The Rookie Wage Scale is Diluting Veterans
The four-year NFL rookie contract was put in place to assure that veterans were afforded the opportunity to cash in on their later contracts. But 7 years later, front offices are beginning to use the rookie wages as more than just future team-building scales. Rather, teams are combining low-paid, big potential rookies with a slew of middle-paid veterans to build depth at a cheaper cost, reducing the need for blockbuster veteran deals.
Should this trend continue, the lifespan of the already diminishing NFL career will become even smaller, as both the risk for injury + the inability to cash in will become more prevalent. We’ve seen a great deal of players hang up the cleats at or around the age of 30, while many others simply don’t find NFL work at this stage of their life.
In essence, the rookie wage model is working in parallel to the college structure many of us followed: Lock yourself for four years of undergraduate (standard rookie contract), and a few of us went on to a year or two of graduate school (5th-year option, franchise tag). Then from there, the school opens the door and says good luck finding work.
Guarantees Will Soon (Finally) Diminish Contract Lengths
It’s taken awhile, but the push for shorter, more impactful, and mostly guaranteed contracts appear to be coming in the next wave of NFL signings. Kirk Cousins’ being allowed to hit the free agent market was certainly a pioneering moment for this, but the torch is now in the hands of players like Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald, or Russell Wilson to further establish this metric. For years now, teams have used large signing bonuses to generate much of the guaranteed dollars of an NFL contract, and in doing so, required 4-5 year lengths in order to spread those cap figures out as much as possible. Players have accepted the fact that 3 years of their 5 year contract will be beneficial to them, with the last 2 representing “fluff” necessary to shift cap dollars around. However, this leaves room for ugly situations should Year 4 come, and no new cash is available: Insert Julio Jones for example.
So how do players stop this from happening? They refuse to include the “fluff”. Between non-guaranteed salaries, per-game active bonuses, and “cap-friendly” structures, players have already ceded plenty to the teams in terms of financial control. If players like the above mentioned demand fully guaranteed 3 (or even 4) year deals, the pendulum will begin to swing back to the player, as it did for the NBA when players like LeBron James and Chris Paul helped rewrite their league terms. The NBA has even evolved to where players prefer 1-2 year contracts, not only giving them quick cash in hand, but also providing them control over where they play every few seasons.
Pushing for this structure will actually, eventually, aid our first item (Rookie Contracts Diluting Veterans). Shorter veteran contracts with more control will mean more movement, specifically in free agency. Free Agency brings better veteran contracts because teams/players will be signing for need & fit - not just to make the money work. Quicker & more frequent movement of veterans either via trade or free agency will strengthen the veteran. While the “blockbuster” contracts may be diminished, players (and teams) will know exactly what they’re getting from shorter, nearly fully guaranteed deals.
Can Young Quarterbacks Actually Win?
Despite the controlled wages, many teams value their high draft picks enough to still feel pressured into playing their brand new shiny quarterbacks right out of college. But in an era where building “dynasties” appears moot, and winning now means everything (especially for front offices, and coaching staffs), it stands to reason that a player in their initial four-year rookie deal can actually get their team to the finish line. Since 2011 (the beginning of the rookie wage scale), only Russell Wilson, in year two of his 4 year, $2.9M contract, raised the Lombardi trophy with his team. The other Super Bowl winning QBs were in year 6, 17, 18, 15, 5, & 6 of their careers at the time of their victory. This isn’t to say that it can’t be done - nor it is a push to sit rookie QBs, but it might be a push to consider moves like the Minnesota Vikings & Denver Broncos have made in recent years, signing average, steady QBs to man their ships rather than spend a high draft pick on a “franchise player”.
Without question the most intriguing group to watch over the course of the next 18 months will be the success of Jameis Winston (maybe), Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, & Patrick Mahomes who have all been recently drafted and given the keys to their respective teams starting role. Winston and Mariota enter year 4, Goff/Wentz year 3, while Watson, Trubisky, & Mahomes will start year 2 in 2018.
Wentz certainly did plenty in 2017 to get the Eagles in a great spot to win it all - though he was unable to physically finish the year out. But it seems very important for one of the players mentioned here to get the job done for their respective team in 2018, if for no other reason than to validate that a highly drafted QB, played almost immediately, is the way to both win, & save money.