By all accounts and appearances, the rookie wage scale remains the biggest issue that currently is preventing the NFL and the players from striking a deal. The stalemate arises in part from the league’s insistence that teams should be permitted to sign first-round picks for up to five years, and from a proposed schedule at the top of the draft that would pay Panthers quarterback Cam Newton only $34 million over five years. (We’ve actually heard the base deal will be as low as $25 million over five years.)
The league has dug in, in large part because the league surely believes that the players eventually will cave. And it’s easy to argue that they should. The ability to sign first-round picks for up to five years doesn’t mean that they all will sign five-year deals. The same dynamic that has resulted in teams holding the first few picks grossly overpaying in the hopes of getting the players into camp will get those teams to agree to four-year contracts, if that’s what it takes to get the top picks signed.
But to the extent that a compromise is needed, here’s an idea that’s currently making the rounds. For first-round picks, the contracts would have a three-year base term. After the third season, the teams could then pick up an option for one more year, at a predetermined level of compensation based on performance. Alternatively, teams could pick up two more years, at a much higher rate of pay. (If the player has been a bust, the team can at that point simply walk away.) The terms of the fourth-year and fifth-year options would be subject to negotiation, with hard ceilings on the most that could be paid.
Then again, why does there need to be a hard ceiling on what a player would be paid in years four and five? If the first overall pick is on track for the Hall of Fame after three NFL seasons, why should his pay in years four and five be artificially restricted?
This gets back to a point we’ve been making for weeks. The league seems to be crafting proposals that go beyond merely solving the problem of paying windfalls to players who ultimately do nothing to earn their money. At some point before the first-round picks spend five years in the league, we’ll all know whether they deserve big money. Thus, the league should not insist on locking those first-round picks up for five full years at a level of pay that doesn’t compensate great play.
In this regard, the league is banking on the possibility that the growing sense of inevitability will eventually prompt enough of the players to say, “Screw it. It only affects a handful of players, none of whom are me.” But if the league is truly concerned about a win-win deal that is fair to everyone over the long term, the league will uncross its arms and think of creative ways to prevent Cam Newton from becoming the next JaMarcus Russell without punishing Newton if he becomes the next Peyton Manning.
Until that happens, blame the league for the current state of the talks.