Sam Bradford, a quarterback, was the top pick of the 2010 NFL draft. He signed a contract with the St. Louis Rams for a whopping $76 million. In 2020, the top pick was also a QB: Joe Burrow, drafted by the Bengals, got an estimated contract of $36 million – less than half of what Sam Bradford made 10 years before.
Joe Burrow can’t be worth less than half of Sam Bradford, can he?
First round picks in the NFL make a lot less than they used to – in fact, the entire way rookies are paid has changed substantially since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. We’re going to tell you exactly how much first round draft picks made – if you’re looking for that info, you can skip to the bottom. Before we get there, though, it’s a good idea to understand why first round pick salaries look the way they do.
To that end, we’re going to be talking about salary caps, minimum rookie salaries, and a whole lot more. Strap in.
The Rookie Compensation Pool
That Sam Bradford contract was huge – he was being paid substantially more than some veteran players. By 2010, rookie contracts had become obscene, and nobody was happy about it, so rules were put into place to ensure the price for rookies wasn’t so inflated.
One of those rules is the Rookie Compensation Pool. This pool is a league-wide limit on how much all rookies (drafted or undrafted) can make. Rookies are only allowed to sign 4-year contracts (with the exception of 5-year extensions for round 1 drafts – we’ll cover all of this in the next section). The rookie compensation pool for a given year is the total that all rookies, combined, can receive over the course of their 4-year contracts.
That total compensation pool is then divided among the teams, based on how many picks they’re getting and in which rounds they’re making those picks. Each club also has a Year-One Rookie Allocation (out of the League’s Year-One Rookie Compensation Pool). These factors are what determine the maximum salaries a given team can pay its rookies.
Rookie Contract Basics
Now we know there’s a hard maximum of how much you can pay a given rookie – it’s equal to your club’s Total Rookie Allocation (your portion of the Rookie Compensation Pool). Of course, if you paid your Round One pick the maximum you were allocated, you would hit your cap and be unable to pay any of the other rookies you signed. That means the functional limit is quite a bit lower.
This hard limit has created an environment where rookie contracts can’t be very heavily negotiated. You may have heard the term “likely to be earned” in relation to incentives offered by NFL contracts. For rookies, almost all performance incentives are considered “likely to be earned” and count against the Total Rookie Allocation.
As such, rookie contracts are almost boilerplate – it’s their salary, signing bonus, and maybe a small incentive like a workout bonus.
All rookie contracts are for 4 years. That leaves rookies locked in – and looking for guaranteed cash.
Rookie Contract Negotiation
This system doesn’t leave a lot of room for rookies to negotiate their contracts. Most of the negotiation revolves around when the rookie is going to be paid. Clubs want to pay rookies as little salary as possible in the first season – that way, if they don’t work out, the club can drop them from the roster and (potentially) create space around their cap.
Players, of course, want to be paid as quickly as possible – and they want guaranteed money. This will often lead clubs to offer substantial signing bonuses upfront – guaranteed cash – while pushing salaried pay to the back end.
Note that the League doesn’t actually care when money gets paid – they simply take the total value of all of the team’s rookie contracts and divide them by four to determine whether or not it meets a team’s Year-One Allocation.
The Fifth-Year Option
Here’s where things get really interesting for first round picks. Teams want to protect these picks, so first round contracts have an extra stipulation: the Fifth-Year Option. Here’s the basics: a team who signed a first round pick can opt to extend their contract for a fifth year. The player must accept – they will, however, not be paid at a rookie rate.
Should a club elect to use a contract’s Fifth-Year Option, the salary of that player does not count against their Rookie Pool Allocation. The team must also pay a predetermined salary to the player, depending on when they were drafted:
- If a rookie was a top 10 pick, they are paid the average of the 10 highest yearly salaries that players in their position were paid last year.
- If a rookie was picked 11-32, they are paid the average of 3-25 highest yearly salaries that players in their position were paid last year.
Are First Round NFL Picks Guaranteed Money?
They are – and in more ways than one. We’ve taken a look at how the Rookie Compensation Pool might affect the rookie wage scale – given that first round picks are worth much more than 7th round picks, you can expect that the first pick will be one of the highest earners in the League, while the last pick will get substantially less remuneration.
Guaranteed money for first round picks comes in two forms. First, the guaranteed money we’ve already discussed – whatever signing bonus they earn.
More commonly, however, guaranteed money refers to one of three things in a player’s contract: the skill guarantee, cap guarantee, and injury guarantee. These contract terms are kind of like insurance:
- Skill guarantees ensure that the player still receives money if they’re dropped for lack of skill.
- Cap guarantees ensure that the player still receives money if they’re dropped in order to meet salary caps (all but ensuring the player won’t be dropped to avoid going over the cap).
- Injury guarantees ensure that the player will still get money if they’re released but cannot play football due to medical reasons sustained during team activities (games, workouts, etc.).
Having your money guaranteed against all three is known as a full guarantee. Most first round contracts are fully guaranteed for four years. That means first round picks will likely get both their signing bonus and their full four year salary (though exceptions do occur).
All first round picks (and all rookies) have a minimum base yearly salary – $610,000. Note that for a first round pick, almost (or all) of that $610,000 is likely to be guaranteed, as described above. A 7th round pick, on the other hand, is likely to only have a fraction of that salary guaranteed.
