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The Rookie Wage Scale Has Poisoned The NFL

Sam Bradford with Roger Goodell. There's a ton of money behind him, and it slowly fades away. Then Sam Bradford disappears too.
Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images; Animation: Defector

Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo runs every Thursday at Defector during the NFL season. Got something you wanna contribute? Email the Roo. And buy Drew’s new book, The Night The Lights Went Outthrough here.

As with many of the world’s problems, this is all Sam Bradford’s fault. Thirteen years ago, the St. Louis Rams drafted Bradford No. 1 overall. Taking a QB that high was dicey business back in 2010. This is because, just like now, NFL teams could never ascertain in advance if a QB drafted that high would turn out to be worth a shit. More importantly, there was no rookie wage scale in 2010, which meant that rookies could hold out well into the season for more money—which they did—and that any fuck-up you made at the top of the draft was a crippling one.

Sam Bradford was a crippling draft pick. He would tear his ACL twice in his first four seasons with the Rams. When he wasn’t busy having his ligaments shredded and then pan-fried with Szechuan peppercorns, he put up solid but unspectacular numbers, none of which would ever eclipse that infamous signing bonus that he got. Bradford was a fair quarterback but was never anything special, and the Rams paid for special.

The league’s rookies have been paying for that mistake ever since, and so have you.

Owners locked the players out after Bradford’s rookie season and, in the ensuing bargaining sessions, made certain that there would never be another draft bust quite of his kind ever again. In exchange for shortening all rookie contracts by a year, the NFL got the NFLPA to agree to prorated salaries for all rookies: a carve-out that would remain in the subsequent CBA (which lasts until 2030), and will remain in every CBA that comes thereafter. This massive tweak to the draft system is never going away, in part because veteran players LIKED the idea of getting more money for themselves rather than seeing it go to the Sam Bradfords and JaMarcus Russells of the world. So when I tell you that I want to abolish this wage scale, I know the reality. I know it’s a fact of life, but that isn’t gonna stop me from complaining about it anyway.

After owners got their bargaining prize from the lockout, the next No. 1 overall pick, Cam Newton, ended up getting $28 million less in guarantees than Bradford did. Over the course of his rookie contract, Cam won Rookie of the Year and was named to two Pro Bowls. He was a bargain, and the entire NFL economy has rebuilt itself around such bargains ever since, with the draft now serving as its flagship TJ Maxx outlet. Your favorite team might draft a QB high tonight. If they fuck up, it’s a rough blow but a survivable one (see the Niners and Trey Lance). If they hit, then they’ve lucked into the fabled Rookie QB Contract, in which they can use the money they would have otherwise had to spend on a star starting quarterback to fortify their roster at other critical positions.

They will get to do this for five years because first-rounders, and only first-rounders, are subject to a mandated contract option in which the team can keep them on their rookie deal for a fifth year. Any rookie drafted past Round 1 automatically gets to be a free agent after four years, but not the big boys. Even worse, a dude who gets drafted high and plays out his entire rookie deal can still find himself tethered to his original team thanks to the franchise tag, which his team can apply to him for up to three years consecutively (although the third tag is so expensive that no team has ever applied it).

That’s the current situation that Ravens QB Lamar Jackson finds himself in. Lamar vastly outplayed his rookie deal and then, as any player would, demanded a fat contract extension as his reward. The Ravens, who built a Super Bowl–winning roster around Joe Flacco’s rookie deal and never won another after paying Flacco HIS money, don’t seem particularly interested in repeating that “mistake,” if it can be labeled as such. So they slapped a non-exclusive franchise tag on Lamar, dared other teams to offer him a boatload, and watched tacit collusion do their job for them. And here the impasse remains, unlikely to be resolved tonight, if ever. [UPDATE: It was resolved three hours after I originally posted this, which is just so fucking typical.]

