How the NFL Is Cheating Rookies out of Millions of Dollars

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 14, 2017

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) walks the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Tampa. The Rams won the game 37-32.    (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

NFL rookies are generally viewed as better seen and not heard. They are drafted, in some cases, to take the jobs of veterans. That makes them threats. And that means rookies often aren't liked by veteran players but merely tolerated.

So when longtime NFL players express sympathy for rookies about anything, especially their earning ability, it's significant.

"Our league has so much money," one NFC veteran told Bleacher Report, "and the young guys are getting f--ked."

On this, many veterans agree: The biggest losers of the current collective bargaining agreement are players on rookie contracts. As set forth in the CBA, every rookie can be locked into a four-year contract (and for some first-rounders, a five-year deal). That allows teams to reap the benefits of some sizable bargains, such as the $10.4 million deal Odell Beckham Jr. is playing out with the Giants, or the $10.1 million deal Aaron Donald is in with the Rams.

One team executive agreed rookies are getting squeezed, but he quickly added that this CBA and all of its perceived unfairness is the deal the players negotiated. No one should feel sorry for them, argues the exec. They have a union.

"Yeah, that kind of sucks," Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said in an interview with ESPN, speaking of the current rookie salary system. "Sometimes guys have to wait five years. Other guys don't. But that's what they agreed on in the past. Next time we've just got to do a better job of structuring what we want to do. At the end of the day, if you play at a high level, things should pan out for you."

If there is one thing to understand about the current mood of some players in football, there is an increasing sense they didn't just lose in the last CBA negotiations, they were obliterated. Some have become increasingly angry, and that frustration has grown as players have watched NBA salaries soar.

When Steph Curry signed a $200 million deal, NFL players were stunned. Denver linebacker Shane Ray tweeted: 

Detroit tight end Eric Ebron reacted to the news Blake Griffin signed a five-year, $173 million deal with a similar level of alarm:

When James Harden signed a four-year extension that made his overall deal worth $228 million through the 2022-23 season, defensive lineman Terrance Knighton tweeted: 

The anger over these salaries has grown to the point that some players feel a strike in 2020, when the current labor deal expires, is needed for players to get more cash.

"If we want...to get anything done, players have to be willing to strike," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told ESPN's Jalen Rose. "That's the thing that guys need to 100 percent realize.

"You're going to have to miss games, you're going to have to lose some money if you're willing to make the point, because that's how MLB and NBA got it done. They missed games, they struck, they flexed every bit of power they had, and it was awesome. It worked out for them."

And few are getting less for more than first-year players, and every player seems to understand that.

How did we get here? Go back to April of 2009, when the No. 1 overall pick, Matthew Staffordsigned a six-year deal that included $41.7 million in guaranteed money. The total deal was worth $72 million. Matt Ryan's rookie deal was similar.

Fast forward to 2016, when the No. 1 overall pick, Jared Goff, signed a $27.9 million deal with $18 million in guaranteed money. That guaranteed cash is less than half of what Stafford received just eight years ago.

To be sure, there is an irony in the outrage veteran players express over the way rookies are treated. One of the key parts of the current CBA, signed in 2011, was that more money would go to veterans and the league would institute salary-depressing mechanisms for younger players. 

Nicknamed the "JaMarcus Russell rule," the rookie scale found much of its impetus in the $61 million deal Russell had signed with the Raiders in 2007, $31 million of which was guaranteed. Russell, drafted first overall, was out of the league in three years and today stands as one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

And here we are, full circle, where rookies want more money and, surprisingly, the veterans, who once wanted rookies to make less, want them now to make more.

Another problem for rookies is the CBA has set up a fifth-year option system that applies only to teams' top picks. That means a player like Donald won't enter free agency until 2019. Teams are hesitant to rework deals before that fifth year, which leaves Donald making far less than he would were he compensated for his actual production.

"At the end of the day, if you're playing at that level, you should be able to get that opportunity," Shazier told ESPN. "At the end of the day, that's between you and the team. If the team wants to do that, it's great. ... If you play at that level, you should be able to re-up whenever you want to."

Meanwhile, 29 teams are set to receive $55 million each in relocation fees from the Rams, Chargers and Raiders over the next decade or so. And players will not see a dime of those fees.

What a deal...or should we say, steal.

     

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.  

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