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Rookie wage scale could prompt more underclassmen to leave school

Noel Devine, Greg Williams

Though the NFL wants to implement a rookie wage scale that would wipe out the windfalls paid to players taken at the top of the draft, the league has been leery about handling the issue in a way that would cause a flood of college underclassmen to bolt for the NFL before the big money dries up.  (With a true rookie wage scale likely coming in 2011, that’s no longer a concern.)

But there’s a broader issue regarding the connection between a rookie wage scale and the forfeiture of eligibility by players who can otherwise stay at the college level.

A true rookie wage scale would flatten the gap between the first player taken in round one and the last, removing the incentive to stay in school and increase draft stock, like West Virginia running back Noel Devine opted to do in 2010.  (A foot injury suffered against LSU derailed that strategy by making him largely ordinary for most of the season.)

Packers CEO Mark Murphy recently made the case for a rookie wage scale in a Washington Post op-ed item, outlining the league’s offer regarding the No. 1 overall selection.  “Under the proposal, the first pick in the draft would sign a five-year contract and receive a $5.34 million signing bonus and $1.5 million salary his rookie year, even if he does not play a single down,” Murphy wrote.  “In years two and three, his salary would be set at $1.7 million and $1.9 million, respectively.  His fourth- and fifth-year salaries would rise to $2.3 million and $2.9 million for a total package of $15.6 million. (If he is a quarterback, he would be paid $4.3 million in year six.)  The first pick would still be paid well, but at a much more reasonable level than under the current system.”

It sounds like very good money to the average person, but the contract given to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the top pick in 2010, is worth $78 million over six years, with $50 million guaranteed.  Sure, there’s some fluff in the guaranteed money, but Bradford’s truly guaranteed money at the time he signed the deal was $24 million.  In contrast, under the league’s proposal, a quarterback taken with the first pick would receive a total package of $19.9 million, with only $5.34 million truly guaranteed.

Thus, the truly big money will be paid out not in the first contract but in the second contract.  As a result, the goal will become to get to the second contract.  And to get to the second contract, a player will need to get into the league and start proving his worth.

As one league source explained it to PFT on Thursday, more underclassmen will choose to leave, since improving their draft stock via an extra year of college football won’t translate into the big money that a big bump up the ladder would have triggered in the past.  The big money will now come once free agency approaches, and free agency won’t approach if the player opts for another year of play-for-no-pay.

A management-side source scoffed at the notion that a rookie wage scale will cause more players to leave school early.  “Players should only come out early if they are ready to play, meaning drafted high,” the source said. “Otherwise, they are damaging their NFL career chances.  That’s why we have the College Advisory Committee that helps players understand where they can be expected to be drafted.  The difference in the proposed wage scale vs. today’s system would really only affect first-round picks and some second-rounders.  Otherwise, it is pretty much the same.  Coming out early does not affect that many players.”

Still, the point is that, by removing the incentive of spending one more year in college in the hopes of shooting to the top of the draft board in the hopes of cashing in, taking out the cash will take away the incentive.  Now, the incentive will be to begin working toward that second contract.

“What college kid is worried about his second contract?” the management-side source said.  “How about none.  They have to establish themselves in the NFL first.  Otherwise, there will be no second contract.”

We agree that there can be no second contract unless a player establishes himself.  But once a player no longer can pocket a windfall at the top of the draft without establishing himself in the NFL, his incentive will become to establish himself in the NFL sooner rather than later.

And he won’t be able to establish himself in the NFL by playing another year of college football.

Besides, there’s no clear correlation between being drafted high and being “ready to play.”  Bucs tailback LeGarrette Blount was “ready to play,” and he wasn’t drafted at all.  Titans return man Marc Mariani went from seventh-rounder to Pro Bowler.

Though only a handful of players drafted low each year immediately strike gold, college football players aren’t lacking in confidence.  At a minimum, the NFL and the college coaches will have to devise new strategies for persuading talented kids to continue to accept the risk of injuries and concussions for a salary of zero dollars a month plus benefits, babe.  Merely telling a player that he’ll need to establish himself in the NFL before truly cashing in will do little to dissuade the majority of the players from deciding to try to establish themselves in the NFL right now.

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33 Responses to “Rookie wage scale could prompt more underclassmen to leave school”
  1. jimmysee says: Dec 31, 2010 8:57 AM

    One way to handle this is to bump the scale if the player has completed all his college eligibility — we all earn more based on our level of “experience.”

  2. superbengalfan says: Dec 31, 2010 8:59 AM

    I’m all for a rookie wage scale to fix the system currently in place, but diverge strongly from the league on the length of the 1st contract. The average NFL career is something like 3.5 years so the first contract should be shorter than the average career to allow players an opportunity to even have a second contract. It is clear that the League doesn’t want players to truly be paid based on performance, they want to lock them into a low wage that will likely consume their entire career.

  3. brasho says: Dec 31, 2010 9:01 AM

    I still don’t understand how getting a $40-100K education for nothing, as well as getting access to the best tutors, meal plans, extra benefits, getting wink-nod academic extras, and being BMOC is not getting paid.

    Try telling somebody that still owes $60K in students loans and are trying to pay them off making $40K a year that collegiate players should be paid. It’s ridiculous.

  4. godofwine330 says: Dec 31, 2010 9:05 AM

    Okay, here is my thoughts on this. Every year players come out that shouldn’t have. Their skill level and maturity aren’t at the height they should be but they come out. Some eventually “get it”, some don’t. Some get drafted high and have the chance to let their skills and maturity increase. Some get drafted low or are undrafted and flame out of the league before they “get it”. Some, like Seattle’s Mike Williams “get it” later on and are able to scrap their way back into the league.

    The NFL enjoys a farm system like no other league because of their 3 years out of high school rule. Will more underclassmen leave college for the pros? Maybe. But every year there are some players who decide to stay and the next year their stock drops (see Matt Leinart or Taylor Mays). When you think of NFL success it’s a crapshoot, there are going to be winners and losers. I only hope that players consider the likelihood of failure and get their degrees or close to them because NFL money isn’t guaranteed. I don’t think the number of players who declare will change much.

  5. smalltownqb says: Dec 31, 2010 9:22 AM

    Nice article. Nobody breaks this down better for the average fan better than you guys.

  6. intrafinesse says: Dec 31, 2010 9:22 AM

    You are looking at it backwards.
    Players will stay in school because they want to make sure they get into and stay in the NFL. There will be less incentive to leave a year early because that huge payout is no longer there. Its still a lot of money for you and me, but no longer will it be 50/78 million.

    I think this has a positive benefit for football. If the salary cap remains in place, teams will still have to spend the money, and if it’s not on unproved rookies, then it will go to the proven vets. I am fine with that. As a Jets fan, I am disappointed that Vernon Gholston gets all that money when average NFL players make far less.

  7. gypjet says: Dec 31, 2010 9:23 AM

    The only people who don’t think rookies make to much money, are rookies. Prove your worth, get paid. Two words, JaMarcus Russell.

  8. onderin says: Dec 31, 2010 9:36 AM

    I don’t really agree that players will suddenly start jumping to the NFL because there’s no incentive to raise their draft stock. Kids typically aren’t preparing that far ahead, although their friends, family, and potential agents probably are. That could become an even larger problem over time.

    If that trend does happen though, NFL evaluators will knock it back into “normalcy.” It’s their job to bring in the right players for the success of the team. The change in the pay scale shouldn’t change the way they evaluate players. It’s an inexact science evaluating players and teams reach for players every year, but GM’s don’t want to be wrong. In the end, I think it will hurt the players to leaving early just to try and reach the second contract.

    I could also see the adjustment coaches and players make are going to schools with a pro style offense. It would be great for coaches recruiting who can tell freshmen, “I can get you ready for the NFL by the time you’re draft eligible.”

