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Thursday, April 14, 2011
A decade of losing cost Lions $213 million

By Kevin Seifert

By now you know the NFL is pushing hard to reform its rookie wage scale, one that we've discussed on a number of occasions over the past two years as the Detroit Lions have twice guaranteed $40-plus million to a first-round draft pick. The NFL Players Association isn't objecting to the concept, either, although the sides didn't agree on every detail before the lockout began last month.

The inequity of committing more money to Matthew Stafford than, say, Tom Brady, is self-explanatory. But this isn't solely an issue of unproven rookies getting too large a piece of the pie. In recent years, the NFL's current program has in essence become a tax on losing.

The Lions were the worst team in the NFL over the past decade. Draft order is established in reverse order of record, routinely putting the Lions at the top -- and most expensive -- part of the draft.

The cost is staggering. Take a look at the chart accompanying this post. In order to sign the 14 first-round draft picks they made between 2000-10, the Lions committed more than $213 million in guaranteed money. I don't have the corresponding numbers for every NFL team, but I can tell you that none paid more than the Lions over that stretch.

(For context, my AFC West colleague Bill Williamson reported the Oakland Raiders paid about $164 million over that stretch. According to my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, the Jacksonville Jaguars paid about $111 million. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette puts the Packers' guaranteed payout at $99 million.)

The Lions weren't necessarily poor negotiators over that stretch. They paid what the slot and annual market increase dictated. (They were poor drafters, however. For $213 million, they got three Pro Bowl appearances.)

Some of you might like the idea of maintaining a financial deterrent to losing, but to me the Lions' misery over the previous decade has been motivation enough to improve. Under the proposed new system, salaries near the top of the draft would be dramatically reduced. Moving forward, a team that gets hammered during the season wouldn't have the double indignity of having to pay (out of pocket) for it.