The NFL Draft kicks off Thursday night with a little less buzz than usual. Blame the lack of star quarterback prospects or can’t miss All-Pros: Top-10 teams are looking to trade but can’t find takers. It’s also a down year for rookie contracts, as the impact of 2020 revenue declines, due to COVID-19, carry over to 2022.
Contracts for draft picks are predetermined by a formula that’s usually tied to the NFL’s salary cap and “rookie pay pool.” But while the NFL’s cap is up 14% for 2022 to $208 million, offers for Thursday’s first-round picks will only rise an average of 2% from 2021. The first pick – Vegas bet on Georgia rusher Travon Walker – is in line for a four-year contract worth $37.4 million, including a $24.4 million signing bonus.
NFL revenue fell by $4 billion in 2020 as fans were largely prevented from attending games due to COVID capacity limits. It triggered an 8% drop in the 2021 cap, marking the first drop since 2011. But as part of CBA 2020, the league and players’ union agreed to “borrow money” against the future rookie pay pools to avoid a drop in rookie offers. It included a 1% increase in signing bonuses for draft picks – the bulk of first-round player contracts – even if the cap was lowered.
The provision was in effect last year when Trevor Lawrence earned a $24.1 million bonus from the Jacksonville Jaguars as the first overall pick. The 1% premium increase is still in effect for 2022. Contracts will also benefit from increased minimum base salaries, which can reach $705,000, up from $660,000 in 2021. The minimum will increase by $45,000 each year to reach $1.065 million by the end of the ABC in 2030.
The 32 first-round picks are expected to sign deals totaling $601 million, including $347 million in signing bonuses. It’s a huge haul, but a fraction of what a previous generation of rookies did. In 2009, first-choice Matthew Stafford signed for $72 million over six years when the cap was just $116 million (the QB again cashed in with a $60 million signing bonus the month last as part of his new $160 million extension with Super Bowl champion Rams.) Sam Bradford got $78 million from the Rams as part of his contract the following year. But the 2011 ABC ended rookies eating a disproportionate amount of the cap because offers were capped by draft slot. Cam Newton, the 2011 No. 1 pick, signed for $22 million over four years.
Rookie contracts are expected to be higher next year in favor of top QB prospects CJ Stroud and Bryce Young, early favorites for the 2022 Heisman Trophy, which Young won last year. But how much higher will ultimately depend on NFL revenue in 2022.
The 2022 NFL Draft will almost certainly be just the seventh time a quarterback hasn’t been picked No. 1 overall since the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning in 1998. Quarterbacks have been the first pick in six of the last seven NFL Drafts.
The first-round picks all receive four-year contracts, with a fifth-year team option. Two-thirds of the 2018 NFL Draft class had their options picked, including all but one of the top 14 picks. The exception was quarterback Josh Rosen, whom the Arizona Cardinals selected 10th, before pivoting the following year by selecting his replacement, Kyler Murray, first overall.