Roger Goodell was speaking at a sports symposium two years ago when the subject of rookie salaries came up. The NFL commissioner said it was "ridiculous" that the No. 1 choice, Dolphins tackle Jake Long, received $30 million in guarantees as part of a potential $57.8 million deal. "He doesn't have to play a down in the NFL and he already has his money," Goodell said. If a top pick turns out to be a dud, he added, "that money is not going to players [who] are performing."
Rookie contracts are a key to talks over a new collective-bargaining agreement. This year's No. 1 pick, Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, was expected to sign a deal with the Rams that would eclipse the $41.7 million guarantee the Lions handed top pick Matthew Stafford last year. Few would disagree that players should be paid for production rather than potential, but the league's push to include a rookie wage scale in the next CBA could result in buyers' remorse. The big salaries for high picks blind owners to the fact that the current system actually favors them. Of the roughly 250 players drafted each year, at most a dozen receive the massive five- and six-year deals that make everyone cringe.
The other 240 players don't get huge bonuses or creative escalator clauses. They're usually signed to straight deals of two, three or four years, with no real chance of cashing in until they've reached unrestricted free agency after four years. For every JaMarcus Russell, who pocketed some $39 million over three years, there are many players who outperform their contracts.
The Players Association is open to a rookie wage scale, but only if the path to unrestricted free agency is shortened. The union has proposed three years as the threshold, arguing that players can't be asked to accept a cap on rookie deals, then be kept from having a shot at financial security early on if they establish themselves.
Owners balked. The three-year period would force teams to accelerate their personnel evaluations, and since players take longer to develop at some positions, it would be harder to make a final call on a young player who starts slowly, sits behind a veteran for a year or misses time because of injury.
Also, because the current system lets teams lock up high first-rounders for five or six years, those players might see only one "max" contract beyond their rookie deals. Reducing the waiting period to three seasons means a player could sign a rookie deal at 21, his first free-agent deal at 24, then another free-agent deal or extension at 28. Some stars already are doing this. Rather than agree to a long-term extension, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald chose four years (at $40 million) and could be back on the market when he's 28.
As the saying goes, You can pay me now or pay me later. But it might cost you more later.
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One player whose pay has been held down by the current rookie wage setup is Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill. A 2006 second-rounder, McNeill (below) made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons, but his rookie deal averaged $750,000 over four years, a far cry from what he would have commanded on the open market—and from this year's $10.7 million franchise tender for O-linemen. He was also hurt by the terms of the uncapped 2010 season that require six years for unrestricted free agency rather than four. McNeill declined San Diego's one-year offer of $3.2 million (which dropped to $600,000 on June 15) and was not expected to report to the opening of camp this week. He could sit out the year in the expectation of earning unrestricted free agency, and his first "max" contract, under a new CBA.
G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/GETTY IMAGES (BRADFORD)
PAYDAY Bradford will get millions before taking an NFL snap, but the vast majority of picks must wait years to cash in big.
KYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE (MCNEILL)