NFL Draft: Agents change course, advocate for longer draft

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Surely, the NFL draft cannot get any bigger than this: Next Thursday, the first round will be broadcast live in prime time. Friday, the second and third rounds will be held, again live in prime time. And the final four rounds will be conducted over much of the day Saturday, all of it televised somewhere.

It just can't get any bigger than that. Except, not all that long ago, it was bigger, much bigger. As recently as 1992, Bill Cowher's first year as Steelers coach, there were 12 rounds. They held it over two days; a few years earlier they conducted all 12 rounds in one day -- on a weekday starting in the morning.

The new collective bargaining agreement negotiated in 1993 changed all that. The spoilsport NFL Players Association fought for a reduced draft, and the owners complied. In '93, the draft was limited to eight rounds, then reduced to seven in '94, where it has remained.

But some people believe it's time to expand the number of rounds beyond seven, and those raising the issue come from the side that wanted the draft reduced 20 years ago -- agents who represent players.

"My feeling is going back to nine rounds, maybe a 10-round draft, there's certainly that many priority free agents out there anyway who would get drafted," said Ken Vierra, a player's agent in San Francisco.

"I would agree, expand the draft," said agent Eric Metz, a Monroeville native who works out of Phoenix. "And they should expand the rosters for training camp, too.

"Expanding the draft gives more of the James Harrisons of the world a legitimate opportunity instead of the rough road he had to take, and it eliminates the free-for-all after the draft, which isn't fair for the player or the team."

Cutting the draft by five rounds led to a bizarre free-agent bazaar that lasts about 60 minutes as soon as the draft ends as teams scramble to sign a dozen or so undrafted rookies to fill their rosters. Once, many of those players would have been drafted, so the quality of the rookie free agent skyrocketed when the draft was cut to seven rounds.

The scramble by 32 teams to sign those free agents is, as Metz described it, "an hour of madness."

Teams assign scouts and coaches names and phone numbers of the players (and their agents) they want to sign and they hit the ground calling. They rank them as they would their draft board and go down the list until they get agreements. Unlike what they proclaim to do in the draft, this usually goes by position because they need certain numbers at each position for training camp practices.

"It's usually what team gets to them first," said longtime Pittsburgh agent Ralph Cindrich.

"It makes that post-draft process really kind of crazy," Vierra said. "A lot of times, the teams and players and agents unwittingly don't end up with what they want because there is just such a crapshoot for 45 minutes to an hour after the draft."

Representatives from the teams generally call the agent and ask if the player wants to sign. He can receive five offers in the first few minutes or more. Then, as Vierra put it, "You have to talk to the player, evaluate it, pull the trigger in a very short time. Teams can't wait around, they have to bring in a safety and they have three guys and they go down the list. If your guy doesn't commit in five minutes, move on."

"Once the draft ends, we've got lists -- prioritized lists -- based on who is available still," said Eric DeCosta, Baltimore Ravens player personnel director.

"I don't want to give up all of our secrets, but we basically have guys who are in charge of certain positions and different ways we go about it. ... It's a pretty frenetic pace -- guys hitting the phones -- and we do the best we can."

At stake could be the next Willie Parker or James Harrison, two undrafted players who hit it big with the Steelers, both Pro Bowlers who helped their teams win Super Bowls.

And, under the current CBA, teams are not permitted to pay all their undrafted rookies more than a total of $75,000 in signing bonuses. They can pay one $20,000 if they want, but that leaves only $55,000 to be spread out among the rest. There would be more signing bonus money available to a draft pick.

The original idea to cut back on the draft was to give those undrafted players a chance to pick what they believed was their best opportunity to make a team. But the mad scramble and the lack of bonus money often doesn't allow for that.

"From my own football background, a lot of good agents do their homework and get them in right place," Vierra said.

"But, on the other side, teams spend a lot of time evaluating and if they're going to draft a guy, even in the eighth, ninth, 10th round, most of the time they know what they're doing."

As it stands, the draft really is eight rounds long. The NFL doled out 32 compensatory draft picks this year, in essence adding another full round. Others believe there is room for more rounds and, with the fan interest in the draft making it more popular than ever, what's there not to like?

Steelers

First Published April 20, 2012 12:00 AM


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