A simple solution to the rookie wage scale problem
The various issues to be resolved in the current labor dispute include an effort by the NFL to reel in the windfalls paid to unproven rookies at the top of the draft.
The problem is real, though the causes of it are subject to debate.
Every year, the worst teams earn the top picks in the draft. Every year, the growth of the value of the contracts given to the top picks in the draft outpaces every other trend relating to the compensation of NFL players. And yet there’s no guarantee that the players taken at the top of the draft will ever earn their money.
Proven players don’t like it. And they shouldn’t. The money paid to players picked at the top of the draft makes them largely bulletproof, resulting in some of the bonus babies listening to nothing that veteran leaders -- or anyone else, for that matter -- have to say.
In 2009, we laid out the arguments for and against a rookie wage scale, and we’ll soon be dusting the articles off and re-posting them. For now, we’re interested only in a fair solution. And hopefully an easy solution.
As we see it, if teams don’t want to pay a ton of money to unproven players, let the players prove themselves before they get paid, with the possibility of getting a ton of money dangling before them as they try.
We propose two-year contracts for all draft picks. After two years, the players would become exclusive-rights free agents, which is essentially what they are upon being drafted. Basically, they have freedom to choose not to play for the team that holds their rights, but no freedom to play for any other team.
Then, after completing the initial two-year contract, the player can threaten to withhold services as leverage for getting the best possible deal, which is precisely the leverage that unsigned draft picks possess. Or he can sign a one-year tender that would be based on playing time and possibly other factors, such as Pro Bowls and other achievements and awards. Or the two sides can come together and agree to a long-term deal based not only on potential but also on two years of performance.
If a player not picked in the top 10 plays at a high level, like Titans running back Chris Johnson did during his first two years in the NFL, he can cash in like he would have done if he’d been a top pick. If a player picked in the top 10 becomes a bust, like Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the team can give him a one-year tender offer based on the factors that will reflect his substandard performance, or the team can let him walk away.
After the third year, the player would be subject to the rules of restricted free agency, like every current third-year player whose contract has expired. After four years, the player would be an unrestricted free agent, assuming that the next labor deal maintains a four-year path to unrestricted free agency.
This approach accounts for the contention that 60 percent of the league would fall under the league’s current proposal, which NFLPA executive director De Smith has called a “veteran wage scale.” It also would address the league’s core concern regarding the consequences of giving millions of guaranteed dollars to a player who has never suited up at the NFL level.
The big money simply wouldn’t come due until after the player has had an opportunity to show that he can get it done. With a salary cap/floor system, the money will end up being spent. The question is where it will be spent, and under our proposal less of it will be spent on players who do nothing to earn it, and more will be spent on those who show in two years of service that they are among the best players in the game.
It’s an approach that’s fair to the teams, and it’s an approach that’s fair to the players. And it’s the framework that the league and the NFLPA should be using to fix the problem.
The next question becomes whether the two sides really want to fix the problem, or whether they want to use the issue as a tool for addressing broader or different concerns. If they’ll commit to addressing the real concern about which the league has been complaining for several years, our proposal provides the skeleton for the solution.
Our proposal may be far from perfect, but it’s far better than the proposals that the league or the union currently have made.