By RCS Contributor Derek Miller (New Jersey)
The NFL has been set up to breed competition. The better teams will have tougher schedules; salary caps keep even the smaller market teams competitive; the worst teams get higher draft picks. But, recently, high draft picks have become a burden rather than a competitive advantage. With rookie salaries on the rise, it's becoming less beneficial to have a higher draft pick. The NFL needs to adjust the rookie salaries in order to continue to push parity.
This year, the Miami Dolphins have the number one pick in the Draft, thanks to a 1-15 regular season. Obviously, they have many holes to fill. But, that number one pick could comprise as much as 10% of the Dolphins salary cap (while solving just one of their many problems). Last year, number one overall selection JaMarcus Russell signed a seven-year, $61 million contract, with $30 million guaranteed (which will count against the cap even if he is cut). The contract made JaMarcus Russell one of the five highest paid quarterbacks in the league, and that was before he had even taken a snap. It seems more and more teams are looking to trade down to try and avoid these outrageous rookie contracts that have accelerated well beyond that of the salary cap.
Since the Raiders were paying so much for Russell, they had to play him. There is no room for a veteran quarterback to manage the team while their highest paid player learns from the bench. Just look what happened with the Chargers in 2006. They had to let Pro-Bowler Drew Brees go because Philip Rivers was making too much money to sit on the bench. The same situation could've occurred in Cleveland this year. If the Browns had selected Brady Quinn with their first pick instead of Joe Thomas, it would have been difficult for them not to play him even with Derek Anderson playing extremely well. Luckily for the Browns, they were able to draft Brady Quinn 17th overall and pay him a third of what Russell received and had the luxury to let him sit on the bench while Anderson earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Draft picks are very unpredictable from top to bottom, so why pay more money for a higher draft pick who could just as easily be a bust as a lower pick? In 2005, Alex Smith got a deal for six years/$50 million/$24 million guaranteed after being selected first overall. This was more guaranteed money than any other quarterback besides Peyton Manning had received up until that time. Do you think 5-11 San Francisco feels like they efficiently utilized their cap room by spending $10 million on Alex Smith this year? And it's not just quarterbacks that are getting these huge rookie contracts; Calvin Johnson is getting paid top five wide receiver money and Reggie Bush's salary is amongst the top five for running backs.
Ultimately, there are big risks at the top of the draft – risks that become untenable when the salaries of theses players are taken into account. Fortunately, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is almost up. These rookie cap allotments will be up for renegotiation soon. I can’t help thinking that the veterans of the league will have no problem trading reductions in rookie salaries for increases in their available cap pool (and therefore higher veteran salaries). The guys who stand to benefit from high rookie salaries are in college, and have no vote in the players union. Let’s hope the NFL does the right thing with this issue, and continues to totally outperform MLB and the NBA in terms of league and player management. And to the Dolphins – I would sure consider trading down and getting multiple young, talented, and inexpensive players for this number one pick.