Agent’s Take: 2021 NFL rookie contract projections for key Round 1 picks, plus a rookie wage scale explainer

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The pace of signings under the rookie wage scale slowed considerably last year with the coronavirus pandemic altering the offseason schedule. There wasn’t the same urgency by teams without rookie minicamps being held at team facilities during the first two weekends following the NFL Draft and the cancellation of the seven week in-person rookie development program held afterwards. 

Things should return to normal this year where at least a quarter of the draftees sign contracts within two weeks of the draft’s completion, since the COVID-19 protocols allowed last season to be played in its entirety. 

The Colts are in the process of signing their draft class. Defensive end Kwity Paye, the 21st overall pick by Indianapolis, was the first player taken in the first round to sign. His fully guaranteed four-year rookie contract should be worth $13,644,834, which included a $7,283,516 signing bonus. 

Here’s a look at the deals a select group of first-round picks other than Paye are expected to sign. An explanation of how the rookie wage scale operates as well as a discussion highlighting important considerations or issues relating to the first round contracts follows.

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1

Trevor Lawrence

Jaguars

$6,689.725

$24,118,900

$36,794,486

2

Zach Wilson

Jets

$6,391,033

$22,924,132

$35,150,681

3

Trey Lance

49ers

$6,200,956

$22,163,824

$34,105,258

4

Kyle Pitts

Falcons

$5,983,726

$21,292,904

$32,910,493

5

Ja’Marr Chase

Bengals

$5,603,571

$19,774,284

$30,819,640

6

Jaylen Waddle

Dolphins

$4,924,726

$17,058,904

$27,085,993

7

Penei Sewell

Lions

$4,381,649

$14,886,596

$24,099,069

8

Jaycee Horn

Panthers

$3,838,572

$12,714,288

$21,112,146

9

Patrick Surtain II

Broncos

$3,811,418

$12,605,672

$20,962,799

10

DeVonta Smith

Eagles

$3,662,071

$12,008,284

$20,141,390

11

Justin Fields

Bears

$3,431,264

$11,085,056

$18,871,952

12

Micah Parsons

Cowboys

$3,105,417

$9,781,668

$17,079,793

15

Mac Jones

Patriots

$2,833,880

$8,695,520

$15,586,340

24

Najee Harris

Steelers

$2,372,262

$6,849,048

$13,047,440

29

Eric Stokes

Packers

$2,168,275

$6,033,100

$11,925,512

32

Joe Tryon

Buccaneers

$2,031,135

$5,484,540

$11,171,242

How the rookie wage scale operates

The rookie wage scale is essentially a salary cap within the overall salary cap. The increases in rookie salaries from one draft class to another are primarily tied to growth of the salary cap. Signing bonuses are going up one percent this year although the salary cap decreased $15.7 million. 

There’s a league-wide limit on the total amount of compensation for rookies with specific salary parameters for each draft slot. Teams have maximum and minimum amounts that can be spent on their picks based on draft position. 

All contracts for draft choices are four years. Each pick in the draft has a salary floor and ceiling in the first year and over the four years of the contract. There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The salary components of a deal are restricted to signing bonus, base salary, roster bonus, reporting bonus, workout bonus and select incentives. The type of salary escalators and incentives that used to be responsible for salaries skyrocketing at the top of draft are prohibited under the rookie wage scale. A majority of picks only have signing bonus and base salaries in their deals. 

An extremely important aspect of these deals is the first year salary cap number (also known as the rookie pool number) because it helps determine the overall value of a contract. The first year cap number or rookie pool number consists of the player’s prorated amount of signing bonus and the rookie minimum base salary, which is $660,000 in 2021. 

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The maximum annual increase in each of the four years of a deal is 25 percent of the first year cap number. To illustrate this concept, 2020 fourth-overall pick Andrew Thomas‘ cap numbers were limited to a $1,470,254 increase in each year of his deal because his first year cap number was $5,881,016. Since all of these deals have minimum base salaries in the first year, the remainder of the contract is derived within these constraints. 

Draft pick contracts can’t be renegotiated until the conclusion of a player’s third NFL regular season. This means the earliest Thomas’ deal can be redone is in January 2023.

