One of the major issues in the NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining negotiations has been compensation to rookie players. Unlike a lot of intricate issues of the bargaining process, this one resonates with fans and media.

As I have said often, rookies will be sacrificed in this negotiation. With so many other tough issues to iron out, the “rookie issue” should go smoothly. Owners think rookies make too much; veteran NFL players think rookies make too much; and save for a handful of player agents, no one is advocating for incoming players.

The truth is that not all rookies make too much.  In fact, very few do.  And the proposals of each side primarily address that group, albeit with some demands from ownership that affect the entire incoming class.

The challenge is reaching common ground. The union made a proposal in October that is more restrictive to rookies than the current system. The NFL formally rejected that proposal this week and countered with a more controlling system. Thus, even on an issue where it appeared there was a bond, there is disagreement, although not insurmountable.

Below are the highlights of each proposal, with my thoughts on each point:

The Players’ proposal

The NFLPA proposal, submitted to ownership in the fall, contained the following provisions:

The union, in an effort to procure gains elsewhere in the CBA,  tried to answer owners' concerns about rookies who “bust”, leaving teams hamstrung with guaranteed cash out the door and Cap charges remaining.

The NFL proposal

The owners’ proposal is a true “wage scale”, similar to the no-negotiation format of the NBA. The NFL wants what the NBA has for rookies; the NBA wants what the NFL has for veterans. 

The NBA, however, only has this scale for first-round players. The NFL is proposing to tie all draftees in contracts that are “pre-fabricated” according to scale. The proposal features the following:

As one example, the last pick in the first round, under the NFL’s proposal, would make a non-negotiated $1.5 million bonus with minimum salaries on a five-year deal. His $300,000 in prorated bonus would be subject to forfeiture for violation of team policies or negative behavior.  The last pick in the first round in 2009, Evander Hood of the Steelers, received guarantees of $6.1 million,  a difference of $4.6 million from the owners' present proposal.

Analysis

The NFL has come out swinging here. Interestingly, owners have made this a high priority despite the fact that the vast majority of the 250 drafted players in the current system are reasonably paid. As someone who has negotiated over 100 NFL rookie contracts, many can represent great value for teams (I remember players such as Greg Jennings and Nick Collins making minimum salaries in their third and fourth years, providing tremendous value for the Packers).

Ownership is clearly embarrassed by the monstrous bonuses and escalators of the top picks, and they are using a broad brush to fix this. Never again will there be outlandish contracts for “busts” such as Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell, outlier contracts that receive enormous attention and cloud the issue.

In addition to addressing the enormous top pick deals the NFL wants control over all incoming players, in two forms: (1) taking the negotiation process out of these contracts, avoiding any holdout situations, and (2) taking back the conduct issue with pre-determined forfeiture on an annual basis.

Financial comparisons

Here are three examples, with the 9th, 19th and 41st picks in the Draft, comparing to the actual picks in the 2009 Draft (the 9th pick was BJ Raji of the Packers; the 19th pick, which I negotiated, was Jeremy Maclin with the Eagles; the 41st pick was Darius Butler of the Patriots).  Amounts are in millions (M):

Pick           2009 contract               NFLPA proposal*           NFL Proposal**
9                22.5M/5 yrs                   18M/4 yrs                      8.6M/5 yrs
19              12.5M/5 yrs                   10M/4 yrs                      6.7M/5 yrs
41              4.325M/4 yrs                 4.3M/4 yrs                     4M/4 yrs

*Assumes 35% playtime in one year
**Assumes 40% playtime in two years

There is almost $10 million of difference (and one year) between the two proposals at the 9th pick in the first round. However, there is only $300,000 difference between the two proposals at the 9th pick in the second round. Thus, some reason for optimism, as the proposals become much more in line once past the first round.

Resolution

My compromise would be the following:

As to the actual amounts of compensation to incoming players, the issue for the union is wrangling an appropriate amount of cash for its membership (to be discussed in next column). If a lesser amount of the, say, $4.25 billion going to NFL players is going to rookies, the key for the union is an equal or greater amount going to veteran players and/or a performance benefit.

These proposals, in actuality, are not that far off.  The issue is, and has always been, at the top. 

As has been clear from some time, top incoming rookies are going to be sacrificed; Sam Bradford will go down in history as the last bonus baby of the NFL Draft. The key for the NFLPA is having this rookie sacrifice work for the greater good.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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