As NFL owners and players search for common ground in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, a rookie wage scale might be a starting point. Salaries for prospects selected in the top half of the 32-player first round have escalated at a pace that makes some on both sides uncomfortable.
"The first half of the first round has gotten ridiculously out of whack," says former NFL general managerCharley Casserly, a CBS analyst. "When the first pick in the draft can get $50 million guaranteed, that's just ludicrous. I think both sides understand that is just too much money to risk."
Casserly was not the only one who winced when the St. Louis Rams guaranteed quarterback Sam Bradford that record amount as the top pick last year as part of a six-year deal totaling $78 million.
Former star running back Tiki Barber views a rookie scale as an "absolute necessity," adding, "Too much money is wasted making millionaires out of young, unproven players who never contribute to their team, much less the game as a whole."
Veteran agent Ralph Cindrich describes the escalation of salaries for top-tier rookies as "astounding." He views the implementation of a scale as an area for compromise "provided the same percentage goes to the players and as long as the money doesn't go back to the owners. The owners are already making enough money."
Tom Condon, who has negotiated massive contracts in representing Bradford and six of the last seven top picks, thinks the union should yield grudgingly on this part of the field, if at all.
He argues Bradford's deal proved to be good business for both parties. The 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, whose durability was questioned because his senior season was ruined by a shoulder injury, emerged as the league's offensive rookie of the year and helped to transform a downtrodden franchise into an NFC West contender.
"Would they trade him for anybody? I don't think so," Condon says. "They have to look at
him as having a chance to be a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees kind of player."
Bradford took every snap in setting league rookie records for completions (354) and attempts (590). He threw for 3,512 yards, the second-highest total for a rookie after Manning's 3,739 in 1998.
Management has suggested money saved on rookies can lead to better pay for veterans and to help retired players. Barber says of the latter, "I don't think enough can be done to assist them."
He says many former players "cannot walk anymore, cannot remember anymore, cannot function the way that most people in this country do."
In an argument against a scale from the players' standpoint, it is undeniable that ground-breaking contracts for draftees raise the bar for veterans.
For example, Condon and the Miami Dolphins agreed to a five-year deal worth $57.75 million ($30 million guaranteed) for left tackle Jake Long, an outstanding performer since he was the first player selected in 2008. That set the stage for disgruntled tackle Jason Peters to be dealt from the Buffalo Bills to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he signed a new deal averaging $9.8 million a year.
Those who bemoan the current system point to notorious busts. Quarterbacks Tim Couch (1999, Cleveland Browns), David Carr (2002, Houston Texans) and JaMarcus Russell (2007, Oakland Raiders) all topped their draft classes and never came close to fulfilling expectations.
Russell's flop is particularly notable. He was overweight and his work ethic was criticized as he won seven of 25 starts in three years. The Raiders paid him more than $38 million during that time.
"Everyone is in agreement that JaMarcus Russell is not the type of guy we want to be paying that kind of money to, " Cindrich says.