Looking Back at the Old NFL Rookie Contracts

The Arizona Cardinals and 4th overall pick Marvin Harrison, Jr. came to terms yesterday on a four year, $35,374,742 contract. As has become custom with draft picks, contract details get reported on as if there was some unexpected twist. Certainly, that isn’t the case as we had this as Harrison’s projected contract for maybe two months now and rookie contracts are basically all boiler plate deals. I thought it might be a good time to take a trip down memory lane and look at how one of the old rookie contracts worked, using another former Cardinals draft pick- Larry Fitzgerald- as an example.

The Base Contract Value

The base value of the contracts in the old system was not so different than today’s contracts.  Most of the contracts were five year contracts with an option to extend to six years. However, the option decision (or salary advance mechanism) were made after the first season was complete, not multiple seasons as they are now. In almost every case the option was always picked up and generally these were viewed as part of the base value of the contract.

For Fitzgerald the value with the option being exercised was $17,737,500 for six years, an APY of $2.956 million. If they opted to decline the option and instead pay the non-exercise fee (it was an identical number to the option bonus) it would turn the contract into a a five year, $16.382 million contract, an APY of $3.276 million. Here is the cash schedule of that contract.

YearSalarySigning BonusOption BonusCashRunning Cash

As for the guarantee, for this particular contract the original 2005 to 2008 salaries were fully guaranteed at signing. Those totaled $6.825 million. The 2004 salary was not guaranteed but clearly was going to be earned. The guarantee was protection against being released prior to the option as the option payment would void the remaining guarantees even though the option was lower than the $6.825 million salary.

The One Timer/Log Bonus

All of the old rookie contracts had a bonus that was available every year of the contract but once earned would be void in any year thereafter, making it a one time bonus, hence the name one timer. The phrase log bonus was also used to describe these bonuses because earning it was as easy as falling off a log.

Here were the provisions needed to earn the bonus. In the rookie year

35% playing time and any one of the following:

Rookie of the year

Offensive rookie of the year

41 receptions

Leads team in receptions

801 receiving yards

18.6 yards per reception

12 touchdowns

1,601 total offensive yards

Team improves in net yards on offense provided it is not bottom five in the NFL

Team improves in net yards per pass play provided it is not bottom five in the NFL

Team’s win total increases and not bottom five in the NFL.

If earned Fitzgerald would receive a one time payment of $2.7 million which would be paid early in the second year of the contract.

If unearned, Fitzgerald would have the same opportunity to earn the bonus based on his 2nd year performance. The terms were identical except the playtime threshold would increase to 45% playtime. If unearned in year two the same terms would apply in year 3.

Most players earned this bonus based on the year one performance. Here is now how the salary structure of the contract looks.

YearSalarySigning BonusOption BonusOne TimerCashRunning Cash

The contract is now up to $20.4 million, a $3.4M APY.

Log Escalator Clauses

The one timer criteria also applied to salary escalators in the contract. The first escalator was available in 2006. This would be unlocked if the one time bonus was earned based on Fitzgerald’s performance in either 2004 or 2005. It would increase his 2006 salary by $2.75 million.

The 2007 salary could also escalate by $2.75 million if he fulfilled that one timer criteria in any of the 2004, 2005, or 2006 seasons.

In 2008 the escalator was worth $3.5 million and he could earn this provided he fulfilled that one timer criteria one time between 2004 and 2007.

The biggest one was in 2009. Here the salary would escalate by $11 million if he hit the one timer criteria in any one season prior to 2009.

Here is what the contract looks like if the 2007 escalator is earned.

YearSalarySigning BonusOption BonusOne TimerLog EscalatorCashRunning Cash

The contract is now up to $40.437 million, an APY of $6.7 million. This was the likely to be earned value of the contract since the bonuses were so easy to earn. In later years players would have more protection in the event they did not earn the bonuses right away as escalators would double up (i.e the 2007 escalator would be worth $5.5 million if the 2006 escalator was unearned). The escalators would also be guaranteed in many cases once unlocked.

To put the contract in perspective, the four year value would work out to an APY of $5.87 million in 2004. That is the same value as a player selected 8th in 2024. The salary cap in 2004 was 80.58 million it is over $250M right now. The fifth year options move the salary further for today’s players but this just illustrates how much teams now benefit from the new rules.

If we assume that contracts just grew with the cap (and the reality is they outpaced the cap) Fitzgerald’s contract in today’s salary cap era would be worth $128.1 million, an APY of $21M over 6 years. It would make him the 14th highest paid receiver in the NFL without playing a down of football.

The High End Escalators

Rookies were also rewarded for outperforming the basic contract parameters. Typically these were only made available after the one timer was earned (though in almost every case it would be impossible to earn these without hitting the one timer).

The first escalator was in 2007. This was worth $5 million and would be earned if Fitzgerald wound up with 270 receptions from 2004-2006. He did not earn this as he fell 40 receptions short. This one was a near impossible escalator.

There were two escalators in 2008. The first was a $5 million escalator that would be earned if selected to one Pro Bowl between 2004 and 2007. Fitzgerald did achieve this in 2005.

The second escalator was worth another $5 million and that required two Pro Bowls between 2004 and 2007. Fitzgerald achieved this in 2007.

In 2009 there was a $5 million escalator which was also tied to one Pro Bowl selection between 2004 and 2007.

Here is what the max package would look like for Fitzgerald if he achieved all of the escalators.

YearSalarySigning BonusOption BonusOne TimerLog EscalatorHigh End EscalatorCashRunning Cash

Now we have a six year, $60.4 million contract, an APY of just under $10.1 million per year.

Putting it All In Perspective

Because Fitzgerald’s contract was tied to Pro Bowls we have an easier comparison to today’s NFL players. Fitzgerald’s contract allowed him to reach $38 million over five years. A wide receiver in 2024 with one Pro Bowl in the first three years would wind up with a fifth year salary of around $20 million. That would put this 2004 contract on par with the 10th or 11th pick in the draft in terms of five year value.

Fitzgerald’s six year value was $55.5 million. The comparison we would make here would be picking up the fifth year option and then tagging the player. Because the tag value would be very high that would drop Fitzgerald rookie contract to around the value of the 20th pick in the draft, which is pretty good for a contract that is 20 years old.

If we inflate these numbers for the growth in the cap we would have a max value of $191 million or a ridiculous $31.9M per year, which would make him the 2nd highest paid receiver in the NFL. Based on what he earned it would be the equivalent of a $29 million per year contract.

These numbers are why teams had far less leverage in extensions talks. Not only were these contracts a salary cap nightmare because of the heavy back end escalation but the players already made a great living just by being productive players. In today’s NFL the first real payday comes when the player can sign an extension so the player winds up rushing into it whereas a player like Fitzgerald would have had a $100M+ cushion just based on his rookie contract. Everyone would benefit because Fitzgerald’s eventual extension would be massive since he had the leverage. Those benefits have all vanished for the players.

This one was actually a pretty straightforward contract compared to what things would become just a few years later as guarantees grew more and more and options to earn them grew more and more. But these contracts all required far more effort and thought and were much more meaningful than anything in today’s NFL.