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Rookie wage scale could prompt more underclassmen to leave school

Noel Devine, Greg Williams

West Virginia running back Noel Devine (7) breaks away from Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Williams (38) to run for a first down during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 26, 2010 in Pittsburgh. West Virginia won 35-10.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)


Though the NFL wants to implement a rookie wage scale that would wipe out the windfalls paid to players taken at the top of the draft, the league has been leery about handling the issue in a way that would cause a flood of college underclassmen to bolt for the NFL before the big money dries up. (With a true rookie wage scale likely coming in 2011, that’s no longer a concern.)

But there’s a broader issue regarding the connection between a rookie wage scale and the forfeiture of eligibility by players who can otherwise stay at the college level.

A true rookie wage scale would flatten the gap between the first player taken in round one and the last, removing the incentive to stay in school and increase draft stock, like West Virginia running back Noel Devine opted to do in 2010. (A foot injury suffered against LSU derailed that strategy by making him largely ordinary for most of the season.)

Packers CEO Mark Murphy recently made the case for a rookie wage scale in a Washington Post op-ed item, outlining the league’s offer regarding the No. 1 overall selection. “Under the proposal, the first pick in the draft would sign a five-year contract and receive a $5.34 million signing bonus and $1.5 million salary his rookie year, even if he does not play a single down,” Murphy wrote. “In years two and three, his salary would be set at $1.7 million and $1.9 million, respectively. His fourth- and fifth-year salaries would rise to $2.3 million and $2.9 million for a total package of $15.6 million. (If he is a quarterback, he would be paid $4.3 million in year six.) The first pick would still be paid well, but at a much more reasonable level than under the current system.”

It sounds like very good money to the average person, but the contract given to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the top pick in 2010, is worth $78 million over six years, with $50 million guaranteed. Sure, there’s some fluff in the guaranteed money, but Bradford’s truly guaranteed money at the time he signed the deal was $24 million. In contrast, under the league’s proposal, a quarterback taken with the first pick would receive a total package of $19.9 million, with only $5.34 million truly guaranteed.

Thus, the truly big money will be paid out not in the first contract but in the second contract. As a result, the goal will become to get to the second contract. And to get to the second contract, a player will need to get into the league and start proving his worth.

As one league source explained it to PFT on Thursday, more underclassmen will choose to leave, since improving their draft stock via an extra year of college football won’t translate into the big money that a big bump up the ladder would have triggered in the past. The big money will now come once free agency approaches, and free agency won’t approach if the player opts for another year of play-for-no-pay.

A management-side source scoffed at the notion that a rookie wage scale will cause more players to leave school early. “Players should only come out early if they are ready to play, meaning drafted high,” the source said. “Otherwise, they are damaging their NFL career chances. That’s why we have the College Advisory Committee that helps players understand where they can be expected to be drafted. The difference in the proposed wage scale vs. today’s system would really only affect first-round picks and some second-rounders. Otherwise, it is pretty much the same. Coming out early does not affect that many players.”

Still, the point is that, by removing the incentive of spending one more year in college in the hopes of shooting to the top of the draft board in the hopes of cashing in, taking out the cash will take away the incentive. Now, the incentive will be to begin working toward that second contract.

“What college kid is worried about his second contract?” the management-side source said. “How about none. They have to establish themselves in the NFL first. Otherwise, there will be no second contract.”

We agree that there can be no second contract unless a player establishes himself. But once a player no longer can pocket a windfall at the top of the draft without establishing himself in the NFL, his incentive will become to establish himself in the NFL sooner rather than later.

And he won’t be able to establish himself in the NFL by playing another year of college football.

Besides, there’s no clear correlation between being drafted high and being “ready to play.” Bucs tailback LeGarrette Blount was “ready to play,” and he wasn’t drafted at all. Titans return man Marc Mariani went from seventh-rounder to Pro Bowler.

Though only a handful of players drafted low each year immediately strike gold, college football players aren’t lacking in confidence. At a minimum, the NFL and the college coaches will have to devise new strategies for persuading talented kids to continue to accept the risk of injuries and concussions for a salary of zero dollars a month plus benefits, babe. Merely telling a player that he’ll need to establish himself in the NFL before truly cashing in will do little to dissuade the majority of the players from deciding to try to establish themselves in the NFL right now.