How Rookie Wage Scale Has Changed the Way NFL Teams Draft

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterApril 8, 2014

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck warms up in the rain before an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia

The NFL lockout during the 2011 offseason was a direct result of buyer’s remorse. After the owners singed their previous deal with the NFLPA in 2006, they were instantaneously trying to get out of the deal.

They weren’t fond of the rookie contracts that were being handed out, money for veteran players was scarce and owners wanted to collect more money from the league’s revenue pool.

Coincidentally enough, all three things were addressed when they signed the current collective bargaining agreement prior to the 2011 offseason. Veteran players are now signing record-setting deals, owners are making more money than they ever have and the rookie wage scale has brought uniformity and consistency to rookie salaries.

Of the three, the rookie wage scale has had the biggest impact on the game, because it has changed the way NFL teams draft. No. 1 picks no longer make $50 million guaranteed, everyone signs a four-year deal and rookie holdouts have started to slowly fade away.

Additionally, numerous trends have formed thanks in large part to the rookie wage scale. The biggest trend is the increased value of first-round draft picks.

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Under the old collective bargaining agreement, cash-conscious teams like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens did everything in their power to trade down if they could.

By trading down, cash-conscious teams avoided paying rookies exorbitant salaries and accumulated additional draft picks along the way. In most cases, the additional picks proved to have better monetary value in correlation to their on-field performances.

However, the days of avoiding top-25 picks are long gone. The average yearly salary for a player selected in the first round of the 2013 draft was $2,776,787.70. In 2010, the last year of the old collective bargaining agreement, the average yearly salary for a player selected in the first round was $4,848,126.25.

On the surface, a savings of $2,071,338.55 may not seem like a huge chunk of change, but it is. One has to take into account that the salary cap in the last year of the old collective bargaining agreement was $112.1 million. In 2013, the salary cap was $123 million.

This, in turn, means a first-round pick under the old collective bargaining agreement made up 4.3 percent of a team’s overall cap number. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, a first-round pick makes up 1.6 percent of a team’s overall cap number.

Charles Krupa

There’s a reason why more top college players are going to good teams. Cash-conscious teams are no longer moving down because of a player’s cost.

For a case in point, look at the Patriots. In the 2012 draft, they had two top-25 selections. Their first top-25 pick was defensive end Chandler Jones (No. 21 overall). And their second was linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25 overall).

Jones, on average, makes $2,043,138 per year. Hightower, on the other hand, makes $1,931,000.50 per year. When you combine their average annual salaries it adds up to $3,974,138.50.

That’s extremely affordable in comparison to what the No. 21 and No. 25 pick would have cost them under the old collective bargaining agreement. In 2010, the No. 21 and No. 25 pick would have cost them $5,069,000 per year.

One can only assume that the Patriots would have tried to shop one of their Day 1 picks in 2012 if the old collective bargaining agreement was still in play.

The second thing that became glaring evident about the rookie wage scale and its effect on the NFL is that no one position makes more than the next. A rookie’s pay is contingent on where he was drafted, not the position he plays.

When linebacker Von Miller was selected with the second overall pick in 2011, the total value of his four-year contract ended up being $21,000,380. The following year, quarterback Robert Griffin III signed a four-year, $21,119,098 deal. And in 2013, left tackle Luke Joeckel inked a four-year, $21,201,598 agreement.

Yes, each contract went up in worth annually, but that was by design. According to Joel Corry of the National Football Post, “The escalation of rookie salaries from one draft class to the next has been minimal since the rookie wage scale was implemented because increases are tied to the growth of the cap.”

Corry went on to add that, “There is a freeze on signing bonuses for draft picks because the growth in minimum salary outpaces the growth of the cap. The same thing also occurred last year.”

This model of salary escalation doesn’t merely apply to first-round picks. It applies to every player drafted. For example, the first-year salary for a player on a minimum rookie contract increased by 3.85 percent ($390,000 to $405,000) last year.

It will be interesting to see how much the rookie wage scale increases this year based on the fact the salary cap jumped from $123 million to $133 million. The NFL hasn’t dropped any clues as of yet, but the folks at Over the Cap do a great job of projecting rookie contracts before the draft.

Here’s a look at their projections for the top 15 selections:

Over the Cap

As you can see, the No. 2 overall pick will make $23,186,460 over the course of a four-year deal. That’s a $1,984,862 upsurge from Joeckel’s deal. That’s a significant raise considering the player who gets drafted at No. 2 this year will make $496,215.50 more a year than Joeckel will.

Furthermore, the slotting of rookie contracts also makes me wonder about the trends in the first round of the draft. One of the biggest questions I have is in relation to the emphasis that is being put on skill position players and quarterbacks on Day 1 of the draft.

Are skill position players and quarterbacks getting picked more often in the first round? Based on the collected data, there were seven quarterbacks and 22 skill position players selected in the first round of the draft between 2008-2010. From 2011-2013, there were nine quarterbacks and 17 skill position players drafted.

In surprising fashion, fewer skill position players have gone off the board under the new collective bargaining agreement. I figured that number would have been higher because of the premium that has been placed on those positions.

As far as the defensive side of the ball goes, 19 defensive linemen, 12 linebackers and 15 defensive backs were drafted in the first round between 2008-2010. From 2011-2013, the defensive line number stayed the same, two more linebackers (14 total) were selected and four more defensive backs (19 total) were picked in the first round.

While there is some fluctuation, the data doesn’t pinpoint one particular trend. Nonetheless, it's safe to say positional value went by the wayside in the first round from 2011-2013. Teams mostly stuck to their draft boards because one position didn't prove more valuable than the other.

All in all, we can agree that the rookie wage scale has changed the way players are being paid. Since its introduction, teams have more control over the players they draft and less control over the veterans who hit the open market.

Obviously, this was set up by design. The collective bargaining agreement wanted veteran players, who were deserving of lucrative contract extensions, to make as much money as they possibly could. And that’s exactly what is happening.

Younger players are no longer handed $50 million guaranteed for being a Day 1 pick. As an alternative to the previous structure, they are playing for their second contract, which is the way it should be.

Well-paid deals should be reserved for veterans. For the most part, players who received ungodly amounts of money on the open market have put in the necessary time to get where they are today.

The NFL has made some bad decisions over the years, but it hit out of the park when it implemented the rookie wage scale. The owners, players and fans seem to be extremely happy about the way things have worked out the last three years.

Unless otherwise noted, all cap numbers via Over the Cap.

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