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Rookie Pay is a Major Sacrifice in the Current CBA, But Some Terms Are Negotiable

Also: Thoughts on former colleague Ted Thompson after news of his recent diagnosis with an autonomic disorder.

As someone who negotiated player contracts for the Packers from 1999-2008, I now realize that for the purpose of ease versus difficulty, I was clearly negotiating rookie contracts in the wrong time in NFL history.

In those now-bygone days before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, NFL rookie contracts were among the most heavily negotiated contracts of all, especially at the top of the draft. There was haggling between the team (me) and agents about, among other items, dollar amounts ranging from millions (first round) to hundreds (seventh round). First-round rookie contracts were more substantial and difficult to negotiate than most veteran deals, complete with brain-blasting clauses such as buybacks, voids, exploding escalators, vesting options, second signing bonuses, etc. There was actual negotiation over structural terms, contract language, bonus payouts, and yes, money.

That was then, this is now. The 2011 CBA not only reduced compensation for drafted rookies, especially those in the first round, but it drastically restricted negotiating options. All contracts for drafted rookies are now a mandatory four years in length and no such contract—even for young players who are dramatically undervalued—can be renegotiated until after three years have passed under the contract. And, perhaps most notably: player compensation is identified and known the moment a player is drafted, no matter the agent or the team. As to the money in the contract—four-year value, signing bonus and salary—there simply is no negotiation.

Now, instead of the start of training camps in late July as the unofficial deadline for rookies signing their contracts, that unofficial deadline has moved to the start of minicamps in mid-May. As of this writing, several teams have their entire rookie class under contract.

The fact the CBA prefabricates rookie contract compensation does not mean that there are not potentially negotiable items beyond the actual dollars paid out through the four-year contact. Here are a few (somewhat) negotiable items:

Contract language

This is always an issue, although teams anchor hard with their cherished precedent. It will take a herculean effort by an agent, and only with a player with extreme leverage (if that), to change a team’s boilerplate language.

Signing bonus payment terms

While the CBA sets out the bonus amount, it does not address payment terms on that bonus; that requires negotiation. And, as you would expect, agents want payout as early as possible and teams want as much deferral as they can negotiate. This was the issue in the delayed signing of Joey Bosa a couple of years ago, as the Chargers were pushing large amounts of the bonus into the following year while Bosa’s representatives pushed for more in first year of the deal. A compromise was eventually reached.


Although agents were able to wrangle full guarantees for first round picks as a quid pro quo for the reduced amounts paid, teams have clapped back with clauses such as offsets and voids to limit their exposure on remaining guaranteed amounts. Offsets prevent a player from “double-dipping”—receiving money from two teams—requiring that if a player is released and signs on with a new team, the player deducts new team money from the amount owed by the original team. Except for the Jaguars and Rams, teams that have never demanded offsets, teams make these offset clauses non-negotiable and impose their will in this area.


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As with offsets, teams are extracting their pounds in voiding (invalidating) future guaranteed money for off-field suspensions due to personal conduct and steroids. Once teams were able to impose those voids, they have looked to add clauses relating to suspensions for on-field conduct. This was the issue last year between the Bears and Roquan Smith, with the Bears trying to void future guarantees based on potential punishment to Smith for actions in a game. The Bears-Smith matter was resolved to allow for voiding only for on-field transgressions triggering a suspension of two or more games, still a win for the Bears in breaking new ground in clawing back against future guarantees.

NFL rookies, even those at the top of the draft, have no seat at the bargaining table and no voice in the CBA negotiating room. And with so many other issues for the NFLPA to try to address in upcoming bargaining, my sense is that the rookie compensation system may become even more regulated, perhaps with standardized contract language, in the next CBA.

NFL rookies have been and will continue to be the ultimate CBA sacrifice.

A thought on Ted Thompson

The news that former Packers general manager Ted Thompson is now suffering from autonomic disorder was not a shock to those of us around him in recent years—his words were not coming easily and he seemed at times lost—yet was heart-wrenching news nonetheless, about a highly accomplished NFL personnel evaluator and a genuinely good man.

I’ll never forget my first day with the Packers in February 1999, when GM Ron Wolf greeted me, walked me down the hall to an office with a white-haired man sitting there and said, “This is Ted, you’ll share an office with him.” We shared that office in the old Lambeau Field annex for a year, although, and this will not surprise anyone: I rarely heard him speak.

Ted left the Packers in 2000 for a promotion with the Seahawks, only to return to Green Bay in 2005 as the Packers' general manager. Although his rank had grown, his reticence to speak had certainly not. Ted and I spoke every day that he was in the office, although our conversations were, as his were with everyone, quick and concise.

Ted noted each year that he was wary of what he called the “dangerous waters of free agency” and his distaste for, what I called “winning March.” Having said that, we certainly did not eschew free agency altogether, signing two of the best defensive players in the NFL—Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers—to deals that were not cap-bloating. More importantly, as I know better than anyone, we were always among the top half of the league in team spending; we just spent mostly on home grown players.

At times I clashed with Ted, although we never had a cross word, as I felt we should have been more transparent and open with fans and media. I was certainly not advising sharing any trade secrets, just a bit more openness, as transparency breeds trust for an organization that I always likened to a public trust. Ted disagreed; he saw no value in sharing more about us to the public.

Ted’s tenure as general manager was defined by his private nature that extended to our overall football operations. I remember one year when our team psychologist, who spent time with every member of the organization as part of her annual duties, came to me exasperated after meeting with Ted, saying, “I’ve spent time with thousands of people; I’ve never met someone as closed as Ted!”

Ted led a hermit-like existence in Green Bay, rarely seen outside of our offices or his home on the Fox River. There were times I had to make a decision on a contract with a player in the evening, and I had to trust my instincts, as I knew Ted went to bed around 8:30 p.m. But Ted empowered me, as he did our scouting staff that included accomplished scouts such as John Schneider, John Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie, Elliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.

Ted, as he acknowledged in his induction into the Packer Hall of Fame last week, was a scout at heart, no more and no less. He was nowhere more in his element than watching players; that is all he wanted to be and what cared about more than anything else. And Ted’s defining and lasting quality is his selflessness; it was never about him, and he cared about everyone but himself.

Now it’s time we care about Ted Thompson. I’m thinking of him.

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