First-round picks may have a potent weapon in Year Five

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The rookie wage scale creates plenty of issues for first-round picks taken since 2011.  Those issues are compounded by the fifth-year option that the team has the exclusive right to exercise.

The fifth-year option gives teams plenty of leverage over first-round picks, locking up the first-round picks for five years plus a sixth or seventh via the franchise tag.  While some of the 2011 first-round selections have scored big-money second contracts after only three seasons, teams can choose to play hardball and squat on the player’s rights, delaying until the players closes in on 30 their first crack at the open market.

But there’s some hope for first-round picks, thanks to a wrinkle that emerged in the discussions that resulted in 49ers guard Alex Boone eventually reporting for work with a mildly improved contract over the next two years.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the 49ers believed that, if Boone’s holdout had lingered into the regular season, the 49ers could have tolled his contract by a full year, based on the language of paragraph 16 of the standard player contract.  That would have put Boone under contract through 2016.

Here’s the relevant text from paragraph 16: “Unless this contract specifically provides otherwise, if Player . . . fails or refuses to perform his services under this contract, then this contract will be tolled between the date . . . of his failure or refusal to perform, and the later date of his return to professional football. . . . On Player’s return to professional football, the term of this contract will be extended for a period of time equal to the number of seasons (to the nearest multiple of one) remaining at the time the contract was tolled.”

Some teams believe based on paragraph 16 that, if a player under contract doesn’t show up by Week One, his contract can be tolled for an entire year. While paragraph 16 supports that position, the 2000 grievance filed by former Seahawks receiver Joey Galloway resulted in a ruling that scuttles paragraph 16. Galloway had missed eight games of the season via a holdout while under contract, and an arbitrator found that Galloway’s contract did not toll, despite paragraph 16.

“Th[e] consistent, long standing past practice of the parties compels the conclusion that players under contract who voluntarily hold out for less than a football season, or players under contract involuntarily suspended for less than a football season, may not have their contracts extended under Paragraph 16,” arbitrator Nicholas H. Zumas wrote in finding that Galloway’s contract didn’t toll for a year.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, former NFL defensive lineman Sean Gilbert raised the Galloway case with Boone’s agents, Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod. Gilbert had been carrying the Galloway case in his back pocket for a while; Gilbert pestered Schwartz and Feinsod about the Galloway ruling when Gilbert’s nephew, Darrelle Revis, was holding out from the Jets in 2010. But since Revis didn’t have four years of service at the time and failed to report within a month of the start of the regular season, tolling the contract didn’t matter; Revis already was blocked from hitting the market in 2011.

The Galloway case applies directly and clearly to first-round picks who are entering that fifth year. Those players can hold out into their fifth regular seasons, missing games and still ultimately getting credit for the contract year.

They can miss as many as eight games and still fall squarely within the facts of the Galloway decision. If they choose to be very aggressive, the bottom line of the Galloway case supports the notion that they need to show up for only one game to get credit for the contract year.

The Galloway case gives all first-round picks, from 2011 through the end of the current labor deal, power that some teams didn’t think those players had.  Those players can hold out into the regular season and still become free agents the following March.

Quite possibly, they can show up as late as Week 17.  While staying away for more than eight games would entail some risk that the player will lose before an arbitrator (despite the language of the Galloway ruling), first-round picks have a weapon that, based on our discussions with multiple league sources over the past few days, plenty of people don’t know exists.