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Career Length in the NFL and the Labor Battle

Yesterday, the league-operated NFL Labor blog ran a post about the average career length for an NFL player, following up on comments by Roger Goodell that the number put forward by DeMaurice Smith (3.2 years for the average career) is a misrepresentation, and said “In fact, if a player makes an opening day roster, his career is very close to six years.”

The post then has several numbers for average career length for players for the period 1993-2002, such as: 6.0 years for all players who make roster as a rookie, 7.1 years for all players with at least 3 pension-credited seasons, 9.3 years for average career length of a first round pick, and 11.7 years as average for player selected to at least one pro bowl.

I used the draft finder database at pro-football-reference to run a check on the same period. My data doesn’t perfectly matchup, but it is close. I got 6.3 as the average and 6.0 years as the median for all drafted players who played at least one season in the NFL. (Since the NFL is presumably including undrafted free agents who made rosters also, this might account for the difference). I couldn’t get to their 9.3 number for first rounders–I got 8.7 as the mean and 9.0 as the median for first round picks–but it’s close enough and differences may lie in some final seasons that were entirely on IR and don’t show up as being played in the pro-football-reference database.

So, I guess this comes down to how you define a player to be included in the average career length. I suspect that DeMaurice Smith’s numbers include players that signed a professional contract but ultimately failed to ever make a final NFL roster. Perhaps they include drafted players who never made a final roster but were selected by teams. I could see arguments both ways. I mean, if I’m trying to measure the average length of a lawyer’s career, I might want to include guys who took the bar exam but changed careers before they ever actually worked as an attorney, because they were unable to find employment. Or maybe I wouldn’t. It depends on what the argument and question was.

I would personally tend toward the NFL’s definition, and go with about 6 years as the average career length of a player that was good enough to make a roster in the first place. Obviously, the two sides have reasons for wanting the numbers lower (in the player’s case) or higher (in the owner’s case).

So, here I am, agreeing that I would go with the NFL’s definition for number of years, yet being the heathen that disagrees with the rookie wage scale proposal. I think the 6.0 number should actually be viewed and compared to the initial contract length that would be mandatory under the new rookie wage scale. First round picks would have an initial contract length of 5 years, at greatly reduced income compared to present, and could not renegotiate until after 3 years at the earliest. Other draft picks would have a 4 year deal under reduced income, and could not negotiate for two years. The average career for non-first round pick draftees who made a roster was 5 years. Basically, a large chunk of players would never get to a second contract where they could actually make significant money in this sport.

I’ve done some past research that has some bearing. Two years ago, I did a study on draft classes for my AFL and NFL comparison. It’s good when something you write on a different topic occasionally has relevance years later. In that study, I looked at a 25-year period to see what percentage of players and value in a given season came from each year of experience. As it turns out, the highest number of contributing players (starters and top reserves) comes in the second year of a draft class. The highest value comes in years three and four. (so in this sense, the median contributor in an NFL season has about 3.5 years of service time). Roughly 62% of the contributors in a given NFL season will be in their first five years in the league.

So while the NFL talks about how it is lunacy to give money to unproven players, the ownership, not the players, are the ones who insist on contract length on these “massively overpriced” contracts. Most businesses don’t pay their incoming new workers the same as veterans; then again, most businesses have a much higher veteran to new worker ratio. The high-priced busts are the rallying cry. The truth is that the average NFL player good enough to make a roster will barely get to that second contract. Those that become veterans at year 6, other than the elite super stars, will have a harder time getting a job than they do now. You will see that 6.0 number decrease slightly because the cost of incoming talent will be cheaper, driving out the 5th and 6th year player who is a role player or replacement starter.

[photo via Getty]

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