Rookie salaries have become bloated over the years and the top picks in each year’s draft are being paid entirely too much money. For example, Matthew Stafford, the top pick in the 2009 draft, received $41 million of guaranteed money before he ever played in an NFL game. That figure was a record at the time and could be broken by 2010 number one pick Sam Bradford shortly. The salary cap increases every year and, in turn, players receive heftier contracts, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. What doesn’t seem right is that top draft picks become one of the highest-paid, if not the highest-paid, players on their respective teams before ever playing a down in the pros. This not only generates animosity toward the youngsters in certain locker rooms, it also can adversely affect a young player’s motivation.
You can’t win in the NFL without working hard. You can’t make Pro Bowls and you can’t win Super Bowls unless you give the game everything you have, everything it deserves. Giving rookie players huge amounts of guaranteed money doesn’t serve as a motivational tool; in fact, it can very well serve as the opposite. A lot of talented, young athletes already have some feelings of self-entitlement due to the treatment many of them have experienced throughout their entire lives; awarding them with tens of millions of dollars doesn’t seems like it would help to quell the sense of entitlement one bit. It’s much more likely to increase it.
We’ve seen what a lack of motivation can do to a talented player; look no further than former number one overall pick JaMarcus Russell. The Oakland Raiders made Russell the top pick in the 2007 draft because they became enamored with his rocket of a throwing arm. Russell might not have been the consensus top pick, but he was certainly a highly-touted prospect. After a lengthy holdout for as much money as he could squeeze out of the Raiders organization, the LSU product was awarded with a six-year, $61 million contract that would pay him more than $30 million in guaranteed money.
Russell apparently already had a pretty bloated sense of self worth, as he held out for more money well into the season. Giving him more than $30 million in guaranteed money could not have helped the situation. Life for Russell and the Raiders simply went from bad to worse after he signed. The former top pick struggled once he got on the field, but initially received a free pass because he was young and had missed a lot of time with the team during his rookie season due to the holdout.
However, as time went by, Russell didn’t seem to improve much, if at all. Russell reportedly fell asleep during team meetings, was consistently out of shape and would be the last guy to arrive at the team’s practice facility and the first guy to leave. He wasn’t dedicated; he wasn’t motivated. Incredibly, just three years after making him the number one overall pick, the Raiders cut ties with Russell, having paid him nearly $40 million over the course of those three seasons. The teams ended up paying him more than $5 million per win during his tenure in Oakland.
This is not to say that giving young NFL players a lot of money will turn them into JaMarcus Russell; Russell is just the worst-case scenario. But I think it’s pretty obvious that a change needs to be made, and I would expect the NFL to push for some kind of rookie pay scale in the next collective bargaining agreement. The NBA’s pay scale seems to work well, as the top pick in their drafts already know what they’re going to make for their first few seasons in the league the minute they are drafted. From Michael Olowokandi to LeBron James, it doesn’t matter. They make what the NBA says they make and they should be happy with whatever that is, because it’s much more than they’d receive at any other job. Once a player proves themselves on the court and in the locker room, then they should be paid accordingly.