Imagine watching an NBA draft lottery in which teams hoped and prayed they wouldn't win the No. 1 selection. Rather than being elated the ping pong ball bounced its way, the winning team would actually be disappointed. Seems far-fetched? Well, if the NBA handled the compensation for players drafted in the top half of the first round like the NFL does, such a scenario would be very likely.
The contracts given to the top picks in the NFL draft have become so cost-prohibitive that almost every team in the top five would prefer to trade down. They see that as a much better alternative than doling out $20 million or more in guarantees to a player who has yet to play one down in the NFL, and thus represents an even greater risk than any free agent ever would.
Paying rookies that type of money devalues the picks, alienates veteran players and significantly increases the owners' angst. It's a systemic flaw that is hurting the most popular professional sports league in the U.S.
The draft was established in the interest of parity, one of the basic tenets of the league. In an attempt to maintain a competitive balance, the worst teams from the previous season are given the first selections, ostensibly with the intention of giving them the chance to select the best available players.
The problem is that the money associated with selecting the first couple of picks becomes an almost unbearable burden should the player turn out to be a bust, always a possibility when selecting 22-year-olds fresh out of college. In fact, the money given to the top picks necessitates that they become a premier player rather quickly. Just becoming a starter likely does not recoup the initial investment the organization has made.
Make a mistake with a top five pick at any position, but particularly at quarterback, and an organization can be set back years. The Cleveland Browns have felt the pain of selecting Tim Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren for years and are just finally starting to recover. Rather than helping a team turn things around, the current system has as much potential to beat a bad team back down to the canvas while they struggle to get to their feet.
Though the Dolphins are attempting to leverage their candidates for the No. 1 pick in this year's draft into taking less than the $35 million guaranteed that many projected the top player would receive, it is still likely the No. 1 pick will sign a contract that includes in excess of $30 million guaranteed. No matter which player is taken, as long as it isn't a quarterback, he will immediately become the highest-paid player in guaranteed compensation at his position ... in the history of the NFL.
Dwight Freeney signed a six-year, $72 million contract in July 2007 with the Colts that rewarded him for his consistent dominance as a pass rusher over his first five seasons in the NFL. The $30 million he received up front was worth it to a franchise that had seen him amass 56 ½ sacks and 27 forced fumbles over the life of his first contract. The problem is that college pass-rushers Chris Long and Vernon Gholston will likely leap-frog him in terms of guaranteed compensation should either one be the first-overall selection this month.
Players should be more highly compensated for what they have done in the professional ranks, not for pro potential. Teams should be able to pay as needed and desired for production, not forced to pay for potential. Many comparable veteran offensive linemen would have to play for years to earn the $18.5 million guarantee that Raiders offensive lineman Robert Gallery got in 2004 when he was drafted out of Iowa.
In some cases, getting paid that much money in the first contract can actually hurt the player. Once all of their financial needs have been taken care of, some top picks lack the fortitude to improve or fight through injuries. Many lack the hunger at that point to do what it takes to reach their Pro-Bowl potential. In a league where longevity is a badge of honor and an important way to cement one's legacy, I have played with some top five picks that seemed to have no interest in even getting a second contract.
I believe that restructuring the compensation for the top rookies could, and should, be one of the first items up for discussion when players and owners negotiate a new CBA. The system is skewed and needs to be tweaked, not to the point that it lessens the overall salary cap, but to the degree that it allows more of the salary cap space and guaranteed money to fall into the hands of veterans who have earned it. Almost every player I have spoken with feels like it has gotten out of hand. And it's no secret that the owners want a change in the current slotting process too.
So if the players and owners both agree, and they are the only two parties at the table when the negotiations begin, what is the problem?
A powerful lobby.
There is really only one group that benefits from the system that is currently in place and that is the top agents, who routinely sign the best 10 available college players. Yes, the rookies chosen at the top of Round One stand to benefit as well, but college players aren't in the union and thus have no say when new CBAs are negotiated.
Agents aren't in the union either, yet they represent the players that are and have been very good at convincing the union that the current system is in our best interest. The reason is simple. Agents receive a quick and sizable 3-percent return on the time they invest in recruiting college players. The moment an agent signs one of the top players available, he is guaranteed a financial windfall without having to wait the four or five years it might otherwise take a player to reach his lucrative second contract.
Union president Gene Upshaw has long been in favor of the draft system remaining status quo. Upshaw is represented, not surprisingly, by super-agent Tom Condon. Though Upshaw has received positive reviews for his latest work with the current CBA, his stance on rookie contracts needs to be reconsidered.
Upshaw's thought process was espoused this past weekend to me by former NFLPA President Trace Armstrong. Though Armstrong noted that the current slotting system could be a "legitimate criticism" of veteran players, he classified the rookie deals as "a market driver of veteran contracts" while I spoke with him on Sirius NFL Radio on Sunday. He went on to relay a story of when he was a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in 1989 and the positive impact his contract had on contracts subsequently signed by veteran Bears stalwarts Richard Dent and Dan Hampton.
But that was before the advent of free agency. Rookie contracts have almost no bearing whatsoever on veteran contracts. If they did, players like the Browns' Joe Thomas would not have the most lucrative per-year average for an offensive lineman based on the prowess he showed at Wisconsin. Though I agree with Armstrong's assertion that the league needs to be careful before giving management any concessions, I would gladly put the current system of rookie compensation squarely on the bargaining table.
I believe one answer is relatively straight forward and that a precedent has already been set. The NFL need only look at what the NBA has done in terms of setting up a legitimate salary scale among drafted rookies. Though the exact details as in regard to the NFL would need to be worked out, the basic concept is easily digestible.
The NBA faced a near-crisis in the mid-1990's when top rookie contracts spiraled out of control, similar to what the NFL is beginning to face these days. The current system in place in the NBA, which allows for shorter contracts with team options, could easily translate to success in the NFL. High draft picks would still be paid relatively well on their initial contracts and would have an increased likelihood of negotiating a lucrative extension or second contract earlier in their careers. The owners would feel like they were less exposed and more of the cap dollars would go where they should: to the veteran players that have earned it.
Maybe then we could get back to the point where an NFL owner or GM actually coveted the first-overall pick in the draft.