That leaves fans in a shitty position. If you have GM brain, you can study the contracts of every player you love like you’re staring at a scan of their GI tract, and then you can play God and decide if a player like Lamar is Worth It or not. And, thanks to the rookie wage scale, both front offices and fans alike can weigh Expensive Lamar against Cheap Unknown Rookie and come out in favor of the latter more often than they ought to. The idea of the rookie cap was that proven veterans would eventually get their due. The problem is that teams now HATE the idea of giving it to them, and they have trained fans to feel similarly. But what if I’m a Ravens fan who loves Lamar Jackson? What if I don’t WANT to have GM brain? What if I just wanna see my favorite quarterback play football for my favorite team? Well then I have to sit tight like a naïve shithead, waiting for the situation to magically resolve itself.

And THAT is why the rookie wage scale sucks. The cynicism it breeds is contagious. I don’t wanna be an ignorant fan. No NFL diehard does; it’s the original fan sin. So I find myself cheering for my team to draft players who will wildly outperform their contracts, let those players walk before they get too expensive, and then repeat the process into infinity. I’m not cheering for laundry, as the old joke goes, but for turnover. I love my team’s players but can never be as loyal to them as I once was, because loyalty costs you wins down the road. This is how you get even some non-racist Ravens fans cheering for Lamar to leave town. No sane fan should ever want to lose a player like Lamar Jackson, but the wage scale and its repercussions graft so much additional context onto that relationship that the “love” part becomes almost invisible.

Players know that this is a business and now fans do as well. The rookie wage scale has forced upon the draft a hierarchy of positions, in which the higher your position’s average second contract is (QB>EDGE>WR>CB), the more valuable your rookie contract is. It has increased pre-draft scrutiny of prospects, which was already obscene. It has compelled teams to sometimes play rookies before they’re ready to take the field. And it has rendered new players whom you ought to love at first sight into volatile assets that you monitor like a fucking Robinhood account. Go back to a world without the scale, a world with more Sam Bradfords, and GM have to answer for their drafts more than they do now. The rigid positional hierarchy of the draft loosens a bit, teams are actually forced to pay for potential, and rookies—the vast majority of whom never get a second contract—aren't forced to work for glorified intern pay. Everything becomes more equal, not less.

But like I said, that scale is a fact of life now, and it takes the fandom out of being a fan. I’m not a child. I don’t sit there with a fucking beanie on my head, chirping GO TEAM! every Sunday afternoon. I like being knowledgeable about the sport’s inner workings, and I know that booing capitalism doesn’t make it go away. I don’t even WANT capitalism to go away, man. But with the wage scale and all of its ripple effects, everything I know about my favorite team and my favorite players now get reprocessed in my brain into a loose business model. I can’t divorce players from their value, nor from how that value affects the team as a whole. And this is a pity, because I want to love players for what they can do and hate players for what they cannot. It’s not naïve to want that, and do you know why? Because none of this is my money, and it never was.

The Draft

All draft nights in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.

Five Throwgasms

Tonight: All that shit I said up above just now? I will have forgotten about it by the time I’m done filing this column, because I am fired the fuck up for the draft. I shouldn’t be, because my team has no good picks and was more conservative than British royalty in drafting guys a year ago. But god dammit if I’m not fired up by the mere idea of them doing something mildly interesting. With that in mind, there are only three ways that draft night can go for fans, and here they are.


2. “What the fuck.”

3. “I guess that’s all right.”

Every year, I either land on No. 3, or I start at No. 2 and then talk myself into No. 3. Can’t wait to do it all over again. Will I be wearing a jersey all throughout this process? Yes.

