NFL Must Do Something About Rookie Deals

| by Sports Nickel

We all know this is madness. We say it year after year. Writers expound on the issue in countless columns, and fans gather at water coolers across the country to share their outrage.

Yet guaranteed money for NFL rookies has continued to escalate in the extreme. Over the past few years, these sums have enjoyed double digit inflation 5 to 6 times higher than the national rate. Take a look: 

– In 2007, JaMarcus Russell was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and signed to a 6-year deal for $68 million. Of that, $31.5 million was guaranteed.

– In 2008, Matt Ryan was taken by the Atlanta Falcons as the #3 overall draft pick. He was signed to a deal $72 million that included guaranteed money in the amount of $34.75 million. Before taking a single snap, Ryan was the fourth highest-paid player in the NFL behind Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Palmer.

And we thought this guy was overpaid...

– In 2009, Matthew Stafford broke the NFL record for the most lucrative contract signed by any player, rookie or veteran. His $78 million over 6-years was ridiculous enough, but a whopping $41.7 million was guaranteed.

Which brings us to 2010 and Sam Bradford. On Friday, the Rams made Bradford the NFL’s first player ever to sign a contract guaranteeing him $50 million.

$50 million!

From 2007-2008, the total jumped more than 10%. Stafford’s payday represented a 20% hike from Ryan’s gargantuan total. And now, Bradford will earn 20% more than Stafford.

Looking at the 3-year span as a single time period, we’ve seen an overall increase of nearly 59%. That is simply mind-boggling. But when one stops to consider the starting point, it borders on the incomprehensible. 

We’re talking about players who have never handled a snap, never played a single down of professional football. One quick glance in the rearview mirror should be more than enough to slap some sense into these teams who are seemingly so willing and eager to hemorrhage cash. Does no one remember Ryan Leaf? Tim Couch? Ki-Jana Carter? 

Russell himself was a pre-eminent bust, performing horribly on the field and ultimately getting released only halfway through his deal. These cautionary tales have done little to stem the financial flow as teams continue to take inordinate risks in signing unproven talent.

An a player-turned bust isn’t the only concern. Look no further than the 2010 training camps.  Rookie Dez Bryant is expected to miss up to 2 months after injuring his ankle. Albert Haynesworth, who joined Stafford as the only other player to lay claim to $40+ million in guaranteed funds last year, has a serious knee problem, and is so out of shape that he has little hope of contributing any time soon. Broncos’ second year back Knowshon Moreno is out with a serious hamstring problem.

In short, guys get hurt. Sometimes permanently. What would the Rams say if Bradford were to blow out a knee or need further shoulder surgery? What if he misses a year…or more?

Even if college production translated directly to NFL performance, these deals wouldn’t be justifiable. And the sport’s history is rife with players who harbored boundless potential only to fall flat for various reasons. Still the economic Russian Roulette goes on. Worse, by continuing to up the payments on such a colossal scale, organizations are adding proverbial bullets to the proverbial gun.

It’s awfully difficult to find an upside to these decisions, and while most of us believe in the principles of capitalism, there are times when, for the sake of the industry, the powers that be need to impose some limits. By all appearances, teams need to be protected from themselves.

The league is in the midst of an ongoing labor dispute as it tries to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. And a rookie salary cap is high on Commissioner Roger Goodell’s to-do list. But thus far, the union has been unwilling to accept the NFL’s proposed solutions. The league has tried to implement a system like the one used by the NBA, where rookies make pre-determined amounts of money for a set period of years. But for every offer made, some key aspect or other has always nixed a successful arrangement.

However, the current strife presents an opportunity that Goodell and company cannot pass up.  Whatever else comes out of the dispute, the NFL must impose a new and more effective rookie salary structure. The players’ association as whole will balk, but most of its constituent veterans will support the deal because they want to see on-field performance count for more than it currently does.

That’s the top reason why the NFL needs a rookie cap. Players who have demonstrated their ability should be getting a greater percentage of a team’s dollars. That’s just common sense. Reputation is one thing, actual service quite another. 

But the need goes beyond this sense of fair play. The current method of signing rookies is destroying the purpose and value of the draft. If the league’s worst teams have to cough up tens of millions for their top 2 or 3 selections, how they can be expected to rebuild and compete in any timely fashion? 

For example, unless Bradford is the second-coming of Joe Montana, there’s no way that the Rams will even sniff the playoffs over the next few years. And if he’s mediocre or worse, he, a $50 million investment, might not yield any meaningful return at all. Of course, the team faces that risk regardless of what it pays out, but if funds were more evenly distributed, it would result in a higher quality team– better players across the board. 

These horrific contract totals are driven in large part by the agents, who want to maximize their fees. And they dangle the threat of a holdout like the Sword of Damocles, knowing that the NFL’s lesser teams can afford neither the bad publicity nor on-field impact of failing to acquiesce to a superstar’s demands. After all, if St. Louis drafts Bradford but refuses to meet his nonsensical salary demands to the point where he won’t play, then the team just wasted the #1 overall pick. Utterly. Recovering from that might prove far more difficult than justifying a $50 million expenditure. From a certain angle, this could be viewed as extortion on the part of player agents, and the NFL must impose some order before the situation worsens further.

To be clear, most of the blame for the current state of affairs lies with the teams. Organizations need to have the financial discipline to know when they’re being bilked. Because while holdouts might be real enough threats, a given team is ultimately bidding against itself when prices rise. Still, it’s time for some official backup. It’s time for the rules to change.

Regardless of what else comes out of the new labor agreement, a rookie salary cap has to be included. 2010 has offered another 50 million reasons why.


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