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Last Chance Before The Price Goes Up

The salary cap, the rookie wage scale, and random encounters with strangers in the Big Apple.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Many years ago, when I was a younger and less jaded man just starting my career in Manhattan, I used to work downtown, right next to the World Trade Center.  On my lunch break I would often visit a local sandwich shop that had the most delectable grilled chicken sandwiches I ever tasted.  Though such a dish sounds common, this shop elevated the lowly chicken sandwich to an art form.

It has been years since I worked in Manhattan.  I don't know if that little sandwich shop even exists anymore; those kinds of businesses come and go.  But one of the things I miss most about my time in the Big Apple were those mouth watering, exquisite, manna from heaven chicken sandwiches.  I wish I had one right now.  I would go there every chance I got.  If the weather was nice I'd stroll down the canyons of capitalism, enjoying what few rays of misbegotten sunshine managed to successfully breach the barrier of buildings.  Enjoying the all too brief break from the eat or be eaten life of the Wall Street crowd, I would invariably be met with pleas every few yards from the city's least fortunate residents for just some spare change.  As heartless as it seemed at first, I soon came to the tragic truth that I could not help everyone, and I got to the point where I just tuned most of it out.  I would generally pick one out of the endless stream of potential beneficiaries of my rather limited largess and offer to buy him or her a meal.  Those who have experienced this gauntlet on a regular basis will not be surprised to learn that a majority of my offers fell on deaf ears, as the pleas for lunch money evaporated in the face of an actual free meal, food not being their true first priority.  However, I was happy to be able to help the select few who did in fact enjoy a meal at my expense, happy to alleviate at least one man's hunger that day.

Now, it just so happens that one day, on the way to my favorite sandwich shop, dreaming dreams of poultry par excellence, I encountered a young indigent man with whom I was not familiar.  This man locked onto me and proceeded to serenade me with a nonstop stream of consciousness parable of his many misfortunes.  After listening to the man's tales of woe, Job himself would have been ashamed to give voice to his, in comparison, minor litany of trivial concerns.  I listened, and when the man finally paused for breath, then asked for just a small donation to help him buy some food, which might briefly distract  him from his cavalcade of calamities, I offered to buy him a sandwich.  He declined, citing his many allergies, which list seemed to grow by the second.  I offered to get him any meal of any kind which might agree with his delicate constitution, and he demurred.  He allowed as to how I seemed a decent sort, but he just needed to be given the dignity that is the right of every free man to choose the exact time, manner, and place of refilling an empty belly.  I told him I appreciated very much his wish to retain his dignity, and would not trouble him further with my insulting offers to feed him.  Seeing a source of funds rapidly diminishing into the horizon, my new friend switched tactics, spinning tales of how he needed the funds for a lost bus ticket, a sick relative, and a new account he planned on funding to pay for his too long delayed graduate education.  Apparently he had just been about to board the bus to visit his sick grandmother, whose dying wish was to see him get an advanced degree.  Having grown to despair of ever being able to help the man navigate through the maze of his astonishingly complex life, I politely declined to engage in further discussion.  He continued to solicit; I continued to ignore.  Finally he grew frustrated and just threw up his hands and began shuffling off.  As he went an idea suddenly came to him; a Hail Mary pass he just knew he had to throw.  He turned back to me one last time, gave a cackling laugh, and said to me "Yo, man! Last chance before the price goes up!"  That stopped me in my tracks.  A slow grin spread across my face.  Then a chuckle.  Finally I burst into an uncontrollable belly laugh.  I laughed and laughed until tears came.  I reached into my pocket and gave the man what he had worked so hard for, and for which he had paid me double in the coin of my realm; a moment of genuine, unrestrained, wildly non sequitur, out of the blue, struck by lightning inspired humor.   We went our separate ways, and I never saw the man again, but to this day I still remember vividly just how funny that line struck me.

That, my friends, is a very long and convoluted introduction to a simple idea.  For the Jets and a select few players, it is now the last chance before the price goes up.  Rumors are flying that the salary cap for 2014 will be north of $132 million, and possibly as much as $135 million or more.  If true, that would represent an increase of nearly 10%, and represent the end of the short lived flat cap era.  The consequences for the contracts of players who are better than JAGs could be rather significant.

