2010 NFL rookie quarterback and 1st overall draft pick Sam Bradford got a six year, 78-million dollar contract with 50-million guaranteed. That means that an untested rookie will make 13-million dollars a year which makes him one of the highest paid players in the league from day one. Also, if this player suffers a career ending injury in the first day of camp, he still gets paid 50-million dollars and hurts his team for six years of cap space. It became abundantly clear long ago that these giant contracts for top rookies were a problem.

Recently in the new CBA talks the NFL and the players agreed that this was a problem, and some numbers started to leak. The initial issues was the money. We will no longer see that big of a payday for the top picks, and the initial number was for the 1st overall pick to get a five year deal for 19-million. That was denied, but it won't be too much off of that. Also, it looks like the 1st round picks will get four year deals while the rest of the picks will get a 3 year deal. So while there is no agreed upon number, for the sake of the article lets say that the 1st overall pick will get a four year, 25-million dollar deal with 9-million of that guaranteed. That means that the player will average just over six million a year, but that they will make 4-million a year after their guarantee.

The problem with that deal though is that it will KILL the NFL as we have it.

You cannot pay so little to the rookie players and expect the league to not change. It actually changes the league in a number of different of ways which actually do not effect the rookies. It will discourage rookies from actually joining the draft, it will help the good teams while hurting the bad, it will add value too much value to the draft which will kill the middle class of the league as we know it.

1) Discouraging The Rookies To Join The Draft

This is a little difficult to push forward, but if you are expected to be a top-10 pick in a given NFL draft, then you might be better off not declaring for the NFL draft. Why? Because of future potential to do much better for yourself. Assume we are talking about Nick Fairley, Defensive Tackle for the 2011 NFL Draft. You can think of it this way:

Fairley is drafted 3rd overall to the Buffalo Bills. He signs his 4 year, 24-million dollar deal (slightly less than 1st overall). So after four years of playing on a team that likely won't contend in the playoffs much the player has the freedom to sign with another team.

Nick Fairley made 24 million dollars in four years on a bad team.

Fairley is supposed to go 3rd overall to the Buffalo Bills but decides not to enter the NFL Draft. He signs to play for the CFL or with the UFL for one year and makes 100-grand to play against better-than-college talents to groom yourself for the NFL. After that one year in the CFL he signs with the New Orleans Saints with a three year, 30-million dollar contract. He is on a playoff contender for three years, is around a team that won't expect him to do as much, and he is making more money.

Nick Fairley made 30.1 million in four years with one year in Canada and three on a contender.

Overall Fairley makes six more million dollars over four years to sign with a team that he wants to play for. Sure some will say "well he could get hurt" but it is no different than the risk players take to go back to school for a senior season. Also, if Fairley were drafted to Buffalo then he would have to play in the cold, boring (compared to other NFL cities) area of Buffalo and he would be on a team with little talent which means that he would be expected to do much more to help the team win.

2) It Would Help The Rich While Hurting The Poor

If a player like Nick Fairley skipped the draft and went to Canada then he would be free to sign with anyone he wanted after the 1st year. Well Fairley isn't going to come back to the NFL and decide that he wants to play on a bad team like Buffalo. He will want to sign for a team that he will play for, that pays him well, and that wins. How often do you hear about the most coveted free agents deciding that they want to play for Buffalo, Denver, Carolina, Oakland, Jacksonville or Detroit? That is because they are teams that don't have enough to win now.

3) It Would Add Too Much Value To The Draft, While Killing the League's Middle Class

For all of the players that stayed in the NFL Draft pool it would add too much value. One good thing would be that the bad teams with the early picks would get more value with their picks because there will be more teams that could afford to trade for their picks. Nobody wants to trade their draft so that they can pay someone 78 million dollars.

But the draft rookie scale will over-value the day three (rounds 4-7) picks because of what they can do for the rest of the players in the league. Why pay a middle class 2nd/3rd stringer to be on your team when you can get a sleeper scrub of depth for half the price in the draft? Players that command a 4 year, 10-million dollar contract will essentially disappear (think about the Justin Smileys and the Kassim Osgoods). Why pay someone 2.5 million a year when you can get the same for $500,000? What that means is that the middle class players will be forced out of the league for rookies.

What does that also mean? It means that the league will shift to stars and fill-ins instead of complete teams with good depth. The new CBA likely will mean a bigger roster size, but using the 53-man roster from the old one will make it easy to understand. The last cap total in 2009 was 127-million which means that the total 53-man team needed to be about 127-million dollars. That is an average of 2.4 million per player. Well if you have seven rookies a year over three years (average contract length) at an average of $800,000 per rookie (will depend on where you are picking) that means that there will be much more money that will be spent on high talent players.

7 players a draft x 3 years a contract =21 players. So you will have 32-veterans on the team. It can be expected that 3 of those players will be super stars, seven will be pro bowl caliber and 22 will be solid starters.

So 21 x 800,000 =16.8 Million with 110.2 Million left
So for the rest of the team you will see something like:

3 super stars =12 M per year
7 pro bowl quality = 5 per year
22 starters = 1.8 per year

Each year another set of rookie wage players will either get re-signed or essentially kicked out of the league for more rookies. The new middle class will become starting quality players and the rookies will become the 3rd string. Some of this happens now but it will create even more of a league that will have players switching teams, big name players getting paid more and other players getting less.

4 Think Basketball... Or Don't

Some will point to the NBA's rookie scale cap as a way of success, but it is nowhere close. Just look at how boring the NBA has become the last ten years. The NBA draft has too much trading to make it any fun. Also, the bust to hit rate is so pathetic even compared to the NFL that it isn't funny. Many teams cannot bulid through the draft because only a few great players come out each year. Also think about how insane the NBA's trade deadline looked like recently. There were teams that had to give away good veterans for crappy rookies because they couldn't handle their money correctly. The NBA also just went through a very big offseason free agency program that had many max-contract players, further proof that the NBA strategy has the stars getting popular and the middle class disappearing because teams cannot afford them. In fact the middle class players either have to go to crappy teams that have no stars, or they have to take top-end rookie money to be on a team. It really isn't fun.




In reality I absolutely do think that the NFL does need a rookie pay scale, but it needs to be much higher than it looks like it could be. If you let the owners make it too low then they will essentially have a way to weed out their middle class guys for cheap rookies while allowing them to have more money to compete for the great players. The league will get younger, less experienced, less traditional and teams will either be awful or great because of their abilities to get certain players. I don't quite know what number I think the rookie scale should start at, but I think that the top-pick could get a 4-year, 36 million dollar contract (9 a year) with 10 guaranteed with salaries increasing 1 M per year. Contacts would look like:

Year 1: Player makes 5 plus guaranteed 10 paid
Year 2: Base of 6
Year 3: Base of 7
Year 4: Base of 8

Players will get their guaranteed money, but they would year in and year out have to prove that they are worth their money. Increasing salary a million a year forces players to earn their extra money (while motivating them to improve) while also allowing owners a way out of contracts a little early for player busts. Also, having a contract with more money overall than a player could make by going to a bad league allows the draft to let teams correctly balance talent in the league without having a team get screwed by a 78 million dollar deal.