NFL Draft 2022: Rookie Bonuses Stall Despite Soaring Salary Cap

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The NFL Draft kicks off Thursday night with a bit less buzz than usual. Blame the lack of star quarterback prospects or can’t miss All-Pros: Teams in the top 10 are looking to trade down but aren’t finding any takers. It is also a down year for rookie contracts, as the impact of 2020 revenue shortfalls, due to COVID-19, bleed into 2022.

Contracts for draft picks are predetermined by a formula that is typically tied to the NFL salary cap and “rookie compensation pool.” But while the NFL cap is up 14% for 2022 to $208 million, the deals for Thursday’s first round picks will only increase 2% on average versus 2021. The top pick—Vegas is betting on Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker—is in line for a four-year contract worth $37.4 million, including a $24.4 million signing bonus.

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NFL revenue was off $4 billion in 2020, as fans largely were restricted from attending games due to COVID capacity limits. It triggered an 8% drop in the 2021 cap, marking the first decline since 2011. But as part of the 2020 CBA, the league and players union agreed to “borrow money” against future rookie compensation pools to prevent a decline in rookie deals. It called for 1% increases in draft pick signing bonuses—the bulk of first round player contracts—even if the cap was down.

The provision was in effect last year when Trevor Lawrence got a $24.1 million bonus from the Jacksonville Jaguars as the first selection overall. The 1% bump on bonuses is still in effect for 2022. Contracts will also get a boost from the increase on minimum base salaries, which are up to $705,000, versus $660,000 in 2021. The minimum will increase $45,000 each year to $1.065 million by the end of the CBA in 2030.

The 32 first-round picks are expected to sign deals totaling $601 million, including $347 million in signing bonuses. It is a massive haul, but a fraction of what a prior generation of rookies made. In 2009, top pick Matthew Stafford signed for $72 million over six years when the cap was only $116 million (the QB cashed in again with a $60 million signing bonus last month as part of his new $160 million extension with the Super Bowl champion Rams.) Sam Bradford got $78 million from the Rams in his deal the following year. But the 2011 CBA put an end to rookies eating a disproportionate amount of the cap, as deals were capped by draft slot. Cam Newton, the 2011 No. 1 pick, signed for $22 million over four years.

Rookie contracts are expected to be higher next year to the benefit of high-profile QB prospects CJ Stroud and Bryce Young, the early favorites for the 2022 Heisman Trophy, which Young captured last year. But how much higher will ultimately depend on 2022 NFL revenues.

The 2022 NFL Draft will almost certainly be just the seventh time a quarterback was not chosen No. 1 overall since the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning in 1998. Quarterbacks have been the top pick in six of the past seven NFL Drafts.

The first-round picks all receive four-year deals, with a fifth-year team option. Two-thirds of the 2018 NFL Draft class had their options picked up, including all but one of the first 14 picks. The exception was quarterback Josh Rosen, whom the Arizona Cardinals selected 10th, before pivoting the next year by selecting his replacement, Kyler Murray, first overall.

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