The top overall pick of the NFL draft was intended to serve as a figurative life preserver, the league’s way of helping its weakest teams escape the treacherous waters of ineptitude by giving them first crack at presumably the best talent.
Instead, it has become more of a giant anchor.
The top overall pick of the NFL draft assures its owner of only one thing: It will pay a player, who is no more a proven pro than an undrafted rookie, more than $30 million in guaranteed money just for putting his signature on a contract.
Getting the choice right means the player performs spectacularly for many years to come, while the team makes steady improvement. Think Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Getting it wrong means the franchise can be stuck in a quagmire for multiple seasons. Think Tim Couch, followed 12 months later by Courtney Brown, of the Cleveland Browns … or David Carr of the Houston Texans … or … you get the point.
Thanks to a decade of virtual non-stop escalation of the guaranteed dollars the top overall pick receives, every NFL team views the notion of executing the choice with an overwhelming sense of dread. It’s a case of too much risk and not enough reward.
That is why, for the most part, the team that owns it ends up keeping it … or, shall we say, being stuck with it.
“You can call around and try to trade it,” Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. “But at the end of the day you usually don’t get a phone call back.”
The Dolphins found that out a year ago, and wound up using the No. 1 selection on offensive tackle Jake Long. So far, so good. Of course, one impressive season is not a career.
The Detroit Lions are currently getting the same sort of collective cold shoulder from the rest of the league to their efforts to trade away the top pick. Last week, they couldn’t convince the Denver Broncos to take it as part of a deal to acquire quarterback Jay Cutler. The Broncos were happy to settle for the 18th overall choice, from the Chicago Bears, along with a third-round pick this year, a first-rounder in 2010, and quarterback Kyle Orton.
It should be noted that the Lions didn’t have a veteran quarterback the Broncos wanted. However, according to league sources, that was not nearly as large a deal-breaker as being faced with dishing out a staggering amount of cash to the No. 1 pick.
How did the NFL get to this place?
First, player agents have been very creative in taking full advantage of the maximum amount of money teams are allotted to spend on draft picks, based on a total of the cap dollar value that the league assigns to every pick after the draft. The agents structure contracts so that there are various bonus and escalator clauses, along with lump-sum payments, that ensure their clients end up pocketing substantial money regardless of how they perform.
Second, agents representing the top overall choice have made a common practice of negotiating a deal that is five- to seven-percent higher than the one signed the previous year. If they don’t get it, their client doesn’t report to training camp, and his ability to make the enormous splash expected of his draft status is severely compromised, if not destroyed. For a struggling team, it can become a public-relations disaster, which is why it eventually will comply with the agent’s demands.
“That’s the way it’s been for 10 years,” said one GM, who requested anonymity. “It wasn’t put in place to be that type of structure. It evolved to be that kind of structure.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell is on record as saying the rookie wage scale is out of whack and needs to be addressed in upcoming negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. Goodell has voiced his preference for a system that puts a greater priority on paying players who have established themselves in the league rather than rookies.
“I think, in the future, it’s going to be fixed,” San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. “From an ownership standpoint, (changing the rookie pay structure) makes sense because why guarantee all this money to an unproven player when we have our own guys we’re trying to re-sign? Let him prove that he’s worth that.
“You can watch college tape until you’re blue in the face. You can watch the workouts, interview the guys, but you can never know until you put them in a uniform and put them out there in an NFL environment. And all of a sudden, you can end up paying $30 million to a guy with the chance of missing being probably greater than the chance of hitting at that pick.”
In 2005, the 49ers missed on quarterback Alex Smith, now projected as a backup to Shaun Hill, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent. First, though, they made an effort to trade the pick. McCloughan reached out to other teams in the top five of the draft to attempt a trade. The discussions went nowhere.
A.J. Smith, GM of the San Diego Chargers, describes the chore of trying to deal the top overall choice as “impossible.” And this is from someone who was actually part of the only two trades involving that pick in the last eight years.
The first was in 2001, when Smith was assistant GM and director of pro personnel for the Chargers. The late John Butler was San Diego’s general manager at the time. As Smith recalled, the only team that expressed interest in acquiring the Chargers’ choice was the one that got it, the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons wanted to move to the top from the No. 5 spot to get quarterback Michael Vick. The Chargers, Smith said, were reasonably certain they could get the player they wanted at No. 5 — running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
But before the trade was consummated, the Falcons had to agree to send a player on their roster to San Diego.
“We wanted Tim Dwight, the wide receiver/returner, or it was a no go,” Smith said. “They did not want to part with Tim Dwight, and as long as that was the case, there was no deal. And it was a no go repeatedly until about a day and a half before (the draft). That’s when Coach (Dan) Reeves finally said it was a go.”
The second trade came in 2004, although it did not occur until after the draft was under way. In his second season as the Chargers’ GM, Smith used the No. 1 overall pick on Eli Manning, even though he knew the quarterback had no intention of ever signing with San Diego and would re-enter the draft the following year if he wasn’t traded. After the New York Giants selected quarterback Philip Rivers with the fourth overall pick, Smith shipped Manning to the Giants in exchange for Rivers and the choices used for star linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding.
Besides the guaranteed money, another impediment in trying to trade the top overall pick is the absence of an obvious player who merits the choice. That appears to be the case this year. The Lions aren’t necessarily focused on one particular candidate, and shouldn’t be. Opinions vary on who should be No. 1 on the board from among Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry.
The Lions have opened negotiations with more than one prospect. A system that long ago went out of control has created a scenario where they essentially will make the most important pick of the draft, one that could very well determine the type of team they are for the next several seasons, more by default than sound football judgment. They’ll likely end up using a pick that no one, themselves included, wants on a player whose contract demands are only slightly less ridiculous than others they’ll receive.
“It’s like in ’05 when we had the first pick,” McCloughan said. “There were good football players up there, but there wasn’t one guy that made you sit back and say, ‘For sure, he’s the value of the first pick.’ We know that, other teams know that. They’re not going to trade up for it. They’re not going to pay that guaranteed money when they know they can get the same player at four or five that they can get at one.”