Teams have an option for a fifth year with first-round picks that must be exercised after the third year of the deal. The period for exercising fifth-year options begins after a player’s third NFL regular season ends (Jan. 10, 2022 with the 2019 first-round picks). These options must be picked up prior to May 3. 

The new CBA changed how fifth year options operate. The fifth year salary is fully guaranteed when the option is exercised. A player’s fourth year base salary becomes fully guaranteed when the option year is picked up if it wasn’t already. 

The fifth year salaries are no longer strictly tied to where a player was drafted (i.e.; top 10 or outside of top 10). Performance dictates the option year salaries. With two or more Pro Bowl selections on the original ballot during the first three seasons of contracts, the fifth year salary is the franchise tender, which is average of the five highest salaries, for a player’s position in the fourth year of his contract. 

2018 sixth overall pick Quenton Nelson’s fifth year option with the Colts for 2022 is the 2021 franchise tender for offensive linemen, which is $13.754 million, because he was selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in each of his first two NFL seasons. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is the only other 2018 first round pick with a fifth year option at a franchise tender because of multiple Pro Bowl selections. His option year salary is $10.612 million.

One Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot during the first three seasons of deals puts the fifth year salary at the transition tender, which is average of the 10 highest salaries, for a player’s position in the fourth year of his contract. Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander, Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb, Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, and Browns cornerback Denzel Ward have a 2022 fifth year salary at the 2021 transition tender for their respective positions. Lions center Frank Ragnow was in the same boat. He just became the NFL’s highest paid center on a four-year contract extension averaging $13.5 million per year.

Participating in 75 percent of offensive or defensive plays, whichever is applicable, in two of the first three seasons of deals or an average of at least 50 percent playtime in each of their first three seasons sets the fifth year salary at the average of the third through 20th highest salaries at a player’s position. For first round picks that don’t fall into any of these three categories, the fifth year salary is the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at a player’s position.

The Proven Performance Escalator, which increases the fourth year salary for third through seventh round picks, now also applies to second round picks and is more expansive with higher playtime thresholds. 

Third through seventh round picks still have a salary escalator for their fourth year based on participating in a minimum of 35% of the offensive or defensive plays, whichever is applicable, in two of the first three seasons of their deals or an average of at least 35% playtime in their first three seasons. The salary equals the lowest restricted free agent tender in the fourth year. The number is $2.183 million this year. With second round picks, the required playtime is 60 percent in order for the fourth year salary to be at this level. 

The fourth year salary for second through seventh round picks increases to the lowest restricted free agent tender in that specific year plus $250,000 with at least 55 percent offensive or defensive playtime in each their first three seasons of the contract. $2.433 million is the number for this year. Fourth year salary will elevate to the second round restricted free agent tender with at least one Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot in the first three years of a rookie deal. The second round restricted free agent tender is $3.384 million this year.

Negotiable items

There are very few negotiable items with rookie contracts anymore. The two primary negotiating issues, particularly at the top of the draft, are the payment schedule of the signing bonus and whether salary guarantees will have offsets. Another important consideration is the language outlining the voiding of salary guarantees.

A majority of rookies didn’t sign contracts until the latter part of July as training camp approached before the rookie compensation system was overhauled in the 2011 CBA. In 2010, no player selected in the first two rounds had signed by the fourth of July. First round picks holding out wasn’t unusual either. For example, 2007 first overall pick JaMarcus Russell held out for 47 days before signing with the Raiders. Rookie holdouts are largely a thing of the past.

The Chargers and third overall pick Joey Bosa engaged in the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player under the rookie wage scale in 2016. Bosa was the first rookie since 2013 that didn’t show up to training camp on time. He missed 31 days before signing his contract.

Linebacker Roquan Smith, 2018’s eighth overall pick, missed the first two weeks of training camp because he and his agents objected to language where the Bears had the right to void his guarantees for an ejection or suspension from a game for violating NFL playing rules. A compromise was reached on the number of games in a suspension necessary to trigger voiding.

The Chargers and Bosa weren’t disagreeing over the amount of money in his contract because the total value was dictated by the rookie wage scale’s constraints. The dispute was largely over the payment schedule of Bosa’s signing bonus, the inclusion of roster bonuses and related language if the deal contained offsets. A major concession the Chargers made to Bosa was a better payment schedule than they typically give to players with big signing bonuses.

