Gene Upshaw hears the complaints like clockwork.
"Every year at this time, I hear it again. They don't like how the rookies are paid," the executive director of the NFL Players Association said of owners and front-office personnel. " 'They need some kind of pay scale.' Well, I'm not going to limit how the rookies are paid because it has a huge impact on veterans. I'm not going to agree to it."
With the NFL salary cap continually growing, the pay scale for rookies drafted in the first few picks is increasing as well – at a pace seemingly uncomfortable for a number of franchises.
Last year, quarterback JaMarcus Russell eventually got a record $29 million in guarantees from the Oakland Raiders after being taken No. 1 overall. In order to keep from matching or surpassing that total this year, the Miami Dolphins have already begun negotiations with at least two prospects (offensive tackle Jake Long from Michigan and defensive end Vernon Gholston from Ohio State) and reportedly are close to inking a deal with Long.
In a year when there is no clear-cut best prospect, the thought of spending $30 million or more in guaranteed money for an unproven player is troublesome to many NFL executives.
"We're not paying based on the real talent level, but based on the fact that somebody just happens to have to go first or second and whatever," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said in February.
That comment echoes previous statements made by Polian.
"The system is a mess. It's broken and we have to fix it," Polian said in the fall.
One thought has been the implementation of a rookie scale. The NBA has a system where rookie contracts are essentially predetermined. However, the key differences between the NBA and the NFL are that NBA players can get to free agency after three years and the career for a basketball player is potentially much longer than in football. Furthermore, because NBA contracts are fully guaranteed, veteran players don't run the same risk of being cut when younger players enter the league.
Upshaw is against additional structuring because the union has already given teams a rookie cap within the overall salary cap, effectively putting limits on how much guaranteed money goes to rookie players. He noted that while the amount of guaranteed money has increased for the top five and 10 overall picks, the amount guaranteed in the second round has decreased. Much of that is because players selected after the first round can only sign four-year maximum contracts.
Ultimately, Upshaw is concerned that keeping rookie salaries too cheap could price veterans out of jobs, especially those who make one of the varying minimum salaries. That has been an issue before in the salary-cap era.
In the late 1990s, for instance, the veteran minimum wage was growing at a higher aggregate rate than rookies'. What that eventually meant for teams is that keeping rookies was more cost effective than keeping veterans. For instance, teams could almost keep two or three rookies for the cost of keeping one veteran. The league and the union eventually addressed that issue with a somewhat complex formula for rookie and veteran salaries, making sure the salaries stayed in some proportion.
"We have to have a system where every player has an equal chance to get a job," Upshaw said. "We don't want to get into a position where the league is keeping four or five rookies because it's cheaper than keeping one or two veterans."
That's part of a two-fold impact that rookie salaries have on veterans, Upshaw explained. Upshaw is of the belief that the high salaries for rookies help raise the scale for signing bonuses and other guaranteed money.
"If you have a rookie player who gets $10 million, $20 million, maybe even $30 million in guaranteed money, what do you think that means for a veteran player? That means he can ask for that or more," Upshaw said.
To that point, agent Chad Speck, who represents Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, said in February that he's interested to see what type of contract LSU's Glenn Dorsey gets as a first-round pick.
Such an example is perhaps further proof why Polian has endorsed a stricter cap on rookie earnings. He said in February that the NFLPA needs to agree to that as part of a new collective bargaining agreement.
"Give them all two-year contracts," Newsome said as he threw his hands in the air to emphasize his point. "I can decide in two years whether someone is a good football player or not."
That type of short-term approach might be the only real solution to a growing problem that has wide-ranging impact for clubs.
Russell eventually got the hefty contract he sought last year, but it came at a huge price for both the player and franchise. Russell missed all of training camp, therefore falling far behind in learning the Raiders' playbook. Yet, while rookies holding out have long been a part of the game, the salary aspect becomes just one issue teams have to consider.
If teams decide to trade out of a high draft spot for whatever reason, they have to get the appropriate compensation in return. Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells has already told the New York Post that there isn't much of a market for the No. 1 pick. The last trade involving top five selections was in 2004, when the San Diego Chargers took Eli Manning No. 1 and then dealt him to the New York Giants for a package that included No. 4 overall pick Philip Rivers.
"We're at the point that trading up isn't worth the price, not just (from) what you have to give up, but in the salary you pay for that pick," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen, whose team resisted the temptation to trade up from No. 4 last year to select wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson was the No. 2 overall pick.
This year, a handful of players – Gholston, Jake Long, Virginia defensive end Chris Long, Dorsey, Arkansas running back Darren McFadden and Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan – are all arguably worth taking at No. 1 overall, depending on who you're talking to at a given moment. If that's the case, why should one of them make $12 million, $14 million or even $16 million more than another? That's the approximate difference that could end up between being the No. 1 and No. 6 overall pick depending upon how the contracts are structured.
Upshaw believes that all of the fuss over money is a cover-up for sometimes faulty decision-making.
"What the teams want is for us to make them bulletproof from their own mistakes," Upshaw said. "I hear Bill Polian talking about how he's so worried about the cost of signing a No. 1 pick, but I don't hear him talk about how happy he is he took Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. What teams need to do is spend more money on their scouting and player evaluation to make sure they don't make mistakes."
To Upshaw, the bottom line is that nothing management has talked about to this point makes sense to him and, frankly, he's suspect of anything they might suggest.
"We're not willing to adjust our thinking right now because we're in a situation that we think works for all the players," Upshaw said. "We went through this before with the owners in 1987. They wanted to put restrictions on the rookies that were just ridiculous … Then they keep saying to the veterans, 'This will allow us to give more money to the veteran players.' But that doesn't happen and I don't trust them."
- Gene Upshaw
- Bill Polian