A major sticking point of the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement which was signed in 2011 was to control the rookie wage scale. Owners didn’t want to over-pay for unproven talent, and veteran players didn’t want rookie first-round draft picks to be earning more in their first contract than some players have made in an entire career. The guaranteed dollar amounts for number one overall picks such as Jamarcus Russell ($31.5 million in 2007), Matt Stafford ($41.7 million in 2009), and Sam Bradford ($50 million in 2010) was getting out of control and something had to give.
Starting with the 2011 NFL draft class, players selected in the first round would only receive four-year deals with a team option for a fifth year. Players selected in rounds two through seven would all receive four-year deals without a team option for an extra year. In addition to the length of each rookie contract being shortened, spending was significantly reduced as well. Cam Newton, the number one overall pick in the first year of the new CBA, signed a four-year contract with the Carolina Panthers worth slightly higher than $22 million. The dollar value of Newton’s 2011 rookie contract was a far cry from the obscene amount of guaranteed money that was thrown Bradford’s way just one year earlier.
The NFL rookie wage scale has been successfully held in check under the new CBA. However, this current system has given rise to a new and more disturbing phenomenon in the NFL; young quarterbacks are being grossly overvalued in their second contracts at the expense of the league’s middle-class players. Any young quarterback who shows even the slightest potential can expect a massive payday under this system. Meanwhile, core players who are not superstars are systematically being phased out on each NFL team.
The latest example of this trend is the six-year, $115 million extension that quarterback Andy Dalton just signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Earlier this off-season, San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick also signed a six-year extension, but his deal was worth even more ($126 million). I have never begrudged an athlete for signing the highest dollar value possible, after all, players have a very limited window for top earning potential. But as more and more young quarterbacks take advantage of the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, I predict that this trend will have a negative impact on the teams that these high-priced quarterbacks play for.
The most glaring example of a team’s performance suffering after overvaluing its young quarterback would be the Baltimore Ravens. After winning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors, quarterback Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120 million contract to remain with the Ravens, a record deal at the time. As a result of this massive contract, a record eight starters from Baltimore’s championship team did not return in 2013. Previously, no Super Bowl winning team had ever lost more than five starters in the following season.
Once a team has put all of their eggs into a quarterback’s basket, I believe the ability to compete for a Super Bowl will gradually decrease as key loses in free agency begin to pile up. Even the Green Bay Packers are feeling the effects of signing their established star quarterback to a massive contract. Former NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers signed a 5-year, $110 million extension in 2013. Since then, the Packers have had to part ways with Greg Jennings and James Jones, two of Rodger’s main targets in Green Bay’s passing attack.
In my opinion, teams with young and relatively cheap talent at quarterback will eventually emerge as Super Bowl contenders. The defending champion Seattle Seahawks not only feature a punishing defense and a great running game, but they also possess a balanced team salary-cap wise. Third-year quarterback Russell Wilson is playing under the cap-friendly 4-year, $2.99 million rookie contract he signed in 2012. Due to Seattle’s great cap flexibility, the Seahawks were able to re-sign cornerback Richard Sherman to a four-year, $57.4 million contract this off-season while also giving tailback Marshawn Lynch a $1 million pay raise in base salary. The Seahawks now have a two or three year window to win another Super Bowl before Wilson becomes the next overpaid young quarterback that will burden his team’s salary cap structure.
Fans may scoff at the contract signed by Andy Dalton and blame the Bengals for signing a mediocre passer with a grand total of 0 playoff wins to a mega contract. I however, choose to blame the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement which allows contracts like this to be offered in the first place. Under the current rules, I firmly believe that this trend of overpaying for young QB’s will continue. One can only imagine what better quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III will earn when their rookie contracts expire.