Rookie cap biggest win from new CBA

BY foxsports • July 27, 2011

The best thing about the NFL’s new agreement between the players and owners is that teams will once again covet their high first-round picks because of a much-stricter rookie salary scale.

In the former system, teams often wanted to drop out of the draft’s top 10 but generally couldn’t find any trade partners. Teams had simply become afraid of pulling the trigger and being aggressive unless a stud quarterback or superior pass rusher was available. General managers and owners simply became leery of the escalating salaries, refusing to risk being tagged with a multimillion-dollar bust in the first round. It often led to some teams selecting what we all termed as “a safe pick."

The new collective bargaining agreement somewhat changes what had become a ridiculous system in which a rookie, an unproven professional, often was suddenly making more money than most of his veteran teammates, even Pro Bowl selections.

Granted, teams still must make astute selections in the draft to achieve proper value. But when they make a colossal mistake, as the Raiders did in 2007 with JaMarcus Russell, well, the horrible money lost won’t be as harmful to the bottom line.

In last season’s franchise quarterback salaries, Russell was listed sixth overall at $13,611,455, and he didn’t play a down. Another example of the former system, the Redskins paid Donovan McNabb $16.7 million in 2010, which was second best to Peyton Manning’s $22.2 million. The Redskins apparently are ready to kick McNabb to the curb as they talk about a deal with the Minnesota Vikings.

“First-round picks are valuable again,” said veteran agent Marvin Demoff, who long ago orchestrated John Elway’s escape from Robert Irsay's Baltimore Colts to Denver. “The big winners in this 10-year deal are those picks and Los Angeles, because it appears that this deal definitely favors the big-market franchises.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league and most commentators have been screaming for a rookie wage scale for years. It simply made too much sense. I wish this labor deal had gone a little further. But it’s definitely better than what had been happening with first-rounders and their agents, many of them withholding their services during valuable training camp. Fans who were excited with a selection in April became disenchanted with both player and organization as holdouts lingered into August. And most fans didn’t know whom to believe as agent and team argued over millions. Apparently, those days could be gone for good.

Here’s the best example of why this new deal makes sense: After the first league game this season, the Rams will owe Sam Bradford, last year’s No. 1 pick, the first of his big bonus checks on that $51 million contract. Bradford collected “only” $3.2 million last season, but in the next two seasons the team owes him almost $36 million.

By comparison, the Carolina Panthers will owe their first-round pick, quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s Heisman winner, $36.33 million over five years if they exercise the option for a fifth-year contract after the 2013 season. If they do a pure, four-year deal, the Panthers' reported cost will be $22.03 million, according to the NFLPA’s own parameters. That could prove to be a bargain for the Panthers if Newton is the franchise quarterback they believe he is.

And you can bet, with owner Jerry Richardson very active in negotiations and wanting a rookie salary scale, that’s probably the biggest reason they risked taking Newton atop the draft, knowing that the financial downside was palatable. And with extra money under the $120 million salary cap, the Panthers were able to sign their own unrestricted pass rusher, Charles Johnson, on Tuesday with a quarterback-like guarantee of $32 million on a long-term deal.

Everyone connected with the NFL, from personnel people to the fans, have always wanted a system that paid the proven player, the guy who has already performed well in the NFL. College football is great, but there are enough examples of failed draft choices making way too much money everywhere you look. Just consider that the Saints have to do something about Reggie Bush making more than $11 million for 358 total yards and one touchdown last season. He’s still living off his sky-high, first-round contract.

This season’s rookie compensation for players selected among the first 10 picks will start with the average salary of the top 10 players at the player’s position. Those picked between 11th and 32nd in the first round will start with a salary of the top third through 25th players at the player’s position. This year, the total rookie compensation will be limited to $874 million. The league estimates the savings will amount to more than $175 million in the first three years of the deal.

For those players taken in the second through seventh rounds, they can sign only four-year contracts. If they become great players, the clubs can renegotiate with them or they can file for free agency after four years. Plus, there are now better guarantees against career-ending injuries in this agreement.

That sounds like a fair deal all-around.

The winners of the money not being lavished on first-round players will be current NFL veterans and also the many retired players, who earned modest incomes during their playing days but now have medical bills in the thousands. The NFL and the NFLPA plan to contribute $620 million over 10 years to a new Legacy Fund, benefiting pre-1993 retirees. Once again, real money is being spent on players who earned it and really need it.

The plan includes broader language indicating funding for improvement to post-career medical options, the disability plan, the Mackey 88 Plan for dementia treatment, career-transitioning and the Player Care Plan. In a league release, NFL Alumni executive George Martin viewed the estimated $1 billion over the next decade for retirees as “very favorable.”

The union will also use some of the savings from the rookie wage scale to help pay bonuses in the veteran performance pool.