The Minnesota Vikings' front office usually doesn't get serious about signing their draft picks until after the Fourth of July, but there is a topic that is gaining momentum and warranting conversations around the NFL surrounding the rookies. Their contacts are getting out of control, say some veteran players and other involved with the league.
Still, the team with the first overall pick in recent years seems to ignore the front-office battle cry to scale back the rookie pay structure. This year, first overall pick Matthew Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Detroit Lions that could escalate to a reported $78 million with incentives. More than half of it – $41.7 million – is guaranteed … which is guaranteed to make owners around the league cringe when it comes to trying to compensate their rookies.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith isn't about to bail the owners out.
"The owners sign the checks, our players don't," he told NFL Network on the first day of the draft. "We know the work that goes into picking the right guy. Our players know the work that goes into making a decision on how much to pay (players). That's not a decision that lies on the players and they know that. So, in respect to a rookie (salary) cap, I am very happy with the scenario that we have now. Less than 4 percent of our total cap amount is dedicated to rookie salaries, so we do have a cap, but when the day comes that we start signing checks, then that's when we'll start answering those kind of questions."
However, almost three weeks later, Smith was still answering those questions during a visit to Minnesota to talk to Vikings players and some local reporters.
"Where I start on the issues is that for every one of these players on this team, nobody signs their own check. Nobody. Nobody decided how much they are going to get paid. Nobody decided where they were going to be slotted in the draft," Smith said. "… The one thing I never saw in one of those war rooms, I never saw players. I never saw one player, from one team, going through, ‘Man, should we pick at number one, number two, number three, number four and should it be $22, $23, $18 million?' I never saw one player involved in that process. Why? Because they are not. The owners, the general managers, the coaches, the great scouts, those are the guys that decide what guy is right for their team and how much we're going to pay him. So I really don't understand why for the first time when it comes to an issue of money, why they turn to the players and say, when it comes to rookies (contracts), that's a player's issue. I just don't get it."
Stafford is expected to average $12 million to $13 million over the course of his deal. That represents about 10 percent of the Lions' salary cap this year for one of 53 players that count against the cap – and, notably, a player that hasn't play one down in the NFL yet. Team are allotted a certain amount of money to spend on their rookie class based on where they select in the draft, but there is little question that the salaries of the top rookies are rising dramatically.
According to Sports Illustrated, Stafford's deal is worth 16 percent more than last year's top pick, tackle Jake Long, and 30 percent more than 2007's top pick, quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who is off to a less-than-stellar start to his career in Oakland.
No doubt, the topic of limiting rookie salaries will be broached when discussions between Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for extending the CBA heat up in the coming months. Smith indicated he wants to be sure teams are spending close the to $127 million salary cap (minus the rookie allocations) on their veterans.
"I was just flipping through the sheet, just kind of seeing where teams match up on spending their full allotment of cap money. Because the underlying argument, of course, is if we decrease the amount of money that goes to rookies then we will take the money and pay it to vets," Smith said. "So I just asked the simple question: ‘Are teams taking their full amount of cap funds right now and paying it all to vets right now?' The answer is no."
But teams are required to spend at least 87.6 percent of the salary cap. The Vikings are about $17 million under the salary cap, but that could change quickly if they were to sign Brett Favre.
"All I'm saying is the argument about decreasing the amount of money that goes to rookies is predicated on an assumption that the owners would take the remaining money and pay it to the vets," Smith said. "My only observation that I've got now is that nobody does it now anyway. So not only is it odd that the first time anybody wants to come to the players to talk about money is with respect to a rookie rate scale; but second, you don't use all the money to pay to the vets now, so what makes us think you would do it then? I'm just asking a question."
That's something the league will have to answer when negotiations intensify. For now, there are plenty of veterans who would like to see their own union take a look at the issue, too.
NFLPA boss questions rookie pay criticisms
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