Business of Football: Bad Timing Costs Trevor Lawrence a Fortune in Lifetime Earnings

Trevor Lawrence is a victim of circumstance on several fronts. While he'll still do well for himself, he's already lost out on a lot of money.
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After a decorated career at Clemson that included one national championship, a runner-up and another semifinal appearance in his three years at the helm, quarterback Trevor Lawrence is now poised to become the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

On the field, scouts have labeled him the first “can’t miss” draft pick at the game’s most important position since Andrew Luck in 2012. His shoulder surgery in February appears to be a nonfactor for the Jaguars, and the team with the first pick has even avoided the tired drill of fake suspense; they’re taking Lawrence.

Off the field, eyeballs are drawn to Lawrence’s flowing blond locks and good looks. Although the NFL does not lack for young and marketable quarterbacks, Lawrence figures to be the “next big thing” and well-positioned to capitalize on his off-field earning opportunities.

Lawrence will do quite well in the business of football. But in another time and another place, both in the past and the future, he could have made even more. A whole lot more. Let’s examine.

Top Pick Not What It Used to Be

The NFL and NFLPA never agree on much, especially in the contentious process of collective bargaining, but they have had common ground on one issue: cutting rookie pay at the top of the draft. The rookie pay system first instituted in the 2011 CBA, which continued in the 2020 CBA, drastically reduces rookie earnings at the top of the draft when compared to their previous level. Indeed, in the business of the NFL, there are now two eras in top draft pick compensation: pre-2011 CBA and post-2011 CBA.

In the three drafts preceding the 2011 CBA, top quarterbacks received not only the best rookie contracts in the NFL; they received among the best overall contracts in the NFL. The third pick in 2008, Matt Ryan, signed for $70 million; the top pick in 2009, Matthew Stafford, signed for $72 million, with $42 million guaranteed; and the top pick in 2010, Sam Bradford signed a $76 million contract with $50 million guaranteed.

Indulge me for a moment: What if the changes in the 2011 CBA never came about? Even a 3% annual increase from 2010 would put the value of Lawrence’s rookie contract at approximately $102 million. In other words, had the NFL and NFLPA not agreed to drastically reduce top pick compensation, Lawrence would have, conservatively, made roughly $70 million more than on the predetermined rookie contract he’ll get instead.

Further, as earnings compound over a career, the “head start” of the first contract is vitally important to future earnings. Bradford had a middling career full of team changes and injuries, yet he played nine seasons with career earnings of $130 million. Lawrence appears to be a can’t-miss prospect with a long and successful NFL career ahead, but nothing is assured beyond his predetermined rookie contract, one with earnings $100 million below Bradford’s career earnings.

For top overall picks like Lawrence, these are truly not “the good old days.”

Timing of the Pandemic

Not only is Lawrence hindered by past CBA decisions, he is negatively impacted by present NFL economics. Due to the NFL’s losing approximately $4 billion from the lack of game day revenues in 2020, the 2021 salary cap has nosedived from the 2020 level of $198 million to a 2021 level of $182.5 million.

The top pick in the 2020 draft, Joe Burrow, signed a four-year deal worth $36 million with a team option for a fifth year. In a “normal” year Lawrence would be receiving an increase of approximately $1.5 million over the Burrow contract, giving him a four-year, fully guaranteed deal worth approximately $37.5 million. Lawrence’s timing is unfortunate; this is anything but a normal year. His compensation figures to be lower than Burrow’s. His four-year earnings figure to be around $35 million, comparing more favorably with 2019 top pick Kyler Murray, some $2.5 million lower than what he’d receive in a “normal” year.

The Three-Year Wait

Trevor Lawrence has been the projected top overall pick in the NFL draft since he led Clemson to the national championship as a freshman in 2018. Of course, were Lawrence an equally accomplished basketball player, baseball player, hockey player, tennis player, golfer, engineer, computer scientist, artist, musician, etc., he could have entered his chosen profession at that time and already earned significant income for his talent. However, the NFL requires a player to be three years removed from high school to join its league; only now is Lawrence eligible.

Had Lawrence been able to enter the NFL after his storybook 2018 season, he would have projected to be that year’s top pick instead of Baker Mayfield and received the same four-year $32.7 million that Mayfield received. And Lawrence would now be entering his fourth season, a year away from a fifth-year option for 2022 that projects to roughly $21 million. Then, in 2023, Lawrence would project to either enter free agency (unlikely), receive a franchise tag that would project to close to $35 million (more likely) or sign a massive extension with the team that drafted him (most likely). Conservatively, were Lawrence allowed to leave Clemson for the NFL two seasons ago—as NBA prospects are allowed to do—he would have made an additional $70 million in earnings by now.

A final point on this: Do not blame the NCAA here (though we will do that below). The draft eligibility rule requiring Lawrence to stay at Clemson for three years is not an NCAA rule; it is an NFL rule.

At least, you ask, he was able to market his considerable brand while at Clemson, right? Um, no.

NIL: Not In [Time For] Lawrence

We have reached an inflection point for NCAA athletes’ profiting off of their name/image and likeness (NIL). State and federal legislation allowing for this has been advanced from both sides of the aisle over the past year, with several states activating on July 1 of this year, and a United State Supreme Court case (there are lawyers galore) has added further pressure to the NCAA. Collegiate athletes are on the precipice of meaningful earnings off their brands, especially for the elite athletes in football and basketball. It will happen soon.

Not soon enough, however, for Lawrence. The “next Trevor Lawrence” will make millions off the field through social media, Cameo posts, endorsements, speaking engagements, memorabilia sales, camps and clinics, autograph signings, etc. These earnings, though, were not available to the actual Trevor Lawrence. His college days—in which he made $0 in NIL income—are over.

Imagine the NIL opportunities that would have been available for Lawrence from winning the national championship his freshman season, if not before. Opendorse, a social media platform that will be important to the NIL space, estimates that Lawrence could have been making roughly $15,000 per Instagram post alone during these past couple of years. Lawrence, who has nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram, would have had one of, if not the highest, ceilings of any athlete in the NIL era (were there an NIL era before now). Conservatively, Lawrence lost out on $3 million to $5 million of NIL earnings before NIL was “a thing” during Lawrence’s three-year waiting period required to enter the NFL.

Listen, I get it: No one is going to cry for Trevor Lawrence. But the facts are that he missed out on life-changing wealth as he starts a career that, as we know, could end on any play. Between being drafted in the post-2011 CBA era, a pandemic, the only sport with a three-year eligibility rule and the pre-NIL era, Lawrence may have lost out on, conservatively, $150 million in earnings.

Lawrence may end up being a Hall of Famer on the field for his play and perhaps even in my Business of Football Hall of Fame for his earnings, but the point is that he could have made more. A whole lot more.

More NFL Draft Coverage:

* Breer: 20 Things to Know About the Draft
* Rosenberg: The Unrivaled Arrival of Trevor Lawrence
* Vrentas: MMQB Mock Draft 3.0; 49ers Pick Justin Fields
* Prewitt: What Happens to the Prospects Who Opted Out?