For some, stock drop can become costly fall

NFL: When players such as QB Aaron Rodgers are drafted later than expected, it can mean millions.

Nfl Draft

April 24, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

For NFL teams and their fans, the draft is a giddy mix of promise and optimism, drama and angst.

But for arguably the biggest stakeholders -- the players waiting to be chosen -- the anticipation and anxiety are especially heightened as a young lifetime's worth of sweat and sacrifice finally has a price tag attached to it.

The big winners, such as quarterback Alex Smith, taken No. 1 by the San Francisco 49ers, and running back Ronnie Brown, selected No. 2 by the Miami Dolphins, became expectant multimillionaires yesterday when their names were announced.

For others, though, the draft that ends today is a dizzying roller-coaster ride. Dropping precipitously -- sometimes for reasons beyond a player's control -- could mean dreams of cashing in big are dashed.

Leading to yesterday, former California quarterback Aaron Rodgers was rated neck-and-neck with Smith and a possible top pick overall. Instead, Rodgers, becoming noticeably glum as the afternoon wore on, waited five hours until the Packers took him with the 24th choice and heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Brett Favre. The difference between the bonus checks for QBs Smith and Rodgers will be $5 million to $7 million, based on last year's contracts.

"The Lord's been teaching me a lot about humility and patience, and he kind of threw both in my face today," said Rodgers, whose selection was cheered by the crowd at New York's Javits Center. "Obviously, I'd have loved to be the first pick and be able to stay in California. But I wanted to go to a team that wanted me. [The 49ers] obviously didn't want me."

Hunt Valley-based agent Tony Agnone recalled a less-celebrated occasion -- but no less disappointing for the player -- involving former Washington offensive tackle Derek Smith, who expected to be taken in the second round of the 1999 draft. During a workout drill at the NFL scouting combine that year, the 310-pound Smith suffered a freak knee injury and eventually plummeted to the fifth round.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Agnone, who represented Smith. "He and another tackle, Jon Jansen [who was taken by the Redskins in the second round in 1999], were considered about the same before that twisted knee. ... The difference for Derek was huge."

The difference was hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, last year a mid-second-round choice typically landed about a $1 million signing bonus while a mid-fifth-rounder was in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

At the top of the draft, the effects of dropping are even more pronounced.

"There is a dramatic drop-off [of money] for a player, who could be a marquee player, but just falls from second, third or fourth in the first round to the middle range," said Ravens director of football administration Pat Moriarty, who keeps an eye on the team's salary cap.

Salaries and bonuses for draft picks are established by a combination of factors that result in a regimented slotting system with variances. Position is a factor -- quarterbacks and running backs get more money than linemen, even when they're drafted near each other. And the duration of the contract -- teams are willing to give higher bonuses in longer deals because the player is tied up for more years.

Tomorrow, teams are scheduled to find out from the NFL how much money they will be allowed to spend on their draft picks, a so-called rookie pool -- what Moriarty calls a "cap within a cap." Clubs are also held to a fixed amount they're permitted to pay the entire roster, about $85.5 million for 2005, with rookie signing bonuses pro-rated for cap purposes over the duration of each respective deal.

Last year, the league allowed about $120.8 million in rookie pool spending for all 32 teams, an amount that typically has risen 4 percent to 5 percent a year. But each team will get a different rookie poll figure based on how many draft picks they have and their position.

"In 2002, when [Houston Texans quarterback] David Carr was the first pick, Houston was allocated a rookie pool number that, everything being equal, was going to be higher than everyone else," the Ravens' Moriarty said. "We were No. 24 [in the draft], so my rookie cap number for that round was less than half the amount David Carr received."

In concrete terms, the No. 1 pick overall a year ago, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, received a contract that included about $23 million in guaranteed money over the life of his contract. That was about triple what the No. 10 pick overall, Dunta Robinson, received. The Houston cornerback's deal totaled $8 million in guaranteed cash for the duration of his pact.

Because most of the rookie pool money is spent on the first couple of rounds, the rest of the rounds are priced -- or slotted -- in a descending lockstep progression. The total bonus money handed out to all the players in the final two rounds of the draft today probably won't add up to the amount collected by a single star at the top of the first round.

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