As everyone knows, last year a new Collective Bargaining Agreement went into effect. One of its most transformative features was the new Rookie Wage Scale. It's effect on the draft and team's salary cap issues could be profound. Join me after the Jump to explore a few of the new Rookie Wage Scale's possible implications.
In a rare instance of common ground, players also came to hate the old system, as veteran stars saw their hard earned salaries instantly eclipsed by young pups who had proven nothing. Guys like Gholston who never made it off the bench vastly outearned valuable vets like Sean Ellis, and the vets didn't like that one bit. Enter the new Rookie Wage Scale.
Under the new Rookie Wage Scale, many of the problems of the old system are seemingly fixed. The new rookie wage scale is supposed to cut top rookie contracts by more than 50 percent. First-round picks get four-year deals in which the club holds a fifth-year option. There are slotted four-year deals from Rounds 2 through 7. Here's the discount. Cam Newton, the first pick in this year's draft, signed a four-year, $22.03 million contract. That is an enormous reduction from Suh's 5 year, $60 Million deal from the prior year. If the Panthers keep him for a fifth year, his salary would be at the average of the top 10 salaries of other quarterbacks. One unique part about the new system is it should prevent long holdouts. There is a $30,000 per day penalty for all holdouts who do not report to training camp. As a result, at some point in August, unsigned draft choices lose their leverage if they aren't signed. There is another clause that prevents draft picks from holding out after they sign. If a player holds out during the term of his initial deal, he is prohibited from renegotiating his contract. There is also a limit to the amount of money given to rookies. The max total in 2011 is $874 million.
One result of the new Rookie Wage Scale is that an entire 7 pick draft class will now count only about $5 Million towards the Salary cap. Teams with multiple first rounders will count more, but even there a salary cap hit of more than approximately $7 Million will be very rare. As a result teams will now have more money to spend on proven veterans. Another result is that teams will once again become very aggressive in trying to move up into the top 10 picks. Those picks that once could destroy an organization for years have suddenly once again become very, very valuable. A large majority of the true game changers come from the top half of the first round. Before, the opportunity to acquire such top talent had to be weighed against the risk of a disastrous flop. Now, flops don't hurt you nearly as much, and the opportunity to lock up great talent at a low price for 4 years makes top picks exceedingly valuable.
The behavior of Belichick in the recent draft is illustrative of this point. For years he had shunned top draft choices, always trading down, seeking to preserve salary cap flexibility and use precious cap space on proven performers, not untested rookies. The new Rookie Wage Scale changed the game, and predictably, Belichick understood this and acted accordingly. To the stunned disbelief of so-called draft experts, Belichick not only did not trade back early in the draft, he traded UP, and snagged himself 2 top picks. This surprised many, but it shouldn't have. Those picks had over night risen dramatically in value and decreased dramatically in risk. The logical move was to attempt to acquire top picks, and if Belichick is anything, he is logical. As a result, I would expect to see a complete reversal of Belichick's long time draft strategy in the years to come, as he gravitates toward the superior value of top picks. I would hope Tanny is sharp enough to also recognize this reality, although for him it would only represent a continuation of his long time strategy of quality over quantity.
A few other changes the new system is likely to bring about are the following:
1. QBs are likely to continue the trend of starting right away. If anything this trend should accelerate. Draft choices can only be tied up for 4 years at low prices now. The result is that teams need to see results early in the development curve, while players are still affordable. Accurate evaluation is necessary within the first 3-4 years, because you cannot tie the player up past year 4 without paying top dollar. Expect nearly all 1st round QB picks to play immediately -- teams can no longer afford to wait. Conversely, expect all but the very best QB prospects to begin to tumble down draft boards. The reason -- QBs take a long time to develop. To tie up a marginal 1st rounder who has yet to develop after year 3 or 4 will represent an enormous risk, as he will need to be signed to a huge year 5 deal, even if he has not performed. Better to wait to draft "project" QBs in the 2nd round or later, where resigning a QB who has yet to develop fully in year 3 or 4 will cost you a whole lot less. In these terms, Tannehill was probably a mistake for Miami. Such a player is still raw. He may be supremely talented, but he is likely to take longer to develop than is comfortable under the new CBA. There is a large risk that Miami will simply not be able to render an accurate evaluation of Tannehill's true potential at the time they will be required to make the decision whether or not to resign him at a giant price. Under the new CBA, that type of player properly belongs in the 2nd round or later.
2. Offensive Linemen are likely to follow the same draft trajectory as QBs. Like QBs, OL are players who take a long time to develop. As a result, the slam dunk top talents will still take their customary place atop draft boards. but guys who were marginal 1st rounders in the past will likely drop down draft boards, as they represent the same type of incomplete development risk at the time of resigning as QBs do. Look for less OL picks in the lower half of the first round, as those guys will likely begin to slide into the 2nd and later rounds.
3. RBs will be reborn in the draft. It is no secret that RBs have gradually slid toward oblivion in the draft over the last 20 years. An increasingly pass happy league, coupled with insane 1st year contracts and the likelihood you can find somebody serviceable late in the draft conspired to make 1st round RBs an endangered species. Look for that trend to reverse. A RB's peak years are short. A lucky few perform at a high level for 10 years or more, but for the vast majority, a RBs best years are behind him after year 5. RBs more than any other position can provide an instant elite level impact. Rookies can and often do dominate. This dovetails very nicely into the new system where initial deals are for 4 years with an option for year 5. Teams can and will take advantage of this and draft many more RBs in the first round, hoping to get those first few years of elite production at bargain basement prices. Since RBs are something of a crapshoot and many are busts, I look for teams to begin drafting first round RBs in back to back years, giving them the opportunity to employ the new 2 back philosophy with 2 elite level talents at bargain prices. A possible side effect of that trend could be the return to prominence of a run heavy attack. If teams can afford 2 elite RBs, they will use them. In addition, if QBs increasingly play right away, coaches may be inclined to minimize the risk presented by an unready QB by ground and pounding it. The result -- maybe, just maybe, Rex and the Jets will turn out to be on the vanguard of the new NFL offense. We'll see.
4. Other positions that can dominate right away will be at a premium in the draft. The most athletic and instinctive positions should command a premium. Look for pass rush specialists, 3-4 OLBs and 4-3 DEs, and to a lesser extent, CBs, to climb up draft boards, while guys who take longer to develop, like ILBs, safeties, and TEs to drop down draft boards. As far as the 1st round is concerned, It's now all about instant gratification -- teams that get the most out of their picks early on will prosper; teams that pick guys who take years to develop will suffer.
5. A possible unintended side effect to look for down the road is rookies, particularly at positions like RB where instant success is a good possibility, will look to negotiate SHORTER contracts. For RBs, careers are short, and they will not take kindly to being used and abused for the best years of their careers, only to be tossed aside when they become too expensive. Look for rookie RBs in the near future to attempt to negotiate 3 or even 2 year contracts -- enough to be set for life with guaranteed money if they get injured, but no longer than necessary before they get the big payoff of free agency.
The above are just a few of the likely ramifications of the new CBA. It's going to be a brave new world out there, and it should be interesting to watch the league adjust to the new realities.