One reason rookies may have bigger roles in 2012 than ever before…

Jaguars rookie WR Justin Blackmon doing drills at rookie mini-camp/AP

The draft was not even a week old, and Bears WR Alshon Jeffery already had his rookie contract finished. That day, his agent Eugene Parker told me he didn’t understand why more teams didn’t follow suit. Soon, they would.

Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookie deals are getting done at record pace. The Seahawks are done with theirs. The Chargers signed three today. By the time I type this, another will probably get done. Players are paid from a smaller pool with a different structure from before, and haggling over first contracts is mostly old news. It’s basically a rookie wage scale, with strict rules. Agents will be trying to get the most guaranteed money they can for their guys, but there is only so much wiggle room.

It’s only a matter of time before Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and the rest of the first-rounders get in line to pick up their bonus checks. Once teams give up the idea of keeping their hands on their money as long as possible, these formalities should be over before the summer.

What does that mean?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the most productive rookie class ever. Or, at least, the most productive performances in Year 1 ever.

And not just because the top 2 picks should be immediate starters. But because there will be no (or few) holdouts. Situations where rookies sit out a month of camp and then try to contribute are over. Thank the new CBA for that. Rookies also won’t have to spend the summer months sweating over whether they will be signed, then adjusting to suddenly having major money.

Now, they will get their money in May or June, not August. If there is a period of acclimation to their new fortunes, it will happen without their world spinning, coaches yelling and body parts aching. It all will result in rookies arriving for training camp focused on football.

All sorts of logistical issues will be over. Minds will be clear. They will arrive ready to play. That could have been the case last year, but the lockout forced everyone into hurry-up mode when camp came around. Rookies still showed up late, as clubs dealt with guaranteeing more money than they previously had and simply playing beat the clock. All of that is gone.

This year, there is plenty of time to get rookie deals done, and teams have been willing. That’s all good. That should lead to greater productivity. Last year, rookies were essential on several teams. I bet that increases. The only caveat is that the 2012 draft in general could feature diminished talent (like in 2007). Overall, on the whole, the players could be worse than in previous years.

That doesn’t seem to be true, though teams had varying views on the overall quality. The prevailing thought was that there was solid depth. Time will tell on this one.

But if the talent is consistent with previous years, don’t be surprised to see even more first-year players on the field in 2012. Good news for teams with good drafts. Bad news for veterans trying to hang on.

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