    I’m sure it’s a claim coaches make all the time, but if the rookie wage scale really does prompt underclassmen to look toward their second contract, they would absolutely need to start learning the pro style right from college.

    Least that’s what I think.

  9. realitypolice says: Dec 31, 2010 9:39 AM

    I think after the Noel Devine and Jake Locker fiascos this year, and the Matt Leinart fiasco from a few years back, underclassmen have all the motivation they need to get the hell out of school if they are projected in the first round.

    Staying in school is overrated. You can always go back and get your degree. My mother went back and got her degree when she was 47.

    And she wasn’t even drafted.

  10. livenbreathefootball says: Dec 31, 2010 9:51 AM

    Something has to give with the current system. The only reason Bradford got so much money is because he HAD to get more money than the number 1 pick last year. It had nothing to do with ability, or need of the team. It is all about making more money than the guy picked in the same slot last year. It’s the birth lottery. Because you were born a year later, went to school a year later, ended your college eligibility a year later than someone else, you get more money?

    I doubt there will be a rush of college kids leaving to avoid the imposition of the scale. The same number of players will get drafted. Leaving now just increases the competition for these couple of hundred slots. More players competing at the same position makes it more likely a particular player drops in the draft.

  11. anarchopurplism says: Dec 31, 2010 10:06 AM

    @ brasho says: Dec 31, 2010 9:01 AM

    I still don’t understand how getting a $40-100K education for nothing, as well as getting access to the best tutors, meal plans, extra benefits, getting wink-nod academic extras, and being BMOC is not getting paid.

    Try telling somebody that still owes $60K in students loans and are trying to pay them off making $40K a year that collegiate players should be paid. It’s ridiculous.
    *********************************************

    Just because a college athlete has more to offer a school than you and gets a better deal than you, does not make it ridiculous that they want to get paid. Your envy is obvious.

    Colleges make a ton of money off of football and the players want a bigger piece of the pie, but the cartel won’t let them.

    In light of how much money the athletes help generate, they clearly are getting a return, but it is not equitable.

  12. pastabelly says: Dec 31, 2010 10:07 AM

    This is really only needed for quarterbacks. Many under their rookie deals at other skilled positions are already outearning those deals and hold out. Guys like Revis, Suh, and McCourty should not be limited in earnings just because some teams are stupid and waste first round picks on the likes of Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, and Jimmy Clausen. The lesson should not be in limiting pay of first round picks. It should be in not investing first round picks in quarterbacks unless you are sure that they will be stars. Not many of those out there.

  13. damayan5 says: Dec 31, 2010 10:11 AM

    This is a really good discussion point.
    But really we (you) should wait till the offseason when we have nothing to do but talk about the cba and the draft.

  14. anarchopurplism says: Dec 31, 2010 10:12 AM

    5 year contract? Rookie wage-scale is starting to look like an Asian sweatshop.

    Does the NFL really want more contract murmuring?

    Typical…..the NFL wants it both ways: lower contract value and still lengthy. I guess I don’t blame them considering the overall revenue split.

    Contracts should be 2 or 3 years max. Let the play on the field & ability to negotiate a 2nd contract determine your year 3-5 salary.

    If I were a star athlete coming out, I’d hope to come out as a underclassman so I could hold out a year if need be. If you’re going to scale the wages, then I want to get to my 2nd contract quicker so I can ring the till……

  15. jimmylions says: Dec 31, 2010 10:31 AM

    As a Lions fan, I’ve been through a lot of overall #1 draft picks.

    One of the problems is that the expected salary of the overall #1 is high that the pick itself can be an albatross. A team which needs a lot of help and has a lot of holes can’t really trade the overall #1. No team wants to trade into the salary associated with that pick.

    The other issue here is, why not just admit that college football has nothing to do with academics or education?

    Why not just quit pretending that people like Vince Young have any business attending any college, and just pay them to play ball?

    I once had to do some business with a U of Mich basketball player, a starting senior, and he was incapable of understanding grade school math. I ended up having to call his parents to have them negotiate the deal.

