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 Early starts put first-rounders in a bind (Pat Kirwan) 
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Post Early starts put first-rounders in a bind (Pat Kirwan)
Early starts put first-rounders in a bind

By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst
(July 9, 2005) -- Last year, just one first-round draft pick was signed in the month of June -- Jason Babin of the Houston Texans. But the early signing did not hurt Babin financially. In fact, his average yearly salary is higher than two players drafted ahead of him that elected to wait until August to get their names on a contract.

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After Babin inked his deal, 18 first-round selections signed in July and the final 13 didn't get to camp until August. The most famous holdout of last summer was quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall selection of the draft. He didn't officially become a San Diego Charger until Aug. 24, and by then, Drew Brees had won the starting quarterback job.

This year, the fourth pick in the draft is running back Cedric Benson and there is extra pressure on the talented running back from Texas who is supposed to be the cornerstone of future Chicago Bear teams.

The Bears are playing in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 8, which is nearly a week before preseason games get under way for most other teams in the NFL. The ripple effect of the early preseason game is that the Bears go to training camp on July 23, while teams like the Redskins, Ravens, Steelers and Cardinals don't go to camp until July 31. The teams starting nine days later have the extra days to get their top picks signed after the market begins to take shape and the players aren't criticized for being late to camp.

For Benson to be in on time, he is going to have to get a deal done without the market for 2005 being established, and the player who was in his spot last year (Rivers) was a quarterback, which makes it very hard to establish the "right deal." Compounding the situation even more is that Rivers got a bigger signing bonus and a better yearly average than the player selected third last year, Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals. The first running back selected in 2004 was Steven Jackson of the Rams way down at the 24th spot, so there is no point of reference in terms of position.

The most interesting dynamic that is going to play out with the Cedric Benson contract in the next few weeks is the fact that Ronnie Brown, the running back from Auburn selected by the Dolphins at the second overall spot, just two up from Benson, is also scheduled to play in the Hall of Fame game. Under new head coach Nick Saban, the Dolphins are scheduled to report to camp on July 24, just one day after the Bears and a full week earlier than many teams.


The Bears hope to have Cedric Benson in uniform when camp opens July 23.
I can't imagine there is a very good chance of seeing either young ball carrier in the nationally televised game from Canton. Both young men will be labeled "holdouts" if they don't get signed by July 24, but if their teams weren't in the early preseason game, that wouldn't be the case at all. I wouldn't call them victims of circumstances, but I don't believe the Hall of Fame game for the top two running backs taken is going to help their early image with their respective fans. I wonder if Bears running back Thomas Jones, a former first-round pick himself, believes he could be this year's Drew Brees if Benson takes until August to get to camp. On the other side of the coin, keep in mind that Ben Roethlisberger didn't ink his deal with the Steelers until Aug. 4 last year and he had a pretty good rookie season.

The early starts create stress on two other teams that have a game in Tokyo on Aug. 6. Atlanta and Indianapolis leave for Japan around Aug. 3 and both start camp earlier than most teams. The Colts' first-round pick (Marlin Jackson at No. 29) and the Falcons' first-rounder ( Roddy White at No. 27) would probably want to see some deals done before they commit to contracts. Last year, the final five draft picks in the first round were done later than when the Colts and Falcons would like to get their players signed this year. The final first-round selection in 2004, tight end Ben Watson of the Patriots, didn't come to camp until Aug. 16.

Because the Collective Bargaining Agreement has not been extended yet, agents and club officials are dealing with a negotiating season that can only amortize signing bonuses over five years instead of six years like they did last year. The early preseason games will stress four teams and four players more than the other teams and first-round picks to get to camp on time. Three of the four teams have the salary-cap space available to get the players signed, but one team is very tight to the cap and may have to let a player go to fit the top rookie under the cap.

Finally, I remember when our team played in the Hall of Fame game and we were in camp early to prepare. Agents were not going to let that influence their responsibilities to get their clients the best deals they could negotiate. These are not easy times for the chief negotiators at the Dolphins, Bears, Falcons or Colts.


July 12th, 2005, 1:04 pm
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