A Battle Between Agents Brews
INDIANAPOLIS — We’re in the meat of the NFL combine, with player workouts and interviews underway as the draft picture begins to take shape. I’ll get to a few of the newsy nuggets delivered on the final day of media availability for head coaches and executives, but first, a behind-the-scenes fight that could shape the NFL agent business for years to come.
This fall and winter, several agents felt the industry was reaching a tipping point in regard to player fees. The one-time industry standard of 3% slipped to 1.5% in August when the NFLPA changed the default language on the Standard Representation Agreement (SRA).
Meanwhile, a minority of the largest agencies, including CAA, have recently made a practice of offering a sliding percentage scale to its newest clients, with a 1% fee should a player be chosen in the first round, according to agency sources. Smaller agents have since struggled to compete with the giants of the industry, leading veteran agents Vann McElroy, Pat Dye Jr. and Peter Schaffer to seek the creation of an association of like-minded agents to fight the new normal.
“When it gets to the point where you’re just getting completely reamed,” McElroy told The MMQB, “you’ve got to at least have a conversation about it.”
McElroy and others fear that larger agencies will acquire talent in bulk, wholesaling their services and maximizing their profits with clients who live up to expectations and discarding those who don’t.
“The agency will move on from these guys who aren’t going to get that big second contract,” says McElroy, who played safety for the Raiders and Seahawks from 1982-92. “You’re not getting the kind of representation you deserve. I’d hate to see it taken back to the 80s when I was playing, where you could not make money being an agent, and you had guys coming into the business whose main goal was getting to the players’ money and not what was in the best interest in the player. I fear it could revert to that.”
Adds Schaffer: “We pick a guy and we make a big investment in training and we’re taking a risk that he gets to the second deal. We’re fine with that, but it gets to a point where it’s not even worth it. We need to do a better job of educating players on what we do.”
Hesitation among agents being recruited to the new association is vast and multi-faceted. Some fear the association would ultimately hold little influence. Others fear the NFLPA will simply find ways to decertify those who participate, leaving their careers in ruin while other agents poach their clients. Still others have expressed concern about the credentials of the most vocal members of the association effort.
Said one agent, whose company charges players 3% and has encountered roadblocks with rookies who have been offered a lower rate: “My main problem is that the people screaming and calling for change are in many cases the one’s guilty of reducing the fees in the first place. Why should we trust them now?”
Nearly annual attempts at forming an agent’s association with meaningful bargaining power have failed, with many pointing to acrimony and discord among rival agents. The issue was not discussed at Thursday’s NFLPA-hosted agent forum in Indianapolis (“The NFLPA met with every available certified agent today,” says Players Association executive director George Atallah. “I did not hear that these agents raised those issues in the forum… Our goal should be making sure that every free agent that hits the market gets paid. We are always happy to talk about that issue.”)
One player rep who is hesitant to join the surging cause for fear of retribution described the new wave of dwindling agent fees as “an industry standard of stupidity.”
“You’re basically becoming Wal-Mart, but there’s no demand for it in the marketplace,” the agent says. “No other sport is as low as 3% and football has the highest turnover and the highest need for good representation. They’re whoring themselves out to be in the green room at the draft. Ego.”
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Combine press conferences are among the most sterile press availabilities on the league calendar, so it was refreshing to witness a few moments of candor from some new and old faces here. Some QB-related takeaways from two head coaches and a GM not afraid to spill some truth in Indy…
• John Lynch, the former player, broadcaster, and now GM of the 49ers, opened a window to an important facet of the combine process with a glowing review of former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, one of three QBs looking to separate themselves from the herd. “This whole thing is not just about an interview,” Lynch said, “but if you were grading him on that alone, he blew the doors off. He’s an impressive young man, his film’s very impressive… I think it’s a very talented draft class at that position, one we’re very excited about.”
What’s Lynch looking for in a quarterback? He said a big source of inspiration and knowledge in his post-football career has been the production meetings he conducted with coaches and players while serving as a color commentator on Fox.
“I always want to be careful with this because it’s not like I was doing those meetings with the idea that I would one day be a GM,” Lynch told The MMQB. “But some of the things I learned from the Patriots—Tom, and how Bill has challenged him over the years. Thought processes, when to take risks and when not to. Tom said, ‘Boy I’m a real dummy if I throw a pick on first down, because I have so many options.’ They talked about, ‘In order to win, you have to first keep from losing.’ Things like that stick with you. It was such a fascinating and fun job.”
• Raiders coach Jack Del Rio spoke at length on Thursday about how he would have liked the team to bounce back from the loss of quarterback Derek Carr, who suffered a season-ending leg injury on the eve of the playoffs, effectively ending Oakland’s resurgent 2016 campaign.
“Regardless, if you lose your quarterback, to me there is still a way to get it done,” he said. “It just became a lot harder, but there is still a way. There was no concession and there never will be. Our approach is always: next man up and let's go compete.
“Honestly, [when] we finished the year, I was disappointed because in my opinion what we need to be about is ‘Hey let’s rally, let’s find a way and go get it done no matter what,’ and we weren’t able to do that.”
Del Rio said that sentiment will be an emphasis when the team reconvenes, but he admitted that the importance of the quarterback position, and the limits imposed by the new collective bargaining agreement on practice time and team contact in the offseason, makes preparing a viable backup one of the tallest tasks in the league today.
“That position more than any, because of the demands of the position, the details required, suffers the most. There are plusses and minuses of any CBA system and with this one that’s one of the minuses—you’re not developing your quarterbacks.”
Del Rio is not optimistic that a developmental league to replace NFL Europe, which folded in 2007, would ameliorate the effects of the bargaining agreement ratified in 2011.
“The problem is you’re not in the same system,” he said. “You need the player to have reps in your system with timing with your guys. That’s where the polish happens. The number of Dak Prescotts that come along? That’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
• What happened to Cam Newton? It’s one of the biggest questions Ron Rivera has faced this offseason following a lackluster 2016 for the then-reigning MVP. Rivera has chosen to retain his offensive staff, led by coordinator Mike Shula, and simply tweak the approach, preferring to maintain continuity rather than start over with a new group.
The coach discussed the goal of Newton running the football less next year after the quarterback struggled through a shoulder injury and a concussion suffered in October. And Rivera fully expects Newton to revolt against the idea.
“I promise you that’s going to happen,” Rivera said. “He wants the football, but we have to be very dogged in terms of what we’re going to do with him and how we’re going to do it. We have to pick and choose. It’s got to be the right situation and circumstances.
“But you know him, he wants to succeed, he wants to do things that help this football team win and I believe he’s going to do the things he needs to do.”
• DAVID NJOKU AND THE COMBINE HEADLINERS: The high-jump national champ turned tight end can solidify his first-round status in Indianapolis. Plus, a handful of small-school stars to watch and everything else to know heading into combine week.
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On the docket
Quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends will be made available to the media on Friday, which means Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and Kizer will face the assembled NFL media for the first time.
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