    Most of these kids think they’ll be playing professional sports, and most of them will be lucky to be changing oil at Jiffy Lube. It would be more fair, equitable, and honest to pay them to be what they are, semi-pro farm team players.

  16. billygoat says: Dec 31, 2010 10:33 AM

    If they are having a wage scale the contract lengh should be shortened to 2 years. You will know weather the player is worth it by then.

  17. armchairgm9 says: Dec 31, 2010 10:35 AM

    A rookie wage scale changes the entire way teams are built and the way free agency will work. GMs will have to work to get guys resigned before players have a chance to feel the market out and realize how much they can make as a free agent. Before, GMs took draft picks hoping they panned out. Now they are going to have extra money, and REALLY have to spend even more wisely now.

  18. mike83ri says: Dec 31, 2010 10:38 AM

    This is only a 1 year issue. I don’t think tweaking a permanent structure a whole lot to ease the 1 year oddity is worth worrying over.

    Plus the Pats have like 20 picks this year, so let’s flood the draft with talent again!

  19. hotep999 says: Dec 31, 2010 10:40 AM

    $5.34 million signing bonus.
    +$1.5 million salary his rookie year, even if he does not play a single down

    = 6.84 truly guaranteed money.
    = GOOD $$$$$!!!

  20. buckeye044 says: Dec 31, 2010 10:44 AM

    my buckeyes won’t be leaving early……..they promised.

  21. pkrjones says: Dec 31, 2010 10:49 AM

    Superbengal and Anarch have it right…
    The NFLPA should be disbanded if it agrees to more than a 3 year contract length. The owners want to shift money from unproven rookies to vets and/or retired players~understood.

    The restrictions on teams/owners should be mandatory 3 year contract for 1st & 2nd rounds, 2 years for lower rounds. If there is such a thing as the Franchise Tag it should be mandatory that it may be used only once per player, giving the team adequate time to negotiate a fair long-term deal or trade him for fair value.

  22. skf727 says: Dec 31, 2010 11:02 AM

    The NFL never fails to impress me with its chutzpah.

    Let me get this straight. The NFL wants to make sure that if one of its GM’s makes a terrible draft choice that the team won’t be saddled with paying that person $50-$75mm. But they can’t say that so they are phrasing it in the kumbaya terms of making sure that the gap between the compensation of the first player and the last player picked narrows.

    What we are really talking about are the first 10-15 picks of the draft here. Arguably the first five. Does anybody honestly think that the last player picked will suddenly see a huge jump in his salary? No. That person will still get whatever they get but the folks at the top will take a serious haircut.

    Raise your hand if you think that because rookies now make $15mm instead of $75mm that ticket prices will be cut. Parking? Concessions?

    Nope, Nope and Nope.

    The NFL is the only pro sport that doesn’t have a professional minor league where players could go if they can’t cut it at the highest level. Basketball and hockey players go to Europe and make a good living- baseball rookie salaries aren’t generally that high and a few of them go to Japan or just languish in the minors. My point being, if the player doesn’t make it in the NFL due to talent, injury, or simply bad luck- they need to find another career and usually they are 25 or under at the time of the epiphany. This is just another way to stall players out.

    If the GM can’t handle the pressure of making the early pick…TRADE THE PICK!! Or better yet, win more games so you don’t have to worry about it because you DON’T HAVE an early pick.

    A previous poster railed against the slotting system (this year’s pick making whatever last year’s pick in the same spot made + 10% or so) and has a point. But who’s fault is that? The GM’s and owners for allowing agents to get away with it. GMs whine “Oh please, save us from ourselves.” These guys are so inept they should all run for Congress.

    Besides, Sam Bradford has probably already added $78mm to the value of the Rams and he hasn’t even finished the first year of that six-year contract. Now the powers that be are pushing a five-year rookie contract? The average NFL career is substantially less than five years. Get bent.

    Once again, this is simply billionaires (the owners) and millionaires (the players) both crying poverty at a time of 9.5% unemployment.. Both parties are squarely disconnected from reality.

