Chalk One Up for Charley

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June 16, 2005
Chalk One Up for Charley

by Bob Hulsey

Although I’m not a fan of the deal that sent two first-day draft choices to the Raiders for cornerback Phillip Buchanon a few days before the April draft, it was – in one sense – a stroke of genius.

Few draft choices have been signed so far and none of them higher than a sixth-round pick. The first-day guys may not be under contract for some time. The 2005 draftees are under the current collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association and the rookie salary cap outlined in that agreement. Such salaries tend to be "slotted" meaning that a player will sign for slightly less than the fellow drafted ahead of him and slightly more than the fellow drafted after him.

The devil, of course, is in the details, and that is why teams and agents get more creative the higher in the draft a player is selected. Typically with the Texans and most other teams, a draft choice is signed to a three-year contract so as to spread out any signing bonus against three salary caps instead of just one. Three years is also, coincidentally, the number of years an NFL entrant is under club control before restricted free agency comes along.

Thanks to the Buchanon trade, the Texans have only two first-day choices to sign instead of four. This is to their advantage because agents appear to be very hesitant to get rookies under contract this summer. It’s not this year they are thinking about. It’s next year.

The CBA expires next winter, making those salary caps and rookie caps a thing of the past if a new one isn’t signed. Nobody wants to sign a three-year contract this year just before the dam breaks and the salary flood gates are opened. Imagine the free-for-all next year if the Jerry Joneses of the NFL are able to spend like a Steinbrenner without artificial restraints. As a player, you’d sure hate to miss out on that bonanza.

For a moment, I will again harken back to the bad luck of one Mike Williams. The former USC star thought he’d have his name on an NFL contract before Bush’s first term of office was over. Now, he’s stalled again just like so many of Bush’s judicial appointments. He missed out on a national championship ring while he sat in limbo. To make matters even worse, should Williams ever sign an NFL contract he will become a Detroit Lion.

For now, Williams is sitting like every other first-rounder, waiting for the owners and the NFLPA to sign and ratify a new CBA. It would be nuts to sign now and be paid in 2005 dollars when severe inflation may hit in 2006 if the deal doesn’t get done.

The players’ union generally thinks they gave up too much ground the last time, even though it put the NFL in the healthiest position of the four major American team sports. Baseball is still licking their wounds from the 1994 strike and a steroids scandal. The NHL is almost ready for a headstone etching and the NBA is poised to have a lockout this fall. The NFL players would be in similar peril but for the saving grace of increased television revenue now in place to begin for 2006. That means more dollars to carve up but a new contract is still not close to final.

While all the rookies not named Shawne Merriman are taking part in rookie camps and mini-camps, some will probably not set foot in July training camps without a signed contract and their agents are holding back until they know what the salary landscape will be in 2006. While I often bash agents as blood-sucking leeches, I can’t blame them here. No agent wants to come away looking like the Indian chief who sold Manhattan Island for $24 and was later banished to Kansas City.

Which brings us to Houston general manager Charley Casserly and the draft. Essentially, the Texans could get through the 2005 season without their rookies taking the field. None of them are projected as starters and Buchanon arrives already under contract. While depth and special teams might suffer, other teams expecting a rookie to step in and start would hurt much worse. The worst that no CBA could do to Dom Capers’ plans this year is to force Jonathan Wells to back up Domanick Davis again. That wouldn’t be the case if we’d drafted that playmaking linebacker I wanted or the left tackle a lot of others draftniks wanted.

I do expect a new CBA to be signed and hopefully before September. The owners can’t afford a gold rush of big player contracts upsetting their balance sheets or, worse, a full-blown work stoppage shrinking their 16-week schedule. By that time, some holdout draft choices will have lost precious training camp time getting up to speed for the 2005 season. The Texans are well-positioned not to care if their draft picks show up at all.

Hats off to you, Charley. You’ve demonstrated again why you get paid the big bucks while we amateurs just sit around cursing the darkness and writing columns.

Bob Hulsey was last seen desperately thumbing through channel listings for Canadian games to fill the time between now and August.

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