For most of its long history, the NFL has been plagued by contentious rookie negotiations leading to new players missing part or all of training camp. The early days in training camp are where most rookies get precious developmental time. For a rookie quarterback or offensive lineman, positions that necessitate repetition after repetition, it can make the difference in whether the player is able to be of value to a team his first season. The era of widespread rookie holdouts has ended. More rookies signed in the first month after the draft this year than any year in modern history. This occurred in large part because of the institution of a strict rookie salary cap in 2011.
Before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, high round rookie holdouts were the norm. Teams wanted to keep signing bonuses in their own bank accounts for as long as possible. Many NFL personnel scheduled vacations post draft. Teams were reticent to be the first to sign picks lest they be criticized by other teams for "giving away the bank" and establishing bad precedents.
Agents worried that other agents would trash early signing figures as "too little." This led to institutionalized gridlock. I once called former New York Giant GM, the late George Young, the day after the draft. I said, "George, I represent your first-round draft pick. We are ready to negotiate and get the contract done." His response: "Call me in July".
NFL rules state that a rookie cannot participate in training camp without a signed contract. There was no ability to report and not miss camp while the contract was being worked out. The term "holdout" was part propaganda, coined to make a rookie look as if he was rebellious and unreasonable. "Freezeout" would have been a term more appropriate. In 1987, five rookies including Cornelius Bennett and Rod Woodson did not sign with their team until after the strike in November. QB Kelly Stouffer, picked in the first round by the Cardinals, sat the whole year out and went into the following year's draft.
The impact of late signings had unintended consequences. In 2004 the San Diego Chargers had given up on QB Drew Brees, and selected Philip Rivers with the intention of having him start immediately. Rivers held out the entire pre-season and wasn't ready. Brees resurrected his career as a Pro Bowl selection and Comeback Player of the Year. Rivers sat on the bench for several years.
This year, already 22 of the top 32 draft picks have signed. This is unprecedented. Overall, 217 out of 256 players have signed with their teams. This also is unprecedented. Last year at this time only 13 first-rounders had signed. The season and training camps are still two months away.
This rookie class should be the most prepared and productive group ever. Their contracts are done and their whole focus is making an early impact. The public is spared the drama of all contract headlines. The rookie salary cap has led to a very positive result.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.