Before the 2011 collective bargaining agreement implemented a rookie wage scale, draft picks rarely signed contracts before June. It has become customary for at least a quarter of draftees to be signed within two weeks of the NFL Draft's completion.
The pace of signings has slowed considerably this year with the coronavirus pandemic altering the offseason schedule, so there aren't rookie minicamps at team facilities during the first two weekends after the draft. There haven't been more than a few signings to date.
Key first-round salary projections
Here's a look at the deals a select group of first-round picks are expected to sign. An explanation of how the rookie wage scale operates as well as a discussion highlighting important considerations or issues relating to the first-round contracts can be found below.
|Pick||Name||Team||2020 cap no.||Signing bonus||Four-year total|
How the rookie wage scale operates
The rookie wage scale is essentially a salary cap within the overall salary cap. The increases in rookie salaries from one draft class to another are tied to growth of the salary cap. Signing bonuses are only going up 1.23 percent this year despite a 5.31 increase in the salary cap due to higher minimum salaries in the new CBA ratified in March. Under the old CBA, incoming players were scheduled to make $510,000 this year. Incoming players are making $100,000 more instead this year in the current CBA.
There's a league-wide limit on the total amount of compensation for rookies, with specific salary parameters for each draft slot. Teams have maximum and minimum amounts that can be spent on their picks based on draft position.
All contracts for draft choices are four years. Each pick in the draft has a salary floor and ceiling in the first year and over the four years of the contract. There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The salary components of a deal are restricted to signing bonus, base salary, roster bonus, reporting bonus, workout bonus and select incentives. The type of salary escalators and incentives that used to be responsible for salaries skyrocketing at the top of draft are prohibited under the rookie wage scale. A majority of picks only have signing bonus and base salaries in their deals.
An extremely important aspect of these deals is the first-year salary cap number (also known as the rookie pool number) because it helps determine the overall value of a contract. The first-year cap number consists of the player's prorated amount of signing bonus and the rookie minimum base salary, which is $610,000 in 2020.
The maximum annual increase in each of the four years of a deal is 25 percent of the first-year cap number. To illustrate this concept, 2019 sixth overall pick Daniel Jones' cap numbers were limited to a $1,166,548 increase in each year of his deal because his first-year cap number was $4,666,192. Since all of these deals have minimum base salaries in the first year, the remainder of the contract is derived within these constraints.
Draft pick contracts can't be renegotiated until the conclusion of a player's third NFL regular season. This means the earliest Jones' deal can be redone is late December 2021 or early January 2022.
Teams have an option for a fifth year with first round picks that must be exercised after the third year of the deal. The period for exercising fifth-year options begins after a player's third NFL regular season ends (January 4, 2021 with the 2018 first-round picks). These options must be picked up prior to May 3.
The new CBA changes how fifth-year options operate. The fifth-year salary is fully guaranteed when the option is exercised. A player's fourth-year base salary will also become fully guaranteed when the option year is picked up if it wasn't already.
The fifth-year salaries are no longer strictly tied to where a player was drafted (i.e., top 10 or outside of top 10). Performance dictates the option-year salaries. With two or more Pro Bowl selections on the original ballot during the first three seasons of contracts, the fifth-year salary becomes the franchise tender, which is average of the five highest salaries for a player's position, in the fourth year of his contract. For example, 2018 sixth overall pick Quenton Nelson's fifth-year option with the Colts for 2022 will be the 2021 franchise tender for offensive linemen because he was selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in each of his first two NFL seasons.
One Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot during the first three seasons of a rookie deal puts the fifth-year salary at the transition tender, which is average of the 10 highest salaries for a player's position, in the fourth year of his contract. Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Chargers safety Derwin James and Browns cornerback Denzel Ward will be assured of a 2022 fifth-year salary at the 2021 transition tender for their respective positions if the options are picked up. An original ballot Pro Bowl selection this season will increase the fifth-year salary to 2021 franchise tender at their respective positions.
Participating in 75 percent of either offensive or defensive plays in two of the first three seasons of rookie deals or an average of at least 50 percent playtime in each of a player's first three seasons sets the fifth-year salary at the average of the third through 20th-highest salaries at a player's position. For first-round picks that don't fall into any of these three categories, the fifth-year salary is the average of the third through 25th-highest salaries at a player's position.
The proven performance escalator, which increases the fourth-year salary for third through seventh-round picks, now also applies to second-round picks and is more expansive with higher playtime thresholds.
