NEW YORK – Even the man about to make the money could only sheepishly shake his head at the numbers. Matthew Stafford is about to join Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth as the only NFL player with a contract that guarantees him $40 million.
Haynesworth was a centerpiece of one the league's best defenses. Stafford hasn't taken a snap in minicamp.
"I can't even think about that amount of money," Stafford said of the numbers being batted around as he agrees to become the No. 1 pick of the Detroit Lions – numbers that include $41.7 million guaranteed as part of a six-year deal. "It's crazy."
So crazy that the issue of establishing a rookie salary scale for draft picks again emerged as the topic du jour leading into Saturday's NFL draft. League commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated his stance that something needs to be done to corral contracts and slot salaries. Currently picks such as Stafford can negotiate freely.
The perception is that teams at the top of the draft are actually punished because they have to allocate so much money to an unproven player. Stafford will be the Lions' highest-paid player. If the quarterback from Georgia were to fail, he wouldn't just represent a wasted chance to bring in a quality player; he'd be a drain on Detroit's available money under the teamwide salary cap for years to come.
It's enough for Lions general manager Martin Mayhew to declare "the system's broken."
"[Franchises] don't want to be stuck for $35 million and not know whether that player can really play," Goodell said Friday. "Because if you miss, then you're setting your franchise back even further. That's the opposite of what we're trying to create in our system to make sure everybody has the opportunity to be competitive."
But it's not that black and white.
While the numbers for top picks are eye-popping, they don't necessarily impede on what a team can spend on veteran players (the league employs overall limits on rookie spending). And while the idea of cutting back on the pay of unproven players sounds good, the trade-off in contract length limits and the impact on the decision making of college players that such a mandated salary limit would create has to be considered.
Goodell needs to take a look at how the NBA's rookie salary scale impacted that league before he charges down the same route. The unintended consequences can be far more costly than the $24 million guaranteed that Alex Smith negotiated himself.
The most obvious development is that after the NBA created the salary scale in the late 1990s, there was no longer a financial incentive for players to remain in college and improve their draft status.
When the difference between the 15th pick and the first is say, $20 million, then a player will stay on campus another year and try to move up to get that kind of deal. When it's significantly smaller, they just go pro as soon as possible to get the clock ticking on becoming a free agent, where the big money awaits.
In the NBA, underclassmen began flooding the draft until there were so many high school players coming in, the league, in 2006, tried the corrective measure of an age limit.
While college football players can't enter the NFL until three years after high school, the league currently benefits from many spending four or even five years in a college program. Even one extra season in college has shown to be a major help in long-term success.
"I think what we've learned from experience is that very few individuals are ready, whether emotionally, physically or from a maturity level to do that," Goodell said. "We don't benefit by having them come out early. We just as assume they stay in football and complete their education."
In this year's case, that means top quarterbacks such as Texas' Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford returned to campus. "That's good for us," Goodell said.
In 2008, the average guaranteed salary for a first-round pick in the NFL was $11,924,000. For second-round picks, that number drops to $1,932,000, while third-round picks averaged $668,000 guaranteed. The steep drop illustrates the significant financial importance a higher draft slot has for a prospect.
But if these financial incentives of returning to school were removed, McCoy and Bradford's decisions may have been different. If the pay gap between a second-round pick or even a mid-to-late first rounder and a high pick is appreciably smaller, then who knows? If the initial contract isn't going to set them up for life, and everything is about getting a second deal, then why wouldn't they do what the NBA players did and get into the league as early as possible so they become a free agent sooner?
"I don't agree with that [assessment]," Goodell said. "I think it's the opposite. If there's not big money to come out, you stay in school, improve yourself and then play in the league for a long time."
He doesn't have to agree, but he should know that isn't how it worked with basketball players.
Pre-salary scale, the top 10 picks of the 1994 NBA draft spent an average of 3.3 years in college. Post-salary scale, the top 10 picks of the 2004 NBA draft spent 2.0 years in college.
It's apparent Goodell hasn't studied the NBA's history with this.
In agreeing to a salary scale, the union will almost assuredly demand shorter rookie contracts, perhaps as brief as three seasons. That increases free agency and leaves teams that develop a young player left holding the bag when they bail for another team as they enter their prime.
The uproar with that trend among scorned fans will be even greater than this one.
Then there's the simple reality that while the current free market system creates some high profile bombs, it also creates steals. Each team is allotted a certain sum of money to pay its rookies – just 4 percent of salaries leaguewide, according to a NFL Player's Association study. That's down from 7 percent a decade before.
So while Stafford's deal will come out of the Lions' teamwide salary pot, all or at least most of his money would've been spent anyway. It just would've been spread out among all the team's rookies. Right now, late-round picks that make the team play for well below market value; the entire thing is robbing Peter to pay Paul.
"What the owners claim is a problem is really not an issue," NFLPA attorney Richard Berthelsen told Yahoo! Sports last month. "The rookies aren't making money at the expense of the veterans. What's really happening is that the top rookies are taking money away from the ones at the bottom."
Goodell is playing politics here and playing it well. There isn't much public patience with massive contracts handed out to fresh-faced college guys. Even the fresh-faced college guys know that; they're trying to get on the commissioner's side of the fight too.
"Whatever [Goodell] thinks is going to benefit [the league], I'm all for it," Stafford said.
It's a lot more complicated than how the league is portraying it, though. The commissioner needs to take the time to understand that before acting.
- Matthew Stafford