Is the NFL Rookie Wage Scale Working?
Almost three football years ago, the NFL and the NFLPA both agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Part of this agreement implemented a new Rookie Wage Scale (RWS). This would stop the bloated contracts of unproven rookies as well as allow teams to use the money to retain veteran players. This could also make free agency even more of a bonanza! So three years later, is the NFL’s Rookie Wage Scale working?
The short answer is yes. The RWS was intended to stop the bloated rookie contracts and it has. Has more money gone to veteran players? Let us take a look at the facts:
Last off-season was the first real free agency since the NFL lockout. The NFL saw a slew of extensions and free agent contracts for players who deserved them. It has also seen huge contracts given too less talented players.
We saw two-mega contracts last off-season. On the defensive side of the ball we saw a $100 million contract awarded to DE Mario Williams to sign with the Buffalo Bills. Did he deserve this contract? Based off his play, probably, but a contract that high? Not so much.
Then on the offensive side of the ball we saw a huge contract extension given to WR Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, a $132 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. Johnson had the stats to prove he deserved it Not only from a playing aspect but I’m sure fantasy owners everywhere would agree). What about the rest of the big FA contracts signed last off-season? Let us examine the wide receiver contracts signed during that period:
The Washington Redskins went out and signed two FA wide outs, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Garcon signed for $42.5 million to be the number one receiver on the team which would then allow them to phase out Santana Moss. Garcon’s first game as a Redskin showed them he was worth every cent, and he did it all in one quarter. Unfortunately, he was injured for most of the season. If Garcon can stay healthy he could still easily prove his worth.
Morgan signed a five-year $12 million contract with $7.5 guaranteed. Considering what Morgan has done in the past it was a bit inflated, but well worth his skill set he brings to the Redskin offense. With Santana Moss heading out to pasture soon, the Redskins secured their #1 and #2 wide receivers for the next five years. Then they got the lovely bonus of Leonard Hankerson. Lucky Redskins.
The San Diego Chargers lost Vincent Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. The Bucs signed V-Jax to a $55.55 million deal. V-Jax posted 60 receptions for a total of 1,106 yards and 9 TD’s in 2011 for a miserable San Diego team. In 2012, while playing for the Bucs, he posted 72 receptions, total of 1,384 yards, and 8 TD’s. The Bucs spent their money well here. V-Jax is in his prime and will only continue to get better for them. Not only did he give them such a dangerous weapon, but it also opened up Mike Williams, another wide receiver who had been written off by others, for the Bucs. With V-Jax’s presence on the field it opened up Williams to have a stellar season.
How did the Chargers fix the hole that was wide receiver? Well, they signed Robert Meachem who used to play for the Saints. He was a rotational wide receiver in the Saints system and flourished there as a dangerous vertical threat. People speculated that he could be a #1 wide receiver due to his speed and potential. The Chargers signed him to a four year, $25 million contract. In my opinion they overpaid to get him. He was a proven #2 and they gave him what I consider a base #1 wide receiver contract. He was so bad this season that the Chargers went on the street to find Danario Alexander and signed him for dirt-cheap. He proved to be a #1 WR for them, rendering Meachem the odd man out.
It would seem the RWS is working; veteran players made out with bigger contracts last season. But let’s not forget that last year’s draft class of wide receivers was fairly weak. Teams were desperate for proven wide receivers and paid handsomely for them.
With Free Agency starting this Tuesday and the three-day “tampering” window already setting the NFL world on fire, what can we learn from the current off-season?
This year’s free agent class is one of the strongest in a while. There are a lot of quality starters entering free agency. Many of them were not due to enter for a few years; they’ve been cut for one reason or another. Usually in free agency there are a few notable names and the rest of the players are quality backups or scrap heap starters. This year there are more notables and quality starters than years past. Players that got huge contracts only a year or two ago have been let go. They did not live up to those contracts. Cap space was needed and so teams cut them. Some players got their contracts restructured, but those not worth the time were axed. These same players who commanded huge contracts before now sit waiting for teams to pick them up. You can take a look here at NFLSoup to see our top free agents at every position. This is another side effect of the RWS. Teams don’t have to spend big money for quality players right away. They can now sit back and let the market set itself and see what other teams are offering. They no longer have to get into a massive bidding war over players who had one or two good seasons.
Two Offensive tackles are going in completely opposite directions but both are demanding huge contracts going into free agency. Andre Smith, known by some as “Moobs” or Andre “Fatman” Smith, is the starting right tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. His first two seasons were nothing but disastrous; a holdout, weight issues and injuries. Now, over the last two seasons he’s become a dominant right tackle. Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins was a dominant tackle most of his career, but now seems to be slipping and some say his play has been stagnate. Andre Smith is asking for $9 million a year. Jake Long is asking for $11 million a year. Which of them is worth the kind of money they’re asking for? The answer is neither. While teams might have the money to pay, one is on the decline; the other’s questionable history makes him a risk. So both of their teams, instead of franchising them, are allowing them to test the free agent market. I assure you they will not get the money they are looking for, but they will get paid very well.
A lot of teams believe that this year’s draft class is one of the strongest in history. In fact, this year’s draft is heavily stocked at many valuable positions: OL, LB, DL, CB, WR, and RB. The only position not stocked well at all is QB.
But with teams needing to spend 89% of the salary cap there should be plenty of money to give to the free agents. So has the RWS worked? Yes and No. It has done its job to help cap swollen rookie contracts, but has backfired on veteran players who were hoping for more money.
My prediction is, you will not see mega/overpaid contracts awarded so easily. Teams will gauge the market prices during the three-day window, then will sit back and argue not over the total value of the contract but the guaranteed money. It will not be like in past years when within an hour of free agency huge contracts are dolled out. Between the promising draft prospects and the tampering window it’s going to be a slow free agency for all teams.
The NFL is wise and all money consuming. This lull that I predict, plus the tampering window will allow the NFL to create a signing day like NCAA has. It will add to the drama, which people will closely watch. Advertising prices for the commercial minute will become as sought after as Super Bowl and Draft nights. The trick will be getting players, agents, and teams not to leak on Twitter where they are signing ahead of time. This only makes our job as reporters that much more exciting and interesting.