Oh boy, here we go again. Has anyone else had that feeling in the last two weeks? I'm seeing report after report about teams around the NFL signing a bunch of their lower-level draft picks and only one of them concerned a San Diego Chargers rookie. That was Brandon Hughes, who could compete for the 4th cornerback spot on the team in training camp.
It can get even scarier when you look into each situation individually. The driving force to every rookie holdout is complications about the future compared to other rookies. Will the rookie be asked to be a greater value to his team than another player drafted right before him? Is he going to be a starter? Then why shouldn't he get more money? Things like that. So let's go through every 2009 draft pick the Chargers have made and the possible complications that could arise during contract negotiations.
Larry English (16th pick): The good news is that Larry being unsigned at this point means nothing. First round draft picks don't sign a thing until one player makes the leap and sets the standard. Right now, only two first round players have signed contracts and those players are ignored by the rest of the NFL. Matthew Stafford is a #1 pick who has the opportunity to save the Detroit Lions, and Mark Sanchez is a guy that the Jets sold the farm to move up and select. Those players were in the most advantageous position possible and their teams knew it, so they got the astronomical contracts they were asking for.
The thing that could possibly keep Larry unsigned heading into training camp is the possibility of starting. Sure, Shawne Merriman is working out and says his knee feels great, but you never really know how recovered a player is from a major injury until you see them play a game. Personally, I'm going to hold my breath until the first time I see somebody cut-block him and then he stands up afterward with no problem. English, or at least his agent, is thinking the same thing. What if Larry signs for a contract that makes sense for a rookie backup and ends up starting 16 games? In a defense like the Chargers', and on a team with this much talent around him, there's a chance that he could be the catalyst for a championship team and he'll only be paid a rookie salary.
Another reason is why would Larry sign a long-term deal with the Chargers if he could possibly become an unrestricted free-agent in a league with no salary cap in 2010? Don't think about all of the reasons that CBA deal is going to slow down rookie signings this year, it'll scare the hell out of you. A third and final reason is one that can be placed with each player we're about to discuss as well. AJ Smith is a hard-line negotiator and, although he drafted Larry English with the 16th pick in the first round, he'll be quick to mention that Larry played at a small college and was projected to be a second round pick. It may not get him anywhere in the negotiations, but he'll stubbornly hold his ground to make sure he doesn't pay a cent over what he has to with Larry. It's a great value for an NFL Owner, to have a GM like that, but as a fan it makes you nervous.
Louis Vasquez (78th pick): This one is probably the biggest conundrum of them all. Vasquez has a legitimate chance of winning the starting RG spot, but getting into camp early or late may be the deciding factor for whether or not he can earn it. So his agent will argue that Vasquez should be paid more than someone like Sebastien Vollmer (58th pick, NE) who will almost certainly be a backup offensive linemen for the first few years of his career. AJ Smith will argue that Vasquez's legitimacy as a contender for the starting RG spot has been overblown by the media and is entirely dependent upon Louis getting on the field during training camp and the preseason to earn his spot. The problem is that they're both right. Most likely, this means clauses on the contract and lots of them. Bonuses that kick in if Louis starts more than a couple of games, if he makes the Pro Bowl, if the team makes the playoffs and he's one of the starters, etc. It'll be a confusing contract that could take a while to get done.
As a fan, you want to say "If he's smart he'll get it done soon so that he doesn't miss a day of training camp", but you have to realize what's going on from the player's side. An NFL contract is not guaranteed, so if Louis were to say "I'll sign whatever they propose so that I can be on the team", he'd be taking a hell of a risk. Imagine if he signed a deal well below his value as a candidate for the starting RG spot, and half-way through the season he suffers a career-ending injury. The Chargers could cut him the next day and not pay him another dime, and they should because that's the proper way to run an NFL franchise. It's a business. So while Smith has a responsibility to get Vasquez for the lowest value possible, to save his team money and leave money in the budget for the big free agents of 2010, Louis has a responsibility to get every dollar he can while he can so that he's not left in a bad position in the future. Once again, they're both doing what's right.
Vaughn Martin (113th pick): Oh boy. This one may be even more complicated than Vasquez. In terms of talent and performance on the field in college, which believe it or not is a factor in these negotiations, Vaughn cannot be compared to the other players in this draft. He is the only one who did not play American college football. So what does that mean? Well besides the differences in the rules, it most likely means that he's never played in front of 60,000+ screaming fans and he also has probably never played in a game that was watched by millions of fans. These seem like little, insignificant things at first, but they could blow up into something huge. What if he can't handle that pressure? What if he can't handle the noise or the heckling? He could turn out to be a bust simply because the Chargers had no idea that he was afraid of crowds. Now, I'm not saying that's the case. Far from it. I don't know enough about Martin, or Canadian college football, to make those claims. I'm just saying tiny factors like this will be involved in his negotiations whereas they are not typically in negotiations with other rookies.
Martin's also in a similar position to Vasquez in terms of position. Does he have a chance to win the starting DE job? Maybe. The team has been tight-lipped about it thusfar. If not, where is his spot on the team? Is he the backup NT? The backup RDE and LDE? A third-stringer? Again, a lot of that will be determined by his performance in camp and in the preseason games. However, so little is known about who Martin is as a player (against better competition) and what position he could fill in his first season. He's as unknown as a player coming out of high school and into the NFL. That will play a huge part in the negotiations. Martin's agent will probably try to argue that his client could be the Chargers starting DE in 2009, if not by the beginning of the year then certainly by the end of it, and beyond. AJ Smith will argue that Martin is an unknown against this level of competition and in this atmosphere. One thing agents need to learn fast is that usually, AJ Smith is not going to back down. AJ will also bring up the point that Martin was a projected 7th rounder and just because the Chargers chose to use their 4th round draft pick on him, his perceived value should not change. He could say that he's simply a risk taker and liked Martin's attitude and engine, but is clueless as to how he'll translate to the American football game.
