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Two sides should be able to fix NFL rookie wage scale

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

NFL owners and players have much to work through before they can agree on a new collective-bargaining agreement that would save the 2011 season.

But one issue that shouldn’t take much discussion is rookie compensation.

Since 2000, first-round players have collected $3.5 billion in guaranteed money before stepping onto an NFL field for a snap, according to documents obtained Wednesday by the Sun-Times. The first-round guarantees have increased an average of 12 percent a year to a staggering $525 million in 2010.

During that span, the Bears have selected nine players in the first round, and only two — Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher — have been selected for the Pro Bowl. But notable disappointments like David Terrell (eighth overall, 2001), Michael Haynes (14th, 2003) and Cedric Benson (fourth, 2005) collected $30.6 million in guarantees.

The system is broke, and the owners and players need to fix it.

The NBA has an assortment of problems, but its rookie wage scale makes sense: Outstanding college players selected high are compensated handsomely, but they won’t cash monster paychecks until they prove themselves as professionals.

With a wage scale, NFL owners could funnel money to veterans who earn their pay, as opposed to busts like JaMarcus Russell ($32 million), Charles Rogers ($14.2 million and Matt Leinart ($12.9 million). Meanwhile, high draft picks that fulfill their potential — players like Philip Rivers, Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Julius Peppers and Patrick Willis — will just have to save the Bentley and beachside condo purchases for their second contracts.

The broken system also has punished the non-lottery picks who have made an immediate NFL impact — for example, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.

The 24th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Johnson has earned a Pro Bowl spot in each of his three NFL seasons at a position with the shortest career expectancy. Johnson’s rookie contract was for five years and included $6.9 million in guarantees, though the Titans modestly sweetened his deal last year.

The Bears have been widely criticized for not hitting on more first- and second-round picks under general manager Jerry Angelo. The jury still is out on guard/offensive tackle Chris Williams, the 14th overall pick in 2008 who received $9.49 million in guarantees.

But when it comes to shortcomings in scouting, the Bears aren’t alone. The Green Bay Packers, for example, have selected three players in the top 10 since 2000 — Jamal Reynolds, A.J. Hawk and B.J. Raji — but they have combined to earn only one Pro Bowl spot (Hawk) despite cashing in on guarantees of $52.46 million.

According to the Associated Press, during talks for a new CBA, the league proposed eliminating holdouts by reducing the maximum allowable salary if a rookie isn’t signed when training camp begins. This generally hasn’t been a problem for the Bears, who are the league’s most aggressive at signing rookies long before training camp.

Negotiations have been at a standstill since the NFL Players Association decertified and the owners locked out players last month. But the two sides are scheduled to participate in a court-mandated mediation session today in Minneapolis.

While there are plenty of details to hammer out, perhaps they could generate some momentum by knocking out the rookie wage scale first.

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