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How Rookie-Deal Rentals Are Changing NFL Team-Building

Exchanging a handful of draft picks for an underpaid Pro Bowler still on a rookie deal is the new win-now move—and the trend could set the stage for a new trade-happy league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For decades, NFL franchises have built their teams primarily through the draft. With owners holding tight control over the wage scale of players entering the league, the power of the draft lies in rookie contracts. The deals NFL rookies sign are laughably team-friendly, making those players increasingly important for teams looking to win right away.

Just look at the Rams last season: Aaron Donald earned Defensive Player of the Year honors on a rookie contract paying him a $1.8 million salary, and his teammate Todd Gurley, the Offensive Player of the Year, made $1.7 million this season from his rookie contract. In the 2013 season, Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory on a price tag of just $526,217. To compare him with another Russell who was supposed to play in Seattle, Russell Westbrook earns $348,000 per game. In the NFL, the most valuable asset a team can have is a guy playing like an All-Pro but getting paid like a rookie.

Those types of players are hard to find. Drafting is difficult and involves a lot of luck. So rather than relying on the draft, teams have found a workaround to get good players on rookie contracts: trade for them. In the last year, the NFL has seen 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. By flipping future draft picks for underpaid Pro Bowl talent, teams are still building through the draft—they’re just doing it through someone else’s draft.

It seems counterintuitive at first that rookie deals are becoming more valuable. In 2005, the salary cap was $85.5 million. In 2017, the cap was $167 million, and it could be as high as $178 million in 2018. That’s made it easier for teams to hang on to highly paid players. Just look at the Eagles: Philadelphia has all of the following players on long-term, big-money contracts:

  • DT Fletcher Cox
  • RT Lane Johnson
  • WR Alshon Jeffery
  • DE Vinny Curry
  • TE Zach Ertz
  • C Jason Kelce
  • RG Brandon Brooks
  • S Malcolm Jenkins
  • DE Brandon Graham
  • LT Jason Peters

That’s an amazing core, and it’s supplemented by cheap rookies the Eagles drafted, like QB Carson Wentz, S Jalen Mills, and DE Derek Barnett.

The Eagles merged the old wisdom of building through the draft with new wisdom of embracing large contracts, but what made them the most complete team in football was how they filled out the margins of their roster: adding above-average contributors who barely made a dent in their limited salary cap space. By effectively renting the rookie deals of Ajayi, Jernigan, and Darby, the Eagles completed their team.

Like most new trends, renting rookie deals started with Bill Belichick. Last season, the Saints sent star wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth-rounder to New England in exchange for the Patriots’ first- and third-round picks.

“In Bill Belichick’s mind, having two years of Cooks on a rookie deal was more valuable to the Pats than having four years (and a fifth-year team option) of a player he could have taken with the 32nd overall pick,” The Ringer’s Robert Mays noted in his year-end lessons in team-building. “Belichick was willing to pay a premium for certainty.”

Identifying players who can outperform their contracts allows teams to pack in extra talent at the margins of their rosters. The strategy seems to work. Of the seven rookie-deal rentals that happened in the last year, four involved the Patriots or the Eagles. In a league willing to copy anything that succeeds, rookie deals could become a defining feature of trades this offseason.

As valuable as rookie contracts are, selling off a good player on a rookie deal also makes sense for the teams that aren’t on the cusp of a playoff run. Often, a team will have a talented player on a rookie deal that it isn’t interested in re-signing, whether because of salary cap constraints (Jernigan), injury concerns (Watkins), or chemistry issues (Ajayi). In the past, teams have let these guys leave in free agency and collected the compensatory draft picks (picks that are awarded to teams that lose more quality players in free agency than they sign).

Now, teams are realizing they can trade a player they don’t want to re-sign while he’s still on a rookie deal for a better draft pick than the compensatory system would offer. Instead of the Saints getting a compensatory third-round pick for Cooks, which would have landed around no. 97 overall in the 2020 draft, the Saints nabbed the no. 32 pick overall in 2017. Punting on the compensatory system for a real pick also means the team doesn’t have to worry about lavish spending in free agency, which many teams vying for compensatory picks must avoid.

That creates a big space for trade partners to find mutually beneficial ground. If the trade deadline was any indication, we could be in line to see more trades than in any previous offseason, and the rookie-deal rental may soon become the new bread-and-butter trade in league economics. So with more of these trades on the horizon, here’s a chronological list of each such rental that happened in the last year.

Brandin Cooks (March 11, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $1.56 million
2018 (Fifth-Year Team Option): $8.5 million
2019: UFA

The Deal

New England Received: Cooks, 2017 fourth-round pick (later forfeited due to Deflategate)
New Orleans Received: 2017 first-round pick (no. 32 overall OT Ryan Ramczyk), 2017 third-round pick (no. 103 OLB Trey Hendrickson)

Like every newfound NFL market inefficiency, the Patriots exploited the rookie-deal rental first. Cooks was reportedly unhappy in New Orleans during the 2016 season, questioning Brees’ arm strength and complaining about his usage. Cooks finished with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in New England, just four catches, 2 yards, and one touchdown behind Rob Gronkowski for the team lead in each category, and his 16.6 yards per reception were seventh in the league. Ramczyk started 16 games for the Saints and looks like New Orleans’s long-term answer at either right or left tackle.

