The Unexpected Way That JaMarcus Russell Changed Football Contracts Forever

Most people think about Jamarcus Russell as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. Drafted with the first pick overall in 2007, Russell was out of the league within three years. However, Russell’s career had a huge impact on the NFL. His failure changed how top rookies in the NFL got paid. It also changed how NFL teams are built and how players get paid.

JaMarcus Russell’s Early Career

JaMarcus Russell was one of the top recruits in the country and chose to play quarterback at LSU. In 36 games, Russell threw for 6,625 yards and 52 touchdowns. In his final season at LSU, he threw for 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns and had a memorable performance at the 2006 Sugar Bowl.

Russell was one of the top prospects in the 2007 draft. Russell’s combination of size and arm strength dazzled scouts, who saw him as a near-perfect physical specimen at quarterback. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis fell in love with Russell’s physical talent and drafted him first overall in the 2007 draft.   

JaMarcus Russell in the NFL

After being drafted, Russell signed a six-year deal worth $61 million, with $39 million guaranteed. At the time, the salary cap was $109 million. While Russell’s cap hit wasn’t bad in his first two years, by his third year, his contract would take up over 10% of Raiders’ cap room. For Russell to be worth his cap hit, he would have to become a star.

Unfortunately for Russell, he became of the biggest draft busts in history. In his first three years with the Raiders, Russell played 31 games. He passed for 4,083 yards and threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

Russell struggled to stay in shape and had poor study habits. In one famous story, the team gave Russell blank tapes to study, claiming they contained blitz packages. Russell showed up the next day and claimed he studied all the material on the tapes. 

By 2010, Russell had been released by the Raiders. He never signed with another team. The Raiders were stuck with a huge cap hit that hurt their ability to be competitive for years.     

Rookie contracts today  

Because of the failure of Russell’s career, people started questioning if rookies should be getting huge contracts. Over the next few years, rookie quarterbacks continued to get higher salaries before they played a game. In 2010, first overall pick Sam Bradford signed a rookie contract for six years and $78 million. Many people argued that the money should go to veterans who had already proven their worth.

In 2010, the owners and players negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. The agreement cut the length of contracts to four years (with a team fifth-year option for first-round picks) and set standard salaries for rookies.

In 2011, the first year of the new scale, first overall pick Cam Newton signed a four-year deal worth $22 million. Newton received over $50 million less than Bradford.

How rookie contracts changed the league

Russell’s contract changed the system in several ways. First, is the change in compensation for top draft picks. The system is providing top-level rookie players with significant money while allowing them the chance to earn much more in the future.  

Rookie players can renegotiate their contracts after three years, which Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott did in the last month. More money is going to veteran players. As the NFL salary cap rises, so does the rookie wage scale. As a result, top rookies are getting more money each year, while still counting for a small part of the salary cap.

It also has changed the team-building strategy. Even though the salary cap is rising, teams are using cost-controlled rookies as a way to win a Super Bowl. For example, in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks were able to win the Super Bowl with quarterback Russell Wilson on a rookie contract. The savings from the rookie contract allowed the Seahawks to sign more expensive players at other positions and build a stronger team. 

JaMarcus Russell definitely changed the NFL. Just not in the way most people expected.