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Salary cap could affect Stafford's decision to go pro
Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (7) could be a top-five pick in the NFL if he decides to forego his senior season. - photo by McClatchy Newspapers

ORLANDO, Fla. — For Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, the biggest hurdle in their decision to stay in school or leave for the NFL is the unknown.

From where they might play to what changes life in the pros might bring, there is plenty the Bulldogs’ duo doesn’t know. One of the biggest questions many experts have been asking as Stafford and Moreno grapple with the difficult decision, however, is just how much money another year in school might cost them.

While NFL riches no doubt await both players, just how much they can earn in their first few seasons in the NFL could drastically change by 2010, when a proposed salary cap for rookies could be in place. That means several big-name college players — including Stafford and Moreno — have another “what if” to consider before a final decision must be made Jan. 15.

“There’s definitely going to be a major effort to do (institute a cap),” said John Clayton, a senior NFL reporter for ESPN who has covered the league for more than 30 years. “If you’re a player making a decision, particularly for the 2010 draft, you have to worry about it because the losses are significant.”

Players selected among the top 10 or 12 picks in the draft have seen salaries increase dramatically in recent years, with last season’s top pick, Jake Long, signing for $57.5 million and Matt Ryan, the top quarterback selected, inking a six-year, $60-million deal.

Those contracts represent a major investment and significant risk for NFL teams before players have played a single down in the league. When a player doesn’t pan out, the consequences can be disastrous, and owners are anxious to put a plan in place that will limit that risk.

That doesn’t mean a change to the collective bargaining agreement is imminent, however, because the players’ union will need something in return from owners before giving up a salary pool that Clayton said could amount to as much as $250 million.

“It’s a nice carrot because the owners want to get rid of it,” Clayton said. “I don’t know if there’s going to be enough offered to the players to get rid of it with the number of players who are affected.”

For Stafford, who has been projected by many draft analysts as the best quarterback available should he choose to forego his senior season, the salary hit would be significant. Ryan, who was taken third overall in 2008 by the Atlanta Falcons, is earning an average of $10 million per year, with $30 million of the contact guaranteed. Under the proposed salary cap, Stafford could be limited to as little as $3.25 million per year as a maximum in 2010, Clayton said.

A potential loss of more than $40 million could add a lot of motivation for Stafford to call it quits in Athens after Georgia completes its bowl game against Michigan State on Thursday, but the junior quarterback said he has been told by NFL people that the proposed rookie cap shouldn’t be a consideration.

“I don’t think in the next few years anything is going to change from what I’ve heard from people,” Stafford said. “It’s not really factoring too much into my decision.”

Of course, even if a salary cap is in place for rookies by 2010, staying in school could still be a wise decision for Stafford.

With a hard cap on what top picks might earn, the length of contracts could also be cut, Clayton said. If a player has talent and proves he can be successful in the NFL, the money will come eventually, and history has shown that a fourth year in college has a strong correlation to future success in the pros, particularly for quarterbacks.

Clayton pointed to the contract Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed this season. Projected as a top-five pick, Rodgers fell in the 2005 draft to No. 24. After serving as a backup for three seasons, however, he had a breakout year in 2008 and inked a six-year deal for $65 million — something Stafford could have in his future if he can find similar success on the field.

“Ultimately if you’re good, you’ll get your money,” Clayton said. “And if Matthew thinks he’s good, even if he’s slotted in 2010, within three years he can come up and get that big deal making $15 million or $16 million.”

The potential earnings loss from a cap isn’t likely to have the same impact on Moreno, who has been projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick. After the top 10 players are selected, Clayton said, salaries are mostly slotted already, so a cap wouldn’t create a major change in their overall contract value.

For his part, Moreno said he isn’t too worried about the aspects of the draft he can’t control anyway.
“I’ve heard about it, but I don’t know too much about it,” Moreno said. “No one really knows what’s going to happen I guess, so you can’t really get too into it.”

As the season draws to a close, however, and the reality of their NFL prospects comes into view for Stafford and Moreno, those decisions may become a bit tougher.

If Stafford is a top-five pick, the financial impact of a cap could be enough to draw him to the NFL, but Clayton said he isn’t sure that the Georgia quarterback will go that soon. Stafford submitted his paperwork to request a review by the NFL advisory board, but he hasn’t heard back on that yet either. For now, the future for both of Georgia’s stars remains vague.

While agents are likely to use the potential of lost salary as a lure for underclassmen to the NFL, nothing is set in stone yet, and that’s all Stafford needs to know. At the end of the day, he said, there are too many unknowns to get caught up in what might happen. The more important factor in his decision will be whether he thinks his game is ready for the next level.

“You can’t pick where you’re going to go obviously,” Stafford said, “so it’s just seeing if you’re ready or not.”

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