High risks, high costs associated with high picks
The draft always will be a guessing game to some extent, but with rookie salaries escalating sharply for top picks, NFL teams appear increasingly wary of picking early.
Twenty-five players have entered the NFL as top-five overall draft choices since 2003.
Twelve of the 18 teams responsible for those selections haven't won a playoff game since drafting in the top five.
Ten failed to finish last season with a winning record.
Seven have made two top-five selections since 2003, but only one of them, the New York Jets, has a playoff victory to show for its investments.
Those seven teams -- Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Houston and the Jets -- have shown improvement in some cases. But only three of the 14 players they selected among the top five have appeared in a Pro Bowl. Former Lions receiver Charles Rogers, chosen second overall in 2003, isn't even in the league.
The draft always will be a guessing game to some extent, but with rookie salaries escalating sharply at the top of the draft by some measures, NFL teams appear increasingly wary of picking early.
Three teams have traded into the top 10 picks since 2003. The moves proved costly in more ways than one.
"Trades are a unique thing in the first round anymore because of the cost of the top 10 picks financially," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said at the scouting combine. "To take on that cost, then to give up something to do so, it is almost counterintuitive, and that's clearly not what the draft was designed to be."
In 2003, the Saints sent the 17th and 18th choices as part of a package to Arizona for a package that included the sixth pick. New Orleans drafted Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who was out of the league after 16 starts and three NFL seasons.
Also in 2003, the Jets traded the 13th and 22nd picks as part of a package to Chicago for the fourth overall choice. The Jets drafted defensive lineman Dewayne Robertson, a durable starter who hasn't become an impact player.
In 2005, Minnesota traded receiver Randy Moss to the Raiders for the seventh and 219th choices, plus linebacker Napoleon Harris. The Vikings used the seventh choice for receiver Troy Williamson, who has three touchdown catches in three seasons and appears finished in Minnesota.
Those deals were the exceptions.
No team has traded into the top 10 picks in the last two drafts. And no team since 1999 has traded into the top five overall spots from lower in the draft.
Five teams moved into the top five picks from 1993 to 1997, the first five years of NFL free agency in its current form.
While it's easy to say teams have become reluctant to move into the top five, the same evidence could be used to say teams are reluctant to part with those picks.
If teams are going to risk missing out on players, the thinking goes, they might as well pay those players less by drafting them later.
"The draft was designed to either allow the weakest teams, based on record, to choose the best players, or if they chose not to take a particular player, to gather a bunch of picks to further accelerate their growth and competitiveness," Polian said. "That's what Mr. [George] Halas and commissioner [Bert] Bell intended way back when, and that's now been skewed completely by the cost of the picks in the top 15 picks in the first round."
Polian called for changes to the system, raising the possibility of more rigidly slotted salaries for draft choices, but the NFL Players Association sounds unsympathetic.
"You can get players on a given team to disagree on who should get what," NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelson said. "One thing they agree on is, they don't want a wage scale."
Berthelson disputed that salaries have grown disproportionately at the top of the draft.
While option bonuses and creative incentives have made the most lucrative rookie contracts increasingly difficult to quantify, two agents contacted for this story said the top few draft choices have indeed realized gains above increases to the NFL's designated gross revenue, commonly known as DGR. The incentives, despite falling under the heading "NLTBE" -- not likely to be earned -- are often achieved by playing a relatively low percentage of snaps.
And because each team's spending allotment for draft choices applies only to the year in which a player was drafted, a team can get around its so-called rookie pool by writing fat NLTBE incentives into future years.
"The option bonus and NLTBE made all the increases arbitrary as opposed to in sync with DGR and rookie pools," one of the agents said. "We've gone from a soft cap and hard rookie pool to soft and soft.
"Teams and agents went down a slippery slope and here we are."
Of course, the guy making his third trip through the buffet line isn't in position to complain about the tightness of his belt. As Berthelson put it, "There is no contract in this league that exists without a club agreeing to it."
The top of the draft has always carried risk.
Fifteen teams exercised top-five picks between 1993 and 1997. Their experiences during that window were similar to what teams have gone through since 2003. Nine of the 15 failed to win a playoff game from 1993 to 1997. Nine of the 15 failed to finish with a winning record in 1997.
The issue is whether those teams paid as high a price in relation to salary-cap allotments. Berthelson said they essentially did. Polian said they did not.
"It's completely changed because of the cost of those picks, and in my view, that's wrong," Polian said. "That's bad for the game. It isn't about money, it's about the integrity of the game on the field."
Slotted salaries aren't the only potential solution.
One agent suggested reducing overall payouts to the highest picks in exchange for shorter contracts that allow players to become free agents earlier.
"It's true some clubs don't want to commit as much to a rookie," Berthelson said. "That is why you have trades. Trade it and get three or four other players, and spread it out on three or four players."
That might be easier said than done.Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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