All but one of the 256 players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft were signed, sealed and delivered to training camp prior to the calendar turning to August. The lone player on the outside looking in is the Bears’ Roquan Smith, who is holding onto a slippery pole of hope for a modicum of change of contract language. In a system tilted heavily toward management, we wish Smith, the 8th overall pick in the draft, luck in his lonely crusade.
Now seven years into a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, the rookie compensation system has settled into a pattern of players signing earlier and earlier, with most contracts done by mid-June and only a rare player every couple of years missing more than a training camp day or two. And while agents seek to differentiate themselves with highly limited negotiating options, teams are finding more ways to impose their leverage on incoming players with no true ability to say no. Let’s examine.
Of the many issues facing owners and players during the 2011 CBA negotiations, it was always clear to me the issue that would be easiest to resolve: rookie pay.
Owners were embarrassed by the bloated contracts of high-profile, high-pick busts such as Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell. Teams were frustrated with agents leveraging them with top picks signing the most player-friendly contracts in the league, with bells and whistles including second signing bonuses, player options, voids, buybacks and more. Having negotiated only one top 10 pick in my time with the Packers (AJ Hawk, the fifth overall pick in 2006), I can say firsthand that these were among the hardest contracts to negotiate of any players in the league.
Team owners were not the only ones frustrated with the previous system of rookie pay. Veteran players were resentful of top rookies passing them in the marketplace before taking a snap. And, or course, veteran players were leading the NFLPA in CBA negotiations. Thus, the “rookie pay issue” was one for which there was no disagreement between the two sides: Rookies made too much; something had to change.
And change it did. The new CBA (1) predetermined compensation and signing bonus for all draft picks; (2) mandated that draft picks sign for four-years, even adding a team option for a fifth year for first-round picks; and (3) prevented any drafted player from renegotiating his contract until he completes three seasons in the league. In the past, renegotiations could happen at any time Now, players who produce early in their careers are saddled with fixed and undervalued pay until renegotiation is allowed. This leads to one-sided situations such as that of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, now playing for $630,000 while comparable players make $25-30 million. And the Cowboys can hide behind the “no renegotiation” rule rather than address the inequity.
In the prior CBA, top picks were making up to $50 million in guaranteed money. Eight years later, top picks now make up to $30 million. While no one is crying for these players, the point is that rookie compensation was drastically altered and will likely never return to previous levels. Incoming players for 10 classes of rookies (and more to come) were an easy sacrifice.