The NFL veterans got worked by the owners in the rhetoric game when it came to wanting a Rookie Wage Scale during the last lockout in 2011. The talk was all about paying JaMarcus Russell. The reality was that the owners got reduced pay for all players through the first four to five years of their careers, and provided veteran players with their own demise. As younger players became cheaper, decisions on the margin have gone younger.
The Associated Press ran a report showing how young the league has gotten. Since 2005, the average playing experience for those on opening day rosters went from 4.6 years to 4.3. That drop of 0.3 years on average may not sound like much, but put it in this perspective: it’s roughly 3 veterans of 5-6 years’ experience being replaced by rookies and 2nd-year players … on every roster.
It’s even more stark when you consider age, because the league is continuing to get younger at entry. The wage scale rules, that reduce earnings early, make getting to free agency sooner a more attractive carrot. That means more early entrants in the NFL draft. For the first draft after the Rookie Wage Scale was implemented, I noted that there were a record number of 65 underclassmen declaring, and that was directly due to the changed incentives. That number has continued to climb, with 103 granted special eligibility this year and another 35 underclassmen who have fulfilled graduate requirements declaring for the draft. In the span of eight years, because of the changing wage dynamics, the number of early entrants has more than doubled.
I wrote this back in 2011 about the Rookie Wage Scale:
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.
Here are the yearly “survival” rates for the 2008 to 2011 draft classes, which came of age during the start of the current rookie wage structure, versus the 1998 to 2001 draft classes. Using the final year played data from Pro Football Reference, it represents what percentage of players who were drafted and still active the previous year played again in the NFL.
For example, 20 years ago, a lower percentage of players made NFL rosters. And the survival rates for players after one year and two years were lower. With cheaper young labor, though, we see more players making it to one, two, and three years.
But that shifts when get past four years, though, and by the time you get to the fifth year and beyond, the attrition rates kick in for more recent draft picks relative to their brethren from a decade earlier.
The current group of stars are largely those that entered the league under the current wage model. The members of that 2011 lockout class are now entering their early thirties. Will they push for changes to the structure. The current one has shortened careers, but allowed for a few more of them. I’m not sure you are going to be able to walk back what the NFL has accomplished with wage control without a significant fight, and the players will need to be far more resolute and united the next time around. And they can’t fall for the same rhetoric that now has veterans getting moved out of the game at higher rates.