On May 16, the players taken from the third through seventh rounds — tackle Wanya Morris, safety Chamarri Conner, defensive end B.J. Thompson, defensive tackle Keondre Coburn and cornerback Nic Jones — were all listed on the official NFL transactions report as having signed their rookie deals. Three days later, first-round defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah’s contract signing was reported there.
Almost three weeks later, second-round wide receiver Rashee Rice is the team’s only drafted rookie who remains unsigned.
Once upon a time — that is, before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Players Association — this was something to worry about. Everything in rookie contracts was up for negotiation; rookies often held out until they got what they wanted.
But since 2011 — and especially since the revised CBA in 2020 — rookie salaries and signing bonuses must fall within narrow ranges based on the player’s draft position and the amount of the salary cap; there’s almost nothing to be negotiated.
What’s the holdup?
Here’s the short answer: we don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses.
Items that can be negotiated in a rookie deal include the schedule on which the signing bonus will be paid, how much of a player’s salary will be guaranteed at signing and whether the contract will include offset language.
Signing bonus schedule
We generally think of a signing bonus as something that is paid in a lump sum at signing. Under the salary cap, it is treated that way; it is pro-rated against the cap over the life of the contract or five years — whichever is shorter.
But that’s not always the case. This is especially true in rookie deals, which sometimes have signing bonus payments spread over multiple years. Over time, players in early rounds have slowly been negotiating their way into getting all of this money at signing.
In these kinds of negotiations, precedent matters. If an agent knows that another player drafted in a similar position has been paid all of their signing bonus immediately (or on an accelerated schedule), it’s much harder for teams to later refuse to do it.
In all of these negotiations, players drafted earlier tend to have more leverage. In 2020, the Chiefs agreed to guarantee 32nd pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire his full salary in 2021 and 2022, plus $1.2 million of his 2023 salary. By the time George Karlaftis was taken with the 31st pick of 2022, the precedent had changed: all four years of his salary were guaranteed at signing.
The bar continues to move. On Tuesday, we learned that edge rusher Derick Hall — taken with the 37th pick of the 2023 draft — had agreed to a precedent-setting second-round contract, in which he will receive 85% of his $3.6 million signing bonus by June 16. His deal also guarantees his compensation through the first three years — along with $100,000 of his fourth-year salary.
Teams will sometimes want player contracts to include clauses that let the team off the hook for payments under certain circumstances. Those might include a player being traded to another team, getting arrested for a crime or being suspended for off-field (or even on-field) rule violations.
Players, of course, don’t want this kind of language in their contracts — so it’s something that can sometimes be an issue in a rookie contract negotiation.
The bottom line
Since rookie wage scales were first established in 2011, players at the top of the draft have managed to get better terms in the details of their contracts. As these precedents have been established (and expanded to include players taken later and later in the draft), we’ve finally reached the point where first-round players tend to sign their deals before players taken in the second round.
So the delay in getting Rice’s contract done is very likely because his agent is waiting to see what kinds of concessions other second-round players have been able to get. Once Rice and his agent have a better idea of the deal they can easily make, they can move on to negotiating the final details.
In the meantime, Rice is not holding out; he has been on the field for every practice the media has been allowed to see. While there may be some details he and his agent need to work out, it appears to be a foregone conclusion that he will sign his contract.