Rookie contracts now a high priority

The Jets' Mark Sanchez, left, and the Lions' Matthew Stafford have been the only first-round picks to sign so far, but teams have made significant headway with middle- and late-rounders. The Star Ledger/US Presswire

With only three prospects signed from the first two rounds of this year's draft, including quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (Detroit) and Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), the really big numbers remain a challenge for the men charged with negotiating rookie contracts.

The smaller numbers, however, have been pretty impressive to date.

As of Thursday evening, 100 of the 256 players chosen in the 2009 lottery had reached agreements, although 53 of them in the sixth (20) and seventh rounds (33) combined. Almost as important, 97 of those rookie contracts were completed by the end of June.

By league standards, that qualifies as a blistering pace.

It is easily the highest rate (37.8 percent) of pre-July contracts in this millennium. It might be the best pace in modern NFL annals, and comes at just about the slowest time on the league calendar.

Most substantive negotiations on rookie contracts don't generally even begin until the calendar turns to July, and frequently not until after the teams' number-crunchers return to their office calculators after the Independence Day holiday. There is no such dilatory mindset, though, in 2009. This year, both the clubs and the players have a healthy leg up on the overall signing process.

Last spring, only 63 players had contract accords by the end of the business day on June 30. So the relative signing spree this year represents a healthy increase of 57 percent.

"If both sides do their homework [thoroughly], are confident that their numbers will hold up, and have a feel for where the market is going … it makes some sense to get a contract done [early]," said Chicago senior director of football administration Cliff Stein.

That approach has translated into earlier-than-usual rookie signings this spring, and it continues in a big way the trend of the last few years. For the three-year period from 2004 to 2006, the NFL averaged just 21.7 completed contracts by June 30. That average has skyrocketed to 76.0 deals finished by June 30 for 2007-2009.

So why the sudden draft signing bounty?

A few possible reasons, gleaned from discussions with a veteran NFLPA official, several agents and team negotiators, and a few rookies:

It's the economy, stupid: It's usually a long stretch between the time that players are drafted and when they receive their first signing-bonus checks. Because they are financially squeezed more than ever by the recession, many players prefer to cash their signing bonus checks now rather than wait a month or two for them. Even "Mr. Irrelevant," the final choice in the draft, kicker Ryan Succop (Kansas City), received a signing bonus of $25,250.

Agents of change: Many agents arrange for their clients to receive a line of credit or a straight loan from a bank, to tide the player over until his first NFL contract is consummated. Taking the money early allows those agents to collect their commission fees and to repay the banks sooner. And the "recruiting" of prospective clients for the following year's draft seems to begin earlier every year, so agents already have expenses.

Slot machine: The value of a player's contract, particularly the signing bonus, is often determined by "slotting." That's a longtime system that pays a player depending on the round in which he is chosen and his relative position in that stanza. Of the 84 contracts examined so far by ESPN.com, there wasn't a single deal "out of slot." As rounds begin to fill in with signings, slotting definitely takes over. Why not take the money now, at present-day value, if you're going to be slotted anyway?

Cap-ital idea: Without an extension to the collective-bargaining agreement, there will be no salary cap in 2010, and many owners are already attempting to determine some of their expenses for that year. Signing a draft pick before July allows owners to quickly lock in the player's contract for the future. Only a few franchises, notably Pittsburgh and Arizona, have signed their middle- and late-round choices to three-year contracts. In a trend that started about three years ago, most of the clubs are signing even late-round picks to four-year deals.

Clearing the decks: Negotiations for first-round contracts are typically time-consuming and often acrimonious. Signing even late-round players early allows a team negotiator more time to devote to first-round deals.

Sooner rather than later: Coaches increasingly want their draft choices in camp on time, and, if possible, prefer their participation in the team's offseason program. Team negotiators are trying harder than ever to fulfill their coach's desires because rookies often fit into a team's playing-time equation.

Whatever the reasons for the increase, the results are graphic.

The 160 contracts negotiated by June 30 of the past two years actually surpasses the 131 total pre-July deals for the previous four seasons combined. There were 66 pre-July contracts in 2007, and that represents more than 50 percent of those 131 contracts.

For the third time in the past five seasons, Chicago was the first franchise in the league to have all its draft choices under contract. It should be noted that the Bears had neither a first- nor second-round choice among its nine picks. Still, Stein annually does a commendable job. The Jets, with a league-low three selections, have signed them all. Two other clubs, Philadelphia (eight picks overall) and Pittsburgh (nine choices), have reached agreements with all but their respective first-round selections.

Only six teams have yet to sign a single draft choice, and most of those are clubs that traditionally don't commence negotiations until July. Fifteen of the 32 franchises have each signed four or more 2009 picks, and seven of those have agreements with five or more players from their '09 draft classes.

Here's a round-by-round breakdown of the signings through Thursday afternoon: two in the first round, one in the second round, 13 in the third round, 10 in the fourth round, 21 in the fifth round, 20 in the sixth round, and 33 in the seventh round.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.