Now comes the hard part - signing first-round picks

On The NFL

April 25, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The easy part for the NFL teams was drafting the players at the top of the first round last week.

Now comes the hard part -- signing them and avoiding holdouts.

With all the rookie salary cap rules -- each team has a rookie pool number and signing bonuses can't be pro-rated longer than seven years -- signing the top rookies shouldn't be a problem.

For example, the Ravens should be able to slot their top pick, cornerback Chris McAlister, because they drafted Duane Starks at the same position in the same 10th spot last year.

Starks got a $1.39 million salary cap number last year with a $3.1 million signing bonus in a four-year deal. The first-year base salary was $615,000.

Working a deal for McAlister at a 6 to 10 percent increase should be easy. The problem is that he has Eugene Parker for an agent. Parker orchestrated the Peter Boulware holdout two years ago and held out Arizona's Andre Wadsworth until the night before the opener last season. Not that Parker is the only agent who isn't quick to strike a deal.

That's why the Cleveland Browns used their leverage before the draft to get Tim Couch signed to a seven-year deal with a $12.25 million signing bonus, a 6 percent increase over the $11.6 million signing bonus Peyton Manning got.

The Browns told Couch's agent, Tom Condon, that if he didn't make a deal before the draft, they'd draft Akili Smith.

Smith's agent, Leigh Steinberg, was shocked -- just shocked -- that the Browns would use him for leverage.

"I don't know what happened to common courtesy and honest dealing," Steinberg said, ignoring the fact that in free agency the agents use the teams for leverage.

For the rest of the unsigned top draft picks, the advantage now swings to the agents, who have the holdout weapon.

The most interesting negotiation will pit Ricky Williams' representative, the No Limit Sports firm founded by rapper Master P, and the Saints.

Williams' agent, Leland Hardy, said Williams is the best college player ever and should be paid accordingly. But he's boxed in by the team's $1.749 million rookie pool number.

Hardy seemed to soften his stance late last week when he said the deal will be done in a "timely manner." If it's not and Williams misses training camp, the Colts will feel justified in bypassing him for Edgerrin James.

How much is too much?

The Saints' decision to give the Washington Redskins their 1999 draft -- minus a second-round pick that had already been traded -- and first- and third-round picks in 2000 is widely viewed as being too lucrative.

But general manager Bill Kuharich admits the Saints were willing to give more to get Williams. They offered Cincinnati, drafting third, their 1999 draft, first-round picks in 2000 and 2001 and a second-round choice in 2002. The Bengals said no and took Akili Smith.

"People need to say maybe the Saints weren't way off base [if other teams are turning down better offers]," Kuharich said.

One thing that nobody can argue is that right or wrong, Mike Ditka is always interesting. Imagine any other coach showing up at Williams' news conference with a wig of shoulder-length dreadlocks.

"It's become a very stale profession," Kuharich said. "It's corporate, almost robotic. Mike breaks all the rules; it's refreshing."

Follow the money

The Ravens will need a lot of money to sign two first-round picks next year, but their timing couldn't be better.

They currently have more money under the salary cap for 2000 -- $25.46 million -- than any other team. Arizona and Atlanta are second and third at $25.3 million and $23.9 million, respectively. Cleveland was at $23.6 million before the Couch deal.

Since the cap is likely to go up as much as $5 million next year, the top three teams should have close to $30 million to spend.

By contrast, five teams are less than $3 million under the cap next year and nine are over it. Denver ($12.7 million over), Buffalo ($14.7 million), San Francisco ($15.9 million) and Kansas City ($16.3 million) are the teams that have to prune the most payroll next year.

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said the main reason the club is so far under is that it has a lot of one-year contracts.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Ravens and Eagles were the only teams at the start of last season that averaged under the salary cap over the past five years in actual cash spent. Signing bonuses usually push teams over the cap in actual spending.

The Ravens then boosted their 1998 payroll from $46.2 million to $52 million during the season by extending the contracts of Ray Lewis and Jermaine Lewis.

But coach Brian Billick isn't concerned about the Ravens' spending policies. He noted that the Vikings were a low-spending team and had just two unrestricted free agents on last year's 15-1 team.

The Vikings actually spent slightly less than the Ravens did from 1994 to 1997 before they spent $15 million more than the Ravens last year while extending the contracts of several prime free agents.

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