An offset clause allows a team to reduce the guaranteed money owed to a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team. The player receives his salary from the team that released him in addition to the full salary from his new contract with another club when there isn’t an offset (also known as “double dipping”). 

Agents have essentially lost the battle on offsets. Teams with early first round picks in 2013 were adamant that contracts contain offsets after largely conceding the issue the previous year. Nearly every team besides the Jaguars and the Rams, who don’t have a first round pick this year, require offsets with salary guarantees for draft picks, including those selected in the top 10. Based on past practices, first overall pick Trevor Lawrence’s contract with the Jaguars shouldn’t contain offsets. As a compromise for top 10 picks, including Bosa, most teams structure deals with minimum base salaries in the final three years where the remainder of a player’s salary is in annual fully guaranteed third or fifth day of training camp roster bonuses. 

More players throughout the first round may push for these training camp roster bonuses with base salary no longer paid over the course of the 18 week regular season. Beginning in 2021, base salary is paid over a period of 36 weeks (twice the number of regular season weeks).

A quarterback has the best chance of extracting a concession on offsets than players at other positions. Mitchell Trubisky, the second overall pick in 2017, signed a deal with the Bears where his $465,000 2017 base salary and training camp roster bonuses in 2018 through 2020, which contain most of the money in the last three years of his contract, don’t have offsets. 

It will be interesting to see whether Zach Wilson and Trey Lance, the second and third overall picks, respectively, by the Jets and 49ers can get treated in a similar manner as Trubisky was by the Bears. 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow and 2019 first round pick Kyler Murray’s respective contracts with the Bengals and Cardinals have offsets. In the last three years of their contracts, there are minimum base salaries with the rest of the money in fully guaranteed third day of training camp roster bonuses. 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield also has offsets. His contract with the Browns is structured like Burrow and Murray’s.

Large signing bonuses in NFL contracts aren’t typically paid in one lump sum. This is a long accepted practice in the NFL. Signing bonuses for top draft picks are usually paid in two to four installments. Lump sum payments are slowly becoming more accepted at the top of the first round. 2018 third overall pick Sam Darnold’s entire $20,078,324 signing bonus was payable by the Jets within 15 days of inking his deal. 2019 second overall pick Nick Bosa got a lump sum payment from the 49ers. His $22,421,356 signing bonus was payable in the same timeframe as Darnold’s. 2020 second overall pick Chase Young and Burrow got their respective $22,697,160 and $23,880,100 signing bonuses from the Washington Football Team and Bengals in a lump sum. Burrow’s was paid within 15 days of signing. Young got his within 30 days .

Wilson and Lance should have a harder time getting favorable offset language than a lump sum signing bonus payment. The Jets are going to have a hard time reconciling with Wilson’s camp that he should be treated like defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who was 2019’s third overall pick, instead of Darnold, another quarterback. Williams received $16,258,293 of his $21,677,724 signing bonus from the Jets within three weeks of signing his contract. The remaining $5,419,431 was paid the following March. Bosa establishes a precedent for Lance to get his signing bonus paid in a lump sum by the 49ers.

Signing bonus payment could be a sticking point in the Lawrence negotiations. The Jaguars have deferred half of signing bonus until the end of the following March with a majority of their top 10 picks. Lawrence’s representation will likely insist on a lump sum payment like Wilson and Lance are expected to get since they were selected immediately after the Clemson quarterback. Lawrence’s worst case payment scenario should be getting 83.2 percent ($20,068,108 of his signing bonus) before the end of 2021, like ninth overall pick C.J. Henderson did from the Jaguars last year.

The entire contracts of the first 24 picks of the first round were fully guaranteed in 2020, which is the same as in 2019. The deals for the final eight picks of the first round were guaranteed for the first three years. A decreasing portion of the fourth year base salary has been guaranteed as the picks progress. 90.6 percent of 2020 25th overall pick Brandon Aiyuk’s fourth year salary in 2023 is fully guaranteed while 36 percent of 2020 32nd overall pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s is fully guaranteed. 


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