Commentary

Time to fix rookie salary structure

Originally Published: April 2, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As Denver coach Josh McDaniels scrambles to make the best of a bad Jay Cutler situation, a major problem has popped up again: the rookie salary pool.

2008: Best of Jay Cutler

NFL.com Video

Highlights of some of Jay Cutler's best moments in 2008.

For years, owners, coaches and general managers have complained that the system for paying rookies is broken. Since the rookie salary pool was created in 1993, agents have poked holes in a system that was created to limit the size of rookie contracts.

Each year after the draft, the league assigns a cap dollar value to each draft choice, totals those numbers and gives each team a maximum dollar allotment to spend on all rookies. The problem is the rookie allotment deals only with the salary-cap number for that year. Creative contracts with escalator clauses, one-time payouts and option bonus deals have gotten out of control, taking the values of these deals above the $10 million-a-year range.

In other words, agents can turn a $2.5 million rookie slot into an $11 million-a-year contract.

What became clear in the first 24 hours of Cutler trade talks is how broken the system has become. By all rights, the Detroit Lions should be the leading candidate to acquire Cutler. They have five picks in the first three rounds, including the No. 1 overall selection. But it became pretty apparent Wednesday that the top pick in the draft is more of a hindrance for Detroit than anything. And the Broncos apparently don't want the top pick, either, for the same reason: the No. 1 pick's mega-contract paralyzes teams.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesHaving the No. 1 pick doesn't appear to be helping the Lions land Jay Cutler.

Last year, the Dolphins gave left tackle Jake Long a five-year contract that could max out at $57.5 million, and that includes $29.25 million in guarantees. Long made the Pro Bowl and the Dolphins made the playoffs, but it's crazy to think an unproven rookie should receive the highest salary for an offensive lineman in league history.

The Lions have opened negotiations with the agents for the draft's top prospects. Pardon the Lions if they are left woozy by sticker shock. To draft Baylor left tackle Jason Smith, Detroit probably must commit more than $11.5 million a year. To draft Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions might have to offer $13 million a year or higher because quarterbacks drafted near the top of the draft receive premium deals.

Imagine the conversations between the Lions and Broncos:

"Why don't we offer you the No. 1 pick for Jay Cutler and make it simple?'' the Lions would say.

"Are you crazy?" the Broncos respond. "Why pay $13 million a year for Stafford when we don't even know he's going to be as good as Cutler? We'd rather get a pick outside of the top seven because it makes better economical sense."

The sticker price for a top pick also prevents teams from maximizing the pick's value in a trade.

Look at the Lions' situation for a second: They could pick up Cutler for the No. 1 pick, pay him $12.5 million a year on a six-year deal and feel as though they stole him from the Broncos. In getting Cutler, they would be acquiring a 25-year-old, Pro Bowl QB with one of the strongest arms in football. Scouts say Stafford has Cutler-like ability but is unproven. Cutler is proven.

If Cutler is willing to cast aside the indignity of his relationship problems with McDaniels and accept less than a Stafford contract, the Lions would have a franchise quarterback locked up on maybe a six- or a seven-year deal. The Lions wouldn't have to do anything with Cutler, but the savings from not taking the No. 1 pick would give them the luxury of giving Cutler an extension even though he still has three years left on his rookie contract.

Commissioner Roger Goodell thinks rookie salaries are out of line.

"The money should go to the people that have produced on the NFL level or on the professional level," he said on Sirius Radio this week. "And I just think, though we've had a number of great rookies coming in, not everyone makes that transition as successfully, and you want to make sure that the system rewards the people who perform and I think that's what we have to figure out in the next collective bargaining agreement. How do we pay the players fairly? How do we compensate them properly after they've proven themselves on the NFL level?''

Of course, the NFL Players Association isn't going to give away the big money given to top rookies without getting something good in return. But the league must find a way to change the system.

The draft is the main way of stocking rosters. It is set up in reverse order of how teams finish, giving the worst teams the chance to draft the best players. Draft choices are also important currency in trades in order for teams to maximize values in deals to fix other positions.

The Lions lost 16 games to get the first pick in the draft. Detroit fans had to endure the worst season in league history for the hope that the first pick might help their team get better. Now, the Lions can't give away the No. 1 pick.

On the flip side, it also hurts the Broncos. Dealing Cutler for the No. 1 pick is an interesting concept. But because of the cost of signing the No. 1 pick and the paralyzing impact that contract can have on a team if the top pick doesn't work out, the Broncos must accept a lower choice or come up with a more creative package to get value for Cutler.

It's time for change.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

ALSO SEE