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Rookie salary system a major discussion point as talks roll on

Posted Jul 11, 2011

There have been other big days over the last six weeks, as NFL players and owners have worked to resolve their differences and end a lockout that will reach its 122nd day when face-to-face talks resume Monday.

NEW YORK -- There have been other big days over the last six weeks, as NFL players and owners have worked to resolve their differences and end a lockout that will reach its 122nd day when face-to-face talks resume Monday.

But this week, those days start to count in a whole different way.

The parties have been working against deadlines since starting this phase of negotiations in suburban Chicago on May 31. Those deadlines are no longer on the horizon, now, with July 15 -- this Friday -- long having been pegged internally as the date when a deal needed to be agreed to in order to save the preseason in full. The Bears and Rams, combatants in the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game, are scheduled to open their training camps at the end of next week.

Lawyers will kick off this critical week of negotiations in Manhattan on Monday. Players and owners are expected to join them on either Tuesday or Wednesday.

The biggest issue remaining on the ledger is the rookie salary system, according to sources on both sides of the table.

The current system has long awarded rookies at the higher end of the first round with the kind of payday many veterans will never see -- 2010 top pick Sam Bradford copped $50 million guaranteed in his first deal -- and the league has always targeted an overhaul to that compensation model as an area critical to these labor talks. The players, too, have been open to restructuring rookie pay.

But the money alone isn't the problem. It's the give-and-take between the cash and the length of deals, and, in particular, the fifth year of such deals.

The NFL's disagreement with the players comes, primarily, with the top eight picks in the draft, where the dollars are biggest. Conversely, the players' issue stretches across the entire first round, with a desire to get younger players to free agency quicker, if their pay is going to be slashed significantly.

One proposal from the league cut the money for the first pick from the six-year, $78 million deal Bradford received last year to a slotted five-year, $34 million contract. Also, deals for Top 8 picks could include triggers pushing the fifth year to 150 percent of an average starter’s salary at his position, with a floor of $6 million and a ceiling of $12 million. The salary would be derived from that average in his draft year, and the league would be open to making it an option year. The lag time between Year 1 and Year 5 is the players’ issue with that aspect.

Naturally, the gap between old system and new shrinks by the pick, but just as important as the overall value of the deals is the structure.

As part of its proposal, the league is asking for a system setting the limit for length on first-round deals to five years. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, the NFL allowed six-year deals to the first 16 picks.

Meanwhile, the level to which players have been willing to cut rookie money is tied directly to the years on such deals. More significant economic changes are agreeable to the players if all rookie deals are limited to four years, which was the case for players selected in Rounds 2-7 under the expired CBA.

It's the fifth year where the disagreement arises. A proposal by the players allows a fifth year, but only as a team option year that would be fully guaranteed once exercised and pay players at the top of the market. The insistence is that players be treated as veterans in Year 5.

The parties agree on four-year deals for all other draft picks, the aforementioned term in the expired CBA. There's also basic agreement on new stipulations that would keep draft picks from renegotiating until after Year 3, and undrafted free agents (on three-year deals) from renegotiating until after Year 2. The hope is that the new mechanisms would also promote renegotiation for players outperforming their contracts.

This aspect of any new deal, of course, has a slew of other complexities that involve structure and guaranteed money as well that can further cloud what raw numbers tell you.

This isn't the only area where the players and owners need a breakthrough. But last Thursday and Friday, it was one that was largely responsible for the stalemate.

As the parties try to work those differences out, several key dates loom ahead as landmarks in this critical period, outside of just the deadlines to save preseason games and training camp practices.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who ran the court-ordered mediation in April and May and has overseen these talks the last six weeks, is on vacation this week, but has scheduled a meeting between the principles and their lawyers for July 19 in Minneapolis. Two days later, on July 21, the owners have a meeting scheduled in Atlanta.

Less certain, time-wise, is when a ruling will come from U.S. District Judge David Doty in the networks rights fees case, with more than $4 billion in television money at stake. That could be another significant event, as the 8th Circuit ruling on the injunction appeal was on Friday.

In any event, it's clear that time is running short. And once the preseason revenue starts coming off the table, everything starts to change.