Saw Mike Silver from NFL Network and Sports Illustrated tweeting about the idea of abolishing the draft in a conversation about the Joey Bosa situation. My first reaction to this was that this could make teams have to pay more than the current draft positions dictate as they could be forced to pay closer to fair market value for a player. I decided to take some notes and explore that idea.
During this year’s draft process, Jason Fitzgerald from here at OTC released a new NFL Draft Trade Value Chart that builds off of the chart Jimmy Johnson used to build the Cowboys dynasty. The new chart provides a mechanism where a team can increase or decrease the number valuation of that draft selection based on their belief in the player they plan to draft in that position. As he and I have both pointed out in various ways, the second and third rounds of the draft have become bargains for teams as they’re continually improving on their ability to accurately project NFL production– and these players are earning contracts that are around or below 1% of the salary cap. With the first pick of the second round this year, #32 due to the Patriots losing their first round pick, the Browns drafted 3-4 defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and signed him to a four-year contract worth $6,609,641, which gives him a 2016 salary cap hit of just 0.77% of the salary cap.
Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard is a great comparison. Sheard was drafted #37 overall by the Browns in 2011 and was signed by the Patriots to a two-year deal worth $11 million upon the conclusion of his rookie contract. His cap hit in the first year of that contract was $4 million, which was 2.80% of the 2015 salary cap. In 2016, Sheard will consume 4.39% of the $155.27 million cap.
In 13 games for the Patriots Sheard had eight sacks, half a sack less than he had in 16 games as a rookie. Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” metric, which “is their attempt to attach a single number to a player-season since 1960,” gives Sheard a 10 as a rookie and three in a successful first year as a Patriot. To provide context, Aaron Rodgers led the NFL in 2011 with an AV of 23, Ray Lewis had a 23 for the historic 2000 Ravens defense.
Following that logic, thinking about Ogbah as a player, I think I can safely assume he would be worth at least two to three percent of a salary cap throughout the life of his rookie contract if there was an auction draft. We can’t put him in the 4.39% range we see for Sheard this season because, while Ogbah was a very productive college player, there is still a degree of uncertainty with any player coming into the NFL, so I want to be conservative. That said, pass rusher is a position where one of the top five to ten players in a draft class will likely produce in their rookie years if their skills fit the system of the team that drafted them. Tight end is an example of a position that takes some experience and coaching before NFL production comes.
Here is the comparison between what Ogbah’s contract currently is and that conservative estimate:
That auction draft contract probably isn’t even equivalent to the production that Ogbah will provide the Browns. Sheard is another example of a low-cost, high-value acquisition by the Patriots and a player who you can reliably project to get six to eight sacks a season can cost a team with zero salary cap ninjas in their dojo near six or seven percent of the salary cap. If Mike Tannenbaum is your general manager, then think about the incredible deal Thomas Jefferson got on the Louisiana Purchase and imagine the exact opposite.
One positional market that’s essentially been destroyed by coaching innovations is running back as guys like Mike Shanahan (with Gary Kubiak), Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and Sean Payton have provided examples of how to deconstruct the ideal complete running back for their system into it’s most important components and then using that to re-construct a lower cost backfield. These coaches all do this by acquiring multiple backs who provide the same skills that a complete back like Adrian Peterson provides, but who specialize in either power rushing or pass catching, which is why they’re lower cost. The market has essentially collapsed in recent years with the ideal, complete running back with the prototypical size of 5’11”, 215-pounds, Lamar Miller, receiving just $26 million over four years from the Texans.
Rotoworld writes that Mike Freeman from Bleacher Report has stated that he “keeps hearing” from scouts around the league that Miller “might have a season for the ages” and longtime Texans beat writer John McClain has been raving about his acceleration, pass catching and blocking. I don’t suggest signing a running back to a contract like the one that paid Adrian Peterson $15.4 million in 2015, which was 10.75% of the cap, but Doug Martin was second in the NFL in rushing in 2015 and his contract maxes at $8 million in year one and that’s only 5.15% of the cap. Peterson’s at a reasonable 7.72% of the cap in 2016, but the top of the running back market seems to be around five percent now considering Martin’s production.
Miller represents what most running backs being drafted are right now, system fits. Coaches who have played a part in creating their offensive system seem to be able to seamlessly integrate rookie running backs and undrafted guys like how Reid used Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to pace their rushing attack on the way to a 10-1 finish to their regular season. Denver’s fourth round pick Devontae Booker is a great representation of this in the 2016 rookie class as his PFF Scouting Report says his player style comparison is Arian Foster.
Considering the cap hits for Miller, I’ll take a conservative estimate of Booker’s value and project his auction draft contract in the one and a half to two and a half percent of the cap range. He has already established himself as CJ Anderson’s handcuff and will likely push him for reps this season as his career at Utah illustrated that he can do everything well.
As we see with both Ogbah and Booker, the value that teams are now getting in the middle rounds would disappear and be replaced with contracts that would provide rookies with compensation that would be in line with their value. The consequences with this would be less money to spend on veterans, but concerns over concussions are shortening careers anyway, so this will respond to trends and encourage it. That’s one of the issues owners will be very concerned about, but won’t be able to discuss publicly. There’s no positive way to spin it other than paying your employees below market value, so they have to receive more brain damage to earn their generational wealth.
