- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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The moment Darren McFadden clocked a 4.33 40 at February's NFL combine, the confidence game was on. Draftniks, convinced the Arkansas running back was the next Adrian Peterson, bumped him up their boards, off-field issues be damned. Fans in Miami, Atlanta and Oakland hit the chat rooms to lobby for his selection, confident the two-time Heisman runner-up could single-handedly turn around their sorry teams. McFadden himself gazed down from the postcombine press podium and said: "I'm the best player in the draft."
But does that make him worth picking No. 1 overall? For that matter, given the NFL's economic realities, is Chris Long or Jake Long or Matt Ryan or anyone else worth it? Nowhere in sports is the chasm between perception and reality as great as at the top of the NFL draft. So before you paint your face and head to Radio City Music Hall, consider this: Everything you think you know about the No. 1 pick is false. "The truth is, the NFL draft is broken, absolutely; it flat out doesn't work," says Colts president Bill Polian, a five-time NFL Executive of the Year. "It's insane, really."
Not that McFadden doesn't have a shot to be a good, even great, NFL running back. In his three years as a Razorback, he showed an insane second gear (his 73-yard run against LSU this past November has to be seen to be believed), good power and the nastiest stiff-arm this side of LT. After rushing for more than 1,800 yards as a junior, the 6'1", 211-pounder is every bit as talented as Peterson, the 2007 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But the top pick's chance of making the Hall of Fame is roughly 1 in 10. In fact, to most GMs, top-end choices are nothing short of multimillion-dollar coin flips, Anton Chigurh-style. Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Choose. Except that sometimes, both sides of the coin lead to ruin. It's why the Dolphins put this year's first selection up for grabs in January. And why they've yet to find any takers. This is the dirty little secret inside the walls of NFL team HQs: The suits dread having the No. 1 pick. Even if Bill Parcells and the Fins choose wisely, they'll have to pay in the neighborhood of $65 million (with almost half that in guaranteed cash) to their new star. This is in spite of the fact that during the past 20 seasons, only one team that went first in the draft won a playoff game that same season. "Teams just have to pay us if they don't feel like they can pass us up," says McFadden. "It's just something they have to do. It's like a big gamble."
If draftees know they can hold a team hostage, there's something seriously wrong. But even guys like McFadden have to be careful what they wish for. No matter whom the Dolphins pick, the team likely won't have the resources to surround its investment with a decent supporting cast, or the patience to develop him slowly. And if The Tuna chooses poorly, forget about it. The busted pick will hover over the team like a black cloud for years, choking precious cap room that otherwise could have been spent in free agency on, you know, proven players.
To frame it another way, consider that before taking a single pro snap, this year's top selection likely will make more guaranteed money than Colts safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. "It's totally impossible to predict what a 20-year-old kid is going to do," says Polian. "So why would we pay this money for players who have done nothing to deserve it?"
Miami would like nothing better than to trade down, stockpile picks and save cap space, but that's much easier said than done. Potential trading partners that aren't scared off by the cap's voodoo economics are handcuffed by the value chart that has become standard across the NFL. This chart, which assigns a numerical value to every slot (3,000 for No. 1, 590 for No. 32, 44 for No. 128, and so on), was designed to help GMs pinpoint the market value of their picks. Problem is, the chart is absurdly top-heavy, making it hard for teams to trade down and to look like they didn't get taken in the eyes of the fans and media. "Every GM would trade these picks in a heartbeat if they could," says Polian. "But no one else wants to pay for them."
Muddying the process even more is the sliding scale of risk with a player like McFadden: To what degree do his tantalizing skills compensate for his history of off-the-field issues? In July 2006, McFadden was involved in a fight outside a Little Rock nightclub that resulted in surgery on his big toe. He was detained after a second nightclub
incident this past January.
Trying to cover themselves, teams have gone to great lengths to get a read on him. Scouts have repeatedly called McFadden's high school coach in North Little Rock, where he was a Parade All-America. At one point during the combine, McFadden says, he found himself on a table being examined by four doctors, each pulling and twisting on a different leg or arm while inquiring about injuries that happened back in high school. "I just thought to myself, Are they serious?" says McFadden. "They want to know everything and anything about you. Like Barack Obama being bad at bowling—I don't know what that has to do with him being president. But they want to know everything about candidates and draft picks. I don't know if I can run the country, but I know I can run the ball."
In 2006, two professors, Yale's Cade Massey and the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler, published a study of the 1991 to 2002 drafts. They found that a first-rounder is nearly as likely to be out of the NFL after five years (8%) as he is to make the Pro Bowl during those five seasons (9%). And it gets worse. While top picks do perform better than lower ones, Massey and Thaler also discovered that performance falls off much faster than compensation, making No. 1 and No. 32 nearly indistinguishable from a value standpoint. In other words, at this year's draft, the Giants, selecting at No. 31, will likely grab as valuable a player as the Dolphins will at No. 1. If the Dolphins truly understood what they were up against, they'd let the clock expire on their choice 20 times and ultimately risk only $10 million instead of $60 million. "There is no science to the draft," admits Giants GM Jerry Reese. "If you guess right, you look smart. If you make a couple of wrong guesses, you look dumb. You just try to get more right than wrong."
Of course, evaluating skills is a cinch compared with putting a finger on intangibles. Despite the battery of physical and psychological tests administered to every prospect, there's simply no way of knowing how a 21-year-old will respond to the challenge of being the Chosen One. Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell describes his experience of being the 2007 No. 1 overall pick as living 24/7 with the feeling that every eye is on you. In contrast, Tom Brady credits part of his success to the fact that he was allowed to develop slowly and anonymously as a sixth-rounder in 2000. "When you're a first-round pick, everybody's counting on you to save the franchise," Brady says. "That's an incredible amount of pressure to place on one player."
Teams know that too. After all, picking at the top is often a struggling franchise's only chance to be in the spotlight for something that brings fans hope—even if it's false. But if the team did the wise thing and traded down, it might face a fan revolt.
But in the end, the biggest obstacle to overhauling the draft might be NFL culture. This is a league that sticks by a Vince Lombardi, white-socks-and-black-shoes approach to talent evaluation, where front office humility is tantamount to bed-wetting. Teams think of quantitative analysis the same way your grandpa looks at the Internet. Only a few franchises have evolved enough to accept their inevitable draft failings and do something about it. It's no coincidence that two of the teams that have been more active in trading down over the past 20 years—the Pats and Cowboys—have also been the two most successful franchises during that time. As Massey, who has advised several NFL teams, points out, "You have a league full of people, grizzled old scouts, whose entire identity and worth are wrapped up in being able to use tape, instinct and lore to predict who's going to be a good player, when the actual data say they're wrong 50% of the time."
In Miami, Parcells has the power to evoke change. If he's truly the freethinking lone wolf he wants us to believe he is, he'll tear up his draft-value chart, take the best trade-down offer he can find and resist the lure of the fan-pleasing fix. "It's like AA: The first step is admitting there's a problem," says Massey. "Why is that so hard? There's no crime in admitting the instability of the draft."
The actual crime is refusing to deal with it.
With the likes of Darren McFadden on the board, what fan wouldn't be psyched about this year's draft? But inside NFL war rooms, top picks are nothing short of a curse.