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Raise the rookie pay scale

It backfired and it’s distorting NFL football

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The rookie salary cap was designed with good intentions and for good reasons, but it’s way too low, and messing up roster building across the NFL.

A Super Bowl window used to mean a team had a good defense and an aging, elite quarterback (such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees, or 2015-era Peyton Manning) who you need to take advantage of NOW. Today it means you hit on a talented rookie quarterback (some people thought Jared Goff fit this description) and are racing to spend on free agents before his cheap rookie contract expires.

And Jared Goff just showed why this is a bad idea. Historically, even the best quarterbacks are not that good in their first 3-4 years. So a game driven by quarterback performance now is built around winning with QBs who are green at best, and may prove as grit-less as Goff did.

As Fooch has pointed out, the cap was supposed to help veterans by preventing excessive contracts for draft picks (such as Sam Bradford’s $78 million dollar rookie deal in 2010, with $50 million guaranteed) from soaking up all the money that should go to proven players.

Instead, though, it has made rookie contracts such a bargain that teams trade for inexpensive, less skilled rookies and cut those very veterans who were supposed to be helped. Unproven rookies shouldn’t make more than vets, but in a time of tight salary cap space, it’s just as dangerous and distorting if they make a lot less.

At its worst, low pay for young players makes them disposable, especially at running back. The conventional wisdom is that it’s foolish to re-sign running backs after their rookie deal ends since their careers don’t last as long as QBs or offensive linemen. These limits lead to horrible situations such as Dallas grinding down DeMarco Murray with 479 touches in the last year of his rookie deal, knowing that they weren’t going to re-sign him.

The rookie salary cap is complicated and I’m no expert. (Jason Fitzgerald had a good explainer at Over the Cap a few years ago.) We know that it drops very quickly in the first round, and slowly after that. But here is a rough sketch of what I think needs to change.

  1. Raise the general level so that the cap for rookies is around the average salary for veterans. Not higher, but not lower either. Make rookies earn their pay on an even playing field.
  2. Flatten (i.e. reduce) the drop-off for later rounds. Otherwise, teams will just focus on exploiting late round draft picks the way they exploit higher picks now. The current system penalizes players picked in strong drafts and rewards those in thin years. The comparison should be all NFL players, not your draft class.
  3. Increase the overall salary cap, and increase the roster. The NFL is insanely profitable. Franchises all jump in value, even losing teams ran by incompetent front offices/ownership. The money is there. Owners just need to share more of it.
  4. If the owners push hard on fixed salary caps, then players should push for more incentive pay. The distortion comes with the players who overachieve their expectations, the Kendall Fullers and Patrick Mahomeses and Alvin Kamaras. Owners can offer rich incentives for elite performance to all rookies, knowing that a small handful will turn out this good — and those who do will be worth all of their money.