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Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Trading No. 1 picks always risky

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Compliments of the megatrade last March that netted the Miami Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams, the dredlocked power runner who led the league in rushing in '02, the franchise didn't have a first-round choice in last year's NFL draft and won't have one this year either.

The Tampa Bay Bucs personnel staff could have stared at the walls, or played 18 holes at one of the nearby courses during the 2002 first round, and the same will be true in two weeks. The Bucs, of course, surrendered two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders in the deal that brought them head coach Jon Gruden.

Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams cost the Dolphins two No. 1 picks and Miami still failed to reach the playoffs.
But ask Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt or vice president Rick Spielman about the wisdom of surrendering a couple of first-round picks, even for a veteran the pedigree of Williams, and the Miami football brain trust insists that, even with its draft cupboard nearly bare now, it harbors no regrets.

In the wake of Tampa Bay's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII three months ago, Bucs ownership all but gloated over the swap that landed Gruden for them, and finally landed the team the championship for which it had been poised for several seasons. "We got the right guy," said Bucs vice president Joel Glazer.

And so, Dolphins executives insist, did they.

Truth be told, the original Miami-New Orleans trade involving Williams called for the compensation in this year's draft to be a fourth-round choice. But that pick escalated to a first-rounder when Williams went over 1,500 rushing yards in 2002, triggering a clause that enhanced the original 2003 fourth-round selection.

Little matter since, even with the annual December death spiral that cost the Dolphins a playoff spot last year, the Miami organization is pretty confident that Williams will be an offensive centerpiece for the foreseeable future and that he was well worth the gaudy price tag.

"In terms of yardage alone, Ricky had one of the best seasons in history, and there's no reason he can't do that again," Wannstedt recently noted. "He is exactly what we needed for how we want to play. I always said that if he hit that 1,500 yards, and we had to give up the other first-round pick, it would be worth it. I'll never second-guess what we did in that trade."

Looking back on some of the notable trades in which a club swapped away its first-round pick or multiple first-rounders in exchange for a veteran, that sentiment might earn Wannstedt membership in a relatively small fraternity.

The so-called "art of the deal" has been anything but aesthetic where trading first-round choices is involved. Not since Monty Hall was negotiating with an audience dressed in clown suits have so many deals soured.

Generally speaking, the history of such deals has not been kind to the clubs that surrendered their first-round choice, and the failure rate is just one of the reasons there are so few trades of that ilk consummated in the league. In a league where salary cap restraints have made it even more important to add younger players with fixed salaries over a period of 4-6 years, the high-round draft choices have become the NFL equivalent of commodities on the futures market.

Just as there are no sure things when juggling pork futures or frozen orange juice, the track record in trades where No. 1 draft choices were traded for players is spotty, and that assessment is a generous one. Indeed, there have been a few such deals in which the results were disastrous.

Here are some recent ones of note:

  • The Dallas Cowboys traded No. 1 picks in 2000 and 2001 to the Seattle Seahawks for wide receiver Joey Galloway. Trying to make one final run in Troy Aikman's last season, Galloway was supposed to give the Cowboys a big-play receiver. Instead, Galloway blew out his knee in his first game in Dallas. The Cowboys have finished 5-11 in each of his three seasons in Dallas.

    Meanwhile, the Seahawks parleyed their two picks from the Cowboys to land running back Shaun Alexander (No. 19 in 2000) and Koren Robinson (No. 9 in 2001).

  • The Carolina Panthers signed "franchise" free agent defensive tackle Sean Gilbert from Washington in 1998, after he sat out the entire '97 campaign in a contract dispute, and had to send the Redskins their first-round choices in both 1999 and 2000 as compensation.

    In return for what could have been two excellent prospects, the Panthers got one of the most overpaid underachievers in recent history, as Gilbert failed miserably to return dividend on investment. An expensive blunder, Gilbert was released by the Panthers this offseason, but not until he collected over $27 million in signing bonuses and base salaries and averaged more games missed (3.2) than sacks (3.1) during his tenure.

    Said one former Panthers management official when asked to assess the Gilbert trade: "A (bleeping) mess."

    "On paper, the (rationale) of giving up your first-round pick for a proven guy usually looks good, and sometimes it's just too tempting," said one NFC personnel chief. "I mean, you're getting a (veteran) with some sort of proven track record, instead of betting on the come with a rookie. It should work, right? But more often than not, it explodes in your face, even though it shouldn't happen that way."

    That's not to say, however, that all trades that fit into this category are busts.

    The deal that secured quarterback Drew Bledsoe a year ago legitimized the Buffalo Bills, made them immediately competitive, and dramatically moved forward for general manager Tom Donahoe a refurbishing of the franchise. There is no player in this year's draft, none at the No. 14 spot he forfeited to New England, likely to have meant more to the Bills than Bledsoe means to the health of the team.

    No one will be able to gauge the success of the Washington gambit last month, in which the team surrendered the 13th overall choice in this year's draft to the New York Jets as compensation for signing wideout Laveranues Coles to an offer sheet, for a while. But the Redskins are convinced Coles is superior to any receiver in the 2003 draft.

    In 2001, the Kansas City Chiefs shipped their first-round choice to the Rams, on the eve of the draft, for quarterback Trent Green. Even with the somewhat mixed results Green has produced in two seasons with the Chiefs, a lackluster year in '01 followed by a strong 2002 campaign, Kansas City seems to have been the big winner in the deal, at least to this point.

    The player the Rams selected with the pick obtained in the trade, defensive tackle Damione Lewis, broke his foot as a rookie, has struggled to regain his collegiate form, and has been a non-factor for the St. Louis front four.

    "If we're going to win, then Trent's a huge part of it, no doubt," allowed Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. "We had to have a guy like him and giving up (the first-round choice) wasn't as tough a decision as some might think. It was the price of doing business. We think it's worked out well."

    There are, in fact, some pick-for-personnel trades that actually benefit both of the teams involved.

    On April 12, 2000, the Bucs acquired wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson from the New York Jets for two first-round choices in that year's draft. The Jets used those picks to take defensive end John Abraham, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, and starting tight end Anthony Becht.

    Although he has been an occasional distraction to Bucs officials in his three-year tenure with the club, Johnson is the team's top receiving threat and was an integral part of the 2002 Super Bowl run.

    "When you look back (at the trade), both teams did well, I think you can say," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "That's a rare occurrence."

    Rare, indeed, when first-round choices are involved.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.