Show Me the Money: A Modest NFL Rookie Salary Proposal

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMarch 22, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 25:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stands with Detroit Lions #1 draft pick Matthew Stafford at  Radio City Music Hall for the 2009 NFL Draft on April 25, 2009 in New York City  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Professional athletes make a lot of money.

No matter what is said about salary caps, salary structures, or lack thereof—nothing will change the fact that throwing, hitting, or kicking a ball of any shape or size will make more money than teaching children or putting out house fires.

Controlling rookie pay is not an effort to destroy the free market economy, and it is not an effort to steal money from high draft picks or their agents.

With the labor agreement between the NFL and Players' Association expired, things are going to change in the NFL. Next year, in New Orleans, the two sides will meet for the same annual meeting that just completed this winter in Maui.

The location was not arrived at by chance.

Both sides—billionaire owners and millionaire players will be surrounded by a city that is still uprooting itself from a horrible tragedy. Those sides will argue about the division of a economic pie of which one sliver would change the life of just about any resident of New Orleans.


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The topic of a rookie salary cap will be almost certainly brought forth.

The current rookie salary structure has one inevitable end—the annual practice of Tom Condon having his way with an NFL Franchise and then taking a Scrooge McDuck dive into his pile of money.

Originally, it was thought the current plan would protect NFL franchises from lengthy holdouts.

Epic fail.

Hopefully, the next structure will actually meet that goal. In addition, a sustainable model for rookie salaries needs to be enacted.

In 1999, Tim Couch signed a seven-year contract worth a maximum of $48 million. Of that amount, $12.25 million was a guaranteed signing bonus.

Ten years later, Matthew Stafford signed a six-year contract worth a maximum of $72 million with a guaranteed $41.7 million.

At this rate, teams with the first overall draft pick eventually will need quite literally to hand over the keys to the franchise to their newest player—along with the keys to the stadium, training facility, and beverage carts.

Things need to change.

In addition to preventing holdouts, and being sustainable, a new rookie salary structure should safeguard franchises from era-crippling penalties from a failed first round pick.

Teams like Detroit, St. Louis, and Oakland have enough problems. But, being handcuffed to rookie salaries, which take up a sizable portion of the salary cap (likely gone) or operating budget, is essentially a tax on ineptitude.

A new salary structure also needs to continue to provide incentive to high school and collegiate athletes to choose the NFL over endeavors in other professional sports organization.

Do not be fooled, when a high school athlete is thinking about the $70 million Stafford obtained, he compares it to the record-breaking $15 million deal Stephen Strasburg signed in the same year.

Finally, such a deal must yield to the common sense equality of draft picks—that a young man barely of legal drinking age is not the economic value-based equivalent of a ten year veteran who has been named to multiple All Pro teams.

The reality of a draft pick is that said pick—aside from economic factors—is a high risk/high reward scenario.

Adding in the current economics, the situation becomes a Vegas-level gamble in which the total money paid to high draft picks will never equate the money that group of men actually earned.

I'm lookin' at you, Courtney Brown.

Without further ado, here is a three-part structure for a new rookie salary structure:

Teams and agents are free to pay draft picks as much (or as little) as little as the sides can agree upon. However, the amount of guaranteed money in the first year of a contract will be based upon the franchise tag number for that position in the upcoming year.

With this portion of the plan, Al Davis can promise the next JaMarcus Russell a billion dollars if he really wants to. But, the amount that quarterback earns in his first year will be the same as if he were tagged as a Franchise player.

In 2010, that proposal would give Sam Bradford $16 million in his first season.

On first glance that is a huge upgrade over Matthew Stafford's $3.1 million 2009 salary, but one must realize that the Detroit Lions pulled some Cirque De Soleil-quality backbending on his contract to fit him into the rookie pool allotment.

Next year, the Lions will pay Stafford $26.9 million—in comparison, Peyton Manning earned $21.2 million in 2009.

For first round picks below the first overall, a sliding scale similar to the current situation would be instituted in which a base salary for the 32nd overall pick cannot be lower than 50 percent of the franchise tag.

Therefore, if Brian Price were to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints this April, his guaranteed money would be around $3.5 million—more than twice what Evander Hood made in his first year.

As before, any picks outside of the first round need not guarantee money.

Starting in year two, the (fully guaranteed) base salary of the draft pick will be based on benchmarks reached in both the prior year as well as the entire career of the athlete. From year to year, the base salary cannot decrease. However, total pay can decrease due to incentives. 

Consider for a minute, Chris Johnson.

Arguably the best running back in the NFL, Johnson will earn a grand total of $560,000 in base pay for this upcoming year.

On a scale of one to crazy, that notion ranks right up there with Flavor Flav and just about anything Gary Busey has ever said.

While his exact salary in this proposal cannot be determined, it is reasonable to say that one could buy a fair amount of gilded mouthwear as well as a large case of Knotty Boy with the difference from his current salary.

This portion of the proposal gives the younger players in the NFL a truly performance-based incentive by which to earn money. 

It also gives veterans the peace of mind that their locker rooms will not be crowded with young players who will continue to be paid vast amounts of money while not earning playing time.

Under this proposal, Chris Johnson and Vernon Gholston are both earning drastically different salaries—although, probably neither anywhere close to what they really deserve.

All contracts are three-year deals with a performance-based option for year four. Year five is both a player and a team option while year six is a team options.

Players in their rookie contract can negotiate a new contract at any time. Players in the year following their rookie contract cannot be franchised.

Obviously by now, it is obvious that a player like Patrick Willis would earn a lot of money in this plan. Picked just outside of the top 10, Willis has consistently been among the top linebackers in the game since his 2007, his rookie season.

In this plan, Willis would remain a San Francisco 49er, and continue to be paid what he is worth for a very long time. This upcoming year, his fourth would be triggered by his outstanding play.

Next year, he could choose to test the market for a new contract but the team could exercise its option. Likewise, if San Francisco wanted to make him a cap casualty (hypothetically, for any reason), Willis could choose to remain with the team.

As with many contracts with front-loaded guaranteed money, the last year is entirely up to the franchise.

What does this mean?

While this may seem convoluted, the reality this proposal would bring about is a world in which promising young players remain with one franchise and are paid handsomely to do so.

Meanwhile, the Joey Harringtons and Troy Williamsons of the world are expensive yet short term mistakes.

The biggest busts would still be paid a fair amount of money, but not enough to cripple the franchise.

Michael Schottey is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report covering the Detroit Lions and the NFL Draft. He is also a team correspondent for DraftTek.com as well as a guest writer for MLive.com . Check out his podcasts at BlogTalkRadio or follow him on Twitter .

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