The Draft, Rookie Salaries, and Inequality in the NFL

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The Draft, Rookie Salaries, and Inequality in the NFL
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“With the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions select...INSIGNIFICANCE!!!”

Now, before people reading this article become upset that I am calling Matthew Stafford a bust, follow the logic.  It is not Stafford personally that I am calling out, nor is this a shot at the Detroit Lions. 

It is all about the amount of money that Stafford is going to receive simply for being selected number one.  That is a major problem that the NFL must correct.

Let’s first be clear about one thing. 

Among the four major team sports in North America, professional football has perhaps the shortest “life expectancy” among its players.  Former MVP Shaun Alexander is essentially “washed-up” now at age 31, still an unsigned free agent. 

But also remember that he was cut by Seattle when he was 30, and only picked up by the Redskins after their backup, not their starter, went down!

While baseball, hockey, and even basketball have players in their late-30s and early 40s, it is rare in football, especially at so-called “skill” positions.  The major exception to this are kickers in their 40s, as well as an occasional quarterback.

So due to short utility, it is understandable that football players need a lot of money.  And this is not a “oh, they make too much money” jealousy rant. Your labor and skill is a “commodity” and if that commodity has a high demand, as professional football has in the United States, then top dollar is paid to those with the best skill.  So more power to them.

The problem is this simply fact—Matthew Stafford will make more money than Tom Brady!  Stafford has yet to throw a pass even in an exhibition NFL game and he will earn more than a three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time MVP???

But that is not even the greatest concern here.  What the outrageous rookie salaries translates to is a potential trap for teams with high first round draft picks.

Teams that have high draft picks in the first round must put so much money into an unproven commodity that if that commodity goes belly up, then the team is once again back to square one.  Let’s analyze!

Over the past 20 years, 12 quarterbacks have been taken with the first overall pick (60 percent of the time); eight of those coming in the last 10 years.

Of those 12, four have guided their team to the Super Bowl (Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe, and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman) and two others have had some success statistically—Jeff George and Carson Palmer.  I do not include Michael Vick here because his quarterback numbers are unimpressive.

Three of the remaining five quarterbacks taken first overall since 1989 have been utter failures—Tim Couch, David Carr and Alex Smith. The jury is still out on JaMarcus Russell, although it is not looking good. And Matthew Stafford obviously has yet to play.

What this means is that there is roughly a 50 percent chance that a QB taken number one overall will actually pan out. To be fair, the last two QBs taken at that spot do not have enough to go on (or anything at all), so let’s remove the two most recent and the two “oldest.”

Still, 50 percent. If you want to look at the last 10 years, and still remove Russell and Stafford, then the success rate is less than 50 percent because you also take out Peyton Manning.

But obviously not all starting quarterbacks in the NFL are top picks. So let’s look at starting quarterbacks around the NFL in 2008.

Of the 32 opening day starters at quarterback, 14 were drafted in the first round, so a good number.  But, seven of the opening day starters were drafted in the fourth round or later.  Add to that number the five undrafted starters, and 14 of the opening day starters were either taken between the fourth and seventh rounds or not drafted at all.

And before you claim that some of those starters did not play the majority of their team’s games, that is a good point.  But most of those who took over were also late round quarterbacks, with three being seventh-rounders. 

The only first rounder to take over—Kerry Collins—took over for another first rounder—Vince Young. So, if you look at those quarterbacks who took over, then the average moves towards the latter rounds.

But what of those averages? Well, among all drafted quarterbacks, the average round of the opening day starters is 2.48, or mid-second round. But that is unfair because (1) there are so many from the first round versus the other rounds, and (2) it is a comparison of one round versus six rounds.

But, let’s separate the first round from the rest of the rounds and look at the average selections. First off, looking at all drafted starting QBs, the average pick number is 62.4.  Among first-rounders, the average pick number is 8.79, while the average for the remaining QBs 120.

While it is difficult to place these numbers into an actual round because of changes in the number of teams since 1991, the average pick for all quarterbacks is somewhere in the late second or early third round. Among first rounders, it is closer to the middle of the first round, but still a high pick.

And among all other QBs, it is somewhere in the late third or early fourth. Or in other words, second day!

In terms of success, two of the quarterbacks to led their team to win their division were undrafted (Warner and Delhomme), with a third being taken in the seventh round (Gus Frerotte). This past Super Bowl was the epitome of this debate, with Arizona led by an undrafted QB versus Pittsburgh with a first-rounder.

What does this all mean? Well, while yes quarterbacks taken in the first round can pan out and be starters, it is just as likely that a quarterback taken on the second day or even undrafted can be a starter. In other words, it is a crapshoot. 

You are more likely to see Shaquille O’Neal hit consecutive free throws or Nick Swisher striking someone out than you are to see a team with a first-rounder lining up under center.

Long story short, to guarantee so much money to an unproven commodity is a fallacy that will most likely perpetuate failure.  Keep in mind that I have only delved into quarterbacks.  That are many other first-rounders at other positions to turn out to be failure.

