Andre Smith negotiations: Benchmark is set; could the Bengals look at Aaron Curry's deal for a ceiling?

There are several factors that will likely impact negotiations with the Cincinnati Bengals rookie offensive tackle. We know that the ceiling for a deal will fall below what the fifth round draft pick, Mark Sanchez, received. It's the basic concept of a slotting system -- you get paid less than the person that was drafted ahead of you. Sanchez's five-year contract includes $28 million in guaranteed money, $44.5 million in salary and a maximum deal of $50.5 million when certain incentives are hit.

So, whatever is being negotiated, Andre Smith's deal will not be higher than what Sanchez received. Here's the rub.

Sanchez is a quarterback. Paid as a franchise-level rookie quarterback. Last year, Matt Ryan received a contract that didn't apply to the existing slotting system. He received $34 million guaranteed for six years. Jake Long, the number one draft pick in 2008, signed a five-year deal with $30 million guaranteed. Why did Ryan get more than the top two draft picks when Ryan was drafted third? It's because Ryan is a quarterback.

This year, Matthew Stafford signed a contract with $41.7 million guaranteed. JaMarcus Russell signed a contract with $32 million guaranteed. Why so much money? Is it because they're simply the first draft pick of their respective year? Yes. But do you believe that if any other position were drafted first, that they'd receive the same level of guaranteed money as a quarterback drafted inside the Top Five?

Quarterbacks are generally valued more than any position in the NFL. Whether or not that's applicable on game day, or in basic football philosophy, is debatable. When it comes to paychecks and checkbooks, quarterback is the richest position in the NFL.

So is there a possibility that the Bengals choose against using Mark Sanchez's contract as the ceiling? The Bengals could argue that he's a quarterback; therefore the known slotting system for the Top Five -- if not the Top Ten -- is quarterback-inflated. If another position were drafted fifth overall, then it could be argued that the Bengals wouldn't come close to the $28 million marker.

That's why we should also keep our eye on what Aaron Curry negotiates -- the fourth overall draft pick. If Sanchez's deal is in accord to philosophy of Ryan's deal, then the fact he's valued as a franchise-level quarterback could mean that Curry receives less than what Sanchez received. If that's the case, then the Bengals could theoretically wait for Curry's deal before knowing their position on the ceiling.

Smith's agent, Alvin Keels, might not dig that too much. He'll claim the slotting system. Pure and simple. The contract that Smith should receive will include the Sanchez Ceiling and not the Curry Ceiling. Granted, it's just as likely that Curry's deal is bigger than Sanchez's and this guessing game that I'm infatuated with, turns to nothing. However, there's a chance that negotiations with Curry could go prolonged exactly for the same reason and therefore, the Bengals sit back to see if Curry's deal is less than Sanchez's. If that's the case, then the Bengals and Keels will redefine the word prolonged.

In one area of good news, we did learn the floor. On Thursday afternoon, the Oakland Raiders and their first round draft pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, agreed to a five-year deal worth a maximum of $54 million with $23.5 million guaranteed.

With Heyward-Bey's deal going above the $21 million in guaranteed money that Vernon Gholston received in 2008, you can assume that the cost the Jets paid for obtaining last year's sixth overall pick is out the window, which is typically another benchmark for the slotting system. There's no chance that Alvin Keels will entertain the thought going below this year's seventh overall pick.

In other words, the floor surpassed last year's sixth overall selection. Unless the Bengals use last year's numbers, rather than this year's slotting costs, the point of Gholston's contract last year is void. End of discussion. No longer applicable.

So what does this all mean? Most simply put, the Bengals and Keels have their benchmarks set. Smith's deal will likely be less than $28 million, but over $23.5 million. Logic suggests an agreement will be in the $25-26 million range. And hopefully, that's close enough to appease both sides. However, other negotiations in the past have gone on for weeks, over a million here, a million there.

The best case scenario is that Heyward-Bey's deal sets into motion to get Andre Smith signed within a few days. The worst case scenario is that the Bengals throw out what Sanchez received and look at Curry's deal, provided the linebacker received less than the franchise-level rookie quarterback. Either way, I highly doubt that Smith is in camp when the Bengals conduct their first practice at 3 pm on Friday.

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