Draft's biggest question mark: How will 2010 NFL rookies get paid?
By most projections, the NFL's 2010 draft class figures to be one of the most talented in years, with a star-studded array of top-rated quarterbacks like
But the potential quality of the talent pool may not be the only reason the 2010 draft season winds up being remembered as a somewhat unique window in time. While it is now largely accepted that the NFL's 2010 season will be the "uncapped'' year that closes out the current collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners, what has yet to be decided is whether the league's next draft will continue to operate under the rookie salary pool and "slotting'' system that has been a staple of the current CBA.
A league spokesman confirmed to SI.com this week that the rookie salary pool -- which operates as a salary cap for first-year players within the NFL's overall salary cap -- can be dropped at the league's option in an uncapped year. One potential ramification is that NFL rookies in 2010 might not have their potential contract value determined so tightly by their particular draft spot -- the so-called slotting system -- as has been the case with every other draft class under the current CBA.
The lack of a rookie pool could also result in coaxing even more underclassmen into next year's draft, given the uncertainty about the rookie salary structure that might be in place in 2011 as part of any new labor deal. Without the slotting system, the chances of having more
"It's in the CBA that we can remove the rookie salary pool in an uncapped year, or we can continue to have it,'' NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "It hasn't been determined yet if we will remove it. We have to give the players union at least 60 days notice before the draft if we're going to remove it in 2010. I don't thing we're going to get into that any time soon, or clarify whether we will or not. We've only said we want to address the rookie salary structure as part of any new CBA negotiation.
"If we have a rookie pool, it'll be like the one we've had. But teams have to have some money to sign rookies either way. Either they do it by themselves without a pool, or we have one again. But as we've said before, an uncapped year will be different in a lot of ways throughout the league.''
If the league doesn't decide until the 60-days-before-the-draft deadline, it could pose a potential timing problem in the decision-making process underclassmen face in declaring for the draft. The deadline for juniors declaring is in mid-January. The 60-day rookie pool notification deadline is roughly Feb. 20. That means underclassmen could be forced to make their NFL declarations before they know whether the league intends to retain the rookie pool next year -- potentially not a small calculation.
Two longtime and high-level NFL club officials I spoke to this week weren't alarmed by the prospect of no formal slotting system in place for the draft, if it comes to that.
"The reason you're getting blank stares on this topic is because nobody can sit here and say they know what's going to unfold yet,'' one NFL general manager told me. "No one has the answer yet as to whether there's going to be a rookie pool next year. But it'll be hashed out when we have our [annual] labor seminar [for the clubs] in December, and until then, I don't think anybody can speculate or speak to it.''
Theories about why the NFL has yet to make a definitive decision range from the notion that the league is still working through all the potential pros and cons of having no rookie pool to the possibility of the league using it as an inducement or bargaining chip to get the still nascent CBA negotiations to the next level -- one more year of the huge, top of the first round salaries and signing bonuses before a new labor deal overhauls the rookie pay scale in 2011.
"I don't think the league has figured it out yet,'' a veteran club official said. "I don't think they know what's best for the league yet. When they figure out which is best for the league, to have a rookie pool next year or not, that's what they'll do.''
If there is no rookie pool in place next spring, one potential byproduct, according to a veteran agent with many NFL clients, will be the rise in importance of "signability'' in next year's draft. Teams will seek to assess which highly-regarded prospects might try to aggressively capitalize on what will perhaps be the one-year absence of a draft slotting system.
"If there's no rookie pool ... it'll be more like baseball in that way, where teams may really like a player, but if they can't sign him, what good is he? Signability will be a big buzzword," the veteran agent said.
"Some teams will look at the Crabtree holdout as the example and say, 'Why do we need that [crap]? Let them go play in the UFL.' We're going to see teams say, 'Let's go after the guys we know we can sign.' They'll go after some really solid, signable players in the second and third rounds, and then the smarter teams and smarter front offices will save some money to spend on some proven veterans out there on the market next year.''
Multiple sources within the league said they expect the 2010 draft to be heavy with juniors, but not owing to any particular motivation to strike it rich while there's potentially no rookie salary pool in place. It's got more to do with the serious injuries suffered early this season by Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford (throwing shoulder) and Sooners All-America tight end
"Based on those two injuries, they'll be more juniors who will probably come out," an NFL general manager said. "People will think twice about not coming out.''
Said another veteran club official: "Why would you stay in knowing the risks? But I don't think teams will cave to those [juniors] next year in contract negotiations if there's no rookie cap. I just don't think that'll happen.''
No matter how many talented juniors declare for the draft, there's one hard, cold reality that won't change with or without a rookie salary pool: There are only 32 of those lucrative picks in the first round. The draft itself isn't expanding, unless you count it being staged for the first time over a three-day period in 2010.
"There's still only a fixed number of guys who can get drafted,'' the veteran agent said. "If you're a junior, you better be a dominant player, because they're not making more picks in the first round. Maybe more guys are coming out next year. Everybody seems to think it's going to be full of underclassmen, and without them, the class is weak.''
It's still early in this story, but stay tuned. The 2010 NFL Draft might be a different game.