NEW YORK - APRIL 22: Eric Berry (R) from the Tennessee Volunteers is greeted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after the Kansas City Chiefs selected Berry #5 overall in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
You always have to start these kinds of discussions with disclosures. I am a big Eric Berry fan and I am a big fan of the Chiefs getting Berry into camp on time. I love the Eric Berry pick and I understand that the Chiefs paid him ridiculous coin because they had to. But that is exactly the problem.
Rookie salaries in the NFL are completely out of control. It speaks volumes that Tyson Jackson and Jamarcus Russell were listed as two of the top 15 highest paid salaries in the NFL. It speaks even greater volumes that a bust like Jamarcus Russell was listed in the top 10 at all.
But the Chiefs of 2009 and 2010 illustrate an extremely compelling case study for why NFL rookie salaries are stupid, misguided, stupid... did I mention "stupid"? We all know some of the obvious reasons that the rookie salary system is stupid. I'd like to point out some of the less obvious reasons.
The Tyson Jackson Problem:
Let's begin first with Tyson Jackson in 2009. Jackson was drafted in a class that was short on talent. First of all, it's completely ridiculous that rookie salaries aren't weighted based on the strength of the class. Matt Stafford was a legit NFL-ready prospect. Sam Bradford, in many experts' opinions, entered the draft with several more question marks. So why is Bradford likely going to wind up with more money than Stafford? I understand that inflation drives salaries up, but the gap between the two players is no comparison. Or how about this for an example: if we're taking positional value into consideration, how is it that Jake Long is worth as much money as a Quarterback?
Here's the second and more important point. Scott Pioli would never tell you this, but I'm sure behind closed doors he would agree with this statement: Pioli was probably happy with the Tyson Jackson pick because TJ was the guy he thought best fit his system, BUT he knew he reached for him and given a realistic choice, would have traded down to grab him 5-10 picks later. The problem is, the top 5 to top 10 salaries are so out of control that teams picking into the top 5 to 10 are locked into their picks. If the talent at the top of the pool sucks, there is no way that any team would trade into that pick unless the other team lowered their price. By a lot. We saw that last season when the Jets traded all the way into the top 5 and all the Browns got in return was a stick of gum and an old Lebron James Cavs jersey, which has significantly depreciated in value.
And so, the NFL, which has prided itself on parity, has created an unintended consequence. The worst teams in the NFL are being punished for being bad teams. At least in free agency, you have the freedom to negotiate a contract and decide if that player is too expensive for your payroll. A team drafting in the top 5-10 has no choice but to either pay the player they draft, or forfeit the rights to that pick. What if a team doesn't have the cap space to pay that player? What if the team knows they are grossly overpaying the player and simply refuses to pay that far above value?
The Eric Berry Problem:
Again, for the record, I believe Eric Berry was the right pick by a mile. But that doesn't mean I'm happy he got overpaid for it. The other major problem with rookie salaries is that they have no regard for positional value. A Quarterback picked at #1 should get a significantly different contract than a Safety should. Slotting picks based on draft position is beyond stupid.
The unintended consequence is that teams drafting in the top 5-10 will find underachievers at high positional value positions a lot more attractive than overachievers at lower positional value positions. If you're going to pay the guy the moon, you're more likely to want a Quarterback. Why? Because if a QB pans out, you can at least justify paying a lot of money. Eric Berry, on the other hand, will likely be overpaid regardless of his performance. That's not a knock on Berry, but when you're paid more money than Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, that implies that he needs to be better than those guys. That's probably not going to happen.
On draft day, there's no doubt that this thought crossed Pioli's mind. But it shouldn't. A team should want to draft the player they believe best fits their football team, not the player that they think might fulfill their contract. If rookie slotting had at least some regard for positional value, I wonder if Berry would have gone higher. I do know for certain that the Chiefs wouldn't have even thought twice about drafting him. That card would have been paper airplaned to Roger Goodell the instant the Redskins made their pick.
Why it sucks to be bad
The #1 pick used to be highly coveted. No longer. Sometimes a team will land a great prospect they really want at a price fairly commensurate with their value. I would pay Matt Stafford or Eli Manning top-flight money right out of college.
But lately, a lot of teams are forced to make suboptimal decisions they would never make in a different environment. They are forced to draft players that match the slotted value instead of taking the guy they think is best for their team. They are forced to grossly overpay a player they may not necessarily have wanted. And it's not due to their lack of trying. It's because the system is so broken that teams are actually being punished for having high draft positions. Does that sound a little crooked to you? It should.
It's too bad the Chiefs have to be the team that gets hurt the most from a completely broken system.