After earning a $2 million purse for his fight against Conor McGregor at UFC 202, Nate Diaz has told the UFC he won’t fight anyone until they complete the fight trilogy. If $2 million gives him a sense of security that he’s never had before, imagine running backs earning $14 million over the first four years of their careers. We can accurately assume that the percentage of running backs who voluntarily retire after their rookie contracts will increase.
The end of the last CBA was absurd for quarterback contracts and those contracts inflating the entire quarterback market. Sam Bradford made 10.39% of the salary cap during his second season with the Rams, but now the costs may be too low as Carson Wentz will only cost the Eagles an estimated 4.43% of a projected $191.5 million salary cap in 2019, the fourth year of his career.
There currently is no middle class in the quarterback market, it just goes from rookie contracts that peak around 4.50% of the cap in year four if they’re drafted near the top of the draft. If the team picks up the fifth-year option, that salary is equal to the average of the 10 highest salaries at their position if the player is drafted in the top 10 picks of the draft and it’s the average of the third through 25th highest salary at the position for the rest of the first-round picks. If an auction existed, there’s no reason to think Wentz wouldn’t receive a contract that peaks closer to five or six percent of the salary cap.
My estimate takes into account the Eagles current quarterback situation. Considering Bradford’s cap hit that’s $22.5 million, which is 13.60% of a projected $165.5 million cap, the Eagles have no intention of paying him that. Their plan is clear. They signed Chase Daniel to a contract between three to five percent of the cap and drafted Wentz.
Bradford will start this year and the Eagles hope to trade him for a second round pick after an efficient season under center for them, but they had no intention of him being the long-term starter. Bradford didn’t earn that in 2015, so they had to make other plans, rather than allow themselves to be stuck with no options if he flopped this season. If they trade him, he only has $5.5 million in dead money, so they’ve even structured his contract to make the trade more manageable for them and drop his cap hit to around 10% for whoever their trading partner is. That team would then either get Bradford at a manageable 10% or execute an extension to lock him into a reasonable contract for the value he’ll provide the QB-needy team in question.
Bradford’s lack of mobility is also a huge concern for a Doug Pederson offense that flourished with Alex Smith. Daniel will serve as the bridge if Wentz needs more time and he’s a great back-up to have, especially with three-years of experience under Pederson.
The contract I propose for Wentz would provide him with just over $7 million more over the life of the contract and it wouldn’t impact the Eagles too much in this situation. By the next CBA, these differences will be even more pronounced as the salary cap could be at $205.5 million by 2020. That’s an increase of $50 million from today and the wage gap between the Aaron Rodgers-type player making 12% of the cap and the average middle round draft pick on the Packers will become astronomical by the next CBA, so there’s going to have to be a drastic change in terms of how money is distributed.
Unions exist to represent the average employee within their ranks. The average member of the NFLPA would be best served by a CBA that figures out the balance between providing the rookies with fair compensation, while not taking money away from veterans like the players drafted at the top of the draft under the previous CBA were.
NFL owners won’t want to change the current model because it’ll cost them more money on less proven players, which is a riskier investment than investing in players after three, four or five years of seeing them perform in the NFL. A higher percentage of the salary cap invested in rookie contracts is something teams would have to adjust for, so it’d actually be very advantageous to both sides to begin to discuss this issue soon. That said, the trend of early retirements will naturally shift more scouting and analytics focus on the college game as there will be less productive players available in their late-twenties and early-thirties. This naturally causes a need for an increase in supply from the college ranks.
A hidden concern for NFL owners will be the NFL Draft as it’s become a three day spectacle with NFL Network and ESPN both broadcasting it. In 2014, ESPN almost had 10 million viewers of the first night of the draft, the NFL needs to replace the current draft with one that would command that kind of audience.
My original thoughts for a proposal would be an auction draft with a similar schedule to the current NFL Draft schedule with a committee of ten to twenty people to develop the list of the 260 or so players that will be auctioned off. This group will vote to create the order in terms of who will likely have the highest costs, then move on down the list until they get to this draft’s equivalent of Mr. Irrelevant. Establishing this group wouldn’t be that hard, take a few former coaches, former general managers, and the right mix of football writers and researchers. There could be Mel Kiper Jr. type scouts, Pro Football Focus analytics guys, a mathematical wizard like Kevin Cole from PFF and RotoViz, plus a salary cap expert like Jason Fitzgerald.
Regardless of what any of us want to believe, the science shows that football is a very dangerous sport and can have horrible negative consequences on the brain. Currently, modern medicine seems to be able to work miracles on knees, shoulders and ankles with things like stem-cell treatments and 3D printing, but medicine still has a long way to go when it comes to treatments regarding the brain. The positive news is that Parkinson’s seems to be only ten to fifteen years away from a cure, so that’s one example of a brain disease that science is catching up to, but until CTE is cured, NFL careers will continue to shrink.
The average NFL career is estimated to be about three years, most players do not make their second contract and most don’t get to make the kind of generational wealth they deserve for sacrificing their bodies. It’s up to the NFLPA to maximize every player’s earning potential by creating a strategy for 2020 that looks more like this than like our current draft model.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: The Process For Building Super Bowl Champions” and host of The Zack Moore Show podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. He graduated from Rutgers Business School in 2015 with a double concentration in entrepreneurship and marketing after playing football at the University of Rhode Island where he graduated with a degree in communications and business.