Let's be honest—the NFL's handle on rookie salaries is demented. There's hardly a better way to describe the situation.
With commissioner Roger Goodell recently lamenting the exorbitant contracts needed to sign top rookies and that practice's impact on the economics of the league, I'm thinking it's about time to brainstorm some possible compromises.
I mean, there must be at least one solution out there. It's hard to believe this issue wasn't bandied about and compromised on years ago.
When it comes down to it, there are essentially no guidelines or restrictions on rookie salaries, with these young, unproven players holding all the bargaining power. Feels to me like players should consider themselves lucky to be in the league, willing to take a standard salary before truly proving themselves.
David Stern has overseen a system that removes that bargaining power in the NBA with a fair, regimented system of set salaries per draft slot. But it does make sense that the NFL is the one professional sports league that saw this situation get out of hand.
As with all leagues, while NFL teams would love to see young talent become cheap until proven valuable, the players' association wants to make sure its kind gets paid. Yet in the NFL, you could more easily be injured and done with any time you take the field, with no new contracts coming for your newly crippled self.
So here's my compromise, from the standpoint of the league:
Stand for Concessions
First, we'll start by making concessions to the players. If we're going to take away their giant rookie contracts (most of the recent top picks have received giant contracts both in potential and guaranteed earnings), we've got to give them something in return.
That something is the restructuring of contract rules to restrict the use of unguaranteed deals for all players. There are a number of ways this can be done. We could alleviate salary-cap rules so that players can be waived, as far as the cap is concerned, while still giving them their money, or a higher percentage of it.
I'm no expert on the machinations of NFL salaries and how the current contract landscape developed, but it doesn't exactly matter how it gets done, as long as it gets done.
If the players' association can bring a bit more net guaranteed money into the fold, it should definitely be willing to make some concessions of its own that will decrease rookie salaries. After all, that will also create a system that rewards NFL players more for what they earn in NFL games rather than the hype they garnered from college games and Mel Kiper Jr.
The first thing to change regarding rookie salaries is to adopt a system by which teams draft players' rights that last four or five years at a fixed, entry-level salary, specific to each round. Non-negotiable signing bonuses will be given to all first-day draftees, scaled down from draft position.
Since 2008's first overall pick, Jake Long, received $30 million in guaranteed money over five years from the Dolphins, which was considered eyebrow-raisingly high, the No. 1 pick can receive a signing bonus of $20 million followed by a standard rookie salary made by all first-rounders.
As stated, bonuses would incrementally decrease by the pick until the last player picked on the first day of the draft received whatever has been fair value for a player drafted at that position. The rest of the players drafted earn the entry-level salary set for their round, maybe along with a small signing bonus based on draft position.
At some point in the process, the two sides should agree to what round becomes the cutoff for drafted players being guaranteed a contract. In the NBA, all first-rounders are guaranteed a contract, while second-rounders are not. It might be fair to go first day with this, too, but most players drafted in the first four rounds stick with their team for a while, so cutting off after the fourth could also work. Let's go with the first three rounds being guaranteed.
Arbitrating Can Be Fun
Once all of that is established, we can get to what could really make all of this work.
Right after each season, each player enters arbitration and gets a raise according to his worth. If he doesn't really merit a big one, he gets the league-minimum raise of, say, 10 percent on top of his standard rookie salary for the round in which he was drafted.
If he's a fifth-rounder and his contract isn't guaranteed, he can be cut for free; if it is guaranteed, it will be relatively cheap to buy him out and cut the losses, with the player able to find a new suitor while still earning a signing bonus and five years of default NFL salary. (Minimum raises would automatically go into effect if a player is cut, though buyout agreements could be reached to lower the buyout cost.)
This process will more or less mirror Major League Baseball's, but it will have to be accelerated due to the nature of the game. Newly drafted football players contribute much sooner and are much more liable to suffer career-threatening injuries than baseball players. Therefore, the arbitration process begins immediately.
After the season, each rookie will be arbitrated and given a new contract based on how much players of similar experience and production have made in the past (giant contracts that caused this problem notwithstanding). Likewise, this will be done for all second-year players (drafted after this rule change took place), and so on.
The experience factor in arbitrating is key, as this will work much like baseball's, in that the players still won't be making what they'd make on the open market.
Players will not be eligible to enter free agency until they have played in the league for five years (a compromise could be four years, if necessary). So, each year, they will enter arbitration to earn in salary what they earned on the field, and all of their peers will receive the same treatment.
To clarify, "guaranteed" here would mean the player is guaranteed to be awarded a contract with an increased salary of some kind, even with poor performance, for each year of the guaranteed contract.
Hold the Holding Out, Please
Now, this might all sound well and good, but we know two things that can get in the way. That baseball players in this similar system often work out big contracts with their teams to avoid arbitration years, and that NFL players are notorious for holding out until they get what they want.
So here's my final provision that ensures players will have to earn the serious contracts.
Teams cannot sign players to long-term deals until after the third year of owning their rights. Contracts must be year-to-year, with the team simply owning the rights to the player for the first five years of his time in the league.
If a player does hold out after his third year, looking for a long-term extension the team doesn't agree on, the current holdout fines would apply. With most of his peers relying on arbitration during this time, it should become easier to compare X player to Y player and avoid unreasonable demands.
With these conditions, players and agents have little way of holding any leverage over their teams. Players will take what they earned by getting themselves drafted wherever they were drafted, having all the incentive in the world to be the best they can be in their first three years.
Teams won't have to work out long-term contracts after three years since they'll have one or two more years' worth of rights, depending on the labor agreement, but big deals will most likely be done for the players who stand out.
And it may cause more players to stand out, as it will be less likely for a player to rest on his laurels, necessitating more effort in those crucial early years. Other players will still earn what they deserve under the arbitration system and won't be too far from reaching full-on free agency.
In theory, this should provide a solid framework for a fair system.
The minor points of the blueprint here can certainly be adjusted, especially when it comes to signing bonuses and which rounds merit guaranteed contracts. (Maybe the third- and fourth-rounders should only get three guaranteed years, still having their rights owned by the team that drafts them for the full four or five years.)
Regardless of how it happens, I'd like to see something like this happen. It would be good for all teams, all veteran free agents, and all fans when it comes to worrying about rookie holdouts or rookie contracts limiting their favorite team's wiggle room under the cap.
And—who knows?—fewer "bust" contracts might (indirectly) help keep ticket prices down, too.