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What an NFL Rookie Salary Scale might look like

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Rookie hold outs tend to get blown out of proportion.  Usually, it's only first round picks who can afford to be late to camp, the majority of a team's draft picks are signed before camp starts.  At this time of year, when camp is closing in on us and most of our draft picks are not signed yet, we all start to get nervous.  So far, only Brandon Hughes has been signed and we haven't heard one word about the others. 

That being said, there are always a few first round picks who are not signed by camp, and these can have an impact on a team's season and the player's career.  It's not always the case, some positions are less likely than others to make a meaningful contribution in their first year, and some positions benefit from a full camp more than others.

All Chargers fans have to be a little worried about Larry English not making it to camp on time.  While he isn't slated to start, I think everyone is expecting him to contribute a lot his first year.  Getting him into camp on time will help that contribution start earlier.

Every year about this time, I start to wonder why the NFL hasn't done a rookie salary scale like the NBA has.  There are no NBA holdouts, and draft picks are usually signed to their rookie contracts within weeks of the draft and playing in summer league games for the team soon thereafter.

So, I thought we could take a quick look at the NBA salary scale and how it works and come up with a plan for the NFL.  Since the Collective Bargaining Agreement is being renegotiated, there is actually a chance something like this will be implemented.

The NBA's rookie pay scale is outlined in their CBA here.  There are two main elements to it.  One is a graduate pay scale based on your draft position (#1 picks get paid more than #2 picks, etc).  The other element is that the first two years are guaranteed and then following two years are at the team's option.  In the fifth year, the team can submit a "qualifying" offer which makes the player a restricted free agent where the team can match any other offer the player receives (that is why LeBron is still in Cleveland...)  There is some wiggle room that allows some bonuses in the yearly salary as long as the total doesn't exceed 120% of the scale for their draft position or less than 80% if the bonuses are not met.  There are lots of other subtleties that address trades, foreign players and other things, but that is the essence of the system.

Currently the NFL has a rookie salary pool for each team.  The pool is based on the current salary cap and how many picks the team has and where those picks are.  While I know about the rookie pool and can probably find out how much a team has been allocated, I have never heard of a team not being able to work out a contract because the pool was restricting them.  So, the current system doesn't seem to do anything.

Taking a step back for a moment, let's look a whether we even need an NFL rookie scale.  After all, you're worth whatever you can get paid, right?  The rookies are being told where to work (via the draft), shouldn't they be able to negotiate whatever salary they can get without any additional restrictions just because they are rookies?  There is something to that, and I'm not 100% on board with the rookie pay scale.  However, I think the owners have proven that they have trouble restraining themselves, even in the situation they have with rookies  where they are not bidding against anyone but themselves.  They would be smart to collectively bargain something like a rookie scale into the CBA to protect themselves from themselves.  Plus, it does abnormally screw up the pay structure of a team to have a veteran All-Pro potentially making less money than someone who hasn't even figured out how to do his own laundry yet, just because the kid was the best college quarterback last year.

So, let's assume that a rookie pay scale is on the table in the new CBA, what does it look like?  It has to be something that helps the Owners restrict the salary escalation.  At the same time, it must be negotiated into CBA, so there has to be some give back to the players.  It must get the players into camp on time and it should have the appearance of salary fairness.  The players would be giving up some salary leverage by agreeing to a rookie scale.  As much as players might complain about the #1 picks unfair salary, it is a rising tide and to some extent it will raise all ships.  I think Philip Rivers was secretly pretty happy about Matthew Stafford's big new contract.  In order to get the players to agree to a rookie pay scale, the owners must give something back.  I think the only thing they could give back is a shorter time until free agency or maybe guaranteed contracts, or maybe both.

So, here is my proposal.  I think the rookie pay amounts should be slotted similar to how the NBA does it.  It should be a graduated scale with the #1 pick making more than the #2 pick without regard to whether the pick is a QB, LT, or whatever.  Each slot should move from year to year by the same amount the salary cap increases or decreases.  I don't know exactly what the amounts should be, but it should be relatively close to what the rookies are getting now, maybe with a drop for the top 10 to a reasonable level.  I like how the NBA's allows for some wiggle room for bonuses, but there shouldn't be any exotic escalators or voiding or anything like that.  I think every contract should be for 4 years and should be guaranteed to some extent.  1st rounders should get all 4 years guaranteed.  2nd and 3rd rounders should have 3 years guaranteed with a team option for the 4th.  All other picks should have 2 years guaranteed with team options for the 3rd and 4th years. Each year of the contract could be fixed at the time of signing or could vary along with the salary cap.  At the end of the 4 years, the player should be an unrestricted free agent.  The contract cannot be renegotiated until the end of the 3rd year.

The Team Benefits By: getting the player in on time, less energy in negotiating a contract, all the numbers are pretty much set in stone.  No holdouts in the first 4 years of a player's career.  No crazy salary escalation because some owner gave their golden boy rookie nutso money.  The team still controls a developing player until they know if they are going to fulfill their potential or not.

Rookies Benefit By: guaranteed contracts, unrestricted free agency at the end of 4 years (currently, 1st round picks all get either 5 or 6 year deals)

Vets Benefit By: Less money being spent on rookies, more for them.

There are still some holes in this, but I hope something like this can be put into place.