  23. clownburger says: Dec 31, 2010 11:15 AM

    HORRIBLE ARTICLE.

    Another “Let’s try to stir something up out of nothing!” Article.

    Doesn’t matter if the first pick is going to get HUGE money or not. The fact still remains that the higher the picks go, the more money they’ll get. PERIOD.

    Actually, your thoughts are completely wrong.

    Now it will be more important than ever that players get their stock as high as possible and staying in school another year won’t be as big of a gamble and can have more of a pay off, if they’re more NFL ready.

    Bottom Line: Rookie Pay Scale is BADLY needed and it will keep players in college longer.

    Don’t believe me? Watch and see.

  24. hockey64 says: Dec 31, 2010 11:19 AM

    The owners must be counting the cash as their beancounters run the numbers.

    Players get lower wages, longer hours (18 games) and shorter careers with the 18 game schedule. Shorter careers translates into lower earning power and fewer number of second contracts.

    You can see why the players would reject this contract without getting offsetting concessions.

  25. philaeagles31 says: Dec 31, 2010 11:47 AM

    I don’t think some 4th round pick who turns into a Pro Bowler in his second season should have to wait 5 years to get paid his mega bucks. But I do understand it’d be nice to have team control for 5 years. There’s got to be a compromise where a 3rd year stud isn’t making “peanuts” either (although most of us would love that kind of money).

    If players are going to be restricted for 5 years then they truly need to get rid of the franchise tag. If an organization can’t resign a guy after 5 years then they don’t deserve to have his rights or be compensated with draft picks if they lose a big money free agents.

    Speaking of receiving compensation for losing a draft pick… why should a team not be able to keep a player and yet get a draft pick (or potentially get an early or late pick)? It doesn’t make sense. A team like the Bengals can be cheap and not resign a guy and they should lose out on any form of compensation IMO.

    Oh by the way, the 18 game regular season is a joke. The NFL “cares” about its players and their health, yet they want them to kill those players in two more games per season (we all know those starters don’t play much in the pre-season games).

  26. selgaeinla says: Dec 31, 2010 11:49 AM

    anarchopurplism says:
    Dec 31, 2010 10:06 AM
    @ brasho says: Dec 31, 2010 9:01 AM

    I still don’t understand how getting a $40-100K education for nothing, as well as getting access to the best tutors, meal plans, extra benefits, getting wink-nod academic extras, and being BMOC is not getting paid.

    Try telling somebody that still owes $60K in students loans and are trying to pay them off making $40K a year that collegiate players should be paid. It’s ridiculous.
    *********************************************

    Just because a college athlete has more to offer a school than you and gets a better deal than you, does not make it ridiculous that they want to get paid. Your envy is obvious.

    Colleges make a ton of money off of football and the players want a bigger piece of the pie, but the cartel won’t let them.

    In light of how much money the athletes help generate, they clearly are getting a return, but it is not equitable.

    I agree 100% with Anarch….The Colleges are making not millions, but BILLIONS of dollars off of so called scholar athletes. I think this will help expose the shame feeder system that the NCAA is for the NFL and drive the NFL to create a true minor league system. The NFL needs to control the product like baseball does.

  27. importantpftcomment says: Dec 31, 2010 12:02 PM

    And he won’t be able to establish himself in the NFL by playing another year of college football.

    Pretty simple actually. First, stays in college, gets his degree, gets another year of skills under his belt.
    Second is put in a bonus, 5-10mil in their SECOND contractif they graduate college.

    Still far less than what is paid out now…….

  28. SpartaChris says: Dec 31, 2010 12:04 PM

    superbengalfan says:
    Dec 31, 2010 8:59 AM
    The average NFL career is something like 3.5 years so the first contract should be shorter than the average career to allow players an opportunity to even have a second contract.
    ===========================
    I find this a nonsensical argument. The average career span is only 3.5 years because there are a LOT more practice squad guys and special teams players who aren’t good enough to make it as a role player who wash out and move on. This drags the “average nfl career” down.

