Would that be fair? I would hope that some of those writers who argued in favor of reducing rookie contracts would find such a result unjust, as a talented, star player should be rewarded with a big contract.1 But even if he performs well in 2012 and 2013, by 2014, Jones-Drew would be a 29-year-old runner who had just endured five years of punishment as a workhorse running back. No team would sign him to a large contract at that point, as he could not be expected to continue to produce at such a high level.
When it comes to running backs, it is understood that they must try to maximize their salaries when they are young, as big paydays for older runners are few and far between. But in this situation, some have argued that since this is Jones-Drew’s second contract, he should honor his deal (or, alternatively, that we should be less sympathetic to his cause). In 2009, Jones-Drew signed his second contract, and the argument goes that unlike a rookie contract — where players have almost no leverage — Jones-Drew already had his bite at the apple. But that argument ignores the fact that Jones-Drew’s rookie contract remains part of his current predicament.
Jones-Drew was a very good player in his first three seasons. From 2006 to 2008, only LaDainian Tomlinson scored more touchdowns. Jones-Drew ranked in the top ten during those years in yards from scrimmage and he was fifth in fantasy points among running backs. Technically, he wasn’t a starter — the Jaguars still had Fred Taylor — but Jacksonville released Taylor prior to the 2009 season.
Jones-Drew was the 60th pick in the 2006 draft. Rookies are generally signed to cheap deals, and Jones-Drew was no exception. He signed a four-year deal worth $2.75 million, which included a $1.15 million dollar signing bonus. Obviously, Jones-Drew’s first three seasons far exceeded what you’d expect from a late second round pick, and entering his fourth year, he was due to make just over $500K. At the time, he was arguably the second best running back in the league and was about to enter his age 24 season. In other words, on the open market in 2009, he would have been due for a huge payday.
But Jones-Drew still had a year left on his rookie deal, and the Jaguars could have franchised him for one or two more years after that. The 2010 franchise tag for running backs was just over $8 million, so he was looking at making under $9 million in 2009 and 2010 if he played out his rookie deal. This, of course, had a large impact on the negotiations. Jones-Drew would have been putting a lot at risk by playing out the 2009 season for half a million dollars, and then would likely be facing the same risks for a lot more money the next year. If he played well over the next two years, he’d likely be franchised again, or perhaps would finally be able to cash in with a big money deal.
In hindsight, we might argue that he should have done just that. Realistically speaking, though, asking an elite running back to play for near the league minimum isn’t a prudent option. So in 2009, the Jaguars signed Jones-Drew to a front-loaded, five-year contract worth up to $32 million. Having made — for NFL athletes — pocket change for three years, Jones-Drew was desperate for a payday. His cap hit each year ranged from $8 to $9 million, based on base salaries of between $4 to $5 million and roughly $18M in guaranteed money that he received over the first three years. Jones-Drew traded the chance for a bigger contract in two years for immediate financial security.
Now, though, Jones-Drew is scheduled to make only $9 million over the next two seasons, which no one disputes is under market value. As Paul Kuharsky noted, “Tennessee’s Chris Johnson is getting $13.5 million annually. Houston’s Arian Foster is making $8.7 million a year. And Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is earning $7.75 annually. St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson also make more than Jones-Drew.” In case anyone forgot, Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last season, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry while playing with the most anemic passing game in the NFL.
Jones-Drew has outplayed his contract for the second time in his career — he’s arguably been underpaid nearly every season of his career — and while some would argue that his current contract was frontloaded, it is equally true that it was a below-market deal he was forced to sign. The true culprit here? Rookie salaries.
Let’s compare Jones-Drew to Reggie Bush, who makes for a good comparison since they were in the same draft class and it is uncontroverted that Jones-Drew is the better player. The second overall pick, Bush signed a six-year, $51 million deal, with just over half of that money guaranteed. He made roughly $40 million in his first five years in New Orleans before — after agreeing to restructure his deal — being traded to the Dolphins. With Miami, Bush signed a two-year deal which he will finish in 2011, picking up an additional $9.75 million. In other words, from 2006 to 2012, Bush will make about $50 million, while Jones-Drew if he chooses not to hold out will make roughly $30 million.
As a rookie, Adrian Peterson signed a five-year deal2 worth $40 million. After four years, he had earned $29 million, and was scheduled to make around $11 million in 2011. The Vikings instead resigned him to a monster seven-year deal that could be worth up to $100 million, including $40 million in the first three years. So from 2007 to 2013, Peterson will make about $70 million, while Jones-Drew will make $35 million from ’06 to ’13 if he plays out his contract.
Jones-Drew can’t go back in time and get himself a bigger contract, but his second-round status is still a factor. Most know that he chose the #32 because every team in the league passed on him, but he’s also been unable to make superstar money because of his draft status (coupled with his wise decision not to play out his rookie deal). Jones-Drew is understandably frustrated that he’s earned only a little more than half of what Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson have made, and Jones-Drew knows that he won’t be able to sign a big deal in two years at the age of 29. For Jones-Drew, it’s basically now or never. He could wait one more year, but he won’t have much leverage then.3 He’ll have one year left on his deal and the Jaguars could franchise him in 2014, meaning he’ll be 30 before he hits the open market. And don’t think he’s unaware that Jacksonville has the most cap space available of any team.
Practically speaking, it would be irresponsible of his agent not to advise Jones-Drew to hold out. Again, even if he rushes for 1500 yards in 2012 and then another 1500 the next year, if he shows even a hint of decline in December 2013, he’s going to struggle to get a large deal. Teams simply don’t pay old running backs large amounts of cash. I suspect the Jaguars will give in, but won’t break the bank. My guess is he’ll sign a four-year extension and get $25 million in guaranteed money. The sixth year will be worth $15 million or some absurd number that both sides know he won’t see but will make the contract sound bigger. He’ll play five more years in Jacksonville, taking him through age 31, before he’s released. The Jaguars will pay him about $40 million over the next five years, which will be a steal early on and probably be about right by the end.
The bigger issue for the NFL is that we should expect more of these in the future. Jones-Drew is an example of what happens when an elite player has a four-year rookie contract that doesn’t pay close to market value. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, this is going to happen much more frequently, and will affect first round picks. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin signed a four-year deal worth $6.8 million, including a $3.4 million signing bonus. After three years, he’ll have made $5.5 million and will be scheduled to make a paltry $1.3 million in 2015. If Martin turns out to be a star, you can be sure that he won’t be playing out his final season for the same reasons that Jones-Drew did not. And then in 2018, Tampa Bay fans may hate him for holding out even though he has two years left on his contract and Tampa Bay “tore up his contract” and “made him rich” just three years earlier with a huge, front-loaded deal.
The Players’ Association did get one large concession in last year’s labor negotiations, and that was the imposition of a salary floor. That may make it easier for some teams, specifically those that don’t normally spend close to the cap, to tear up rookie contracts and give something resembling ‘open-market’ deals to rising stars. Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, the salary floor doesn’t take effect until next season.
- This is obviously shtick, but I do find it hypocritical for owners to argue against paying “unproven” players and then to argue against paying aging players who “have little left” in the tank. Players should be paid for what we expect them to produce, and the “unrpoven” argument is and always has been a red herring. [↩]
- Technically, it was a six-year deal, but the final season of his rookie contract was going to void. [↩]
- Of course, one could argue that he doesn’t have much leverage now, either. [↩]