Legendary NFL personnel chief George Young once declared, “Nothing important gets done before Bastille Day,” referring to contract agreements with teams’ draft choices each year. Indeed, what was happening this week in the form of Bears draft picks signing contracts was once what typically unfolded from about July 14, and even then with none of the alacrity of this new era.
Players could not come to training camp without a contract, so the signing flurry started about Bastille Day. There’s probably some analogy between the peasants storming the walls and rookies seized by an overwhelming urge to storm Platteville. Or Bourbonnais.
In any case, the combination of changes in the collective bargaining agreement, the market and the financial dexterity of Bears negotiator Cliff Stein has all but rendered extinct a problem that arguably triggered franchise-grade problems in the past.
As of mid-Wednesday, No. 1 pick Kyle Fuller and third-rounder Will Sutton had not agreed to their new deals. But Stein’s record of annually having all his draft picks signed before any other team suggests that he may be shooting for a new target: having all signed before minicamp. Forget training camp.
The significance should not be taken for granted.
The lost impact of production from draft choices, in particular the top ones, has been part of the pedestrian fortunes of the Bears for more than decade (that and Brett Favre, now Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, of course).
Rashaan Salaam in 1995 held out and regretted it ever since, with knee injuries beginning his rookie year and contributing to his Bears career lasting only as long as his rookie deal (three years).
Curtis Enis was part of a bizarre contract impasse in 1998, arrived to enmity of teammates and coaches, was out of shape, failed to blend into the offense, and when he finally did, suffered a catastrophic knee injury just as his light appeared to be going on.
Cade McNown missed most of training camp in 1999, eventually got what he wanted, but was far behind on his developmental curve. The coaching staff devised a bizarre one-series-a-game plan to work him in but he never caught up.
Cedric Benson was the last first-rounder to sign in 2005. Another developmental disaster and another that led to issues within the locker room, and injuries his rookie season, even in training camp. Salaam told former Tribune colleague David Haugh during Benson’s holdout that the stage was set for bad things with that kind of lost time at the front end of a career.
The NFL does not allow rookies to participate in OTAs and offseason programs if their college classes haven’t graduated. And the Bears did not base draft selections on who could or couldn’t participate; Kyle Long was one of those “couldn’t’s” last year, which set him back initially.
But having contracts done early takes that issue off young minds and gets them on the business of the game itself.
“To my knowledge, we’re 100 percent clean,” GM Phil Emery said as to participations. “And I’m hoping that’s true all the way through the college free agency class.
“Because it’s very difficult for a college free agent to start off not being here. So we make a lot of effort. We actually put their graduation dates on the wall on their cards. Obviously we wouldn’t not take a player. Obviously Kyle Long last year that was a situation. But it’s too their advantage and to everybody’s advantage that they’re in here as soon as they can be. So we’re aware of those graduation dates.“