NFL rookie salaries need to be capped

It is no secret that in recent years the massive surge in rookie salaries in professional football has unnerved practically everyone who follows football around the country. Something needs to change.

The issue is not just that giant rookie contracts are completely irrational and infuriating to league veterans, which they are. As rookie deals continue to increase in value every year, the weaker teams in the league are quietly handcuffing themselves by awarding ridiculous amounts of money to completely unproven players that they take early in the draft.

Take a look at the most recent NFL Draft. Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford went to the Detroit Lions at No. 1 overall and signed for six years and $72 million. The most notable aspect: Stafford is guaranteed to receive $41.7 million over the duration of the contract, well over half of the total value and a significant jump from previous rookie deals.

Think about that last bit again. The Detroit Lions will pay Stafford $41.7 million dollars regardless of what happens to him or how he performs. He could suffer a devastating injury in his first season or turn out to be a terrible quarterback, and he would still receive more than enough money to sustain him for life.

If Stafford proves ineffective (which would be rather amusing, considering he’ll be throwing to the unstoppable Calvin Johnson) they will simply face the same problem that has plagued them throughout the decade.

The guaranteed money would be a huge burden over the coming years, and they would have once again wasted a chance to pick up a good, young player. They would then have to repeat the same deadly cycle, taking another high-priced rookie and hoping that one of their huge investments finally pays off in a big way.

It’s an unfortunate cycle, because it’s damaging one of the most appealing aspects of the NFL: its parity from year to year. Having a top draft pick was once something struggling franchises could look forward to, but these days the amount of risk involved in drafting and paying a top rookie often outweighs the potential rewards.

There is also, of course, the issue of contract holdouts. Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell held out for most of his 2007 rookie season, dramatically hurting his development; this year, San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree has threatened to sit out the season if he does not receive a contract worthy of the first receiver taken in the draft (which he was not).

Teams like the New England Patriots have been able to sustain success for so long in large part because they rarely have to worry about high first-round picks, and they can invest in line positions that are often more reliable choices than skill players (insert your favorite Spygate joke here if you want, but it’s still true).

Most other franchises have come to understand that investing in down linemen on both sides of the ball is wise, but the universal realization has placed a higher monetary value on linemen.

Considering NFL owners, veteran players and even commissioner Roger Goodell, have expressed frustration at exorbitant rookie contracts numerous times, it’s surprising that there has not been a stronger movement to push for a rookie pay scale similar to the one implemented in the NBA, or at least some way of controlling the value of rookie contracts compared to those of veteran players.

It’s an issue that can be traced back years and years. Back in 1998, Ryan Leaf received the largest rookie signing bonus to date at $11.25 million, only to emerge as one of the worst quarterbacks ever to play in the league.

The NFL Players’ Association would in theory be the biggest opposition to such an idea, but their forces would be divided.

Really, if there is to be any hope of controlling the rampant increase in rookie salaries, the changes have to happen soon. Talks between owners and players for a new collective bargaining agreement have stalled, and there is a large possibility that the league could be without a salary cap for the 2010 season.

While a cap-free season would inevitably cause problems, the immediate issues include possible union strike.

The NFL and its owners need to act now if there is to be any hope of controlling rookie salaries. The window is closing and if nothing changes, by 2015 we could well be seeing coverage on ESPN about the first rookie to sign a $100 million contract out of college.