Tyronne Green (133rd pick): So little has been said about Green it's shocking. Every other rookie has had at least something said or written about him, but since draft day I don't know that I've heard anything about Green. If I recall, he mostly played Guard at Auburn but was going to be asked to play Center with the Chargers. Yikes. With Newberry gone, that could make Green the backup to Hardwick, but I don't know that he'd be given that spot immediately. The center is typically the leader of the line, responsible for making reads and calling out blitzers to the rest of the line. Throwing a rookie in that spot would be tricky. Hopefully Hardwick stays healthy, but if he were to get injured in the preseason or early in the year I don't know that Green would take over that spot. Still, arguing that point is his agent's job.
Nick Hardwick has started all 16 games only once in his 5 years as the team's starting Center. You could argue that as the backup Center, Green would almost be guaranteed to make between 2-5 starts in his rookie season, which would put his value to the Chargers ahead of some of the players drafted before him. Do you really think he deserves the same money as a 4th CB or a Defensive End that has little chance of making his team?
In this case, the team has the advantage. In a position like Center, where it's important to learn how to read the defense and just as important to build a repore with the starting QB, the team would probably prefer to sign a veteran than try to teach a rookie that's coming in late to camp. The message is loud and clear, "Sign the contract and get on the field or we'll forget we ever wanted you."
Gartrell Johnson (134th pick): A tricky one from both sides. How many carries with Gartrell get in 2009? Was he picked as a backup plan or as the eventual starter? From AJ's perspective, I'm sure he doesn't want to spend another dime on running backs. However, bringing Gartrell into camp and letting him learn the offense and impress the coaches will put added pressure on Darren Sproles to sign that long-term contract now. If Gartrell is good enough he could take touches away from Sproles in 2009, which would move Sproles from the category of "offensive weapon/backup RB" back to "great kick returner", which doesn't pay quite as well. So it's in Smith's best interest to get Gartrell on the field as soon as possible.
Any possible problems? Well, if Gartrell's agent happens to read the paragraph above their might be. It gives Johnson room to negotiate. So, you want my player out there on the field? How much is it worth to you? That sortof thing. Gartrell is really the only different piece to the running game, which was poor in 2008. There will be discussion about that. AJ will argue it was due to LT's injury, Gartrell's agent will argue that the team will get the same results again, injuries and all, without his client out there. They're both probably right. That seems to be the case a lot, but I guess that's why there are things like negotiations, clauses and bonuses. I think this one gets done painlessly, with a nice bonus worked in if Gartrell gets more than 200 touches in year one.
Brandon Hughes (148th pick): Hughes signed a four-year deal with the San Diego Chargers on June 19th. I'm sure there was no argument between player and team about Hughes' involvement in 2009. If he performs well in camp, he could win the 4th CB job. If he doesn't, he'll probably be on the practice squad.
Kevin Ellison (189th pick): I wish Ellison was signed by now. Unfortunately, he's having the similar problems to Martin and Vasquez. With a good camp, he has a chance of winning the Strong Safety starting spot. And while most of the other 6th round picks have been signed by their new teams, it's a group that's made up of players that have no chance at starting in 2009 and probably not after that either.
AJ Smith should be given credit for finding valuable players that can challenge for starter's roles during times in the draft when other teams are picking lifetime backups or players that may not make the team. Perhaps the rookie negotiations have been problematic over the past few seasons for this reason. If so, I'm okay with it.
In a nutshell, this negotiation will be heavily focused on the scouting combine. That's really where Ellison's value dropped. Ellison struggled with injuries during his career at USC, but was a terrific player when healthy. Unfortunately, his legs were still healing when he ran a 4.87 at the combine. He later improved that time by running a 4.7 at the USC Pro Day. Kevin's agent will undoubtedly try to argue that his client was picked so low in the draft due to working out with an injury that's since healed. Smith will argue against it, but it seems like Norv and his staff are excited about the possibility of Ellison winning the Starting Safety spot. That will play into it.
Everyone else around Ellison is getting the same contract. 4 years and roughly $1.85 million. Ellison's agent will argue for more, citing the injury and the possibility of Ellison immediately winning a starter's role. They may eventually end up at 4 years and $1.86, but I doubt they'll go much higher (unless his agent is crazy). When the standard has been set around you, it's hard to argue against it.
Demetrius Byrd (224th pick): It's a unique situation, but it shouldn't be a difficult situation. The players around him are getting 4 year, $1.8 million dollar deals. Byrd's deal will have to be an original contract, much different from the McGahee and Cromartie contracts (because it's an off-the-field injury of greater severity and he was drafted in the 7th round).
What I'd like to see is Byrd sign a 4 year deal for the league minimum ($1.59mil over 5 years) that includes a $300,000 bonus for his first regular season reception. That way, if his recovery goes according to plan, the second he proves himself to be of equal value to the other 7th round picks he immediately gets the same money as them. A bevy of other bonuses could be thrown in as well, and a chunk of it could be given to him in the signing bonus to help with medical bills. This one may not get done for a while, as the team may wait until Byrd is healthy enough to visit San Diego himself to discuss their plans with him personally, but it shouldn't be a problem. This was a pick with heart and easy negotiations will most likely reflect that.