In the coming offseason, the first wave of players signed to contracts limited by the rookie wage scale will become eligible for new deals. Two of them may have squandered their chances of hitting the jackpot early.
It’s believed that the 2011 rookies who have become great players will be lining up at their owners’ doors, demanding the money that was kept from them by a system aimed at keeping windfalls from going to incoming players who never earn it. From Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to Bengals receiver A.J. Green to Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson to Falcons receiver Julio Jones to Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, guys taken at the top of the draft two-plus years ago will want next year what they should have gotten in the first place.
Two of the top-ten picks from 2011 who became top-flight talents may have to wait even longer. While there’s no disputing that Broncos linebacker Von Miller and 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith are among the best defensive players in the league, off-field issues could make their teams more reluctant to make a gigantic financial investment in them after only three seasons.
Miller currently is serving a six-game suspension for cheating the league’s drug-testing process. He’s one slip-up away from a minimum banishment of one year. Smith currently is in rehab, which likely will cause him to miss four games. He could still be suspended by the league for a recent DUI arrest, his second while in the NFL.
Look for the 49ers to focus not on Aldon Smith but quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the coming offseason, and to delay Smith’s deal until after the 2014 season. If Smith doesn’t like it, he can hold out. But given his situation and the fact that the 49ers are paying Smith while he’s in rehab, it’ll be hard for him to muster much fan or media support if he takes a stand.
With the Broncos, it’s less clear whether they plan to pay Miller after the 2013 season. They could structure a deal with maximum protection against another violation of the substance-abuse policy. Or they could simply take the leap of faith that Miller, whom the organization unconditionally has supported despite some fairly strong allegations of misconduct, has gotten the message.
Our current assessment is that Smith won’t get his new deal after 2013 and that Miller possibly will. That assessment is subject to change based on what both players do, or don’t do, once they return to the football field later this season.
And what they do, or don’t do, away from the field.