The cost of doing business in the NFL is always going up. Players’ salary demands continue to escalate each season. But nowhere is that escalation more evident than in the money spent on rookies.
In an article on NFL.com yesterday, Bill Polian, the Colts’ president, spoke about the rise in the salaries being thrown at these youngsters coming out of college.
“The draft was designed to either allow the weakest teams, based on record, to choose the best players, or if they chose not to take a particular player, to gather a bunch of picks to further accelerate their growth and competitiveness,” he said. “That’s now been skewed by the cost of the picks in the first round.
“When that’s skewed and changed because of the agents, that isn’t a good thing for the game.”
The draft is a crap shoot anyway. It’s not like any team can make a player rich by taking him early and be guaranteed that he will succeed with their team. After investing the pick, and more importantly the salary in that player, even more damage is done when the player doesn’t perform or gets injured.
Rightfully listed in the article was JaMarcus Russell, last year’s first overall selection by the Raiders. His holdout led to an eventual contract that included $29 million in guaranteed money. But guaranteeing money doesn’t guarantee success for the player or the franchise.
The cost of signing a player drafted early in the first round has also impacted trades. The salary demands for any player taken that early, normally cause NFL teams to shy away from trading up in the draft for fear of tying up too much money in one player.
“Trades are a unique thing in the first round anymore because of the cost of the top 10 picks financially,” Polian said. “To take on that cost … is almost counterintuitive.”
So, what exactly can be done to remedy this situation? Polian suggests using a slotting system similar to the one being used in the NBA which determines a rookie’s salary based on where they are taken in the draft.
This may help but more needs to be done beyond that. First, rookie contracts could be shortened. If the salary is based on slotting alone when the player is drafted, then the player won’t be locked into a less than adequate paycheck after three or four years of performing at a high level.
Also, a team won’t be forced to continue paying exorbitant amounts to an under-achieving player three to four years after they were selected. This will give the player freedom earlier in his career to either re-sign for more money or move elsewhere and the team will have more flexibility to deal with their cap numbers early in the player’s career.
The slotting system could also be tweaked to include third and fourth-year options for the team. Let’s say a player is signed at the rookie cap number. In his third or fourth year, the salary would automatically be raised to the level of the average of all starters around the league at that position. The team could either pay the salary or opt out of the contract making the player a free agent.
The league should also consider setting aside a separate cap just for rookie contracts. Teams already try to spread out money paid to players so those salaries won’t hit their cap all at once but will be paid out over the life of a contract. Obviously, general managers and capologists are working overtime to find creative ways to work within the cap. Setting aside rookie contracts from the normal salary cap, even for one year, could help teams to better manage their payrolls.
It’s apparent that something has to give. Polian, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head.
“Our game is based on competitive balance and the fact that every year, every franchise believes they can win, unlike other sports. You can go from worst to first in a year.
“It’s not about money, it’s about the integrity of the game on the field.”