Out of whack

O, BY THE WAY

So many dollars - it doesn't make sense

On the NFL's rookie pay scale

May 22, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

The ink hadn't quite dried yet on rookie quarterback Matt Ryan's record-setting contract with the Atlanta Falcons - six years, $72 million with nearly $35 million guaranteed - when a couple of NFL veterans chimed in with a familiar complaint: Why all this money for a guy who hasn't proved he can do squat in the league?

Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae, who is also president of the NFL Players Association, and Miami Dolphins kicker Jay Feely said in a radio interview that Ryan's contract - and the long-standing system of lavishly rewarding top draft picks - turns the whole notion of pay-for-performance on its head.

"As a guy who has been in the league for 14 now going on 15 years and being around other veteran guys, for a young guy to get paid that kind of money and [he] never steps foot on an NFL football field, it's a little disheartening to think of," Mawae said.

Feely expressed the same sentiment, saying: "If you get the wrong kind of guy, it can skew the dynamics in the locker room. You get a guy who doesn't work hard, that doesn't have an internal desire to be great, and he gets that kind of money and he doesn't care what anybody says. He's not going to listen to the veterans ... in the locker room."

Veteran players have been criticizing the topsy-turvy pay system in the NFL since before Mawae and Feely were even born. And it used to be a lot worse.

Before free agency came along in the early 1990s, players who were late-round draft picks or broke into the league as unsigned free agents - even guys who went on to become solid starters and Pro Bowl selections - were stuck on a substantially lower pay track that never allowed them to catch up to high draft picks.

At least now with free agency, it is possible for a low-round selection such as former Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who was a sixth-round pick, to cash a lottery ticket. In Thomas' case, he worked his way to Pro Bowl status as a special teams player and linebacker in Baltimore and, as a free agent in 2007, signed a five-year deal with the New England Patriots for a reported $35 million, including $20 million guaranteed.

It was a hard-earned payoff for a veteran player who had been fighting NFL battles for scores of Sunday afternoons - but still not in Ryan territory.

Interestingly, as NFL owners voted unanimously Tuesday to "opt out" of their current collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, they listed as a concern the rookie pay system. But they have their own agenda. Owners see rookie salaries as the rising tide that lifts all boats, including veteran pay.

A revised pay system in the NFL seems to be common sense: Pay high draft picks on a scale that compensates them reasonably, including incentives that reward performance, in exchange for locking them up for the first three or four years of their careers. But don't make them the highest-paid guys in the locker room, and make sure to shift the savings to players who play the bulk of the minutes.

However, veterans who feel the way Mawae and Feely do should not expect common sense to prevail.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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