibility deals won't be done by the start of training camp in late July.

"It's going to be hard for those guys to get contracts even at the money they got a year ago," said Upshaw, the NFLPA's executive director. "The guys who were in that same slot a year ago are actually going to get more money in guarantees than what McFadden and Chris Long will get."

Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Tampa Bay defensive end Gaines Adams were the second and fourth overall picks in last year's draft. Both signed six-year contracts. Johnson's was worth $64 million with $27.2 million guaranteed; Adams received $18.6 million guaranteed as part of a $46 million package.

At the time, the Bucs and Lions could push a significant portion of guaranteed money into the sixth year of those contracts. But teams no longer have that luxury with NFL owners having voided the final two years of the CBA during Tuesday's annual spring meeting in Atlanta.

Negotiations also could become sticky because of a potential work stoppage in 2011. Should that happen, teams would not be responsible for paying players. Upshaw said even some head coaches may not get paid or have agreed to deals that would halve their salaries.

This threat pushed the representatives for top overall pick Jake Long to demand that Miami pay all of the tackle's guaranteed money ($30 million) by 2010. Other agents may demand the same for their clients, which would cause friction with teams unwilling to do so.

NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen smiled while saying the union will work diligently to "find a way around" the new contract restrictions. NFLPA executives also say they are urging Long, McFadden and the 12 other unsigned top-16 picks to negotiate five-year contracts rather than the NFL maximum of six for rookies chosen in those slots. Those players would then become unrestricted free agents one year earlier in 2012.

"I've always said that even with the money with these initial deals, a guy is better off with a short-term contract," Berthelsen said. "Of course, he takes the risk of injury. But the shorter his contract coming in, the bigger his contract the next time he negotiates if he shows himself to be (a great player). Being a free-agent one year earlier, I think, will more than make up the difference."

But the injury factor is a major consideration, especially for a rookie like McFadden who plays at a position with a short shelf-life. The spotty success rate of high picks also justifies why some want as much money as possible before taking an NFL snap.

Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay said the CBA situation was the driving force behind Tuesday's signing of quarterback Matt Ryan before the new rules went into affect. The No. 3 overall pick, Ryan signed a six-year, $72 million contract that included an NFL-record $34.5 million guaranteed.

McKay said Jake Long's agreement was a helpful template in negotiating the Ryan deal. While widely reported as a five-year, $57.75 million deal, Long's contract with Miami actually is for six seasons with an easily reached incentive that will void it to five.

McKay admits Long's contract — which is 40-plus pages in length — wouldn't have proven as useful a resource under the new CBA rules.

"The opportunity to do a six-year deal was going to get a lot more complicated," McKay said. "I couldn't say you couldn't do it. I'm not saying you could do it. I'm sure there's a way. We just hadn't figured it out yet."

Neither has anyone else.
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