Verdict: Win-Win

Timmy Jernigan (April 4, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $1,017,284
2018: UFA (Note: Jernigan has since been re-signed)

The Deal

Philadelphia Received: Jernigan, 2017 third-round pick (no. 99, CB Rasul Douglas)
Baltimore Received: 2017 third-round pick (no. 74 overall DL Chris Wormley)

You could argue that Philadelphia’s all-in approach to last season began with this trade, when the Eagles snagged Jernigan by trading down just 25 spots in the draft. The Ravens have one of the worst cap situations in football (Hello there, Joe Flacco’s $24.8 million 2018 cap hit!), and didn’t have the space (and maybe the foresight) to keep Jernigan long-term. The Eagles were more than happy to snag him, and he became a pivotal part of the defensive line that helped win the Super Bowl.

Verdict: Fly Eagles Fly

Sammy Watkins (August 11, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $690,000
2018: UFA

The Deal

Los Angeles Received: Watkins, 2018 sixth-round pick
Buffalo Received: 2018 second-round pick, CB E.J. Gaines

In May, the Bills declined Watkins’s fifth-year option that would have kept him in Buffalo for $13.3 million in 2018, a clear indication that they weren’t interested in signing him to a long-term deal. Committing millions of dollars to a perpetually injured receiver didn’t make sense for a rebuilding team. Watkins had eight touchdowns and 593 yards on 39 catches in 2017, and now the Rams may have to use the franchise tag to keep him around. Based on his production, Watkins may not even have earned the Bills a third-round compensatory pick, so flipping him into a second-rounder was a major W.

Verdict: Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills

Ronald Darby (August 11, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $800,426
2018 Cap Hit: $1,058,139
2019: UFA

The Deal

Philadelphia Received: Darby
Buffalo Received: 2018 third-round pick, WR Jordan Matthews

This trade was made in conjunction with the Watkins deal and brought in Matthews to bolster Buffalo’s receiving corps. Matthews was in the last year of his rookie deal, so in addition to adding a third-rounder, the Bills added a receiver under contract for $12 million less than what Watkins would have cost them. As for Philly, Matthews became expendable when Nelson Agholor usurped him as the starting slot receiver, and Darby became a critical piece of Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run.

Verdict: Win-Win

Sheldon Richardson (September 1, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $8,069,000
2018: UFA

The Deal

Seattle Received: Richardson, 2018 seventh-round pick
New York Received: 2018 second-round pick, WR Jermaine Kearse, 2018 seventh-round pick

Jets GM Mike Maccagnan getting a second-round pick and a starting wide receiver for Richardson is a great haul on its own, and it’ll be worth its weight in gold if Richardson ends up signing back with the New York in March, as some reports have indicated. For Seattle, the deal was part of an all-in campaign for one more Super Bowl, but––womp womp––the Seahawks missed the playoffs. Now they lost the pick and may not re-sign Richardson. Sometimes when you reach for a closing window, your fingers get crushed.

Verdict: Take a bow, Mike Maccagnan

Jay Ajayi (October 31, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $325,588
2018 Cap Hit: $1.9 million
2019: UFA

The Deal

Eagles Received: Ajayi
Miami Received: 2018 fourth-round pick

It’s not a coincidence that this is the third time the Eagles appear on this list. The rookie-deal rental is one of the keys that allowed them to build the most complete team in football. Ajayi was reportedly unhappy and underperforming behind a bad offensive line in Miami, but if there were any chemistry issues, they were cured by the City of Brotherly Love. From his arrival in Week 8, he led the team in rushing with 408 yards.

Verdict: Howie Roseman might be the best team builder in the league

Kelvin Benjamin (October 31, 2017)

The Contract

2017 Cap Hit: $529,411
2018 Cap Hit: $8,459,000
2019: UFA

The Deal

Buffalo Received: Benjamin
Carolina Received: 2018 third-round pick, 2018 seventh-round pick

If you’re confused by this deal, don’t worry. So was Steph Curry.

The Bills went from maybe tanking to making their first playoff run of the 21st century, but it’s still surprising to see the Bills turn picks into a receiver in October when they turned a receiver into picks in August. GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott both came to the Bills in 2017 from Carolina, so perhaps they were willing to take an informed risk on Benjamin, whose ouster in Carolina shocked the team.

Verdict: Depends on Benjamin’s 2018

Marcus Peters (February 23, 2018)

The Contract

2018 Cap Hit: $1,741,931
2019 Team Option: $9,507,316

The Deal

Los Angeles Received: Peters, 2018 sixth-round pick
Kansas City Received: 2019 second-round pick, 2018 fourth-round pick

It’s still a mystery as to why the Chiefs would punt on two team-friendly years of perhaps the best cornerback in football. With the Watkins and Peters deals, the Rams have no second-rounders this year or next, but considering their top-end talent and depth, it’s a worthy gamble to connect Peters with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a master at putting his players in positions to maximize their talents. That a player of Peters’s caliber was even on the block with two full seasons left indicates that players on expiring deals who seem safe may be dealt this offseason.

Verdict: On the surface, it’s a runaway win for the Rams