The annual NFL Scouting Combine is a microscope placed over the crop of rookies that will be the future stars of the NFL. But, in many ways, it is like the convening of the United Nations – the powers of the NFL, friends and foes alike, get together with their guns left at home.
Arguably, it’s one of the few times each year that all the power brokers of the NFL get together and aren’t sworn enemies. The term “competitive advantage” takes a momentary hiatus and they get to talk to one another as peers.
One of the discussion topics isn’t “officially” going to be a problem for two more years. However, you can bet that it is already being discussed by owners, general managers and capologists around the NFL as they take temporary shelter in Indiana.
As part of the collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the only true victim of the negotiated CBA was the rookie class of 2011 (and subsequently 2012). The rookie pay system got pile-driven on its head as a mutual concession between the owners and players union. Somebody had to pay for NFL labor strife. It was the guys who weren’t there yet.
To put the pay disparity into perspective, when the top pick in the 2010 draft – St. Louis QB Sam Bradford – was selected, he signed a six-year contract for $78 million. The combination of the contracts signed by Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are 12 years, $64 million. Bradford has been forced to restructure his deal because he hasn’t lived up to it. The other three have all excelled, yet are walking away with less money than Bradford. We don’t even need to discuss JaMarcus Russell, who was paid more in guaranteed money than any of those three post-2011 quarterbacks are scheduled to be paid. That bought a lot of Purple Drank.
While one or two years in the NFL is a relatively small sampling (a lot can change), it can be argued that, when their respective contracts are up, over a two-year period in the winter and spring of 2015 and 2016, the NFL is going to face one of the biggest challenges the game has seen since the advent of free agency.
A new generation of players who have been knowingly underpaid for the first four years of their NFL careers are going to want to get paid … paid big. At a time when the NFL is enjoying unparalleled financial success – a time when the rest of the country endured a recession – rookies were told to sit in the back of the bus and shut up about it.
For those primed to cash in on that “second contract,” the battleground between the NFL and the players association could be the ugliest, blood-inducing head butt since the resolution of the 2011 lockout.
At the center of this controversy will be the Class of 2011. Admittedly, picks in the top 10 of the draft each year were grossly overpaid prior to the current CBA – to the point that a good combine showing could make a player one of the highest paid players at his respective positions without ever playing a down in the NFL. Trading out of a top-five pick was almost impossible. That system had to change and both sides of the lockout agreed – draftees would have to earn their money.
The problem with that scenario is that, as things currently stand, at least three quarterbacks taken in the 2011 draft – top pick Newton and second-rounders Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick – are going to have to get paid and might be seeking makeup money.
That doesn’t even take into consideration three of the top 12 picks in the draft – QBs Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. As things currently stand, all three will enter training camp as the starter for their respective teams with two years to earn a second contract. They’re looking to get paid … paid big.
Despite one of the worst years for elite offensive linemen in draft history, the Class of 2011 has several players that are going to be in line to sign their own eye-popping contracts – ones their agents can rightfully say is deserved because they were underpaid by league standards in their first four seasons.
That list includes players like wide receivers A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Torrey Smith, defensive end J.J. Watt, linebackers Von Miller and Aldon Smith and cornerback Patrick Peterson. They are the tip of the 2011 iceberg – a list that will stand out this year in their third NFL seasons, where most coaches know the ceilings of their young players.
From the Vikings’ perspective, Kyle Rudolph has already shown enough that he’s going to be asking for “Gronk money” when he becomes a free agent. This Class of 2011 “pay me” list is only going to grow.
The Class of 2012 is even more impressive in terms of early impact on the game and the relatively underpaid (by NFL standards) are going to face an unprecedented payday. Luck and RG3 are going to be in competition again. Whatever Newton gets will have to be surpassed and the agents for Luck and Griffin will be looking to be the top dog. Things could get crazy.
That’s just the battle between the top two picks. It doesn’t take into account Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill – both of whom will enter their second seasons entrenched as their teams’ starter. Nick Foles and Brock Osweiler could be “the man” in Philadelphia and Denver, respectively. While not members of the Big Two, they’re looking to be the Fab Four. They’re looking to get paid … paid big. Count Brandon Weeden and Kirk Cousins if you want (we won’t yet).
More troubling for NFL paymasters is that, at first blush, the Class of 2012 has all the look of freshmen wanting to party with the seniors. Again, a short list of promising second contracts includes running backs Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson and Alfred Morris, wide receivers Justin Blackmon, Alshon Jeffery and T.Y. Hilton, offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Riley Reiff, defensive end Bruce Irvin, linebackers Luke Kuechly, Melvin Ingram, Dont’a Hightower and Bobby Wagner, cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Janoris Jenkins, safeties Mark Barron and Harrison Smith and even kickers Blair Walsh and Greg Zeuerlein. And that’s a short list.
Rare is the time when NFL owners and decision-makers are at one location and being friendly with one another. For one week in the Heartland, there is a cessation of hostilities. The power elite of the league get together on neutral ground and discuss potential draft day trades and mutually-beneficial treaties. They discuss their shared concerns.
You can bet your last dollar that one of the topics under discussion is what is going to happen to the pay scale of the NFL when so many successful young quarterbacks start raising the bar for every other position in the NFL.
The change in rookie salaries created a monster. The NFL has become a pass-happy league in which the top quarterbacks are paid more in one year than guys like Luck and RG3 are going to make in their first four years combined. Newton is going to be the test case in 2015. He will raise the bar as to the going rate for a blue-chip young quarterback. Kaepernick and Dalton will be the minimum benchmark to which the low end of that bar is set.
Luck and RG3 are going to be the new gold standard. One or both could become the first $30 million-a-year player in league history. The “going rate” for just about every other position will go up incrementally. It’s going to be a nightmare for NFL owners, who have basked in the glory of the league’s financial largesse.
In two years, the league will come against players who firmly (and rightfully) know that they have been underpaid by NFL standards for their first four years. You can bet the franchise tag is going to be used liberally by teams as they prepare a strategy to reward overachievers who were the nameless victims of the CBA deal struck between the NFL and its players.
As of now, it’s not an out-front topic. A year from now, it’s going to be a front-burner issue. The Class of 2011 is going to want to get paid … paid big.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.