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When rookie Vernon Davis signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers on Friday, he became the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. It might seem absurd that someone who has never stepped on an NFL field would make more money than accomplished veterans like the Giants’ Jeremy Shockey, the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates, or the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tony Gonzalez, but it’s par for the course in the NFL, where unproven rookies regularly out-earn their more experienced counterparts.
On Saturday, Reggie Bush signed a six-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. The full terms of the contract have not been disclosed, but it will probably be worth more than $50 million, with $25 million guaranteed. Bush is a talented running back with great potential, but it’s ridiculous that potential alone is enough to earn Bush more money than the league’s reigning MVP, Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, who signed a free-agent contract in March that guarantees him $15 million.
More examples of lavish deals extended to rookie draft choices abound: Mario Williams, the first overall pick, signed a contract with the Houston Texans in April that will pay him at least $26 million and possibly as much as $54 million. Vince Young, the third overall pick, signed a deal last week that could be even more lucrative than Williams’s deal. Fourth overall pick D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s contract with the Jets has a total value of $37.5 million, with about half of that guaranteed. That means Ferguson, a tackle who has never played a down, will make significantly more than the man he’ll line up next to, Pete Kendall, a guard who has been an NFL starter for the last 10 years.
Both Ferguson and Kendall have reputations as team players, and they should get along fine, aside from the possibility of some good-natured rookie hazing in which Kendall and the other veteran linemen will force Ferguson to treat them to some expensive dinners. But on other teams, the money lavished on rookies has bred serious resentment in the locker room.The NFL’s salary cap means that every dollar spent on one player’s salary is a dollar that can’t go to one of his teammates. With that in mind, it’s hard to blame Chicago Bears running back Thomas Jones, who has complained that he makes much less money than his backup, Cedric Benson, the fourth player taken in last year’s draft. Jones ran for 1,335 yards last year while playing under a four-year,$10 million contract. Benson ran for 272 yards while playing under a five-year, $35 million contract.
Several teams have been burned when their highly paid rookies have failed to play up to their big-money contracts. In 2003, the Detroit Lions gave Charles Rogers a signing bonus in excess of $14 million after taking him second overall in the draft.Two broken collarbones, a benching, and a drug suspension have limited Rogers to 15 games and 36 catches in three seasons. The Lions are currently trying to recoup more than $10 million of Rogers’s signing bonus, saying that by testing positive for a banned substance he violated the terms of his contract.
Before Davis signed with the 49ers, the gold standard for tight ends was Kellen Winslow’s rookie contract with the Cleveland Browns.Winslow broke his leg in the second game of his rookie year in 2004 and missed all of 2005 after injuring his knee in a motorcycle accident.Winslow’s contract barred him from riding motorcycles, and he agreed to a salary reduction to make amends.
Quarterback is both the most important position in football and the hardest to learn, meaning teams are willing to pay huge sums of money to promising passers even though they often don’t pan out. In 2002, David Carr was the first player taken in the draft and Joey Harrington was the third. Each has already made more than $20 million, even though Harrington has already been shipped out of Detroit and Carr is one of the league’s lowest-rated passers in Houston. The San Diego Chargers have already paid $16 million to quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, even though Rivers still hasn’t started a game. Nearly every analyst agrees that Young will need some seasoning before he’s ready to play for the Titans, meaning he’ll inherit Rivers’s title as the league’s highest-paid bench warmer.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from those overpaid underachievers is wide receiver Deion Branch of the New England Patriots. Branch has more than 200 catches and a Super Bowl MVP award to his credit, but because he is still working under the five-year contract he signed as a seventh-round draft choice in 2002, he will earn the relatively paltry sum of $1 million this year. Branch is skipping training camp while his agent tries to get the Patriots to commit to a long-term contract extension.
Players like Branch would benefit from the NFL taking a page out of the NBA’s playbook. The NBA has a rigid salary structure for rookies, limiting them to short-term contracts worth significantly less money than the top veterans make. The best basketball players drafted in 2003, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, have just fulfilled their three-year contracts, and all were handsomely rewarded with new deals. But James, Wade, and Anthony all had to prove themselves first. Darko Milicic, who was selected second overall in the 2003 draft, has been a disappointment on the court and therefore won’t get the same kind of lucrative contract.
Retiring NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue got most things right during his 17-year reign in charge of America’s most successful sports league, but on rookie contracts, he and the league got it wrong. His successor, who will be chosen some time in August, ought to make it a top priority to sit down with the players’ union and work out a fairer deal that would give more money to established veterans and less money to rookies. Vernon Davis might end up being the best tight end in the league. But until he is, he shouldn’t be paid like it.
Mr. Smith is a contributing editor for footballoutsiders.com.