Imagine what J.J. Watt is really worth to the Houston Texans. The all-pro defensive end is the undeniable face of a franchise. He owns one of the best seasons ever by any NFL defensive player. At 25, he likely hasn’t hit his prime.
Watt, part of the first draft class that entered the league under the rookie wage scale created by the latest collective bargain agreement, is also one of the NFL’s biggest bargains.
The $1.9 million salary due to Watt in 2014 pales in comparison to the $13.116 million franchise tag figure that Greg Hardy will collect from the Carolina Panthers, or the $16 million average salary that makes the Buffalo Bills’ Mario Williams the NFL’s highest-paid defensive end.
Sure, the Texans look to ultimately lock up their cornerstone with a long-term pact.
Yet Watt’s case illustrates the effective penalty that comes with being a first-round pick. With clubs already exercising fifth-year options for 2015 on the best first-rounders from 2011 — a group that also includes Cam Newton, Von Miller, Robert Quinn, Patrick Peterson and A.J. Green — the urgency for striking a long-term deal is lost.
“It doesn’t do me any good to worry about it,” Watt said. “All I can ever do is work as hard as I possibly can, be the best player I can be and represent this organization as well as possible.”
Two other stars from the 2011 class have indeed cashed in. But Richard Sherman, now the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback (four years, $57.4 million, with $40 million guaranteed) was a fifth-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick (six years, $126 million, albeit with just $13 million guaranteed at signing) was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers. Their rookie contracts didn’t contain fifth-year options because they were not first-round picks. Without new deals, they would have entered the coming season in the final year of their contracts.
The first-rounders are due a significant bumps in 2015, but barring new deals will also assume the risk of another year of wear-and-tear in a league with an inherent injury factor.
“I plead the fifth,” New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan told USA TODAY Sports, when asked about his status.
Jordan, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod after posting 12½ sacks in 2013, wasn’t exactly pledging silence. With no talks yet with the Saints about a long-term extension, he was referring to the fifth-year option that would pay him the $6.969 million figure for defensive ends in 2015.
“That’s as much as they’ve acknowledged,” Jordan said of the Saints, “so that’s the message I’ll go by.”
Chosen in the 24th slot, Jordan would have still preferred to be a first-round pick with a fully guaranteed contract. He realizes he had no alternative other than to accept a CBA that just happened to institute such changes in the year that he turned pro.
Still, agents grumble about the impact the scale has had on a market that used to be influenced heavily by large rookie deals.
While the premise of the rookie scale is solid in ensuring that more money flows to veterans rather than unproven rookies, the irony is that with the fifth-year option included means they will be restricted longer in a league that has a short lifespan for players.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (who exercised the option on left tackle Tyron Smith) said while negotiating the CBA, owners sought the fifth-year option as a consideration to guaranteeing more money to players chosen at the top of the draft.
Remember, a year before Newton received a four-year, $22 million deal as the No. 1 pick overall, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was guaranteed $50 million on the six-year, $78 million deal he signed as the top pick.
In 2014, Newton is due a $3.4 million salary, compared to Bradford’s $14 million.
The rookie scale was the answer to high-round busts like JaMarcus Russell.
Said Jones: “You could have just as easily not had a fifth-year option and said, ‘Your top-15 (picks) are five years.’ Instead, you let there be some leeway.”
The NFL Players Association defends the rookie scale, pointing to increased guarantees, more money spread to draftees after the top-10 picks and the huge franchise tag prices that could come in play if players don’t strike long-term contracts and are kept off the market after their fifth seasons.
Before the draft in May, NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith acknowledged the leverage lost by some of the higher first-round picks, but added, “The goal of this deal was always to maximize the benefits to the largest group of people.”
Former NFL general manager Bill Polian said debate reminds him of what former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue used to say about agreements usually being good ones if they left both sides a bit upset.
Polian sees the threat of franchise tag pay down the road as unsettling to clubs.
“But if you look at it from the agent’s point of view, it’s a loss,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “If you look at it from the GM’s point of view, it’s a win for management. Bottom line is (Smith) bargained it and accepted it. It is what it is. It isn’t totally unfair.”
Yet that is subject to objections on a case-by-case basis.