How Rookie-Deal Rentals Are Changing Team-Building in the NFL

Exchanging draft picks for an underpaid Pro Bowler still on a rookie deal is the new win-now move.

Defensive end Aaron Donald #99 of the Los Angeles Rams reacts after a tackle against the Arizona Cardinals. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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For most of NFL history, franchises have built their teams primarily from the draft. The Ringer writes that with owners holding tight control over the wage scale of players who are just entering the league, the power of the draft now lies in rookie contracts and this is changing the way teams are built. The deals that NFL rookies get are team-friendly, making those players increasingly important for teams looking to win right away. You can see a prime example of this in the Rams last year. Aaron Donald earned Defensive Player of the Year honors on a rookie contract paying him a $1.8 million salary. That’s not all. His teammate, Todd Gurley, the Offensive Player of the Year, made $1.7 million this season from his rookie contract. The Ringer writes that Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2013 on a price tag of just $526,217. In comparison, Russel Westbrook earns $348,000 per game. The most valuable asset a team can have is a guy playing like an All-Pro but getting paid like a rookie, writes The Ringer. But these players are not easy to find and drafting is difficult. A lot of it relies on nothing but luck. So instead of drafting, teams have decided to trade for rookie contracts. In the last year alone, there have been more than a half-dozen trades where teams rented out a proven player on the back end of his rookie contract: Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Jay Ajayi, Kelvin Benjamin, Sheldon Richardson, Ronald Darby, Timmy Jernigan, and just last week, Marcus Peters. Teams are still building through the draft, but they are just using someone else’s draft instead of their own.

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