Is a Rookie Wage Scale Fair?

News that the owners are trying to impose a rookie wage scale as part of the new CBA has fascinated me.

On the surface, this is an idea we can all get behind.  No rookie should be counted among the highest paid players in the league, obviously.  The argument is that contracts awarded to the first 10 or so players in the draft are so lucrative as to actually disrupt the development of players (they aren’t hungry) and that awarding such a huge contract to an unknown commodity can actually hurt the development of a team rather than help it.  This is an easy sell to the fans of course, primarily because fans hate big contracts.  With few exceptions, fans naturally want players to make less money, in part because they believe that high ticket prices are directly the result of high wages.

The league has been pushing the idea to veteran players arguing that less money for rookies means more money for veterans.  Many veterans are angry about the huge contracts paid to rookies who haven’t ‘paid their dues’ yet, so as long as the overall piece of the revenue pie paid to players doesn’t change, some players are ok with rookies making less.  That means more for them, in theory at least.

The union has responded by asking for free agency to begin after three seasons.  On the surface, it’s a curious counter offer, but it makes sense.  The rookie wage scale would only have a major impact on the first round, and especially only on the top of the first round.  Like it or not, most NFL stars come from the top picks in the first round.  On the whole, if teams could control their young stars for up to five years at bargain prices, it would have the effect of chilling salary growth.

Think about it: big contracts for rookies are used by veteran agents to negotiate bigger deals for older players.  “You can’t offer my guy that!” they say. “So and so (a draft bust from the Chiefs, let’s say) makes more than that!  Your offer is insulting!”.  Under the current system, bad players are overpaid, but the good players are paid correctly.  No one in Atlanta argues over Matt Ryan’s deal, for instance.  However, if you impose a rookie wage scale, teams get good players on the cheap, but busts don’t hurt as much.

Imagine that same contract negotiation with a rookie wage scale in place.  Star veteran is up for a new deal.  He’s a good player, but not elite.  The team compares him to another player drafted in the top 10 who has made multiple Pro Bowls, but is still on his rookie deal.  They say, “You aren’t as good as so and so!  He’s only making $1.5 million a season!  Why should we pay you more than him?”  So, a rookie wage scale in this case would actually serve to hold down the salaries of veteran players.

It would also lead to a lot more Chris Johnson style holdouts.  Johnson got paid a deal that was way under market value thanks to his low draft status.  Obviously unhappy with the deal, he spent a contentious offseason trying to leverage himself more money that he felt he earned.  The situation eventually resolved itself, but not without some acrimony.  Under a rookie wage scale, elite top of the drafts talents would reguarly out perform their deals, and if they remained under team control for 5 years, lots of conflict will enuse.

All of this is why the Union wants free agency faster.  The life span of an NFL player is short.  If they can set players free faster, they’ll have a better chance of securing that first big free agent contract.  It might hurt the Sam Bradfords of the world, but the Chris Johnsons and Antoine Bethea’s of the world would love it.  It would give them a chance to get paid earlier in their careers, and also offset the effect of the rookie wage scale.  A four or five year vet would no longer still be on his rookie deal, thus negating a negotiating tactic management would otherwise have as I described above.

The downside for the teams is that they would have to make decisions on players, especially quarterbacks, very quickly in their careers.  Could you afford to let the number 1 overall pick sit for a year if you knew you only had him for three years before you had to decide whether or not to resign him?

The truth is that the current system is the best possible situation for the Colts.  Because the team routinely drafts near the bottom of the first round, they don’t feel the effects of big salaries to rookies.  Plus, they get to mine the bottom of the draft for cheap talent that they control for five years.  While a rookie wage scale makes sense league wide, if the price of obtaining it is free agency after 3 accrued seasons, it could turn out to be the worst possible result for the Colts and their fans.

The bottom line is that while we all agree the system of draft pick compensation is broken, it’s easy to see how even this apparently simple fix dramatically favors the owners in the long run.

It’s just one more reason the league is headed toward a work stoppage.

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