Well ahead of Sunday's kickoff in Seattle, before the game to end all second-week NFL games, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has already beaten the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick in an unforgivably overlooked category. Wilson is the league's most egregiously underpaid player and the best example of genuflection to the inefficiencies of the draft.
With a base salary of $527,000 this season, after a rookie year that mocked every team that let him sit on the shelf until the third round, Wilson earns less than the minimum wage ($550,000) for a third-year player. Factor in his pro-rated signing bonus, and he absorbs just $681,000 of the Seahawks' payroll cap. Over the entire year, he will consume less team cash than Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers, now 3G models of an NFL quarterback, do in a single game.
We can argue whether Stafford and Rivers, as more proven entities, merit their fatter contracts. But as Top 5 draft picks in a time of NFL profligacy toward its untested players, they earned a lot more in their early years than Wilson does now, and he compares favorably with both of them at a similar career stage.
The biggest flaw with this debate is that nothing of consequence can come of it. Wilson's agent may not call the Seahawks and try to renegotiate his contract to the level of even a sixth-year special-teams player. The collective-bargaining agreement forbids it. Wilson cannot be paid properly now, or next year. The 2011 CBA locks him into his rookie deal until he has put in three seasons of service.
This is part of the ostensibly essential rookie salary cap that began as JaMarcus Russell backlash, colored by Joey Harrington regret, Tim Couch lamentations and Ryan Leaf grief. The idea was wildly popular with fans, and the Players Association had no hope of fending it off during the 2011 lockout. The cap dramatically limited how much owners could lose in their annual April trip to the talent casino, protecting some teams from their own bad choices and everyone from the inherent risks of betting on a 22-year-old to front a franchise for a generation.
But if the cap insulates teams against underperforming prospects, the no-renegotiation clause insults overachievers and rewards bad judgment, often layer upon layer of it. The Seahawks benefit enormously from all the teams that looked past Wilson in the first and second rounds of the 2012 draft, and from their own calculation that he was worth only a third-round pick. They get to stock up at other positions and not pay their starting quarterback like a starting quarterback until 2015.
Likewise, the 49ers don't have to pay Kaepernick adequately until next year. His compensation doesn't match Wilson's as an affront, but it deserves a loud honorable mention. The immutability of his contract, worth $5.12 million over four years, coddles serial incompetence.
Underestimated as a high school senior and ignored when he said he would not pursue a more promising baseball career, Kaepernick received only one scholarship offer from an upper-level Division 1 school - the University of Nevada at Reno, on the fringe of the Football Bowl Subdivision map. The underestimations compound themselves, especially if the player doesn't fit a mold. Kaepernick was as much a runner as a thrower in college; he'd never adjust to the NFL. Second round. Wilson was only 5-foot-10; he couldn't see over the line. Third round.
The 49ers and Seahawks played what might seem like a football version of Moneyball, taking advantage of a warped market and coming up winners on the field and in the accounting department.
But this isn't a tale of Billy Beane's gridiron, where undervalued skills offset distinct flaws in a player, making him a cog in a contender. Wilson and Kaepernick are two of the most dynamic, multitalented athletes in American professional sports. They are the cornerstones of the NFL's future. Even if they don't become the next Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they'll never be the football equivalents of Scott Hatteberg. They're just being paid as if they are.
Together, in their first three years as pros, Wilson and Kaepernick will earn a total of $3 million less than Leaf collected as a signing bonus, and it's been 15 years since the Chargers drafted the definitive NFL bust. You're not offended by that? They're 24 and 25 years old and making over half a million dollars this year, so why care? Fair enough.
But remember that, unlike their baseball counterparts, football players have to wait at least three years after high school to make money in their sport. Wilson and Kaepernick waited longer, at least partly because they knew they would be underestimated. Then they entered the NFL, another closed marketplace, recently updated to shelter owners more than ever.
The draft gave them control over athletes' futures, forcing the very best rookies onto the worst teams, and that wasn't enough. The arrival of the new rookie salary cap conceded that the allegedly big prize of the draft, scoring a top pick, could actually be deadly to a team, because conventional wisdoms about talent weren't all that wise.
But fixing that problem wasn't enough. When the conventional wisdoms proved unwise to the benefit of the team, and a low pick yielded a bonanza of talent that made management a winner, the owners did not want that foolishness corrected.
They didn't even want to deal with the temptation to correct the foolishness. The no-negotiation rule not only saves them money; it shields the bosses from the awkwardness of telling a Kaepernick or Wilson no. The CBA does it for them. If the NFL could package this power of non-rejection rejection and sell it to parents, football revenue would quickly become the league's spare change.
The union should never have allowed this part of the deal, but no one really complains much about it. A few writers have addressed the issue, most of them concluding that the 49ers and Seahawks scored bargains with their young quarterbacks. Adam Schefter of ESPN called the system "thievery, nearly criminal''as Kaepernick prepared to take the 49ers into the Super Bowl. I'd have expected a few bloggers to be explosively irate, since they tend to be underrated outsiders fighting their way through a cobwebbed marketplace. But even they don't seem all that eager to take up the cause.
Wilson and Kaepernick certainly can't express frustration. They're just supposed to be grateful for their opportunities and for not being as thoroughly overlooked as the undrafted Kurt Warner - or worse, the Kurt Warner we've never heard of because he didn't end up on a team where the chosen one (see Trent Green) got hurt.
When Chris Mortensen reported early this year that a Wilson representative approached the Seahawks about a contract modification that couldn't happen, the quarterback told Sports Illustrated's Peter King: "I have complete understanding and respect for the new CBA rules. ... Anyone who knows me knows I play for the love of the game. I play for the challenge of being the best one day and know I have a long way to go."
For a fair payday, he has too far to go, because the rookie-contract rules let the owners gamble in a rigged game. Heads they win, tails the young players lose.