  29. savocabol1 says: Dec 31, 2010 12:21 PM

    selgaeinla says:
    Dec 31, 2010 11:49 AM
    ———————————————–

    Dear Selgaeinla,

    I work for a large corporation. Annually they make millions, if not billions, of dollars. I am still making bottom of the barrel money with really no real chance of drastically increasing my position, unless I stomp on the people ahead of me. I work extra hard and do not see a dime for my troubles. Shouldn’t I get a bigger piece of the pie? Or is that different because it is not sports?

    Signed,
    Middle class working americans.

  30. skf727 says: Dec 31, 2010 1:02 PM

    SpartaChris wrote
    >>I find this a nonsensical argument. The average career span is only 3.5 years because there are a LOT more practice squad guys and special teams players who aren’t good enough to make it as a role player who wash out and move on

    Even if you believe that the 3.5 year mark is skewed low, Adrian Peterson broke the all-time single game rushing mark in his 8th game and has played at an all-pro level for each of his four seasons to date.

    Would it be more “fair” for him to fulfill his watered down rookie contract after 3, 4 , or 5 years knowing that RBs pretty much are all shot after age 30?

    Speaking as a Raiders fan, Jamarcus Russell is arguably the worst draft choice and biggest bust of all time. Yet it hasn’t stopped Al Davis from signing all of his other draft picks (including DHB), pay Asamougha, make Seabass and Lechler the highest paid at their positions in NFL history and possibly sign Richard Seymour.

    Now Al Davis is probably the least wealthy NFL owner out there (I know, I know- that’s like being the ugliest Victoria’s Secret model). As an added bonus, his team plays in the worst stadium to 50% capacity crowds.

    I haven’t heard Al Davis ever complain about not being able to keep players he wanted.

  31. skf727 says: Dec 31, 2010 1:25 PM

    This is basically an internal NFLPA “problem” in my opinion. Any comment from ownership on this matter is completely disingenuous and completely self-serving.

    If low-round veterans are mad that unproven rookies end up eating up an undeserved amount of the salary cap then guess what…maybe they should have had better college careers themselves.

    In the meantime, suffer through making many multiples of what the average American makes with perks that 95% of the population could only dream of. Oh, and use that “disrespect” as motivation and work your tail off until your next contract comes due.

  32. selgaeinla says: Dec 31, 2010 2:34 PM

    savocabol1 says:
    Dec 31, 2010 12:21 PM
    selgaeinla says:
    Dec 31, 2010 11:49 AM
    ———————————————–

    Dear Selgaeinla,

    I work for a large corporation. Annually they make millions, if not billions, of dollars. I am still making bottom of the barrel money with really no real chance of drastically increasing my position, unless I stomp on the people ahead of me. I work extra hard and do not see a dime for my troubles. Shouldn’t I get a bigger piece of the pie? Or is that different because it is not sports?

    Signed,
    Middle class working americans.

    ——————————————-

    Sorry you’re impact on your company is so insufficient that you get no stock or bonus. But your situation has little or no correlation to a NCAA athlete, who can get suspended from hames for selling his personal possessions for a few thousand dollars as ooposed to a BCS football school’s revenue.

  33. stuckdownsouth says: Jan 1, 2011 4:21 PM

    This article is right on the spot. Players leaving early for the pros because of a rookie wage scale…. that would never happen. Oh wait… it already did with the NHL. Since the NHL changed things up with their rookie caps they have had players jumping for the pros earlier all the time. Now you even see players leaving part way through their college seasons. It is a mess and makes for tough decisions for coaches. Do I go after this blue chip guy who might be here for one year… or do I go after a guy a step or two down the talent level and see how he plays with a team for the entire four years.

    The NFL needs a rookie wage scale, but when they put the scale in place… the players will leave earlier. They all think that they come in and make a name for themselves to get the big second contract. So should I wait two more years to start the first contract… or do it now. Most will jump at the chance.

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