Teams getting great deals as rookie wage scale keeps salaries in check

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J.J. Watt was a difference maker in 2011 as the Texans made the playoffs for the first time. (Getty Images)  
J.J. Watt was a difference maker in 2011 as the Texans made the playoffs for the first time. (Getty Images)  

I was always in favor of a rookie wage scale, especially after the disaster known as JaMarcus Russell. Russell took home close to $39 million in guaranteed money out of his $61 million deal ... and he won seven games.

The most recent big deal, and likely the last, went to Sam Bradford. He got a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. I'm glad those deals are gone for the clubs' and the veterans' sake. But, as usual, there are some great young players stuck in bad deals because of the rookie wage scale.

Look at the first draft in the new rookie wage scale, the class of 2011, and there are some really good emerging players who got stuck with less-than-mediocre deals because the of the collective bargaining agreement reached last year. Obviously, that remains the case for the class of 2012.

Robert Griffin III came to terms Wednesday on a four-year deal worth $21.1 million. That's about what Cam Newton got last year, and so will 2012 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck.

Granted, Newton's contract is fully guaranteed. Luck's will be as well, but that adds up to between $44 million and $45 million in "G" money, which is less than the $50 "G" that Bradford got by himself. Rest assured the rules favor the club, especially if Newton continues to play at a Pro Bowl level.

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Despite Drew Brees' new $100 million, five-year deal, Newton can't work off that to ensure his future until after the 2013 season, when he finishes three years in the league -- 32 regular-season games to go before the player and the club can even talk. At that point, the Panthers have the right to avoid a long-term extension by invoking the "Top 10" rule. The club can subject him to a fifth year at the average of the top 10 quarterback salaries from the year before.

Considering Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and whoever else emerges in the top 10, the Panthers will get a fifth year out of Newton for about $16 million. Add the $16 million to the $22 million from the first four years and he has a five-year deal for about $38 million. That turns out to be about what JaMarcus Russell brought home for doing close to nothing. Even worse, it's a five-year average of $7.6 million. Bradford's five-year average is $13 million.

Newton looks like he's going to be a tremendous value to the Panthers and his second big deal will have a lot of catching up to do. Even if he gets a Brees deal in 2016, after the fifth-year option is exercised by the Panthers, he will be close to $40 million behind Bradford, who also may be ready for a blockbuster deal. Luck and Griffin will probably be in the same boat a year later.

Quarterbacks who excel after being chosen high in the first round are not the only victims of the rookie wage scale. Take a look at the quality players from the 2011 draft selected after pick No. 10. Picks outside the top 10 give teams an even better deal in the fifth year. Instead of the average of the top 10 salaries at the position, for players chosen Nos. 11 through 32, teams can offer a fifth year at an average of the third through 25th salaries.

One guy who could get really burned is 2011 No. 11 overall pick J.J. Watt, who had a fantastic rookie season for the Houston Texans. If he simply went one pick earlier (the Jaguars chose Blaine Gabbert at No. 10), his fifth year would have been the average of the top 10 defensive ends. That would have included the $16 million Julius Peppers is scheduled to make in 2015 and either Charles Johnson ($11 million) or Jared Allen on an extension probably worth $12 million.

But Watt doesn't get the benefit of the top two salaries. If he did and we just used 2012 as a barometer his fifth-year salary would be a guaranteed $11 million or as high as $13 million by 2014. Instead the Texans can lock him up for something much closer to $6 million to $7 million in the fifth year. Watt's five-year average will be about $3.65 million a year with a gross close to $18.5 million. In the same spot of the 2010 draft, Anthony Davis of the 49ers got a five-year deal for $26.5 million with $16 million guaranteed.

Finally, at least eight of the top 10 from the 2011 draft -- out of Newton (Panthers), Von Miller (Broncos), Marcel Dareus (Bills), A.J. Green (Bengals), Patrick Peterson (Cardinals), Julio Jones (Falcons), Aldon Smith (49ers), Jake Locker (Titans), Tyron Smith (Cowboys) and Gabbert (Jaguars) -- will get the fifth-year option exercised. As for the rest of the first round it's almost a lock that guys like Ryan Kerrigan and others will get the same treatment as Watt. It's too good a deal to turn down for the clubs.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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