NFL Rookie Signing Bonuses Rise Only 1% as COVID Fallout Lingers

NFL Rookie Signing Bonuses Rise Only 1% as COVID Fallout Lingers

The 2023 NFL draft kicked off as expected with the Carolina Panthers choosing Bryce Young as the No. 1 pick. Alabama has become the ultimate NFL feeder program, but the quarterback was the first player from the Crimson Tide picked first overall since Harry Gilmer in 1948.

After Young was selected, the usual draft chaos broke out with a half-dozen trades, including the Texans moving up to third to take Will Anderson Jr. after they selected C.J. Stroud second. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, who was widely expected to be a top-10 pick, was not selected in the first round.

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The NFL is a financial juggernaut. Jalen Hurts signed a five-year, $255 million deal last week that was the richest by average value in the history of the league. The record lasted 10 days before Lamar Jackson signed his five-year, $260 million pact Thursday. The Washington Commanders are on the verge of being sold for $6 billion.

But this year’s crop of draft picks will still feel the effects of the COVID-19-induced revenue downturn in their contracts. Young is expected to receive a four-year deal worth $38 million, including a $24.6 million signing bonus, according to a source familiar with the projected contracts who was not authorized to speak publicly. The bonus is only 1% higher than what last year’s top pick, Travon Walker, received. Agents are still waiting on final numbers from the NFLPA on the rookie compensation pools, and they are expecting them next week, according to multiple agents.

Contracts for draft picks are predetermined by a formula that is typically tied to the NFL salary cap. But the cap declined 8% in 2021—the first decline since 2011—following a $4 billion revenue drop in 2020 when games took place under COVID-induced stadium capacity restrictions. The league and players union agreed to amend the usual rookie salary formula to not penalize the 2021 draft class.

The compromise was to “borrow money” against future rookie compensation pools to prevent a decline in rookie deals. It called for 1% increases in draft pick signing bonuses—the bulk of first-round player contracts—even if the cap was down. The system remained in place last year when the cap rose 14%. The 2023 salary cap is $224.8 million, up 8%, but the rookie signing bonuses are up only 1% once again.

The current rookie salary slot system was put in place in 2011. Before that, agents could shoot for the moon with their deals. The 2009 top pick, Matthew Stafford signed for $72 million over six years, while Sam Bradford got $78 million the following year. Cam Newton, the 2011 No. 1 pick, signed for $22 million over four years.

This year’s draft featured only 31 first-round picks; the Dolphins forfeited their first pick after a 2022 investigation found the club violated NFL tampering rules when recruiting quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton while they were under existing contracts with other teams. Those 31 picks are projected to sign contracts worth a total of $599 million, including $343 million in signing bonuses. The total value is up 2%, versus the comparable picks in 2022, as the minimum base salary has increased to $750,000; it was $705,000 last year.

The first-round picks all receive four-year deals, with a fifth-year team option. Twenty of the 32 picks in the 2019 draft had their options picked up. The highest-drafted player not to have his option exercised was Giants QB Daniel Jones. The sixth overall pick put up a career season in 2022 and was rewarded with a four-year, $160 million pact. The 2023 option would have been $22.4 million.

The draft resumes Friday night with the second and third-round picks.

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