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NFL First Rounders: Paid Too Much or Too Little?

2009 May 20
by Brian Goff

After the NFL draft, Joel Rose, a reporter from Marketplace asked me about the high salaries of first rounders and whether a rookie pay scale made sense. Here’s the caption to the piece:

Backlash rising over NFL rookie inflation

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is slated to earn more than anyone in the NFL, a fact the commissioner says is “ridiculous.” Joel Rose explores why the NFL pays more for its rookies compared to other sports leagues.

Rose echoes the widespread sentiment of reporters and bloggers (SI’s Jim Trotter is an exception) with frequent comparisons of a few rookies to a some recognizable veterans who earn less. As always, there is some necessary accounting to do to really compare apples to apples, but that’s not my objective here.

In my comments to him, I noted that top half first round salaries are very high. In many cases, these upper tier first rounders make 5 to 20 times more than second or third rounders. Other than very successful QBs, it is hard to imagine such large differences in their incremental contributions to winning in a sport where 11 guys are on the field at a time and 30 or so make significant contributions in a game. Gene Upshaw thought that these higher salaries only helped pull up salaries over time. However, one might contest that if the total player salary pool is a constant proportion of revenue.

However, because of widely varied roles and lack of measurables on performance for many positions, it is hard to get a handle on whether these big differences in salaries reflect top end rookie value or reflect a premium that they are somehow extracting at the cost of veteran players (particularly non-elite veterans with limited bargaining power). I decided to take a look at performance based on Hall of Fame and All-Pro slots held by different draft positions.

All-Pro Selections by Draft Round
I II III IV Other
1970-90 33% 13% 11% 6% 37%
1991-05 36% 16% 10% 6% 32%
Hall of Fame Selections by Draft Round
I II III IV IV
1970-90 51% 20% 7% 9% 13%

These figures, on their own, cannot prove or disprove a point of view on rookie salaries. They do show that, in spite of the uncertainties, first rounders possess a lot of playing value relative to others and do tend to have extraordinary careers with substantial frequency. (The data also suggest that below the second round, there is a huge amount of uncertainty: here’s a related post.)

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