The Co$t of Winning – Effect of the Rookie Wage Scale on the NFL Draft


The summer of 2011 had a dramatic effect on the draft and the way teams approach it. The labour dispute which dominated the NFL that summer ended up with the introduction of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As a part of the new CBA, a rookie wage scale was introduced, setting out the maximum a rookie could earn depending on what position they were picked in the draft. It is easy to see the impact that this had on the NFL Draft just by looking at the two 1st round picks either side of the new CBA. All four players picked at number one in these years are quarterbacks, which makes for an easy comparison.

Just looking at the difference in salaries shows the financial impact of the CBA

2009 Matt Stafford – $78 Million $41 guaranteed

2010 Sam Bradford – $86 million, $50 Million Guaranteed

2011 Cam Newton – $22 Million

2012 Andrew Luck – $22 Million

With a drop in guaranteed money of over half between Sam Bradford and Cam Newton and Newton’s contract is fully guaranteed whereas Bradford can earn far more through playing incentives, the St. Louis Rams have far more invested in Bradford than Carolina does in Newton or Indianapolis does in Andrew Luck.

This has had further consequences outside of the number 1 overall pick, as teams take quarterbacks earlier than they would have due to the fact they are not financially tied to them in the same way they used to be. 2011 saw four quarterbacks taken in the first round and only Cam Newton is assured of his starting job in 2014. With Jake Locker and Christian Ponder already under pre-draft pressure with speculation that either the Titans or Vikings could possibly take a quarterback in this draft, and the 4th quarterback, Blaine Gabbert has already lost his job and been traded to the 49ers. The Cleveland Browns 2012 1st round pick, Brandon Weeden is now a backup in Dallas and New York Jets 2013 starting quarterback Geno Smith, taken in the 2nd round only last year, is now fighting for his job with free agent signing Michael Vick.

With the drop in outlay it has encouraged general managers to reach on key players, especially quarterbacks, hoping to unearth the next Tom Brady or Drew Brees knowing that they are no longer in a win or bust situation with these players and can reset and draft in a another couple of years.

In a quarterback driven league we could see as many as 4 quarterbacks taken in the 1st round on Thursday with Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr all having been mentioned as potential 1st round picks, with A.J. McCarron and Zach Mettenberger predicted to go in rounds 2 or 3, teams will be looking to get the next Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson, but hanging on to the knowledge that if they end up with a Blaine Gabbert or Brandon Weeden the organization does not have to live with that player long term and can reset again in a couple of years.

As much as the financial cost is not as strong for these teams and leads general managers to possibly gamble on players they might not have done under the old CBA, the human cost for failure has not changed. Players, coaches and general managers will still be axed by ruthless owners if results do not go their way, although the financial impact of a player who does not pan out does not affect the organization in the same way it used to, owners are still not too fond of general managers who throw around picks, yet still have losing records. The new CBA may have bought front office staff a bit of breathing room, and the opportunity to correct errors, but the NFL is still a place where winning is everything and owners want that Lombardi Trophy in their trophy cabinet. If staff can’t show they are the ones to deliver it, the owners will go out and try to find someone who can.


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