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How bad was the CBA for players in 2011?

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NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With just two more seasons remaining in the collective bargaining agreement NFL players and owners signed at the end of the lockout in 2011, there will certainly be a lot of debate over the next couple of years regarding which side got the better deal. Beyond that, there is likely to be significant debate about whether or not we as fans will get to watch NFL football in 2021 or whether the league will have its first work stoppage since the Reagan administration if one of the sides proves determined to dig in.

In any case, as the salary cap has continued to grow in recent seasons, largely as a result of the phenomenal job Roger Goodell has done in continuing to build new and expand on existing revenue streams, the current CBA has led to several direct changes that have gone largely unnoticed.

Obviously, most fans are happy that the rookie wage scale is in place, because it has eliminated the stupidity of contracts given to draft picks at the top of the first round. Just a few examples of some of those less than ideal contracts are listed below:

  • JaMarcus Russell, QB Oakland Raiders, 6-year, $68M with $32M guaranteed,
  • Aaron Curry, LB Seattle Seahawks, 6-year, $60M with $34M guaranteed,
  • Sam Bradford, QB St. Louis Rams, 6-year, $78M with $50M guaranteed,
  • Jason Smith, T St. Louis Rams, 6-year, $61M with $32M guaranteed,
  • Mark Sanchez, QB New York Jets, 5-year, $50M with $28M guaranteed,
  • Darren McFadden, RB Oakland Raiders, 6-year, $60M with $26M guaranteed,
  • Vernon Gholston, DE New York Jets, 5 Year, $32M with $21M guaranteed.

Fans of the Seahawks are obviously familiar with the name Aaron Curry, while Sam Bradford has become the poster boy for players who have made tens of millions of dollars while doing next to nothing on the field. However, Vernon Gholston remains one of my favorite draft busts of all time.

After recording 22.5 sacks over his final two seasons at Ohio State University, he decided to forego his remaining eligibility and enter the 2008 NFL Draft. He tested phenomenally at the combine, putting up 37 reps on the bench press and running the 40 in 4.58 seconds. For those who were a part of the discussion on Cliff Avril’s ten yard split in the 40 at the 2008 combine, Gholston was another of those players whose ten yard split was suspiciously fast that year. Specifically, Gholston was clocked at 1.53 in the 10 yard split, which is fast than either Paul Richardson or Tyler Lockett, in spite of weighing eighty pounds more than either of those two speedy Seattle receivers.

In any case, Gholston was horrible during his three seasons in the NFL, and by horrible I mean he not only failed to record a single sack during his three years with the Jets, he recorded just two quarterback hits and 17 pressures over the course of three seasons. Just to put that in perspective, that’s fewer sacks, fewer hits and the same number of pressures as Dion Jordan’s injury shortened and ineffective 2018 season.

Moving back to the 2011 CBA, however, the purpose of the rookie wage scale was obviously to move some of the money the league allocates for the players from rookies just as JaMarcus Russell and Aaron Curry to the veteran players who were good enough to contribute but not good enough to land massive contracts. The idea was that if teams weren’t forced to pay rookies exorbitant amounts, there would be more money for the veterans. Well, that hasn’t exactly happened. What has happened is the exact opposite, as the rookie wage scale has helped contribute to players having shorter careers as teams choose to keep cost-controlled younger players around rather than sign aging and expensive veterans. This short video does a great job of explaining a small piece of this.

So, what has happened is that rather than the rookie wage scale moving money from young players to veterans, it has moved money from veterans to rookies, with the difference being funneled to a handful of players, most notably pass rushers and quarterbacks. To be able to afford the record contracts that are going to players like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo, many teams have moved to eliminate the middle class. They have rosters constructed of players making very good money and then huge portions of the roster filled with rookies on cost effective first contracts.

In addition, what is not shown is that this shortening of the average career of NFL players may have a significant negative impact on the future for players. In order for NFL players to earn their retirement benefits based on the number of credited seasons they accrue during their playing career. With the average career being shortened, it is possible that the future obligations of the league (and by league I mean the teams and owners) could be decreased.

Thus, instead of acting to shift money from rookies to veterans, the rookie wage scale may have had the dual effects of shifting money from mid-tier veterans to younger players while simultaneously reducing the number of players collecting retirement benefits in the future. Obviously, without more details than what is provided in that short clip it is impossible to perform the calculations necessary to determine this, however, this could be one of those hidden areas where players lost out to owners yet again as a result of improper accounting assumptions while calculating future obligations.

In any case, with the offseason upon us, and no meaningful football between now and July, we will be covering a lot of ground regarding the CBA and the potential for a lockout or strike prior to the 2021 season. Obviously we’ve got free agency (starting March 13) and the draft (April 25-27) to tide us through, but it’s time to start hunkering down for the long offseason.