Two forces have been at play recently to keep salaries relatively in check.  First, the rookie wage scale originally put into place in 2010 artificially depresses the compensation levels of all players who entered the league after 2010.  This has created an entire pool of cheap labor, a pool that has been growing rapidly with each successive class.  That pool is now as large as it will ever be, with the first class of rookie wage scale players currently earning their first market rate deals and being replaced at the bottom of the wage scale by a new class.  This large pool of players with 4 years or less experience, earning pennies on the dollar in relation to their open market worth, serves to put an upper limit on compensation teams are willing to pay for players whose production can be replaced with similarly productive draft choices.  The large majority of rookies are unable to step in right away and be productive starters, so the players who are being squeezed by the rookie wage scale are not stars and they generally are not average or better starters.  Rather, they are the below average starters and the backups that can be replaced with cheap rookie labor without destroying the team's performance.  So what has happened is guys who cannot be easily replaced by cheap rookie labor have seen a relatively robust market for their services, and guys who are absolutely impossible to come anywhere near replacing, the stars of the league, have seen the market for their services skyrocket.  The result: most NFL teams are now structured with a select few irreplaceable players with giant contracts at the top, a bit larger pool of middle range (say, $3 to $6 million per year) players who are still earning decent compensation, and the vast majority of most teams' contracts being depressed by the rookie wage scale, either directly in the case of players with four or less years of service, or indirectly for those veteran players forced by their so-so level of play to compete with cheap labor for the largest share of positions on the 53 man roster.

The second force keeping most players' wages in check has been the relatively flat nature of the salary cap since 2010.  Increases have been extremely modest, forcing teams, which used to rely on an ever growing cap to bail them out of excessive contracts, to either cut or renegotiate the contracts of the many upper tier players who have not lived up to their large contracts.  The result: wage pressure at the top due to disappointing salary cap increases coupled with unrealistically large contracts doled out in earlier years when an ever growing cap could be counted on to  make them more affordable.  And wage pressure from the bottom due to below market wages being paid to rookies.  While the rookie wage scale is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, the flat cap appears to be a thing of the past.  That may have some rather outsized consequences for the players at the top of the food chain.

If GMs again become comfortable with handing out oversized contracts to the players who cannot easily be replaced with cheap labor, because a rapidly growing cap can be counted on to bail them out, then salaries for those players who are not directly competing against cheap rookie wage scale labor due to their superior performance can expect to take the lion's share of the additional dollars under the cap.   This could well mean that if cap numbers grow 10%, the top player's wages will grow 15 or 20%, as the top guys get paid while the wages of guys competing with cheap labor stagnate.  The implication for forward thinking GMs is simple.  It would be wise to identify those players who cannot be easily replaced by cheap labor and who are eligible for a long term extension and get them contractually tied up for the years they are most likely to still be good players.  You will likely still be able to get them in at something close to today's prices, which will likely look like a huge bargain if the cap continues to rapidly rise.  For the Jets, the list of players who are eligible for an extension, young enough to justify a long term deal, and good enough to worry about finding a cheap comparable replacement is not long.  The headliner is obvious: Muhammad Wilkerson.  He needs to be signed to a long term extension sooner rather than later.  The strategy of exercising his 5th year option and after the 2014 season negotiating a long term deal has become much less appealing, as there is a very good chance we will never see anything close to 2014 prices again.  After Wilkerson the list becomes murkier.   Players like Damon Harrison, Jeremy Kerley, Chris Ivory, Kenrick Ellis and Kyle Wilson are all young and eligible for extensions this year, but none are slam dunks for long term deals.  John Idzik and the Jets front office will have to think hard about how each of those players fits into the team's long term plans, and whether any of them are good enough that cheaper players are not likely to be able to do an adequate job of replacing their production.  If any of these players are deemed to fit the criteria, then Idzik and company would be well advised to pull the trigger and get those players signed to long term extensions.  The expense is only likely to get much more prohibitive in the coming years.  As my one day friend from the Manhattan of yesteryear so eloquently stated, " Yo, man! Last chance before the price goes up!"