The next day, unproven rookie Cameron Jerrell Newton signed a completely fair 4-year, $22M contract, with a team option for a fifth year at a cost-controlled rate. No really, it was completely fair, at least according to Pro Football Talk:
The difference between the old rookie pay scale and the new rookie pay scale means a difference of tens of millions of dollars to Newton’s bottom line.
And although Newton can’t be happy about it, that’s a good thing: The new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the owners divvies up the salaries differently so that the veterans who have proven themselves get a bigger slice of the pie than the unproven rookies. That’s completely fair.
If Newton turns out to be the great player the Panthers hope he is, his next contract will be enormous, and he’ll have earned every penny of that.
If Newton turns out to be a bust, he’ll still have earned enough money that if he’s smart about it, it will last him several lifetimes. But he won’t be nearly as expensive as busts of the recent past have been. That’s good for the Panthers and good for the NFL.
Newton, of course, did sign a new contract that was enormous. He signed a five year, $103.8 million contract extension with the Panthers on June 2, 2015 containing $31 million fully guaranteed. He’s doing very, very well. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t underpaid for the first four years of his career — or, spoiler alert — he’s not still on a contract that underpays him.
The rookie wage scale, particularly once you add in the fifth-year option, has always been a terrible idea. Jason Lisk wrote about it before the deal was even finalized. He predicted exactly what would happen — young stars in years 3, 4, and 5 would be massively underpaid — because this is what happens when you artificially suppress the wages of young employees in an industry where young employees are often the most valuable employees even ignoring salary.
Yesterday, Mike Freeman at the Bleacher Report posted an article saying that NFL veterans now realize how much they screwed over rookies in the 2011 CBA negotiations. And given that we are four years away from the next potential collective bargaining negotiations, there’s a simple fix for this: eliminate the rookie wage scale.
There is a reason why rookies got screwed over: they didn’t have a say in the process! The NFLPA doesn’t include rookies, just NFL veterans. Is there any wonder that incoming rookies had their pockets picked? On that day Kolb was traded to Arizona — July 28th, 2011 — I published an article at the old PFR Blog titled NFL veterans robbed Cameron Newton to pay Olindo Mare. I’m republishing it in its entirety below, without edits, because that article was as true and relevant then as it is today.
I think that whole highest bid thing for me is not quite as important with the four kids…. [On whether he would give Seattle a hometown discount] Oh, absolutely. For sure. I would be stupid not to. The Seahawks gave me an opportunity. I always take that into consideration also. But we’ll see. I have to get a offer first…. What would be great would be is if there was a bunch and it would show that people appreciate what you do, and that’s always flattering. Just to get all your options available. If you signed [for] three, four, five years, that would be your last contract. You want to make sure that everything was done right. But yeah, Seattle will definitely get a home discount.
Mare was operating under the assumption that a few teams would pay him market salaries and he’d sign with Seattle if they were in the same ballpark. In 2008, he signed a two-year contract for $3.25 million, good money for a 35-year-old kicker. Seattle didn’t want to give a long-term contract to a 37-year-old placekicker, so they franchised him for the 2010 season, electing to pay him $2.8 million for one year instead of giving him a contract extension. Presumably, in the spring of 2011, Mare was hoping for something along the lines of a three-year, six million dollar deal. That would be a bump over what he signed three years earlier in both years and per-year value, and would be a coup for a 38-year-old kicker.
Seattle may have offered him that contract, but Carolina instead gave Mare a four-year, $12 million dollar offer. That happened not because Mare went back on his word, but in the intervening months, the NFL veterans decided to rob Cam Newton to pay Olindo Mare. The most important (and player-friendly) aspect of the new CBA was the salary floor, requiring teams like Carolina to spend tens of millions of dollars. Only not on rookies. In the past 48 hours, Carolina opened up their paychecks to spend:
- $22 million on a five-year deal for LLB James Anderson
- $43 million on a five-year deal for 28-year-old RB DeAngelo Williams
- an undisclosed amount to extend Thomas Davis’ contract for another five years, because why not? (That’s a rhetorical ‘why not,’ as Davis has torn his ACL twice in the past two years and has played in just 7 games since 2009).
In addition to the Mare signing, Carolina also spent $8.5M on former Chiefs DT Ron Edwards and signed several other veterans to smaller deals.
