The quote was made famous in the 1960s in reference to the Free Speech movement on college campuses. College students resisting the demand to restrict expression of ideas that didn’t fit a particular political philosophy adopted the concept.
The average age of an NFL rookie is a little over 23 years when he first takes the field. This means a 29-year old is likely playing in his seventh season.
For the first four years in the NFL, rookies play under a rookie contract that’s pretty much set to exact terms by the league and the NFLPA based on draft position and cannot be renegotiated until a player’s fourth season. There’s also a pool of money based on incentives that’s given to fourth-year players.
Rookies are a good deal for NFL teams. The rookie part of the cap is fairly cheap. Teams and agents would know the exact numbers, but my estimate is that about 5-6% percent of the total salary cap goes to covering players under rookie contracts and UDFA contracts.
Bryce Young, the first overall pick, will sign a contract worth about $41 million over four years. That drops by draft position until the final pick in the entire draft – a player who will sign a contract worth about $3.8 million. But keep in mind that the rookie minimum salary is $750,000 (it goes up each year) and is not guaranteed.
The next relevant number is the average career length of an NFL player, which is around three seasons. So the average NFL player has less than a 50% chance of ever getting into the serious money beyond that rookie contract.
Young NFL players cannot be blamed for feeling a little like the embodiment of that quote. Not that $3.8 million isn’t fantastic money and will set you up for life if invested. But that when you hear, for example, that Lamar Jackson just received a $260 million contract, $185 million guaranteed… that doesn’t happen much. It can’t, of course. The salary cap is about $225 million per team and Jackson will average $52 million per year under that contract.
What do teams end up doing? In the recent round of free agency, running from early March until now, just after the draft, hundreds of players with more than four years of experience have been signed. A couple dozen have received contracts worth $10 million or more per season for multiple seasons. That tiny group alone will account for about as much cap space as the entire rookie class. It’s not the norm.
Overall, about 49% of the snaps taken in the NFL are taken by players in their first four years. This is fairly consistent across position groups, with the exception of quarterbacks, who tend to be a bit older as they’re harder and find and generally get paid a lot more than anyone else.
It doesn’t change as much within that four years as you’d think. About 11.6% for rookies, 11.6% for second-year players, 12.4% third-year and 13.7% fourth year. Then that fifth year comes. For former first-rounders, teams have the option of guaranteeing a fifth year under the rookie contract for a good salary. Most of the time, players who have panned out sign that big second contract during their fourth year. That contract often takes them through year seven – or their last year under 30 years of age.
Snaps peak in the fifth year at 13.9%, then 10.2% (sixth year) and 8.2% for seventh-year non-quarterbacks. That adds up to about 82% of league snaps in the first seven seasons. Then it drops quickly – tenth year players are all the way down to 2.3% of snaps.
Aside from the quarterbacks, I was surprised there wasn’t a huge difference among position groups. Running backs, wide receivers and the secondary tend to be a bit younger – in fact running backs are at 90% after seven years. Quarterbacks are at 68% and the second lowest group, offensive linemen, 76%.
When the rookie cap was put in place to address a serious problem with teams being unable to sign draftees, it solved that problem nicely. That kind of structure is great for the overall health of the league. But based on these numbers, I wouldn’t mind seeing it renegotiated to considerably increase the rookie cap, perhaps in the form of doubling the minimum salary, something along those lines.
When draft position determines your compensation for the first three seasons and a good amount of what you’ll make should you last into a fourth season, given the league takes almost half its snap count under that first contract, change seems warranted.