As part of our ongoing series examining every facet of the Cleveland Browns’ salary cap situation, we have already looked at what the Browns’ 2015 drafted rookie class costs in terms of Year One and four-year salary. But what about the undrafted rookies currently on the roster? Though not all of them will make the team when roster cuts begin starting September 1, it’s likely a few will make it through. We may as well understand what these rookies are being paid, and why.
Unlike drafted rookies, who have immediate four-year contracts (with first-rounders also given a fifth-year option), undrafted rookies sign three-year deals. Generally speaking, most undrafted rookies are paid the rookie minimum, which according to the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement totals $435,000 for 2015, $525,000 in 2016 and $615,000. This means that any undrafted player from 2015 can make a maximum of $1.575 off of his three-year contract, granted he sticks on the roster that long.
And, indeed, of the 10 UDFA players on the Browns’ current roster, all but two are set to make that minimum, three-year salary. The only exceptions are wide receiver Shane Wynn, who will make $1.577 million, because the Browns also threw in an additional $2,000 in guarantees on his contract, and tackle Darrian Miller, who has a $1.58 million salary with $20,000 in additional guarantees. Signing bonuses, on the other hand, are a point of contention; teams generally can spend around $88,000 in bonus cash on undrafted rookies, so a per-player bonus, if it happens at all, is never more than about $8,000. No Browns UDFA player has a signing bonus this year. Guarantees, on the other hand, are a different story. Different percentages of each undrafted player’s salary can be guaranteed; upping that guarantee is how teams can lure in higher-profile undrafted rookies. Clearly, at least in May, the Browns’ saw more long-term potential in Miller and Wynn, or at least saw a bidding war potentially taking place between themselves and other interested teams. Giving them those guarantees, though small they may seem, does help sway a rookie free agent’s opinion.
Because UDFA contracts are for three years, once the contracts are up the players become restricted free agents and can receive minimum tenders from their teams worth $1.785 million. However, if an UDFA player—for our purposes let’s say summertime standout tight end E.J. Bibbs—exceeds expectations and gets a lot of playing time during that three-year span, he could even be eligible to receive a second-round UDFA tender, which means teams would have to give up a second-round draft pick should they sign Bibbs to an offer sheet that the Browns won’t or cannot match. Otherwise, he would be an original-round tender. Given that his original round is “undrafted,” that means the Browns would receive no draft-pick compensation for Bibbs should he move on by signing another team's offer sheet.
There is a way to counteract this, however. All UDFA players are eligible for contract extensions after two years. So if Bibbs outperforms his undrafted rank after two seasons, the Browns can then lock him up to a contract extension of their choosing, paying him as much as a seasoned veteran if it is warranted. They can avoid the RFA tender headache altogether for any undrafted player who is worth the money.
What should be noted, though, is that none of these UDFA players will see a single penny of their $435,000 salaries for 2015 if they don’t make the 53-man roster. Those salaries don’t take effect until the roster is finalized. If all 10 don’t make it, the Browns are only out $22,000 in the guarantees they have on the books for Wynn and Miller. During training camp, rookies get $925 per week, along with food, lodging and a per diem that is picked up by the team. Once the regular season starts, that $435,000 salary is divided into 17 equal parts—one for each week of the season—and then paid out on a weekly basis.
So the goal for every undrafted rookie is to make that final roster in order to actually get the money they are contracted to earn. That extra motivation likely plays a key part in why many—though certainly not all—undrafted rookies suddenly seem to come out of nowhere during training camp and the preseason. They are the least safe players on the team and, from a financial standpoint, are barely on the roster during the summer. They have to earn the right to earn their money, in ways neither veterans nor drafted rookies—or at least those drafted in the first four rounds or so—typically have to worry about.