But between Mare, Williams, Anderson and Johnson, Carolina has opened the door to spend $155 million dollars on three players who were on the team last year and a kicker. But hope and optimism for the Panthers in 2011 and beyond mainly rests on the drafting of Auburn star Cam Newton. And what will Carolina pay the young quarterback? Roughly 22 million dollars over four seasons, with a team-option for a fifth year.
That’s right: over the next four years, Carolina will pay their 38-year-old placekicker 12 million dollars and their franchise savior 22 million dollars. Newton’s contract looks even worse when you consider that Carolina can hold him for a fifth season, making it difficult for players to renegotiate until after they’ve completed three seasons.
Over the next three years, Matt Hasselbeck will make 21 million dollars from Tennessee. Hasselbeck made the Pro Bowl in 2007, but will be 36 years old in September. The last three seasons he’s sported a 12-23 record while playing in the worst division in football, and despite averaging only 4.46 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt over that span. Since ’08, only Derek Anderson has a lower ANY/A average.
On the open market, Cam Netwon would likely sign a six- or seven- year deal worth $70-$90 million dollars. If you’re the Cardinals, you can’t sign Aaron Rodgers or Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. You won’t be able to touch Josh Freeman or Matt Ryan, or even Matt Stafford or Mark Sanchez. Young quarterbacks are in such high demand because if that quarterback can be productive, the team can hold on to him for a decade.
Playing in the NFL is very different than almost any other job. The best engineers in the world are rarely 23 years of age. The most valuable lawyers aren’t 22-years-old. But as Chris Johnson showed, sometimes the best offensive player in football can be 24-years-old. Now, Frank Gore is holding out because the San Francisco 49ers don’t want to pay him, at 28-years-old, a big contract. The 49ers think his best days may be behind him, and certainly don’t want to give an aging player a big money contract. But NFL GMs and owners have talked out of both sides of their mouths, not wanting to reward “unproven” players or “old” players.
That’s why the players’ biggest coup was enforcing the minimum salary floor. As PFT’s Mike Florio writes, “99% of the salary cap must be spent in cash in aggregate between 2011-2012. The league-wide number falls to 95% after that. Teams must spend at least 89% of the cap from 2013-2016 and 2017-2020.”
Teams are therefore forced to spend their money, and not allowed to spend their money on rookies. Hence this post’s title: owners must pay veterans and must pay them lots of money. The Panthers and Bucs were two of the teams that were “forced” to spend the most money. We saw what the Panthers did. While Tampa Bay hasn’t made any big splashes yet, the Bucs resigned Quincy Black — a linebacker most fans have never heard of — to a five-year deal worth $29 million. Essentially, Quincy Black is getting Cam Newton money. Fans have tended to blast rookie salaries on the basis of “right” and “wrong.” But no one could argue that Black and Newton are equally valuable prospects over the next decade of play.
And, of course, this is not simply a Cam Newton diatribe. The Bengals signed fourth overall pick A.J. Green to a four-year deal worth $19.6 million, with a team option to extend the deal to a fifth year. Sidney Rice just signed a deal for $41 million over five years, Santonio Holmes went for $50 million over the same span, and Santana Moss just got $15 million over three years from the Redskins. Only one of those contracts looks like a steal. Even the Bengals wouldn’t be silly enough to trade Green for Moss, yet Moss’s contract is actually more player-friendly than Green’s! Try getting someone in your dynasty league to trade A.J. Green for Santana Moss, and see how that goes. Green isn’t as proven as Holmes, but his contract is significantly less attractive. On the open market, I suspect he’d sign for a bit more than the megadeal Rice just landed.
The rookie cap isn’t going away. And outside of a few holdouts by younger players over the next few years, we may not hear much about this. But the media’s lack of outrage — Jason Lisk notwithstanding, of course — over the way veterans have stolen money from rookies is disappointing. Helpless to defend themselves, the best rookie on the planet is going to get a deal equivalent to a decent linebacker on Tampa Bay. Rookie contracts never struck me as “unfair” before, but they certainly do now.
Update: Within five minutes of publishing this article, Kevin Kolb’s new contract with the Arizona Cardinals was announced. Five years, $63.5 million. Kolb will be getting double Cam Newton money. Because he’s a proven veteran, after all.
As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments.