Commentary

Rookie pay a stumbling block

Length of contracts and escalator clauses for top picks are at issue in labor talks

Originally Published: July 11, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Labor talks between owners and players broke Friday with a debate about the rookie wage scale.

It's hard to imagine owners and players would risk the preseason over the price for top rookies, but it's possible. For now, owners have dug in their heels in trying to fix the messes created by escalating rookie salaries. The debate cost everyone a critical weekend in getting a labor deal completed.

Players agree that rookie salaries are out of control. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford received a $50 million guarantee before ever taking a snap. Players are willing to cut guarantees in half. The problem that surfaced Friday was the structure and length of first-round contracts.

Owners want four-year deals with a fifth-year option for first-round picks. Even though the players are pushing for four-year deals, they'll have to settle for five, particularly if those players are going to get $15 million to $20 million in guarantees. The debate Friday was over fifth-year base salaries, that option year.

What players don't want to do is lock in a top rookie contract that has the player receiving too little in that final year. A player can reach free-agent status after four years of service, and while some of his peers would be getting big contracts, that first-round rookie could be making around $3 million or $4 million.

Under the old system, agents would slip in an escalator clause that would allow the fifth-year rookie to make millions. Reggie Bush, for example, is in the fifth year of his contract. His base salary, thanks to an escalator, is $11.8 million.

Under the sytem proposed by owners, 2011 top pick Cam Newton would make $22 million over the first four and around $4 million the last year. Players want him to have a top-10 number at his position in that fifth year, which would be around $12-14 million and get the total deal to $34-36 million.

Both sides probably will calm down and settle this problem in the next week. One solution is allowing a fifth-year escalator based on performance. Remember, base salaries aren't guarantees. If Newton qualifies for a $10 million escalator by throwing 30 touchdown passes in a season, would it really hurt? The escalator wouldn't be guaranteed.

A big fifth-year escalator might encourage a contract extension for Newton in his fifth year and eliminate a franchise's concerns of losing him to free agency. If a pick qualified for the fifth-year escalator and turned out to be a bad player by Year 5, the team could try to cut his salary.

Think about it in real terms: By the fifth year of a rookie contract, television revenue for the league might double. What is currently a $9.6 billion pie could grow to $18 billion.

I'm sure a solution will be figured out this week.

From the inbox

Q: Tom Brady was just voted the best player in the league by his peers. One could argue he is the greatest QB of this era, but where does he rank among the greatest QBs of all time? To me, Johnny Unitas is the greatest QB of all time. He threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. What's fascinating about this is he did it playing in an era when offensive formations had two receivers, a tight end and two players in the backfield and yet this record still holds today even with offenses constantly running multiple receivers with empty backfields. To me, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning round out the top five.

Garren in Clifton Park, N.Y.

A: I'd love to list Peyton Manning over Tom Brady, but I can't. It's like the Joe Montana-Dan Marino debate. Montana had the Super Bowl rings. Marino had the arm and the stats. That probably means Brady is No. 5 all time. I'm with you, though, agreeing on Johnny Unitas. Sammy Baugh is in the mix, but too often we forget the top players in previous generations.

Q: During this long lockout there has been considerable discussion about the revenue sharing split. One thing I have not heard explained is where the money actually goes. The players get their share of the revenue. Does that go toward their salaries or is that in addition to their salaries? Is this money considered bonus money?

David in Atlanta

A: There is always confusion when people discuss salary cap and benefits. To be simple about this, two numbers are associated with player costs -- payments to players, and benefits. The players are willing to have player costs in 2011 at $141 million a team. Spread that over a leaguewide basis and that's what owners have to play. Over the course of the deal, the player benefits will be around $27 million per team. This year, the players may have a salary cap of $120 million per team with about $21 million in benefits. That's roughly the split. When you talk payments to players, you are talking salary, signing bonuses, workout bonuses, roster bonuses and incentives.

Q: In the NFC South, the Saints seemed to hit a stumbling block. With Matt Ryan guiding the Falcons to a 13-3 record and only getting better, as well as Josh Freeman being called the most promising QB since, well, Matt Ryan, the Saints aren't the only good team in the South anymore. The Saints have Drew Brees, but no running game and an inconsistent defense. Are they legitimate this year?

Cal in Los Angeles

A: The NFC South is turning into a marathon, not a sprint. It's becoming the best division in football because of Brees, Ryan and Freeman. It's only going to get better once Cam Newton develops. Part of the problem for Brees and the Saints last year was that the Saints played their toughest games on the road while the Falcons' toughest games were at home. Don't be surprised if the Saints win the division this year, and Ryan and the Falcons get a wild card. We'll see where the Bucs finish, but I think you're going be seeing at least two teams make the playoffs from the NFC South.

Q: I've heard several different teams come up as potential landing spots for shutdown corner Nnamdi Asomugha, but the one I think makes the most sense hasn't even been considered -- Pittsburgh. The Steelers are already Super Bowl contenders, but Green Bay exposed their weakness, cornerback. The Steelers should obviously be looking to upgrade depth at corner, preferably at the top of the depth chart. As for Asomugha, after years in Oakland, he should be looking to play for a contender, so Pittsburgh seems to me like the perfect fit for him. I realize he probably won't get as much money as he might want to in Pittsburgh, but he can still get good money and may be the missing piece in the Steelers' Super Bowl run.

Jonas in Panama City, Fla.

A: The cap numbers don't work for the Steelers to sign Asomugha. They have to shed more than $10 million of cap room. Sure, it would be nice to upgrade from Ike Taylor, but they can't fit that salary in. Pittsburgh would be a great spot, but the Steelers aren't the type of team to make that big of a move in free agency. The Steelers like to take care of their own players. To pay a cornerback more than the players who have taken them to Super Bowls isn't their style.

Q: Interesting analysis on "Year of the Back." There is another factor that debunks the YoB thought. Because there is minimal guaranteed money in football, if a player didn't try hard, the team would probably cut the player before the contract year. This isn't baseball or basketball where a player can coast before the final year on the contract, because they won't make it that far if they do coast. Big Albert in Washington is the only exception to that and he will probably be gone this year.

Dave in Brookfield, Conn.

A: To update those who didn't read the "Year of the Back,'' there is a great class of runners who become free agents in 2012. That list includes Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Ryan Grant, Frank Gore and others. The idea was that maybe having so many backs in contract years could lead to a phenomenal year for backs. History teaches us that most backs in the final years of their contracts usually don't have their best seasons. I don't know about backs coasting. All I know is that after four years, backs are pretty beaten up and worn down.

[+] EnlargeFrank Gore
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWill San Francisco's offensive line set Frank Gore up for a big year in 2011?
Q: While I agree with you that many of the contract-year backs may not put up big stats because of their contract status, I think you are overlooking Frank Gore's situation. I'll admit that he's injury-prone and starting to hit the end of his career, but I have to give credit to Mike Singletary for setting Gore up for a big year. Blocking in front of Gore are former first-round picks Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, and former second-round picks David Baas and Chilo Rachal. Other than Baas (29 years old), all are 26 or younger. With a new offensive coordinator/coach and a weak QB, do you see Gore set up for a monster year?

Jon in Washington, D.C.

A: I hope that is the case, because I love Gore as a runner. He cares about the game and is a great talent. I'm worried that he's starting to get injuries, but you're right about the offensive line. I'd love to see Gore run behind Iupati. I'm a little worried about the 49ers losing Baas and then having two holes in the offensive line. As you know, Eric Heitmann might miss next season because of neck problems. As long as they can get Baas back, the 49ers have only one spot to fill on the line.

Q: Can you explain why the ex-NFL players have any claim to be in these negotiations? I can't help but feel that they chose in their bargaining sessions to take the money up front instead of getting pensions and health care and are now trying to force it out of the current players, who are looking to do the same. What legal justification do they think they're operating under that includes them in this?

Rob in New York

A: Retired players can't get a seat at the bargaining table, but they need to be taken care of by the NFL and the current players. I can't speak to the legal aspects of this, but these players made the game great and they are hurting. Medical science is learning new things about the long-term damage to the body football causes. Multiple concussions could lead to dementia. Most players have joint replacement surgeries as they get older. Because of their injuries, some have a hard time finding insurance. By next year, the NFL will become a $10 billion sport. There's enough riches to take care of retired players who need help.

Q: Last year the NFC West was a joke. But why can't this year (if there is a year) be a breakout season? The Rams have Bradford at QB, who reminds me very much of Peyton Manning. The Seahawks have many players on the verge of breakout seasons (including Charlie Whitehurst) and should have a healthy O-Line. All the Cardinals need is a QB to return to '09 form, and the 49ers have all the pieces there and have Jim Harbaugh to work with. So, I ask you, why can't the NFC West be an above-average division this year?

Travis in Snohomish, Wash.

A: The NFC West will become a decent division once it settles its quarterback issues. The Rams are fine with Bradford. Arizona might solve its problems if it acquires Kevin Kolb in a trade. Seattle and San Francisco, however, are in a transitional period at quarterback, and that could hold those teams back. The 49ers are going with Alex Smith on a one-year deal. The Seahawks have to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck. This is a quarterback-driven league, and the reason for the decline in the NFC West is the quarterback problems. You noticed NFC West teams -- Arizona and Seattle -- went to Super Bowls when their quarterback position was good.

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