Everything You Need to Know About the NFL's Rookie Wage Scale
The NFL's rookie wage scale is still in its relative infancy. Its inner workings can be difficult to understand, but with the NFL draft approaching and hundreds of fresh faces ready to enter the league, now is a great time to go behind the curtain.
Gone are the days when top picks like Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford could garner contracts worth more guaranteed money than established veterans. The rookie wage scale, for better or worse, has brought uniformity and consistency to rookie salaries.
So, how does it work exactly?
Let's break down everything you need to know about the NFL rookie wage scale.
The Scale Has Dropped Rookie Salaries
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The most glaring change that the new rookie wage scale has brought about is the drastic cut in salaries to top draft picks. The cap restrictions have forced teams to tighten their wallets significantly over the last two seasons.
Let's take a look at the contracts signed by the last five No. 1 overall draft picks:
- 2008, Jake Long, OT, Miami Dolphins, five years, $57.75 million
- 2009: Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions, six years, $72 million
- 2010: Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams, six years, $78 million
- 2011: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers, four years, $22 million
- 2012: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts, four years, $22 million
Salaries were steadily rising before the implementation of the rookie wage scale, resulting in monster contracts for quarterbacks like Stafford and Bradford. After the wage scale took effect, Newton was the first to feel its wrath, as he signed a deal more than $50 million cheaper than those two signal-callers.
The scale will ensure that top-pick salaries remain consistent for the foreseeable future.
Everyone Signs a 4-Year Deal
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As part of the rookie wage scale, every rookie signs a four-year contract. The value of these contracts obviously varies, but the length does not.
For reference, let's look at the deals signed by the Washington Redskins rookies from the first four rounds of the draft in 2012:
- Robert Griffin III: Four years, $21,119,098
- Josh LeRibeus: Four years, $2,856,324
- Kirk Cousins: Four years, $2,572,688
- Keenan Robinson: Four years, $2,520,108
There is a difference of over $18 million between RG3 and everyone else, but each will be a Redskin for four seasons. However, RG3's deal could actually extend beyond 2015 due to our next point...
The 5th-Year Option
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Starting in the second round, rookie contracts are set in stone as four-year deals with no wiggle room. However, first-round picks are in a somewhat unique situation.
The rookie wage scale allows for teams to add a fifth year to the contracts of first-round selections if they so choose. There are restrictions on this stipulation, however.
Let's use Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins as our example this time around. Miami has to decide on whether or not it is going to keep Tannehill after the third year of his contract, but before the start of his fourth season.
If the Dolphins drag their flippers in the water during that time and do not decide on an extension, Tannehill can join everyone else from his draft class in free agency after his fourth season.
Should the extension be given, the player's salary depends on their draft position.
Tannehill, and any other player selected in the top 10, would receive a salary that is the average of the salaries of the top 10 players in the league at his position.
Players selected between picks 11 and 32 would receive a salary that is the average of the third to 25th highest-paid players in the NFL at their respective positions.
Rookie Holdouts Will Continue to Fade Away
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One aspect of the rookie wage scale that receives relatively no criticism is the lack of holdouts. The scale leaves virtually no reason for a player to hold out, aside from potentially hammering out details on a signing bonus.
Because of this, holdouts are going to continue fading slowly into obscurity.
Last season, Justin Blackmon of the Jacksonville Jaguars was the first-round pick that waited the longest period of time to finally sign on the dotted line. The former Oklahoma State wide receiver joined the Jaguars during the first week of August, well ahead of the start of the regular season.
In the most basic sense, deals only include base salaries, signing/workout bonuses and any performance incentives that may be included. Couple these factors with the already set length of every contract and the work of player agents has been made much easier.
The Rookie Salary Cap
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Okay, now here is where things can get a little tricky. A few slides ago we talked about the salaries and contract lengths for Redskins rookies last season. Each had a four-year deal, but Robert Griffin III signed a deal worth more than $21 million while everyone else hovered around $2 million.
This difference is because each team has what is called a "Year One Rookie Compensation Pool." This fancy term refers to a set amount of money that each team must disperse to its rookies. It can be distributed however the team wants, but it must go to rookies.
There is a handy chart from overthecap.com that provides projections for each team's numbers this season.
The chart includes "Total Cap Estimate." This is because the rookie wage scale also places limits on the amount of money that can be spent on the total value of rookie contracts, including incentives, bonuses, etc...
Using one example from the chart, the Cleveland Browns are projected to have $5,820,766 in the Year One Compensation Pool and $31,111,340 for a Total Cap Estimate.
This means that Cleveland would be able to disperse $5,820,766 among their draft picks during this season, but the total amount of money the Browns can spend on these draft picks over four seasons is $31,111,340.
Digest all of that?
Good, you are one step ahead of your buddies in draft preparation.