SBJ/Jan. 24-30, 2011/Labor and Agents

Bucking the big agency trend: Agents with modest résumés get first shot at top of NFL draft

For the first time that anyone in the business of representing NFL players can remember, three players who are seen as possible No. 1 overall picks have signed with agents who have never negotiated a contract for a player selected in the top 10 slots of the draft.

In fact, Patrick “Whitey” Lawlor, the agent who recently signed LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, has never represented a drafted player before and was just recertified in October to represent players by the NFL Players Association. He was previously certified from 1999 through 2007.
Lawlor, a 49-year-old Deerfield Beach, Fla., personal injury attorney, said he has litigated 170 cases but has represented only three players who have made NFL rosters.

Joe Flanagan of BTI Sports, who signed Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, has represented two first-round draft picks, but they were late-round picks: New York Jets center Nick Mangold, the No. 29 pick in 2006, and San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason, the No. 27 pick in 2008.

Chicago-based BTI, co-owned by Brad Leshnock, represents more than 100 clients, and at least one major agent said BTI was looking like an up-and-coming player in the agent business.

Brian Overstreet, a Houston-based NFL agent who signed Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, has represented a 19th overall pick in an NFL draft, but that was back in 2001, when the client, nose tackle Casey Hampton, was selected by Pittsburgh. Overstreet represents 15 clients.

The news that not one but three high-profile prospects have signed with agents without prior experience negotiating high-first-round deals has left longtime, prominent NFL agents across the country buzzing. “It’s never happened,” said one. Another top agent noted that while top prospects have signed with virtually unknown agents in the past, “I have never heard of this happening with three players of this caliber in one draft.” Several other high-profile players this year have chosen or were said to be leaning toward signing with agents with little experience negotiating top deals.

For about the past decade, a dozen or so agencies have represented the majority of the top five picks in the draft. Although many of those agents are fierce competitors, most agreed last week that having so many top prospects represented by lesser-experienced agents was not good for the business.

Agents offered several possible explanations.

The NFL has proposed a rookie wage scale in the ongoing negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement that, if put in place, would pay players a set amount based on the slot in which they are drafted, presumably leaving little room for negotiation. Even if such a deal were put into place — the NFLPA has proposed an alternate system — agents want their rivals to be experienced and negotiate good contracts because that causes the market value of their own player clients to rise.

Some agents attributed the wave of signings to the current labor uncertainty in which players could be locked out upon expiration of the CBA. That has led some major agencies to pull back on recruiting because they don’t know what their rookie clients will be paid or when they might report to work. Other agents noted that as a result of NCAA agent scandals in recent years, college football coaches are not talking to players about agents at all or the need to pick an experienced agent. A number of agents also cited the NFLPA’s “junior rule,” which prohibits agents from talking to players three years or less removed from high school, noting that the rule has not given experienced agents enough time to recruit underclassmen.

Agents requested anonymity in their comments for a number of reasons, including that historically, top draft picks who have signed with lower-profile agents have later fired them. The more experienced agents might want to sign such players.

Another explanation is that it is a changing of the guard. Both Lawlor and Overstreet said that Peterson and Fairley, respectively, liked the fact that they were signing with smaller firms. Said Lawlor, “The players out there and their families want personal attention.”

Overstreet said Fairley and his family “weren’t looking for a huge firm with over 100 clients.”

“All I can say is we worked really hard,” Flanagan said of himself and his partner, Leshnock. “I don’t think it’s a fundamental shift in attitude,” he added. “I think this is just the way it worked out this year.”

Related story: CAA Football, a regular atop draft, probably won’t have No. 1.

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