The new rookie pool, and why it’s holding things up

With everything the owners and players have had to discuss and agree upon through the months of talks that may finally be leading us to a merciful resolution, the rookie wage scale didn't look to be a sticking point early on. Sure, the owners wanted it more than the players — it just made sense for teams investing hundreds of millions in player costs to be able to regulate them to a certain degree based on actual performance.

I like to call it the "JaMarcus Russell Rule," after the notoriously portly and underachieving Oakland Raiders quarterback who was pushed away from the NFL after three seasons and 25 starts at the position. Selected first overall in 2007 by a Raiders team always in love with big arms, Russell had little else but that cannon — his quarterback acumen was a joke, his work habits were abysmal, and his preference for Purple Drank over playbook meetings finally did him in as a possible NFL free-agent target after the Raiders quit on him.

Eventually, Russell was fired by his own "life coach." Not a good sign.

Nonetheless, he walked away from the NFL with a total of $39 million, his reputation as the NFL's all-time biggest draft bust secure (Ryan Leaf should send Russell a nice fruit basket for that one). Russell was the most glaring problem with the old salary structure as it applied to the current market for first overall draft picks — even if you give somewhere in the area of $40 million to $50 million guaranteed to elite talents like Sam Bradford or Ndamukong Suh and you're reasonably sure to get commensurate production, the risks have outweighed the rewards to the extent that teams often didn't want the first overall pick anymore because of how their salary structures would be affected.

In the new CBA talks, everyone has agreed that the salary structure for first-year players needs to be rethought. The owners and the players are in lockstep on that notion, because the players understand that every Leaf and Russell makes their jobs tougher when it comes to educating the public on pure player value versus what the market will bear. The fight is primarily over dollars and contract years at this point, and that's why this seemingly agreeable issue has become more complex.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the NFLPA has already agreed to cut rookie compensation in half, but the players' side wants rookie deals to come in at the four-year range, giving those players greater opportunities to make financial gains if their efforts outstrip their draft status. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is probably the best recent example of this phenomenon. He opened the 2010 season with a base salary of $550,000 after gaining more than 2,500 yards from scrimmage the previous year, and becoming the sixth NFL back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. The Titans upped the ante a bit to prevent a holdout, but Johnson's long-term situation remains unresolved.

And that's the delicate balance between the two sides right now — the need for lower guarantees to high-drafted players and the mechanics of rewarding deserving lower-drafted players when they bubble up and start tearing the roof off the league. Johnson was the fifth running back selected in the 2008 draft (24th overall pick), and none of the players drafted above him — Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall — have come close to his production.

In fact, it could be argued that a second-round pick (Ray Rice) and a third-round selection (Jamaal Charles) have out-produced all in that class but Johnson. Their rookie contracts will all be up soon, but the payday for players like Johnson, Rice and Charles should come sooner than later. The Chiefs re-upped with Charles in December to the tune of six more years and $27.97 million, but Rice — who may be the best over back in the league from a do-it-all perspective — is set to make $555,000 in the last year of his rookie deal. Especially considering the Ravens' recent success and the relatively short shelf life for elite backs, that's a completely unacceptable number for a player who has gained 1,339 and 1,223 yards on the ground in the last two years.

Albert Breer of the NFL Network has the basics of recent talks summarized:

One proposal from the league cut the money for the first pick from the six-year, $78 million deal Bradford received last year to a slotted five-year, $34 million contract. Also, deals for Top 8 picks could include triggers pushing the fifth year to 150 percent of an average starter's salary at his position, with a floor of $6 million and a ceiling of $12 million. The salary would be derived from that average in his draft year, and the league would be open to making it an option year. The lag time between Year 1 and Year 5 is the players' issue with that aspect.

The league wants five-year contracts for first-round players, with the NFLPA contending that the length of contracts should be tied to the percentage of salary cuts the rookies are about to take in that round. Even in the second half of the first round, salaries are essentially slotted, which is where increased provisions for negotiations come in. Breer recently reported that both sides have agreed on a four-year contract structure for all the rounds, with drafted players able to renegotiate after the third year, and undrafted players after their second contract years.

There are other issues to contend with before we can start looking forward to a new CBA and the transition schedule that would be in place soon after, but the parameters of the rookie scale seem to be the last major hurdles. Barring some sort of negotiating disaster, actual football could be on the way very soon.

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