However it's ultimately worked out in the new collective bargaining agreement, the reduced salaries for rookies will be an interesting change in the game.
It can't be forgotten that the NFL installed a rookie pool that was supposed to hold down rookie salaries. Smart agents destroyed it quickly, starting when the Seahawks gave an option bonus to quarterback Rick Mirer in 1993. The system was set up for rookies to get 3 percent of the salary cap. Option bonuses allowed guaranteed money for first-rounders to explode.
Before long, agents threw in escalator clauses that allowed rookie salaries to grow to $10 million or more during the contract. One-time bonuses were added to squeeze in more money. The next thing you knew, the Rams had no choice but to give Sam Bradford, the first pick in the 2010 draft, a six-year, $78 million contract that included $50 million in guarantees.
Even at this late date in the lockout, the NFL made a significant move in getting players to agree on a partial remedy to fix the first-round problem. Last Friday, owners and players agreed on a structure that would give Cam Newton, the first pick in this draft, around $22 million over the first four years of his contract. Debates over the fifth year caused a blow-up that broke off talks until Wednesday.
Understand that owners aren't getting the savings from reduced rookie salaries. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners promised to take the excess and give half to veteran players and half to retired players. Nice concept. The players of the future can take care of the players of the past.
The late Gene Upshaw, former executive director of the NFLPA, was adamant about not re-adjusting rookie contracts. He knew Bradford's $12-million-a-year deal and the high guarantee amount positively impacted the future negotiations of other quarterbacks. But things got too crazy. Teams at the top of the draft lost all trade value for picks. No team wanted to trade for those contracts.
No matter what Newton and others at the top of the draft receive, those contracts won't impact future veteran negotiations at their positions. The players presented a fifth-year solution last Friday that asked owners to pay the top 16 players a salary calculated at the top 10 of their position. For example, Newton would be eligible for a $13.64 million salary in Year 5, ultimately giving him a five-year, $35.64 million contract.
Owners came back with a formula that would give Newton a fifth-year salary of around $4 million, making his deal $26 million over five years. Both sides went back to work.
Most likely, first-round contracts will end up being four-year deals on which teams hold the fifth-year options. They could exercise that option at the end of the third or fourth year.
History teaches us that a sizable chunk of first-rounders probably won't get to the fifth season. In drafts from 2004 to 2007, 31 first-rounders didn't make it to the fifth seasons with their original teams. JaMarcus Russell was the first pick in 2007 and one of the greatest busts in NFL history. He lasted only three seasons and 26 starts in Oakland but was able to walk away from the Raiders with more than $30 million in guarantees.
Under the proposed new system, a Russell-like bust would cost the team only $22 million if the team doesn't pick up the fifth year of the contract.
Not only did 31 first-rounders from 2004 to 2007 not make it to a fifth season with their original teams, but six more were traded during their fifth seasons. That list included wide receiver Roy Williams, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Jason Allen, tackle Jammal Brown, linebacker Bobby Carpenter and running back Laurence Maroney.
Williams and Brown were traded for value, and Edwards went to the Jets at a discount after the Browns tired of him. But more than half of that group may not have had their fifth-year options exercised.
The draft isn't an exact science. Draftees fail. Injuries happen. Coaching changes may make a player's talents a bad fit in a new scheme. If history repeats itself, seven, eight or nine players from this year's draft won't have their fifth-year options exercised.
In reality, owners and players are talking about only 25 first-rounders being affected by the debate over what those players will make in the fifth year. Solutions are many. Escalator clauses could determine salaries based on performance and playing time. Four-year contracts can be given for picks from No. 17 to No. 32 in the first round.
That's why this issue should be settled reasonably quickly. The NFL and its players aren't going to let the salaries of two dozen players for the 2015 season destroy the 2011 season.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.