NFL Rookie Cap: A No-Brainer

It’s been in the making for years. Top draft pick Jake Long’s five year, $57.5 million contract with $30 million guaranteed is only the last straw. The NBA waved good-bye to overpaying rookies in the mid-90’s, now it’s the NFL’s turn. Better late than never.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week “there’s something wrong about the system. The money should go to people who perform.” Current players, comprising the NFLPA will advocate a defined rookie salary structure because it means more money for them. Simple math, if the salary cap stays the same (and increases at the same right), rookie salaries drop drastically, then team’s have more money for veteran players. Indirectly it also creates more jobs for veteran players since teams will not be inclined to hold onto underperforming former high draft picks solely because of large guarnteed contracts.

Change is long overdue. A top five NFL draft pick has become more of a problem than a benefit in recent years. Teams reluctant to use it because of the financial risk, yet unable to trade it because teams will not provide value nor want to take on the pending contract. NBA teams crawl over each other for high first round picks, as franchises should, yet the rookie financial structure in football has ruined the value of a high draft pick.

Thanks to the open-market system NFL rookies are notorious for hold-outs. Extensive playbooks and elaborate offensive and defensive schemes make football the sport rookies can least afford to hold out in. Evidenced by last season’s top pick Jamarcus Russell, who eventually received his pay day from the Oakland Raiders, a prolonged hold-out can essentially wipe out a player’s entire rookie season. The player’s get their money, the team’s suffer.

Adopting a system similar to the NBA, where salaries are slotted by draft position will control costs, prevent hold-outs, and minimize long-term salary implications on teams. Average NFL careers are substantially shorter than NBA careers, therefore using a two-year rookie contract, or even one year, is more appropriate than the NBA’ three year obligation. One idea is a guaranteed two-year contract with salary slotted based on draft order, with the team receiving an exclusive window after both the first and second year to extend the contract at free market value. If after the second year, the parties can not reach an agreement, the player becomes a free agent.

Draft mistakes, which every team makes no matter how good they are, no longer are as costly. Players still get their payday, AFTER they prove themselves in the NFL. Meanwhile, veteran players receive a higher percentage of the money, as teams will only reward proven entities with big paydays.

In conjunction with lowering the salaries, the NFL should investigate having teams put performance-based incentives into rookie contracts of first-round picks. If the league can standardize performance goals for each position, or achievements (i.e. Pro Bowl, place in the Rookie of the Year voting, etc.), it makes the pie bigger for everyone. Owners can make rookie salaries lower than they might be under a generalized plan, while players have the opportunity to earn more than they would under a flat rookie pay scale by performing. Owners will have no problem shelling out a few extra million, if the player deserves it.

A more creative way to use performance incentives without affecting salary is to put an early escape clause in contracts for first-rounders that meet the performance goals. If they play well, let them get their pay day. In the end, this is all about rewarding performance, not punishing players.

With a rookie salary scale in place, bad teams can actually start to view high draft picks as a reward rather than an impediment. Players will no longer have a legitimate reason to hold out, and if they did, it will only hurt their own value as they have two seasons to prove their worth for a big contract.

This is one issue that should not be a problem at the bargaining table when CBA discussions get underway. Owners save money – or at least put money to better use into more well-known commodities, players see more money and more jobs for veterans, and the league looks good to the public. A win-win situation.

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