Commentary

Future draft gambles hinge on Broncos

Originally Published: April 30, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Bobby Beathard, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers, never minded giving up a future first-round choice if he could grab a specific player during a draft.

Beathard won three Super Bowl rings with the Redskins and put together a Chargers team that went to the Super Bowl, but his willingness to trade away future first-rounders always provoked fascinating draft conversation. His opinion was simple: It's better to get the player you believe in now than worry about the future.

The strategy had mixed results. It allowed Beathard to get running back Natrone Means, a key member of the Chargers' Super Bowl team, but it also led Beathard to forgettable skill players such as Terrell Fletcher, Bryan Still and Mikhael Ricks.

As witnessed in last week's draft, the Broncos and Panthers continued a three-year revival of the Beathard strategy. The Broncos traded next year's first-round pick to the Seahawks in order to draft 5-foot-9 cornerback Alphonso Smith at No. 37. The Panthers wagered next year's first-rounder to add to their pass rush, sending their top pick in 2010 to the 49ers to take defensive end Everette Brown from Florida State.

[+] EnlargeAlphonso Smith
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty ImagesThe Broncos traded next year's first-round pick for the right to draft Alphonso Smith.

It was the second year in a row the Panthers traded away a future first-rounder. They did it last year in a first-round deal with the Eagles to get tackle Jeff Otah. Both teams were able to claim success. Otah was an instant stud at right tackle for the Panthers, who went 12-4 last season. The Eagles were able parlay the Panthers' first-rounder into the acquisition of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters (from Buffalo) and still had their original first-rounder, which they used to trade up and acquire wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.

To no one's surprise, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney worked for Beathard in San Diego.

This bold strategy doesn't get a lot of support leaguewide, and I believe teams will shy away from it in future drafts if the Broncos fail with Smith. Denver, which still has a porous defense and several questions on offense, could end up giving Seattle a very high pick in the 2010 draft.

A similar disaster happened in 1999. Falcons coach Dan Reeves felt he needed a second tight end, and he saw Reggie Kelly was still available at No. 42. O.J. Santiago was the Falcons' starting tight end, but Reeves felt he had to have Kelly. He gave up a No. 1 in 2000 to the Ravens in order to get him.

The Falcons finished 5-11, and the Ravens ended up with the fifth pick in the 2000 draft. They selected Jamal Lewis, who helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl.

Kelly caught eight passes for Atlanta in 1999. It's not that Kelly was a bad player -- in fact, he's still playing (Bengals) -- but Kelly failed to provide the impact Reeves was hoping for, never doing better than 31 catches in his four years in Atlanta.

For whatever reason, other franchises mostly stayed away from the Beathard strategy for a long time. Sure, you had your aggressive moves to get quarterbacks. The Bills traded a 2003 first-rounder to acquire Drew Bledsoe, which obviously didn't work because the Bills gave up a 2004 first-rounder to take quarterback J.P. Losman. In 2003, the Ravens gave up a future first-rounder in a draft-day swap for quarterback Kyle Boller.

What you didn't see for the longest time was the acquisition of a current second-round pick for a future No. 1. Some fans ask, "Why give up a No. 1?'' The answer is simple. When it comes to draft-day trades, the value charts dictate that teams give up a future selection one round higher than the round they're targeting. Example: If you want a team's third-rounder, you offer a future No. 2. If you want a fourth-rounder, you offer a No. 3.

In the 2007 draft, depth at offensive tackle allowed the Beathard strategy to resurface. The 49ers saw Joe Staley available at No. 28. They called the Patriots and gave them a fourth-round choice in 2007 and a first-rounder in 2008. The Patriots parlayed that '08 first-rounder into Jerod Mayo (after a trade with the Saints), the reigning defensive rookie of the year.

The Colts saw left tackle Tony Ugoh available at No. 42. Ugoh had a high grade and he fit the Colts' blocking scheme better than three tackles taken in the first round, ahead of him. The Colts gave the 49ers their first fourth-round pick in '07 and their 2008 first-rounder and never looked back.

The 49ers and Colts consider their moves successes. Although it's unlikely Staley or Ugoh will become Pro Bowl players, they are solid starters at a key position.

If Brown can get eight to 10 sacks in any of his first four seasons, Hurney and the Panthers would stamp their trade a success. The Broncos' selection of Smith leaves first-year coach Josh McDaniels vulnerable to criticism. Smith is a 5-9 corner in a division that has tall receivers -- Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe and Javon Walker. The Saints, for example, grew so tired of being overmatched with their short corners that they used the 14th pick on 6-foot cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

Further complicating things for the Broncos is the reality that next year's draft is considered deeper and richer than this year's. It's expected to feature three top quarterbacks -- Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow -- along with good offensive tackles and a much better crop of defensive tackles.

As Beathard would tell you, trades involving future first-round picks are judged by the player whom the team giving up the pick receives. If Smith doesn't work out and the Seahawks end up getting a franchise quarterback of the future, expect teams to take a temporary hiatus from these aggressive draft-day gambles.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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