But how does all of this further the gulf between the elite programs in the NFL and the bottom-feeders?  Well, let’s look at the teams drafting in the No. 1 spot.

  • Three times: Cincinnati (1994, 1995, 2003) and Indianapolis (1990, 1992, 1998)
  • Two times: Cleveland (1999, 2000); Dallas (1989, 1991); Houston (2002, 2006)
  • One time: New England (1993); New York Jets (1996); St. Louis (1997); Atlanta (2001); San Diego (2004); San Francisco (2005); Oakland (2007); Miami (2008); Detroit (2009)

Since 1989, the teams picking first tend to draft in the middle of the first round over the three drafts following that first overall pick. The average number of wins over the three seasons following their first overall pick is 7.2 wins!  In other words, it is a losing record.

Granted, there are some shenanigans with the top pick as there have been some trades out of that pick by the worst team.  And teams have been successful in the three seasons following a No. 1 pick. 

The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl three seasons after selecting Orlando Pace with the first overall pick.  The Dallas Cowboys won two Super Bowls within the three seasons of taking Russell Maryland No. 1 overall.

However, both of those teams traded into the position to take the first pick.  The pieces came together for the Cowboys because of their many draft picks, while the Rams relied on an undrafted quarterback! 

Only two teams have really turned it around from the basement—New York Jets, who would have had the first pick in 1996 and 1997 (that pick traded to the Rams) and the San Diego Chargers, who traded their 2001 top pick to Atlanta. 

But even with the Jets, their success has been a roller coaster. San Diego has done a bit better.

Now, granted, long term the Indianapolis Colts became successful with Peyton Manning, as have the New England Patriots.  Conversely, the St. Louis Rams have gone the other way.  But the point here is short-term problems and becoming a “repeat offender” as the worst teams in football.

One final point on the draft; just picking No. 1 does not necessarily mean a team is consistently bad.  The Detroit Lions, for example, did not hold the No. 1 pick until 2009; Oakland only landed it in 2007. 

However, many NFL fans will point to these teams as being some of the worst in football.  So, let’s look at the worst teams from 2008 and their recent positions in the draft [past five seasons]. 

Now admittedly, some teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to have down seasons over the past two years.  So, I have decided not to include those teams, nor am I including teams that finished last in their division but were 7-9 or 8-8.

  • Detroit Lions: 7.4
  • St. Louis Rams: 9.4
  • Kansas City Chiefs: 13.2
  • Cleveland Browns: 9
  • Cincinnati Bengals: 14.8
  • Oakland Raiders: 5.2
  • San Francisco 49ers: 7

With the exception of Kansas City and Cincinnati, most of these teams’ average first round pick over the last five years is within the top 10!  And both of those exceptions are carried by successes from more that two seasons ago. 

St. Louis’s 9.4 average first round pick is also carried by a 2004 playoff appearance, while Cleveland is “high” because of a successful 2007 season (although no playoffs).

In other words, teams considered to be at the bottom of the NFL hierarchy tend to continuously remain in the “big money” picks of the First Round.  Or, these teams are consistently “lottery” teams, much like the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA.

And this gets to the money, and how the money invested in these unproven players continues the vicious cycle. Let’s take the worst team in terms of average draft picks—the Oakland Raiders.

Over the last three drafts (2009 aside), the Raiders have taken Darren McFadden (fourth overall), JaMarcus Russell (first overall), and Michael Huff (seventh). Those three account for over $24 million of the Raiders total payroll of over $152 million. That is 16 percent of their payroll to players that have not really proven themselves in the NFL. 

And Darrius Heyward-Bey is just another unproven player that will be paid millions to keep the Raiders in the basement.

Now, it is understandable that teams invest a sizable percentage of their payroll towards a couple of players.  The NFL tends to have the highest individual player salaries among the four major North American sports.  But it also has the lowest average salary of the four sports.

Nevertheless, let's look at some of the top teams in the NFL and their team salaries.

Super Bowl champs Pittsburgh devotes 28 percent to two players (mostly to Roethlisberger), while runner-up Arizona devotes 20.5 percent to two players. Other top teams follow a similar pattern, such as New England (23 percent), Indianapolis (24.6 percent), and the New York Giants (21.4 percent).

The difference here is that New England and Indianapolis are devoting that payroll to players like Randy Moss and Peyton Manning; players who have proven their worth in the NFL.

Oakland and Detroit have pushed money onto rookies who have only proven they are good college players.  And when so when one of these unproven players with so much guaranteed money fail, it is difficult for the team to bring in talent because of the salary devoted to these failures!!!

What this long rant represents is that the current structure of the NFL Draft and rookie salaries are designed, unintentionally, to keep teams down. Certainly a team can hit the jackpot by landing a player like Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, or Orlando Pace. 

But for every Manning, there is a Ki-Jana Carter.  For every Roethlisberger, there is a Charles Rogers.

And when it is more likely that Dwight Howard would hit a free throw than a high first-round pick will work out, then something is definitely wrong.

 

This article originally appeared on Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on 9 May 2009.

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