Back in July 2011, as a heated standoff over a new collective bargaining agreement continued into its fourth month, NFL owners and the players association found themselves at one final impasse over how to pay rookies.
Owners wanted first-round picks, whose contracts had ballooned into the tens of millions, to be under team control for at least five years. The players association agreed that rookies shouldn’t be among the league’s highest paid, but demanded a quicker route to free agency.
The players blinked first. As Cam Newton waited to sign his deal as the No. 1 overall pick, the NFLPA agreed to a wage-scale system that would keep him under team control for four years and $22 million — less than half the guaranteed money that the Rams handed over to Sam Bradford the year before.
Still, the owners wanted more. In a Washington Post editorial, Packers president Mark Murphy wrote that “the system is so bad that some teams no longer want picks in the top part of the first round.” In a months-long PR battle, they pushed this message relentlessly, “No other business operates this way,” Murphy said, “and no other union gives its entry-level hires such privileges.”
By the end of the month, the two sides struck a deal. First-round picks would sign four-year deals, with a team option for a fifth year. The lockout lifted. Players went back to work. Soon, some would realize how much they lost.
Five years later, Rams training camp opened in Irvine with standout defensive tackle Aaron Donald conspicuously absent. At the start of his fourth year, Donald was already the NFL’s preeminent interior lineman and arguably one of the league’s best players. But due to the wage scale agreed to by the union, he’s set to earn just $3.2 million in 2017, 34th-most among NFL defensive tackles.
The Rams are under no obligation to change that. In April, the team exercised Donald’s fifth-year option, ensuring he’s under team control through the 2018 season. For another year, they’ll still have him at a major discount, at just under $6.9 million. After that, they could use the franchise tag — another 2011 addition to the CBA — to keep him away from unrestricted free agency.
“Six years is so far beyond the average career span,” says longtime agent Leigh Steinberg, who once called Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, and Steve Young clients. “Essentially, (Donald) is being paid for half of his career based on draft position, not on accomplishment. This…