As NFL fans are well aware of by now, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement dramatically altered the value and structure of NFL rookie contracts. No longer do top draft picks enter the league amongst the highest-paid players at their position, handcuffing the teams that draft them if they don't perform to expectations. The 2011 CBA introduced cheaper, simpler, and much more predictable rookie contracts, although a few variables and contingencies still exist.
Marcell Dareus, as the third pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, was one of the first players to feel the effects of the new rookie wage scale. Dareus received a four-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $20.4 million. Gerald McCoy, the 2010 third overall pick and also a defensive tackle, received $44 million over his first four years in the league. Subsequent Buffalo Bills first round picks have all received four-year contracts totaling: $12.08 million (Stephon Gilmore, No. 10 overall), $8.85 million (EJ Manuel, No. 16 overall), and $19.94 million (Sammy Watkins, No. 4 overall).
During each of the three years following 2011, contracts have been tied to the slot (pick in the round) a player has been selected, with that player's contract tied directly to the previous year's contract in the corresponding slot. The numbers rise slightly each year, but generally stay very similar.
Structurally, each first-round pick receives a four-year contract, which for the picks in the Top 20 or so has been fully guaranteed (the No. 19 overall pick was the last slot to receive a fully guaranteed contract last year). For players in the Top 10 (Dareus, Gilmore, and Watkins), a fifth-year team option is available at the value of the previous year's transition tag (the average of the ten largest prior-year salaries at the position). For picks 11-32 (Manuel), the fifth-year salary is the average of third-highest salary down to No. 25 for the position.
In practice, Dareus' 2015 salary will be $8.06 million, or the value of the 2014 transition tag for defensive tackles. Timing-wise, teams must choose to exercise the fifth-year option following the last game of the player's third season in the league, and before May 3 of the subsequent league year (prior to the player's fourth season in the league). The fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed for injury upon exercise of the option, and then fully guaranteed at the start of the player's fifth league year (so for Dareus, on March 10).
Looking forward, the Bills will have to make a decision on Gilmore in the near future, as the clock to exercise his option has already started; the Bills have until May 3 to exercise his fifth-year option for 2016. The 2015 transition tag for a cornerback, and therefore what Gilmore's 2016 salary would be, is a relatively high $11.082 million. Of course, as with Dareus, the Bills can and, if all of the praise heaped upon Gilmore since Rex Ryan's hiring is to be believed, will attempt to negotiate a long-term contract, as all picks under the new CBA are allowed to negotiate and sign contract extensions after their third year in the league.
The fifth-year option does not exist beyond the first round. For second-round picks, players receive considerable guaranteed money (with the percentage decreasing, depending on their slot) under four-year contracts that for 2014 ranged from the first pick of the round receiving $5.55 million (with $3.97 million guaranteed) to the last pick of the round receiving $3.55 million (with $1.41 million guaranteed). Aaron Williams, as the second pick of the round (No. 34 overall), received $5.259 million for his initial four-year contract, while Cordy Glenn (No. 41), Robert Woods (No. 41), and Cyrus Kouandjio (No. 44) have received $4.87 million, $4.87 million, and $4.81 million, respectively.
My earlier point about salary slotting is easily demonstrated by the similarities between Glenn and Woods' contracts. Both players were chosen with the ninth pick of the second round; Glenn's 2011 contract totaled $4,865,180 with $2,929,457 guaranteed, while Woods' 2012 contract totaled $4,866,769 with $2,495,685 guaranteed. Although the guaranteed money varied by a few hundred thousand dollars, the average per year difference between the two contracts was less than $1,000.
Lastly, for players drafted beyond the second round, the value and guaranteed money continues to drop, with the only guaranteed money players receive now coming in the form of their original signing bonus. The only upside for players drafted this late is the presence of the mandatory "proven performance escalator." This fourth-year salary escalator is triggered if a player participates in 35 percent of offensive or defensive plays in any two of his first three regular seasons, or if the player participates in a cumulative average during his first three seasons of 35 percent of the team's plays. If a player hits this escalator, his fourth-year salary jumps up to the non-guaranteed amount of the lowest restricted free agent tender (for 2015, this amount is $1.542 million). For a player such as seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson, whose pre-escalator, four-year contract totaled $2.27 million over four years, a jump in the fourth-year salary from $690,000 to (by that time) over $1.6 million is a considerable increase.
In 2014, Da'Norris Searcy was the only Bills draft pick of those eligible (Dareus and Aaron Williams are excluded) to receive the escalator, while Chris Hairston would have received it had he not failed to achieve an accrued season during 2013 due to being on the non-football injury list with an undisclosed illness. In 2015, linebacker Nigel Bradham will receive it (the only other Bills 2012 draft pick that is still on the roster and eligible is Ron Brooks, but he has not played enough). For upcoming seasons, Preston Brown, Duke Williams, and the aforementioned Henderson are the only current Bills players that appear likely to receive it.