The Front Office vs. The Player

I thought I would take a counterpoint to my friend, colleague and former player with the Packers, Matt Bowen. Matt has jumped on the bandwagon about rookie salaries, joining the in-vogue wailing about how much money rookies are paid compared to veterans, how they haven’t earned it, why it’s killing the game, etc. Let’s take a look at his points:

The Deals

Naturally, Matt, like everyone else, points to the Matthew Stafford deal and its eye-popping guaranteed money and overall value. And after this outrage dies down, it will perk up again later in the summer when Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry and Mark Sanchez ink their mega-deals.

Ok, we get it. They make way too much and take a disproportionate amount of money compared to players who have “earned” it. But there are about 225 of the 250 players drafted this weekend whose average contracts will be less than the league average of about $1.5M per year. And there are going to be a lot of those 250 players who will be productive NFL players this year and in the next couple years. Many of them will be making minimum salaries over the next four years and receiving bonuses of a couple of hundred thousand dollars or less.

No one seems to be complaining about those deals. The vast majority of rookie contracts represent fixed and reasonable costs for teams that balance Salary Caps against the large veteran extensions and free-agent contracts. The Stafford-type deals are aberrations.

The Vets’ Reaction

Sure, veteran players can buy into the idea that rookies shouldn’t make more than them, and the vast majority do not. But contrary to Matt’s thinking, many veterans are emboldened by the size of these contracts for players who have never taken an NFL snap. That makes this even more of a problem for teams, as these contracts are now reference points in negotiations of veteran contracts.

You don’t think Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren’t watching the Stafford and Sanchez deals with great interest? Of course they are. It will be Exhibit A for their future negotiations, as it already is for young quarterbacks approaching the end of their rookie deals such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler.

The Coaches’ Reaction

Any coach in this generation knows that first-round picks have a certain pedigree, whether they’re high first-round picks or low first-round picks. Most coaches in the NFL are not living in the past; they know the NFL is a business and they’re part of it.

The Bottom Line

We do have a Rookie Salary Cap in the NFL. The Cap portion of it is controlled; rookies only amount to about four percent of a team’s overall Cap. It’s the cash, not the Cap, in these contracts that needs to be controlled. The system needs tweaking for both sides, and the overwhelming odds are that this will happen in the coming round of bargaining between the league and the players’ union.

The inverse order of the draft is designed to promote competitive balance by providing losing teams access to the best players. That’s the reward for being one of the worst teams. But in the past few years, there is also now a penalty for being unsuccessful on the field -- a financial penalty felt at the top of the draft. This becomes another reason to try to win more games each year.

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