Four Throwgasms

Tomorrow night: I never thought I’d see the day but I, a 46-year-old father of three, now have a favorite YouTuber of his own. In my case, it’s former journeyman QB and flawlessly named Guy J.T. O'Sullivan, whose QB School videos are now mandatory viewing in my TV parlor:

I could watch this shit for days. It’s perfect. Unlike studio analysts, O’Sullivan has both the time and the temperament to break down tape in a way that’s both thorough and, against all odds, entertaining. He uses different colored telestrator pens to clearly map out developing routes. He points out open throws that the QB missed, even on otherwise successful plays. He explains blocking schemes more succinctly than my college coach ever did. He freely admits when he doesn’t know what the read progression was supposed to be on a busted play. He makes fun of clueless defenders. He lets out his inner bro only once in a while (“fired up for this one”), which is just the right amount of bro. And he teaches me new scouting words like “toesy.” You don’t want a QB who’s toesy. That’s bad. Gotta keep those feet planted, big boy.

I actually learn shit about the game from these videos, which is never the case with pre- and postgame shows. Your average pregame show features Terry Bradshaw winding up a set of novelty chattering teeth on the Fox desk and whooping, “TELLYOUWHAT THOSE TEETH SURE ARE FUNNY!” Turns out there’s whole other, useful genre of NFL analysis out there. I feel like I’m watching NFL football for the first time when I go to O’Sullivan’s QB School. These videos are my meditation.

I also watched Kurt Warner’s YouTube breakdowns and you’d be delighted by how freely all of these NFL guys shit on college coaches. Watch this scouting report that Warner does on Hendon Hooker and you’ll hear him say, multiple times, “I don’t know what on earth Tennessee’s offense is doing here.” And that’s Kurt Warner, the biggest goody-goody to ever exist! But give him a college tape and suddenly he gets real. Josh Heupel just led the Vols to their best season in decades, and NFL guys think he’s a fucking hack! I love it. I am a tape eater now. Will Levis? Dogshit player. You never want a guy who, like, can’t throw a wide open screen pass accurately. I’ll break plates if my team drafts him.

Three Throwgasms

Saturday: Day Three is when fatigue sets in and go from watching the draft to merely checking in on it in between watching other sports. I don’t need to be reminded that Tom Brady was a sixth rounder anymore. I know that fact better than I know the names of my own children. Anyway, let’s wrap up this section by talking about some random crap:

•Because of the new Sunday Ticket deal, I switched from DirecTV to YouTube TV this offseason. YouTube TV jacked up its monthly rates the instant I signed up, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. What DID surprise me was how thrown I was to surf around channels that have no numbers on them. Since YouTube TV is entirely streaming, channel numbers aren’t necessary. In the dictionary sense, they aren’t even channels once you cut the cord. But try telling that to my brain. Every time I scroll through the channel guide I’m like, “Why don’t any of these networks have arbitrarily assigned numbers to them? And why aren’t there obscure channels like HSN36 clogging up the listings? This is so WEIRD.”

•I looked in the mirror the other day and caught myself doing the old man thing with my arms. This is when your elbow tendons don’t feel like stretching all the way and your forearms come up just a little bit, so that you look like fucking Dracula approaching Mina Harker’s bedside. I’d take a photo of myself in this pose to demonstrate, but the art department at Men’s Health already gave the world an image of what I’ll look like 20 years from now. I don’t need more of that kind of visual content floating around in the ether. Too dread-inducing.

•Speaking of old, since I’m approaching 50 I’m rapidly developing what can only be described as CEO brain. Like I’ll read Defector and muse, “I think our site should be 10 percent sillier.” Would it help ANYONE at this company if I said that at a meeting? No. But that’s what CEOs do: they lead by offering vague mandates that are of no help to anyone below them. That’s happening to me. Right now. I should be locked in a cage.

Predraft Song That Makes Me Wanna Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall

“Ecate,” by Ufomammut! The “*** WARNIG! [sic] CONTAINS FLASHING IMAGES***” caption on this video lets you know you’re in for something special. From Justin:

Caught this three piece from Italy a few years ago at Maryland DeathFest. My neck still hurts from the headbanging. Just when you think this song is the heaviest, nastiest thing you have heard, they find another level of aural destruction. Teutonic riffs, driving drums and larynx shredding (yet melodic!) vocals. Need I say more?

