July 14, 2006

Saints Usually Sign Rookies Just In Time

As the news of the signings of some draft picks trickle in from across the league, it is clear that the last-second strategies for signing draft picks are widespread in the front offices of many teams. Most draft picks arrive within hours - not days or weeks - of the start of training camp. If this year is anything like last year, the vast majority of first round draft picks will miss some portion of camp.

Runningback Ricky Williams and his negotiator Leland Hardy are the last top pick player and agent to sign with the Saints and arrive at training camp on time. In order, the Saints failed to prevent the holdouts of DE Darren Howard, RB Deuce McAllister, WR Donte Stallworth, DT Johnathan Sullivan, and DE Will Smith.

Loomis says that Stallworth had agreed to terms before camp started but that logistical problems prevented from arriving until five practices into training camp. That same year, Charles Grant and LeCharles Bentley were also late, but not by much.

Last year top pick Jammal Brown agreed to terms in the middle of the first night of camp, missed the first team meeting and weight training session, but arrived in time for the first on-field practice of camp, albeit 45 minutes late.

Second overall pick RB Reggie Bush has made a titanic charitable impact on the city so far and is riding a rave of positive PR stemming from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has poured into New Orleans thanks to his endorsement deals. Without a cent of NFL money or a yard of professional football gained, Bush has been one of the most generous young players in team history, and would spoil a saintly offseason with a holdout. History shows that is exactly where the two sides are headed.

A prolonged holdout wouldn't entirely be Bush and his agent Joel Segal's fault. The modus operandi for Mickey Loomis and many NFL GM's is to wait and allow surrounding draft picks to sign contracts, slotting the negotiations in and boxing in the financial terms. This is also a favorite tactic of player agents, to ensure that not only their player gets an advantageous deal, but that no draft pick behind their player gets a better deal. Segal is especially fond of this tactic.

The Saints recently dealt with Segal in a high-profile negotiation when they drafted DE Will Smith in 2004. Segal also represents Atlanta QB Mike Vick and Chicago WR Muhsin Muhammad, among others.

But Loomis' almost-on-time signing of Jammal Brown last year may signal a change in protocol for the Saints' money man. At the time Brown was only the third first round pick to put pen to paper, and there were no picks around Brown, the 13th overall, to help restrict negotiation. Instead of waiting back to be boxed in place, Loomis and Brown's agent Ben Dogra broke into the open with a five-year, $11 million deal.

It is safe to say that Bush has a lot more to lose from a public relations standpoint than to gain from getting into camp on time. To help negotiations, top overall pick Mario Williams' contract is already in place. Williams signed a six-year, $54 million deal with Houston before the draft. It included $26.5 million in guaranteed money.

Bush's contract will probably be between in the neighborhood of $45 million in total money with at least $20 million guaranteed. Last year's #2 overall pick, RB Ronnie Brown, received a five-year $33.67 million deal. However, speculation that Segal will be looking at 2005 top overall pick Alex Smith's contract means that Segal will be aiming closer to the $49.5 million that Smith received from San Francisco. All that said, in 2005 Brown received the most lucrative NFL rookie deal for a runningback in history last season, a title that Bush will likely have in a month or so.

Brown received $19.58 million in guaranteed money, while Smith received $24 million guaranteed. In comparison, DT Johnathan Sullivan received the most lucrative rookie deal in Saints history in 2003 with $11.4 million guaranteed and $19 million overall.

The Saints usually sign the rest of their draft picks from the bottom up in the days before camp begins, often only hours before camp begins.

One thing complicating negotiations this year is the large increase in the salary cap thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This year's cap saw a large, disproportional increase from 2005. In past years, teams could count on a relatively standard increase from the previous year's deals. This year, some agents will be looking for as much as a 20% increase from 2005 numbers, commensurate with the increase in cap money.

There is a limit on rookie contracts for every team. The Saints have a rookie cap allocation of $5,220,174 for 2006. This is a cap on the 2006 salary cap hit of the contracts of the team's drafted and undrafted rookies.

The Saints should have little problem negotiating deals for second day draft picks, since those negotiations become tightly bound as neighboring signings occur. It's the early rounds that give negotiators and agents the most trouble. Negotiations for second round pick Roman Harper did get easier, as the two players in front of Harper - Cardinals G Deuce Lutui and Chicago DB Danieal Manning have signed early on. Especially because Manning is also a defensive back, both sides in the Harper negotiations effectively have a solid upper bound. Published reports have Manning's contract as a four-year, $3.4 million deal. Harper's agent, Atlanta-based Pat Dye Jr., is one of the more respected agents around.

Second-round holdouts are uncommon but they happen. In 2002, Ohio State offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley held out from the Saints for a short time, and the 43rd overall pick in the 2005 draft, LSU CB Corey Webster, held out for four days. Negotiations for Harper, taken with the 43rd pick this past April, are also smoothed out by Webster's deal, since both players are defensive backs.

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