Should NFL deliver cap blow to
rookie assets?

By Benjamin Custer
Texarkana Gazette (Published July 2011)

Past accomplishments of fledgling NFL players are comparable to using Google Translate for your French homework—there isn’t always a smooth transition.

The difference is you don’t have to pay millions of dollars to online translators before seeing some results.

For years, NFL rookies have inked outrageously lucrative contracts without first proving themselves at the professional level. People should have to earn their paychecks.

The average annual salary of an NFL player is $1.9 million, according to BusinessWeek. However, several rookies land contracts each April larger than the lifetime earnings of veterans who’ve been staples in the league for years.

Even more disappointing, only a marginal percentage of rookies who rake like gardeners on signing day actually proceed to outshine veterans playing for a fraction of those paychecks.

Only early draftees make out like bandits, period. Late-round players who ultimately outperform early-round busts are stuck with unreflective contracts—contracts received before stepping foot in training camp.

Exorbitant salary demands of highly drafted rookies have escalated to the point that teams such as the New England Patriots routinely trade away top picks. Why pay a first-round, unproven player tens of millions when a late-round, future superstar can be obtained for hundreds of thousands?

In the 2000 NFL Draft, the Patriots drafted an unknown, underrated and outright overlooked quarterback in Tom Brady. Drafted 199th overall, Brady signed a three-year contract at the minimum base salary—$193,000 per year—and a modest $38,500 signing bonus.

As a backup to Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe, Brady didn’t see much action his first year. In the second and third years of his contract, however, the sixth-round draft choice averaged a 63-percent pass completion rate, more than 3,300 passing yards and an 86.1 passer rating.

More importantly, while in his second year in the league, Brady led New England to its first Super Bowl victory. More than a decade has passed since Brady signed for the league minimum, and after three championships, six Pro Bowls and a number of passing records he is now the highest paid quarterback in the game.

Brady has been sufficiently rewarded in recent years, but while he was winning Super Bowls for less than $200,000, busts from his draft class were living like royalty.

The pendulum of fortune swings both ways in the draft, and it’s nearly impossible to predict which rookies will have the best careers.

In 2007, the Oakland Raiders signed first-overall pick JaMarcus Russell to a six-year contract worth a guaranteed $32 million. After inking one of the richest contracts in rookie history, the quarterback proceeded to throw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (18) and fumble (22) nearly as many times as he was intercepted.

Russell did achieve one remarkable feat: He actually made the Raiders worse.

Three years into his monstrous contract and monstrously disappointing career, the Raiders released him. Russell is not the only multimillion-dollar draft bust. He is joined by the likes of Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith, among dozens of others.

For better or worse, past accomplishments don’t always translate. Rookies should prove themselves on the gridiron for a few years before teams lavish them with considerable paydays. Teams should look forward to, not dread, signing top draft picks.

If some newcomers are outraged by a more balanced rookie-cap system, too bad.

C’est la vie.