Do NFL Players Get Paid Weekly?
Now that we’ve established how guaranteed money and signing bonuses work, as well as the minimum salary, it’s time to look at how the money gets paid out.
A signing bonus is often paid when the contract is signed (it’s right there in the name). Remember, the NFL simply takes the total value of a contract and divides by four when determining how the contract affects the Year-One Rookie Allocation.
Salary, on the other hand, is paid out weekly over the course of 17 weeks – out of a minimum $610,000 salary, that amounts to about $35,882 per week. Note that this only covers the amounts paid for the regular season. NFL players do not get paid their base salary during the playoffs – they’re instead paid set amounts from a postseason fund created by the League.
How Much Time Does Each Team Get in the First Round of the Draft?
As you can tell by now, rookie contracts are somewhat complicated – when you’re signing a rookie, you have two caps to consider, and you know that your first round pick is probably going to take up a good portion of your Total Rookie Allocation – especially if their salary is fully guaranteed. Teams want to make the absolute best choice – it’s one of the most impactful salary decisions they make each year – but how much time do they have?
In the first round, teams have 10 minutes to make their picks (they then get 7 minutes in round 2, 5 minutes in rounds 3-6, and 4 minutes in round 7). This means that the team who picks last has the most time to think about their picks – of course, most of the “picking” is done well before the draft.
Club managers think long and hard about the rookies they’re going to draft, so you’d best believe they have lists of the players they want in the first round, and alternative picks if they can’t get those players. In other words, while they only have 10 minutes to make their pick, there’s a lot of prepwork that gets done long before the draft.
How Much the 2020 NFL First Round Picks Will Get Paid
Without further ado, here’s the list of the 32 players drafted in round one of the 2020 season, the value of their total contracts, and their signing bonuses.
|Pick # (Team)||Player||Total contract value||Signing bonus|
|1 (CIN)||Joe Burrow|
|2 (WAS)||Chase Young||$34,563,594||$22,697,160|
|3 (DET)||Jeff Okudah||$33,528,544||$21,944,396|
|4 (NYG)||Andrew Thomas||$32,345,588||$21,084,064|
|5 (MIA)||Tua Tagovailoa||$30,275,438||$19,578,500|
|6 (LAC)||Justin Herbert||$26,578,755||$16,890,004|
|7 (CAR)||Derrick Brown||$23,621,405||$14,739,203|
|8 (ARI)||Isaiah Simmons||$20,664,055||$12,588,404|
|9 (JAC)||C.J. Henderson||$20,516,020||$12,480,744|
|10 (CLE)||Jedrick Wills Jr.||$19,702,914||$11,889,390|
|11 (NYJ)||Mekhi Becton||$18,446,048||$10,975,308|
|12 (LV)||Henry Ruggs III||$16,671,626||$9,684,820|
|13 (TB)||Tristan Wirfs||$16,228,026||$9,362,200|
|14 (SF)||Javon Kinlaw||$15,488,692||$8,824,504|
|15 (DEN)||Jerry Jeudy||$15,192,974||$8,609,436|
|16 (ATL)||A.J. Terrell||$14,305,748||$7,964,180|
|17 (DAL)||CeeDee Lamb||$14,010,012||$7,749,100|
|18 (MIA)||Austin Jackson||$13,640,342||$7,480,252|
|19 (LV)||Damon Arnette||$13,418,540||$7,318,940|
|20 (JAC)||K’Lavon Chaisson||$13,344,613||$7,265,172|
|21 (PHI)||Jalen Reagor||$13,270,676||$7,211,400|
|22 (MIN)||Justin Jefferson||$13,122,805||$7,103,856|
|23 (LAC)||Kenneth Murray Jr.||$12,974,941||$6,996,320|
|24 (NO)||Cesar Ruiz||$12,679,205||$6,781,240|
|25 (SF)||Brandon Aiyuk||$12,531,342||$6,673,704|
|26 (GB)||Jordan Love||$12,383,451||$6,566,148|
|27 (SEA)||Jordyn Brooks||$12,235,607||$6,458,624|
|28 (BAL)||Patrick Queen||$12,161,671||$6,404,852|
|29 (TEN)||Isaiah Wilson||$11,568,389||$5,973,376|
|30 (MIA)||Noah Igbinoghene||$11,254,210||$5,744,880|
|31 (MIN)||Jeff Gladney||$10,991,030||$5,553,476|
|32 (KC)||Clyde Edwards-Helaire||$10,821,570||$5,430,232|
As you can see, many of the things we’ve discussed pop up in these contracts – mainly, the large signing bonus in order to incentivize players to join with guaranteed funds. Of course, in many of these contracts most of their salary will be guaranteed, but who doesn’t want a $23 million dollar check just for signing on the dotted line? I know it would be hard for me to turn down. With that, you know just about everything you need to when it comes to rookie contracts and why the salary of first round NFL picks has gone down so much since 2010. We will, of course, expect to see the size of these salaries increase as the salary cap for each team increases – what keeps the players and club owners happy is that these rookie salaries will always be a fixed portion of the team cap, so they shouldn’t balloon out of control.