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Player agents slow down NFL signings

Buffalo's Pat Kane was selected first overall in the NHL draft June 22. A little more than a month later he was under contract to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Portland made Greg Oden the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft June 28. Less than a week passed before he and the Trail Blazers came to terms.

See how simple it can be? No dawdling. No holdouts. No head coaches wishing all their rookies were on hand from the get-go.

Which brings us to the NFL. Way back in April the Buffalo Bills chose running back Marshawn Lynch 12th overall. They opened training camp Thursday without him. There was no telling how long it would be before he signed and reported. The suspense finally ended late Thursday night when the sides came to terms. It was not up to Lynch so much as his agent, who's in professional competition with other agents, all of whom are loath to agree to contract terms until the 2007 pay structure for first-rounders has been established.

Thing is, it takes signings to establish the pay structure and progress has been scant. As of Wednesday, only four of the league's 32 first-round picks were under contract, and none of those players were selected in the vicinity of Lynch, whose value therefore had yet to be defined in 2007 dollars.

"It seems that every year there is something new that comes up," Jim Overdorf, Bills vice president of football administration, said. "It seems like people are trying to determine what type of structure that the contracts are going to follow. That's what I think the hang-up is."

The real hang-up is that the NFL, unlike the NHL and the NBA, allows rookie contracts to exceed manageable and realistic parameters. There is no language in the collective bargaining agreement that caps the salaries of first-year players. As a result, the agent for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, chosen first overall by the Oakland Raiders, is shooting for a rookie record $30 million in guaranteed money. That's $30 million to find out if Russell is good enough to play in the league. Many a proven vet only can crave such financial security.

Player agents help to gum up the works. Granted, they are often necessary evils, representatives who understand the industry trends and the nuances of contract language. They are also as much about themselves as the players they represent.

Let's say Lynch had decided to sign early for five years at $13 million, about a 10 percent increase over the contract signed by last year's No. 12 pick, Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, this year's 11th and 13th picks overall sign contracts worth 15 percent more than their corresponding picks of the previous year. Suddenly Lynch's agent, Doug Hendrickson, is portrayed as someone who shorted his client. Rival agents will gloat that they did better for their players when they're recruiting future clients.

So agents tread carefully, and it's not because Lynch or any other rookie would keenly appreciate the difference between $13 million and $13.1 million. Hendrickson's on solid ground so long as Lynch's salary is slotted between those of draft picks Nos. 11 and 13.

It's a sad system, really, as evidenced by this year's large number of first-round holdouts. Doubtless Lynch would have preferred to be at camp on the first day rather than waiting for word that night that he was signed and cleared to report.

"You've got to be at camp on time, especially being a rookie," Bills rookie linebacker Paul Posluszny said after coming to terms Wednesday. "If you want to start things off right . . . you can't show up late and expect to be on the same page as all the older guys."

Someone tell the agents.


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