It wasn’t that long ago when NFL rookies commonly missed parts or even all of training camp practice sessions as they attempted to net massive first-year contracts. Football players wanted guarantees that they would be set for life even before playing a snap at the highest level of the sport.
Those days are in the past.
NFL rookie contracts are now simpler. Pay scales are determined by draft order. Individuals selected in the first round are awarded four-year deals that come with an option for a fifth season. Teams are no longer handcuffed by rookie contracts, as players now have to earn their pay increases during regular season and playoff contests.
It’s a fair system for all involved.
Here are the 10 highest-paid NFL rookies of 2014.
10. Eric Ebron – TE – Detroit Lions: $12.25 Million Guaranteed
Ebron’s stock shifted in mock drafts throughout the winter and spring months. The undisputed top tight end of the 2014 draft class, Ebron wowed coaches at the February NFL Combine and in private workouts. It was, however, believed on the afternoon of May 8 that no team with a top-ten pick would use such a high selection on a tight end.
The Cleveland Browns changed that during the first night of the draft. Cleveland moved down from pick No. 4 before selecting the top cornerback on the draft board (more on him later) with the eighth overall pick. With the Lions no longer able to select who was probably atop their overall board, Detroit chose to pair Ebron up with dynamic wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
9. Anthony Barr – LB – Minnesota Vikings: $12.7435 Million Guaranteed
Barr was maybe the most polarizing defensive player of the 2014 draft class. He displayed phenomenal athletic ability while featuring for UCLA. The problem was that the natural running back had only played on the defensive side of the football for a couple of years.
Minnesota needed an upgrade at the quarterback position this past offseason. With Texas A&M phenom Johnny Manziel, Louisville starter Teddy Bridgewater and others available when the ninth overall pick came around, the Vikings instead grabbed Barr.
Minnesota eventually selected the team’s hoped-to-be quarterback for the future when the Vikes took Bridgewater with the final pick of the first round.
8. Justin Gilbert – CB – Cleveland Browns: $12.83 Million Guaranteed
The Browns were the big wheelers and dealers during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Cleveland moved down from fourth overall, swapping picks with the Buffalo Bills and also obtaining Buffalo’s first-round selection for the 2015 draft.
Like Minnesota behind them, the Browns needed to boost the quarterback position. Like Minnesota behind them, the Browns instead took a defensive player with their first pick.
Gilbert was the top cornerback of this past draft class, a defensive back with top-tier athletic skills and also the physical length coveted by modern day coordinators and coaches. While it’s Johnny Manziel, who was taken by the Browns via the No. 22 overall pick, who has earned himself plenty of headlines over the past few months, Gilbert could be the more likely of the two to make an impact beginning on day one of the upcoming regular season.
Gilbert should, so long as he is healthy, be in the starting lineup for the season opener.
7. Mike Evans – WR – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $14.63 Million Guaranteed
Tampa Bay was one of several clubs to pass on the former Heisman Trophy winner known as Johnny Football in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. With second-year quarterback Mike Glennon and free agency acquisition Josh McCown already on the roster, the Bucs used their first pick to grab Manziel’s favorite target while the duo was at Texas A&M.
Evans is, on paper, an ideal NFL wide receiver. He is 6-foot-5 and over 230 pounds. Evans has above-average hands. His route-running needs improvement, but few rookies are pro-ready on Day 1. The Bucs may not have a franchise quarterback on the depth chart in August 2014, but Evans is a potential superstar in-waiting.
6. Jake Matthews – OT – Atlanta Falcons: $16,295,501 Million Guaranteed
Matthews and OT Greg Robinson out of Auburn went back and forth at the top of mock drafts during the 2013 college football season. With Robinson off the board when the Falcons were called to the podium, the club chose to give quarterback Matt Ryan some extra production up front rather than selecting a play-maker such as the previously mentioned Evans.
There is nothing flashy about Matthews as it pertains to his on-the-field production. He gets down and dirty in the trenches. He does well to keep his feet, and Matthews doesn’t let pass-rushers get around him. Some have compared Matthews to Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas.
That’s rather flattering considering that Thomas makes the Pro Bowl literally every season.
5. Khalil Mack – LB – Oakland Raiders: $18.68 Million Guaranteed
The Raiders are an NFL franchise that is in a bad way. Oakland is still at least a couple of years away from being a playoff contender. There are serious rumors that the club could soon be relocated to a different state.
Mack was a game-changer while at the University of Buffalo, setting a NCAA record for the most forced fumbles during a college football career. However, he is not, nor will he ever be, a franchise quarterback. Passing on Manziel and on Bridgewater could mean more than just another losing season for this team.
It could mean the end of the Raiders in Oakland – again.
4. Sammy Watkins – WR – Buffalo Bills: $19.94 Million Guaranteed
Watkins shot up draft boards when he demolished and demoralized the Ohio State secondary in the 2014 Orange Bowl. The Clemson wide receiver went for an incredible 16 catches, 227 yards and two touchdowns in what was to be his final college football game. Buffalo’s front office obviously liked what it saw from Watkins on that night and in pre-draft workouts, as those running the club sacrificed a small piece of the team’s future to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up and take the wide-out.
While Watkins has made several highlight-reel grabs during training camp sessions, he has not gotten all that much help from Buffalo’s top signal caller. Second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel has struggled in practices, to the point that some are wondering if the rookie wide receiver will be able to play as advertised alongside Manuel.
3. Blake Bortles – QB – Jacksonville Jaguars: $20.65 Million Guaranteed
Unlike the undersized Manziel, Bortles is the prototypical pro quarterback. The product of Central Florida is 6-foot-5 and over 230 pounds. He can sit in the pocket, but he is also mobile enough to make plays with his legs.
The biggest knock on Bortles during the draft process was that he would not be NFL ready this fall. It appears that the Jags agree with that assessment.
Veteran QB Chad Henne sits atop the Jacksonville depth chart as of the start of preseason. Henne is expected to remain the team’s starter up through the beginning of the regular season so that Bortles can learn the pro game while holding a clipboard on the sidelines.
Make no mistake, though; Bortles was not drafted to be a backup QB for long.
2. Greg Robinson – OT – St. Louis Rams: $21.28 Million Guaranteed
St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher publicly backed quarterback Sam Bradford during the offseason, essentially taking Manziel, Bortles and Bridgewater off of his draft board. This left the Rams with a decision to make on May 8: take a play-maker on either side of the football, or grab the best offensive lineman of the draft class.
The Rams went with the latter.
Robinson’s versatility is being put to the test this summer, as the Rams are having him practice at both the tackle and guard positions. He has struggled in making the transition right out of the gates. Robinson has Pro Bowl talent and he is an athletic marvel, and it should be a matter of “when” and not “if” he absorbs the playbook and completes the switch to what will be his new role on an offensive line.
1. Jadeveon Clowney – DE – Houston Texans: $22.27 Million Guaranteed
Clowney is a once-in-a-generation prospect, the type of player who goes first overall in NFL Drafts every year for at least a decade. Yes, Houston still needs a franchise quarterback, but passing on Clowney could have been a decision that cost people within the team’s front office and coaching staff their jobs down the road.
Clowney is not yet on the verge of being a pass-rusher for the ages. He’s pretty close, though, and how much work he puts in during practices and inside of the film room will factor into how quickly Clowney reaches his ceiling.
That is assuming that Clowney has a ceiling to begin with.