Hope springs eternal at the NFL draft, as every team has the chance to add young talent to their roster. But once the three-day event is over, clubs, players, and agents get involved in the nitty-gritty details of working out a rookie contract. What happens if a draft choice declines to sign his deal?
What Happens If an NFL Draft Pick Refuses To Sign?
Fortunately, recent adjustments to the NFL‘s collective bargaining agreement have made rookie signings a breeze. Gone are the days when No. 1 overall picks like Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed without ever having played an NFL snap.
Instead, every NFL draft slot now comes with an allotted value. Rookies and their agents can still negotiate conditions like scheduled signing bonus payments or offset language, but most rookie contracts are set in stone.
However, if a rookie refuses to sign his contract, he could hold out for the entire season and re-enter the draft the following year. NFL teams can’t hold onto a player’s rights forever, so he’d be eligible to be drafted again the next offseason.
John Elway Used His Leverage After Being Drafted by the Colts
John Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, but he was also an excellent baseball player. Elway was productive enough to be selected by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 1981 MLB Draft and spent the summer of 1982 playing in the Yankees’ minor league system.
By the time the 1983 NFL Draft arrived, Elway had decided he did not want to play for the Baltimore Colts, one of the worst clubs in the NFL. Elway told the Colts in December 1982 that he had no desire to play for Baltimore and later publicly threatened to commit to the Yankees full-time if the Colts drafted him or refused to trade him after selecting him.
The Colts couldn’t trade out of the No. 1 overall pick before the draft started, so they picked Elway with the intent of trading him later. In May 1983, Baltimore eventually traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton (chosen fourth in the 1983 draft), quarterback Mark Herrmann, and a 1983 first-round pick.
Bo Jackson Refused To Sign With the Buccaneers
While Elway was able to leverage a trade, Bo Jackson had to follow through with refusing his first NFL contract.
Jackson starred in baseball and football at Auburn University and had been leaning toward pursuing an MLB career as his collegiate run ended. Ahead of the 1986 NFL Draft, Jackson traveled with Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse on a private jet to meet with the Bucs and conduct a physical.
The Buccaneers, who held the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, told Jackson that the NCAA had cleared the visit — but it had not. Jackson was declared ineligible for the rest of his senior baseball season. Believing that Tampa Bay had purposefully sabotaged his baseball career, Jackson vowed never to play for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay still used their top selection on Jackson, but he refused to sign his contract and instead joined the Kansas City Royals. The Buccaneers lost his rights a year later, and the Los Angeles Raiders picked Jackson in the seventh round of the 1987 draft. The Raiders allowed Jackson to play both football and baseball, which he did until suffering a hip injury in 1991.
La’el Collins Threatened To Hold Out in 2015
LSU offensive lineman La’el Collins was considered a first-round prospect in the 2015 draft, but his status was threatened after reports indicated he was scheduled to speak with police about the shooting death of a woman he’d previously been involved with. Collins was not considered a suspect, but the uncertainty around the situation caused his stock to fall.
After Collins wasn’t selected in the first round, his agents said that if he weren’t picked in Rounds 2 or 3, he would sit out the 2015 season and re-enter the draft in 2016. Collins’ team said he would refuse to sign his rookie contract and suggested he also would not sign as an undrafted free agent. Ultimately, no team drafted Collins, but he did eventually ink a UDFA deal with the Dallas Cowboys.