Rookie Salary Scale: A Game Changer in 2012 NFL Draft

The NFL draft is now televised in prime time and with the wheeling and dealing that took place Thursday night, it provided “must see TV” for NFL fans. Several teams traded up into the top 10 and many others were trying to trade up but it has not always been that way.

When you see the Patriots trying to trade up instead of down in the draft, you know something has changed. The new rookie wage scale is proving to be a real game changer.

You know something is wrong when teams are trying hard to trade out of the top 10 picks. Prior to 2011, NFL teams behaved as if they did not want a top 10 pick in the draft. It was very expensive to sign a rookie drafted in the top 10. Rookie hold outs for preseason camps were common and when teams finally got their picks signed to an extravagant contract, many of them turned out to be busts picks which were devastating to team’s salary caps.

JaMarcus Russell was drafted by the Raiders in 2007 and he signed a $61 million contract. to be their franchise QB. Russell just didn’t work out and the Raiders were dealt a blow. There are many other examples of top 10  bust picks. Bust picks are not going away but the high cost for a mistake is not as severe now.

When the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached in 2011, a cap was implemented on how much rookies could sign a contract. Now it became much more affordable to sign a top 10 pick and consequently, much more attractive.

If the 2012 NFL draft were under the old rookie wage rules, would Jerry Jones have traded up to the sixth pick to draft CB Morris Claiborne for the Cowboys? No, I just can’t see that happening. It would have been too expensive especially after spending $50 million to sign CB Brandon Carr in free agency. Spending another $50 million on a CB wouldn’t have made sense even to an impulsive, egotistical, high roller like Jerry.

The First Pick Affect: Sam Bradford 2010/Cam Newton 2011

Cost of NFL 1st picks were escalating prior to rookie wage scale.

In 2011 after the new CBA, first pick QB Cam Newton was signed for a salary of $22 million but in 2010 the last year of the old CBA, first pick Bradford was signed for $28 million more in guaranteed money than Cam. Having the first pick in the draft is no longer considered a misfortune. It has become an enviable position again instead of an unenviable one. Bradford’s $50 million contract set a new benchmark for both top picks and QB contracts that NFL GMs weren’t interested in matching.

The QB effect:

The most expensive position to draft in the top 10 is the quarterback position. Not surprisingly, more QBs are being picked earlier in the draft now than they were prior to the rookie salary cap. In 2011 and 2012 combined, seven QBs  were drafted in the top 12 picks while only five QBs were selected between 2007 and 2010 in the top 12 picks.

In fact in 2008, no QBs went in the top 10 while in 2012, three QBs were top 10 picks including the top 2 picks in the draft. Clearly picking QBs early is back in style.

Going Forward:

We witnessed deals and selections Thursday night that we simply would not have before the new CBA.

It use to be debatable, but now it is pretty obvious that the most cost effective way to build an NFL team, is through the draft. Free agency still plays an important roll in filling in key needs but it will be viewed as an expensive way to do it compared to obtaining high draft picks. The rookie salary scale is indeed a game changer.