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Rookie Wage Scale Is Current Sticking Point, and NFL's Position on Fifth Year Salary Is Awful

The buzz this week has been that the rookie wage scale discussion is the current sticking point in getting a deal done. This is a positive in the sense that it likely means the sides have closed the gap substantially on the monetary issues, if they are focusing on this detail. Back in January, I wrote about the wage scale, and how the owners proposal was ridiculous. I’m not opposed to lower salaries, even below market value salaries, for a few years for young players. I am opposed to both lowering salaries substantially and keeping a lengthy term of years, so that many top players are underpaid during the prime of their careers.

JaMarcus Russell is of course the rallying point in every article you read on this. He represents the bottom 1% of top NFL Picks. This would be like me using Frank McCourt as representative of MLB Owners, or David Kahn as the standard for NBA GM’s. I’ll try not to get too political here, but the talk about the Rookie Wage Scale reminds me of much of the rhetoric I used to hear on Tort Reform. The political advertising would focus on “frivolous lawsuits” and make it seem like the necessity was to prevent people from filing baseless claims. The actual legislation, in most cases, was directed at limiting liability, particularly punitive damages, in legitimate claims where liability is established — such as say a case where a company makes a conscious decision to avoid costs at the expense of worker safety, which leads to a death.

So the rhetoric with the “rookie” wage scale focuses on overpaying JaMarcus Russell. The true purpose, though, is to control starting level talent at below market rates as long as possible. It is the team, not the player, that insists on stretching these deals out and giving more money over a longer period of time.

John Clayton discusses the latest details, saying that the sides should be close. Under the current proposal, Cam Newton would get $22 million for the first 4 years. This is well over a 50% cut off what teams have been willing to pay the Sam Bradfords and Matt Staffords and Matt Ryans. The players are fine with reducing the salaries early, in exchange for fewer years. But the sticking point is the fifth year and what to do with it.

The players presented a fifth-year solution last Friday that asked owners to pay the top 16 players a salary calculated at the top 10 of their position. For example, Newton would be eligible for a $13.64 million salary in Year 5, ultimately giving him a five-year, $35.64 million contract.

Owners came back with a formula that would give Newton a fifth-year salary of around $4 million, making his deal $26 million over five years. Both sides went back to work.

Okay, that NFL proposal is A-W-F-U-L. That $4 million dollar cap charge would have ranked as the 29th highest at the quarterback position back in 2009, just ahead of Jason Campbell in his last year in Washington, and Luke McCown. And that is comparing a 2015 salary, when we know the cap and overall salaries will go up with new television contracts, to where it would rank a year ago. It is actually lower than the average salary for Newton under the proposal in years 1-4. If he was a starter in year 5, the option would be exercised at way below market. The player proposal at least allows the player to stay under team control but get paid like an above average starting quarterback if he has proven it by then.

I think that proposal shows just how much of the “rookie” wage scale talk is misleading rhetoric when it seeks to control 26 and 27 year old stars at way below value at the team option. The players probably need to stay strong on this one, if they’ve conceded some reduction in early career wages (some of which will apparently go to retired players, per Clayton). That fifth year option at such a relatively low wage would remove all leverage for a renegotiation entering year 4 or 5, because the team commitment could actually go down even as a player is established as a star.

They better have airtight language and no loopholes on the salary floor as well. Otherwise, those savings on young player salaries will not be fully realized on the back end. I think that the salary cap has often been a convenient excuse for “cap casualties”. Teams were cutting or not paying veteran players back in the 1980’s without a cap. I could see scenarios where teams tell a player “why should I renegotiate when I get you so cheap in year 5″ and then turn around at age 28 and say “why should I sign you to a long term deal when you are on decline”. The players need to make sure they are protected against getting played on both sides, even if they make concessions to early salaries.

[photo via Getty]

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