Wait a second, are you telling me that Italian doom metal is a thing? I thought all that European doom metal was sourced exclusively from Scandinavia. I WAS WRONG. Turns out that Italy has other genres of music besides “mustachioed fella plays an accordion while his pet monkey dances around across his shoulders.” My world will never be the same.

Great Moments In Poop History

Reader Sam sends in both a poop story AND a fart story. This first one I’ll call FINGER LICKIN’ DOOD:

In September of 2009 I had a nervous breakdown and weighed 323 pounds. In April of 2010 I was doing much better and weighed 223 pounds. But I hadn't eaten fast food since September of 2009.

KFC had introduced the Double Down, a sandwich that was two fried chicken filets as bread with cheese, sauce, and bacon in the middle. I decided that THAT was the best thing to return to fast food with. I ate it and felt... surprisingly fine! So I decided to go hang out with my best friend, who I will call Otto for this.

Otto and I were sharing a beer and shooting the breeze. I told Otto I'd eaten the Double Down and Otto laughed saying he knew what I was in for later. We were on our third beers when I felt the down town pushdowns. I told Otto I needed to use the bathroom and he looked at me horrified.

I went into the bathroom and proceeded to shit out my soul. I think I saw a boot in the toilet.

This next one I’ll call WAYFART ROYCO:

My company had our Holiday Event (the one positive from the pandemic is that instead of parties, my company takes us out to lunch). About an hour after we got back I felt a massive fart coming on. I went into the bathroom to pee, started singing "Wonderful Christmastime", cut a loud, long fart that sounded like a sound effect, and started laughing...

…until I heard the toilet flush.

I was saying a quiet prayer when the stall door opened, and out walked the CFO of my company. We nodded at each other, he washed his hands, left, and I died of shame.

Can’t blame you there, champ.

Cheap Beer Of The Draft

The "Facan" stands for "Fancy!"

Arany Facan! From Hungary! Sure, why not. Submitted by Brett:

I’m in Budapest for a few months for work. The local grocery store has an eternal sale on ARANY FACAN, which tastes like someone mixed Budweiser with laundry water. It’s also 100 HUF (about 30 cents) for a .5L can, which makes it damn near perfect. It’s also named after a really cool looking bird! The picture on the can doesn’t even do it justice!

Holy shit, that IS a cool looking bird. It’s got every color in the Crayola box. I MUST ADOPT ONE.

Draft Night Movie Of The Week For Dolphins Fans (First Rounder Stripped For Tampering With Tom Brady And Sean Payton)

Vertigo, which has one of the scariest but also most inscrutable endings I’ve ever seen. I had to go read up on that ending afterward to make sense of it, and even then it’s still open to a whole lot of interpretation. All I know is that Jimmy Stewart’s character was a moron for preferring Kim Novak as a blonde. Novak spends the second half of this movie as a brunette and I was like, I would fall in love with that woman in seven seconds. She looks so much better that I really was tricked into thinking she was an entirely different, absolutely stunning character. But old-ass Jimmy is like, “See now, see now I want you go get your hair dyed blonde for me! Good and blonde, the way a woman’s hair should be!” Open your eyes, jackass. Stop with the whole “Oh I’m so haunted by my past!” nonsense and get some proper taste. And watch out for any nuns creeping up on you. Four stars.

By the way, I tweeted about watching Vertigo a few weeks ago and one dude in the replies was like, “It’s OK but I had to fast-forward through the boring parts.” I don’t want to know that people like this exist. Don’t fucking skim movies, let alone a Hitchcock movie. I’ll kick you in the teeth.

Gratuitous Simpsons Quote

“Agent Wesson, Department of Labor. This man is an illegal alien.”

“That's preposterous. Zutroy here is as American as apple pie!”

“Tocnikrabda, Mistah Boons.”

Enjoy the draft, everyone.

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