Big paydays for top 2011 picks could come slowly

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With 36½ sacks over his first three seasons, plus five more over four playoff games, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has quickly become one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers.

The mega-contract to match his market value likely won’t materialize as fast.

At the quarter mark of the new collective bargaining agreement the financial picture for both sides is still forming, but Watt’s case is a sign of one potentially significant advantage for the owners.

At not quite 25 years old, Watt would probably prompt offers of $100 million deals on the open market this month if he were eligible for it, and become the NFL’s richest defensive player. Watt has exhibited the work ethic of an overachieving former walk-on at Wisconsin, the speed to match his prototypical size, and the durability to maximize his never-more-important skill of pressuring the quarterback. He has not missed a game as a pro.

Timing is everything, though, for the first draft class of the current CBA. Watt isn’t even in the top 30 money makers at his position. While the Texans can now negotiate an extension with the 11th overall pick from 2011, the only obvious immediate motivation to do so would be for good will toward a vital player.

Texans general manager Rick Smith, asked last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis about Watt’s status, said no such contract talks have begun.

“This being first year that those deals can open up, I think you will see any number of positions that clubs will take,” Smith said. “Again, we are in the process of determining how we are going to handle that as well. It’s an important piece. It’s an element that obviously needs to be thought through and carefully considered.”

Owners sought to stem the soar of signing bonuses for high draft picks, and their allies in those labor talks were veterans bothered by staggering contracts given to guys yet to play an NFL game.

“The biggest part is getting those rookie contracts under control, and that’s why you see so much movement in the first round,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said, adding: “No one ever wanted to get into the top five because of the financial commitment. You were just stuck.”

Players approved the rookie wage scale to allocate more money under the salary cap for veterans. They received unrestricted free agency after four years in return and got the league to agree to minimum annual spending. For first-round picks, however, the owners secured a big win with this portion of Article 7, Section 7, of the CBA:

“A club has the unilateral right to extend from four years to five years the term of any Rookie Contract of a player selected in the first round of the Draft (the “Fifth-Year Option”). To do so, the Club must give written notice to the player after the final regular-season game of the player’s third season but prior to May 3 of the following League Year (i.e., year four of the contract).”

Under the fifth-year salary formula, Watt would make about $5.5 million, an under-market salary for his resume. Teams also can use the franchise tag to further stave off free agency should a player balk at an extension offer. No renegotiations are allowed for the first three years of any rookie deal.

The fifth-year options are guaranteed only in case of injury, so a team could pick that up now and still cut the player before the 2015 season without owing him any more money. This will make for an intriguing dynamic over the next few months around the league as teams weigh their options.

Publicly, nobody has griped yet. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been a bargain for the Panthers with a contract worth half as much as the top pick in the 2010 draft, quarterback Sam Bradford, whose career in St. Louis has been beset by injuries. Newton has said he’s not worried about the extension.

Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green, the fourth selection in 2011, has acknowledged he’s not in a rush.

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