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Why JaMarcus Russell Proves the Current Rookie Wage Scale is Flawed


“There is a gigantic difference between earning a great deal of money and being rich”

The ink is barely dry on Dez Bryant’s first professional deal. The first-round rookie wide-out set the wheels in motion for this year’s first-round draft picks and we now await the likes of Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow to follow suit.

A rookie’s contract is notoriously difficult to negotiate and for those fortunate enough to be taken early on draft day, it is also farcical to say the least.

Last year’s first pick overall Matthews Stafford collected a cool $41.7 million. At the time of signing this enormous contract he had yet to win a game for his team the Detroit Lions. He had yet to make a touchdown in the NFL, he had yet to complete a pass and he hadn’t even attempted a throw.

This year’s first overall pick and the likely recipient of another whopping deal is St Louis Rams’ new quarterback Sam Bradford. Reports suggest Bradford’s guaranteed contract is expected to be anywhere between $45 and $50 million. An extenuate fee for any sports star, let alone one who has yet to prove his talents on the grandest stage of his specialist sport.

Russell is still a rich man despite being cut

What Stafford’s contract and Bradford’s impending deal represent are huge risks. The rewards are obvious; a solid franchise quarterback is the largest piece in an NFL team’s puzzle. Get that piece right and the rest is much easier to fit together. But the risk can so easily outweigh the reward. For proof, see exhibit A, a certain JaMarcus Russell.

Before Bradford and Stafford, the last quarterback to be taken first overall was LSU’s Russell. The Oakland Raiders gambled on a man believed to be the next big thing. What Russell had was potential, and bags of it. But his attitude and his aptitude never matched his athletic abilities. Since that day in 2007, Russell has done nothing but disappoint but while he may have inherited the tag of biggest NFL bust ever, his accountant certainly isn’t complaining.

After a lengthy holdout, Al Davis and the Raiders franchise agreed to sign Russell to a contract worth $61 million. Before being cut this off-season, the Raiders had paid Russell $38 million. He won 7 games, completing just 18 passes. Last season he ranked dead last in passes completed, completion percentage, yardage, TDs and passer rating.

Breaking down exactly what the Raiders got for their money is painful enough. More than $5 million a win, $2 million a touchdown and $100,000 per competition. You don’t need a degree in statistics to see the Raiders did not get great value here.  

Russell bled the Raiders dry and the system allowed him to do so. He did not earn his money, he merely became rich. Of course Russell will likely never collect another ludicrous fee in the NFL but he does not need too. He will make more money out of the league than the majority of its players even if he never returns to the league. The risk of taking a highly rated college quarterback is beginning to outweigh the reward.

To put Russell’s deal in perspective, consider that Chad Henne will be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins next year. His contract? Four years, $3.5million dollars. A measly total when compared with the enormous pay packet that Russell collected during his miserable tenure in Oakland and this is criminally wrong. Russell will easily earn more than him next year even if he sits at home and watches like the rest of us.

Bradford is yet to sign with the Rams

In other sports the top earners clearly out-earn those at a lower level. The difference being that those who earn the most are, strictly speaking, also the best performers. Due to the competitive nature of the draft system, this isn’t the case in the NFL. Have a scintillating college career, impress at the combine and one deal can set you up for life regardless of whether your raw talent transfers to the big time or not. Unless Henne goes on to become one of the game’s greats, he may never sign deals as big as the one Russell raked in. The astronomical sums of money being collected by the top rookies each year reflect a clear handicap with the draft system. It is the unproven, untried and untested who command the largest sums and as it stand things aren’t going to change anytime soon.

A few days ago Adam Schefter tweeted that he didn’t remember “the last time, if ever, that on July 19 there wasn’t a single first-round pick that had signed yet”. The uncertainty over the collective bargaining agreement is only making matters worse. Players are rightly worried about no football being played next year and they want the same deals that their peers collected when they first signed deals.

This is why a realistic rookie wage scale should be paramount to the collective bargaining agreement which is causing such friction between the powers that be.

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president of labor and general counsel, summed it up perfectly:

“There is no reason why a player should come into the NFL and, before he has his first practice, is one of the highest-paid players not only in the league but in all professional sports.”

Russell provides the perfect indicator for why the current rookie wage scale is so flawed. Let us hope that his demise is taken on board in the next round of discussions over a collective bargaining agreement.

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