Steven Senne/AP

From organizations turning down team-friendly option years to rookies turning down agents altogether, slotted rookie contracts continue to change the business landscape for young players. Plus, thoughts on Sam Bradford

By Andrew Brandt
May 12, 2016

The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement pre-fabricated rookie contracts, setting a value for every pick in the draft. A union executive once told me “a trained monkey could do these contracts.” This is the time of year where questions are raised about the value of even using an agent.

Having been an agent for many years and knowing the services they provide to players and families, I know the grind. The problem is that the majority of their work is not fee-based; rather, the contract negotiation—now done in the matter of a couple of hours—is the only billable service listed in the representation agreement. In a growing trend over the past couple of years, players and their advisors and families are starting to question the value provided by agents when dealing with preset contracts.

Jacoby Brissett, a third-round pick of the Patriots, is operating without an agent, and there is a connection with Matt Elam, the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2013, who did the same. An advisor for both players is Elam’s older brother, Abe, who was very much involved in Matt’s negotiations. Brissett is also in close touch with the NFLPA and seems to have developed a unique friendship with one Bill Parcells.

Elam secured the same $6.767 million—with a $3.3 million bonus and $5.44 million of it guaranteed—with the Ravens that he would have received with an agent. Assuming an agent would have charged the maximum 3% fee, Elam saved himself $203,000. Brissett’s “slot” for his selection—the 29th pick in the third round—should earn him roughly $3.4 million over four years with a guaranteed signing bonus of roughly $680,000. Brissett’s savings, were an agent charging the maximum 3% fee, are about $100,000.

Would an agent, any agent, be able to attain more than that number? No. Would a good agent be able to secure better payment terms on the bonus, better default language, better structural elements of the bonus? Perhaps. However, would the Patriots really give Brissett inferior payment terms and structure than they gave to other drafted players? All Brisett has to do is ask if this is the same being given to other drafted rookies. Although it would make a lot of agents happy were Brissett given poorer structure and language, such treatment would (1) infect the Patriots’ relationship with their third-round quarterback, and (2) not sit well with Parcells.

Despite agents’ concerns about rookies such as Elam and Brissett foregoing the use of an agent, they are still outliers. That is not the problem for the agent community, this is: declining fee margins.

While the NFLPA voted against lowering the maximum fee from 3%, there is significant downward market pressure to lower fees, especially for rookie contracts. I am aware of several first round players paying 1% and at least one large agency charging 1% to all its rookies. These agents now face existing clients paying more and their business model must consider fee adjustments on both current and future contracts with existing clients.

The business of representing football players is changing; and from the agent’s perspective, not for the good. Eventually, the term “Agent Zero” may be the description of the fee model.

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Rookies Signing in Droves

We are clearly in a new age of NFL rookie contract signings. In my time negotiating these deals, 1999–2009, the process was an exasperating summer mating dance with agents reluctant to negotiate. No agent wanted to risk getting “jumped” by someone drafted behind him, as a couple thousand, or even a couple hundred dollars could be used in negative recruiting by agents.

That was then, this is now. While there are some negotiable issues such as payment terms, structure and language, there is mutual assurance in knowing picks will fall in line and not be “jumped.” Thus, picks are signing at a furious pace.

Whereas the rookie signing frenzy used to be right before the start of training camp in late July, it is now happening in early May, and most picks will be signed by the team’s minicamps. Unlike my past experiences, team negotiators and agents can take their summer vacations without worry about rookie contracts. (Now they can just worry about calls from unrecognizable phone numbers).

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First-Round Failures

The CBA’s team-friendly treatment of young players is evident not only in mandatory four-year contracts for drafted players, but also in a fifth-year option for the most important of picks, first-rounders. However, at last week’s deadline to use that option on 2013 first-rounders, a surprising number of teams essentially said, Nah, we’re good.

Half the top-10 picks in that draft had their option declined: Luke Joeckel (No. 2, Jaguars), Barkevious Mingo (No. 6, Browns), Jonathan Cooper (No. 7, Cardinals, now Patriots), Dee Milliner (No. 9, Jets) and Chance Warmack (No. 10, Titans). Of further ignominy, Dion Jordan—picked third by the Dolphins—is under suspension, and the Colts have already released Bjoern Werner, their top pick that year (24th overall). Even the Vikings—a team that knows the value of the option, having traded up to the final pick of the 2014 first round to draft Teddy Bridgewater—declined the option on once-promising receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Some will say that a reason for declining the option is the high salaries associated with them. However, most of the declining teams are flush with cap room for next year and, more importantly, the risk is quite low with potentially useful reward. The option now carries an injury-only guarantee—the team is liable only if the player suffers an injury serious enough to keep him from playing next season. What are the chances of that? 5%? 10%? The team can always release the player before the full guarantee activates next March, as Washington did with Robert Griffin III.

The expectation with first round selections is that they not only play well, but play past their first contract. Half the league—including teams knows for drafting prowess such as the Packers, Ravens and Steelers—admitted, through inaction, failure at their biggest draft investment three years ago. Recent treasure has already turned to trash or will likely do so in a year.

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And Five Things I Think about Sam Bradford reporting to Eagles workouts…

1. Of course he was showing up. Life is about options, and Bradford had none. The most desirable option, a trade to the Broncos, never gained traction as the Eagles asked for two second-round picks to justify having committed $11 million in signing bonus money. The Broncos balked and selected Paxton Lynch as their future quarterback.

2. Bradford’s short vacation away from Eagles voluntary workouts hardly qualifies as a “holdout.” It is about the lowest level of civil disobedience there is in team-player relations.

3. I know it is not a popular stance, but I totally get Bradford’s frustration here. This is not a team sitting on the second pick in the draft (as the Eagles once did, taking Donovan McNabb); this is a team that traded up twice to get in position to take its future quarterback. Bradford is a placeholder no matter how he plays.

4. I also know the Shut up and play, you overpaid baby! crowd is out there. Bradford may have a hard time winning them back, but I am not sure they were—or would ever be—on board with him anyway.

5. The Eagles will have an extraordinary cash commitment to the quarterback position this year. The cash—not cap—allocated in 2016 will consist of Bradford ($18 million), Wentz ($18 million) and Daniel ($10 million) for a total of $46 million, roughly a third of what most teams are spending on their rosters this season.

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