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Danny O'Neil covers the Seahawks for The Seattle Times.

July 11, 2011 at 1:08 PM

So what's the hold-up? Rookie compensation

Posted by Danny O'Neil

NFL stumbling blocks: free agency, rookie wages
The Associated Press

The holdup concerns what amounts to the one issue most people agree on: rookie contracts. Specifically, they're too big for top-end picks.

This seems like an area that wouldn't be so sticky since most NFL players -- if they're being honest -- will tell you that first-round draft picks, especially those chosen in the top five, are paid more than they should be when compared to men in the league who've proven their bona fides as NFL stars.

Ask a player if he agrees with a rookie salary scale, though, and the answer is different. Accepting a salary scale depends on two things: 1) Does the money that would have been going to the rookies actually wound up being spent on veterans or will teams find ways to fudge this? 2) Is the league willing to shorten the length of the biggest rookie deals?

The NBA is often held up as a model for how a rookie salary scale works, and that's right up to a point. Once that league introduced its rookie salary scale in 1995 it was something that helped the game. No more prolonged holdouts like Jimmy Jackson of Dallas sitting out almost the entire season. No more rookies as the richest player on the team the minute they signed.

As a matter of fact, I can't think of a single player who was a top-flight superstar who ended up screwed over because the rookie wage scale prevented him from cashing in on that very first deal. The superstars still made their money, they just made it after playing four years in the league, a reality that more than anything else rushed in that era of preps-to-pros players who entered the NBA straight out of high school.

Those rookies who didn't cash in? Well, they were the kind of players that didn't deserve to cash in, and even then, most of those top-end picks who didn't become superstars don't have much to gripe about. Darko Milicic - considered one of the bigger busts of the past decade - is playing on a $20 million contract right now, and Greg Oden was offered a qualifying tender of $8.8 million.

But the NFL is fundamentally different, the average career now lasting fewer than four years. You very well could have someone who enters the league and plays at an All-Pro level right off the bat only to suffer the injury and attrition that is inevitable from playing in the league. To make that player wait five years before becoming a free agent and getting in position to negotiate a more lucrative deal seems onerous.

If the term of most first-round contracts remains five years, there will be players who enter the league as stars and then watch bargaining position decline before they have a chance to reach free agency.

Put another way, do you think Adrian Peterson would command a bigger deal after three years in the league or after five? That wouldn't even be an issue for an NBA All-Star, but it is in football, especially considering the relatively short shelf life of a running back.

The spiraling of first-round contracts did not happen in a vacuum. It occurred because teams participated in that process, and if the level of rookie compensation is going to be rolled back as is being discussed, then the league has to offer something back to the players in return. This is collective bargaining, after all, as opposed to collective demanding.

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