Third through seventh-round picks still have a salary escalator for their fourth year based on participating in a minimum of 35% of either offensive or defensive plays in two of the first three seasons of their deals, or an average of at least 35% playtime in their first three seasons. The salary equals the lowest restricted free agent tender in the fourth year ($2.133 million this year). With second-round picks, the required playtime is 60 percent in order for the fourth-year salary to be at this level.
The fourth-year salary for second through seventh-round picks increases to the lowest restricted free agent tender in that specific year plus $250,000 with at least 55 percent offensive or defensive playtime in each their first three seasons of the contract. These players will elevate their fourth-year salary to the second-round restricted free agent tender with at least one Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot in the first three years of a rookie deal. The second-round restricted free agent tender is $3.259 million this year.
There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The two primary negotiating issues, particularly at the top of the draft, are the payment schedule of the signing bonus and whether salary guarantees will have offsets.
A majority of rookies didn't sign contracts until the latter part of July as training camp approached before the rookie compensation system was overhauled in the 2011 CBA. In 2010, no player selected in the first two rounds had signed by the fourth of July. First-round picks holding out wasn't unusual either. For example, 2007 first overall pick JaMarcus Russell held out for 47 days before signing with the Raiders.
Rookie holdouts are largely a thing of the past. The Chargers and third overall pick Joey Bosa engaged in the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player under the rookie wage scale in 2016. Bosa was the first rookie since 2013 that didn't show up to training camp on time, and he missed 31 days before signing his contract.
The Chargers and Bosa weren't in disagreement over the amount of money in his contract, because the total value was dictated by the rookie wage scale's constraints. The dispute was largely over whether the deal should contain offsets and the payment schedule of his signing bonus. The concession the Chargers made to Bosa was a better payment schedule than they typically give to players with big signing bonuses.
Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, 2018's eighth overall pick, missed the first two weeks of training camp because he and his agents objected to language where the Bears had the right to void his guarantees for an ejection or suspension from a game for violating NFL playing rules. A compromise was reached on the number of games in a suspension necessary to trigger voiding. The 2019 first-round picks were signed in a more timely manner.
An offset clause allows a team to reduce the guaranteed money owed to a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team. The player receives his salary from the team that released him in addition to the full salary from his new contract with another club when there isn't an offset (also known as "double dipping").
Agents have essentially lost the battle on offsets. Teams with early first-round picks in 2013 were adamant that contracts contain offsets after largely conceding the issue the previous year. Nearly every team besides the Jaguars and the Rams (who don't have a first-round pick this year) require offsets with salary guarantees for draft picks, including those selected in the top 10. Based on past practices, ninth overall pick C.J. Henderson's contract with the Jaguars shouldn't contain offsets. As a compromise for top-10 picks, most teams structure deals with minimum base salaries in the final three years where the remainder of a player's salary is in annual third or fifth day of training camp roster bonuses that are fully guaranteed.
A quarterback has the best chance of extracting a concession on offsets than players at other positions. Mitchell Trubisky, the second overall pick in 2017, signed a deal with the Bears where his $465,000 2017 base salary and training camp roster bonuses in 2018 through 2020, which contain most of the money in the last three years of his contract, don't have offsets.
It will be interesting to see whether first overall pick Joe Burrow can get treated by the Bengals in a similar manner as Trubisky was by the Bears. 2019 first-round pick Kyler Murray's contract has offsets. In the last three years of his contract, he has minimum base salaries, with the rest of his money in fully-guaranteed third day of training camp roster bonuses. 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield has offsets with a contract structured like Murray's.
Large signing bonuses in NFL contracts aren't typically paid in one lump sum. This is a long accepted practice in the NFL. Signing bonuses for top draft picks are usually paid in two to four installments. 2019 second overall pick Nick Bosa is an anomaly, as his $22,421,356 signing bonus was payable in a lump sum within three weeks of inking his deal with the 49ers. 2019 third overall pick Quinnen Williams' contract is more indicative of the typical payment schedule. He received $16,258,293 of his $21,677,724 signing bonus from the Jets within three weeks of signing his contract, while the remaining $5,419,431 was paid this past March 1.
The entire contracts of the first 24 picks of the first round were fully guaranteed in 2019, which was two more players than in 2018. The deals for the final eight picks of the first round were guaranteed for the first three years. A decreasing portion of the fourth year base salary has been guaranteed as the picks progress. 90.6 percent of 2019 25th overall pick Marquise Brown's fourth year salary in 2022 is fully guaranteed, while 36 percent of 2019 32nd overall pick N'Keal Harry's is fully guaranteed.