Every year, every NFL team hands out performance-based pay to players with relatively low salaries and relatively high on-field performance. Teams get nearly $4 million to divide among their players, to be distributed among players who did a lot of work for their money.
For the Bucs, that meant big bonuses going to linebacker Kwon Alexander, tackle Kevin Pamphile, guard Ali Marpet, wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate, among others. Jenna Laine of ESPN has the full list.
One thing stands out from this list, unsurprisingly: almost all of them are recent draft picks or undrafted free agents. The explanation for that is easy: outside of the top half of the first round, rookie contracts are cheap, cheap, cheap — and even the top rookie contracts are cheap for succesful high first-round picks. Less so for unsuccessful ones.
That’s a consequence of the NFL collective bargaining agreement, which effectively locks up the vast majority of NFL players for the first four years of their careers at massively discounted rates, making them bargains for teams. And to make matters worse, those teams aren’t even allowed to offer their draft picks contract extension until after their third season.
That’s why even relatively high draft picks like Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith got a significant pay bump from this performance: they’re succeeding, and that makes them really, really cheap.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, all of the players I listed above will be eligible for significant contract extensions next offseason, and you can bet they’ll want them — just like Jameis Winston, incidentally. That’s going to take a significant chunk of change, and will limit the team’s ability to sign outside free agents.
That’s why the Bucs need to continue to draft well. Or at least, it’s one reason why they should. It’s not just that you can get good players in the draft. It’s that those good players will come cheap for four years — and that’s how you build a healthy roster filled with high-paying stars. You complement it out with cheap draft picks and undrafted free agents.