Child’s Play: The Problem of NFL Rookie Salaries

Edan Lisovicz

It is no secret that quarterback is the most difficult position to draft in all of professional sports. Despite the months teams invest to evaluate the annual crop of collegiate talent, anyone who claims to know with any certainty whether Matthew Stafford is the next Peyton Manning or the next Ryan Leaf is simply not telling the truth. But while we can count on being baffled by the combination of factors that will ultimately determine the success or failure of Stafford’s career, the most baffling aspect of the situation in Detroit has nothing to do with his performance in the NFL: Stafford has not thrown a pass for the Lions, yet he is the highest-paid player in the history of the franchise.

This lucrative distinction is one that is also shared by the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft. When the Jets traded up to grab Sanchez, they may have inevitably brought about the scene at their mini-camp in Florham Park, NJ earlier this summer. With the ink still wet on his $54.5 million contract, Sanchez took snaps from behind center before promptly handing the ball off to his running backs. Noticeably absent from this typical exchange were two players who figure to play a huge role in the team’s success this season: Thomas Jones–the AFC’s leading rusher last season–and Leon Washington, voted by his teammates as the team’s MVP in 2007. Just as they share the same position, they shared the same reason for their absence: they were holding themselves out of practice in effort to gain leverage in contract renegotiations. Although both eventually reported to training camp later in July, this is a scene that is becoming more common throughout the league. Veterans, seeing the fortunes piled up by their inexperienced new teammates, are holding out for their share of the pie.

When it comes to contract disputes, I typically reserve little sympathy for the player who suddenly has a change of heart and feels he does not have to honor the terms of a deal he signed just a few years earlier. However, I cannot help but feel for players like Washington, whose measly $535,000 annual salary pales in comparison to that of the unproven Sanchez. Understanding the brutal reality of the NFL, where a single hit or freak injury can jeopardize an entire career in a split second, it is not difficult to understand why Washington may feel entitled to a pay raise from a franchise that just handed out tens of millions in guaranteed money to a guy whose track record is based on the 16 games he started in college.

But what went wrong in the NFL that has allowed this situation to happen in the first place? In what other profession do those in their first year in the field make millions more than established veterans? In a word, the answer is precedent. Based on where they are drafted, rookies feel entitled to making at least–and usually more–than the player drafted in the same position a year earlier. Couple this with the fact that league revenues have continued to increase over the years and the result has been the exponential growth in the size of rookie contracts–from the $11.25 million in guaranteed money earned by Ryan Leaf in 1998, to the $24 million earned by Alex Smith in 2005, to Stafford’s record-breaking $41.7 million. Although I have no problem with Stafford trying to sign for as much money as he can, it is evident that the system is flawed when he is making roughly twice as much in guaranteed money as three-time Super Bowl Champion, Tom Brady.

If you are perplexed by this trend, you are certainly not alone. When prompted into a discussion of the topic, Commissioner Roger Goodell did not try to hide his disapproval, saying, “There is something wrong about the system…the money should go to people that perform.” I agree, yet the Jets and other franchises have allowed themselves to fall into a pattern of overlooking proven performers like Jones and Washington in favor of throwing money at players with no professional track record.

While generally the sight of young men reeling in boatloads of cash straight out of college is not something that I frown upon, I would still feel uncomfortable watching Mark Sanchez drive by in his new Lamborghini when I am well aware of the careers put together by fellow highly touted quarterbacks drafted in the first round like Tim Couch, Joey Harrington and David Carr. Given that three of the best quarterbacks in the game today–Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo–were selected in the sixth round or later or went undrafted, it seems ridiculous to invest such a large portion of the franchise’s future in a completely unproven commodity. Stafford and Sanchez may very well turn out to be worth every penny of their contracts, but at this point all we can be certain about is that, if they do not live up to expectations, they should not expect their fans-and especially their teammates–to be flashing the same million dollar smiles that they displayed on draft day.