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Monday, April 21, 2003
Updated: April 22, 5:13 PM ET
 
Teams often burned by trading down
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

With the initial overall selection in the 1997 draft, poised in his first season as head coach of the New York Jets to choose a prospect who might alter the course of franchise history and help the team improve on its grotesque one-victory performance of the previous year, Bill Parcells punted.

Instead of opting for offensive tackle Orlando Pace, defensive tackle Darrell Russell, cornerback Shawn Springs or linebacker Peter Boulware -- the consensus top four players in a relatively thin lottery -- Parcells dealt back twice within the top six picks.

The dual gambit landed The Tuna the additional choices he felt necessary to begin rebuilding the forlorn Jets, as he parleyed a previously short deck into 11 picks, but the moves hardly netted the team a draft windfall.

Dan Reeves
Dan Reeves is the first coach to be fired this season ... which places him on the list of candidates for other jobs.
When the Jets captured the division championship in 1998, winning a dozen games in Parcells' second season with the club, only two players selected in the '97 lottery had significant roles. Six years later, just one of the players, ironically the last of them, seventh-round nose tackle Jason Ferguson, is still with the club. Seven of the '97 prospects are out of the league.

In that same 1997 draft, Dan Reeves was in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons, and reiterated several times in the weeks leading up to it that there was no prospect capable of single-handedly reversing the team's fortunes. So he swapped back, dropping from the third overall spot to the 11th, and gaining extra choices by so doing.

The upshot: The Falcons selected a dud, Nebraska corner Michael Booker, with their first choice. That set the tone for a horrific draft, lowlighted by the ill-advised second-round pick of defensive tackle Nathan Davis, who was rehabilitating from a terrible groin injury, the severity of which was unknown to the team, and who didn't really enjoy playing football.

Atlanta gleaned a couple serviceable players from that draft, in linebacker Henri Crockett and offensive lineman Calvin Collins, but not much more. Not a single player from that lottery remains with the team. Just two are on NFL rosters for 2003. One could make a case that the highest-profile player from the group at this point is Tony Graziani, the quarterback for the Los Angeles franchise in the Arena Football League.

The two examples are not intended to criticize Parcells or Reeves, two men whose respective (and respected) coaching legacies will someday earn them a spot in the Hall of Fame, but rather as cautionary tales for the '03 draft. If two guys as smart as Parcells and Reeves can make trade-back deals which turn out so miserably, even though neither is totally culpable for end results in the swaps, anyone can fall prey to such temptation.

Because there are so many franchises with multiple first-round choices this year -- the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders all own a pair of first-round picks at this point -- there is a heightened likelihood of teams moving up to snatch prized prospects. And since it takes two to tango, of course, that means there will have to be clubs prepared to move down the first-round board.

If some pre-draft rumors hold any substance, there are indeed such teams, including a few currently positioned in the top 10.

That there will be early swaps which scramble the draft board, and that make a mockery of all those faux drafts to be published over the balance of this week, is a given. What is hardly assured, though, is that the clubs which move down in the first round will benefit as much as they think.

The draft is rife with deals in which teams moved back in the first round and benefited handsomely. Certainly the San Diego Chargers still feel the deal in which they swapped the first overall choice in the 2001 draft, passing up the electrifying Michael Vick but landing tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and wide receiver Tim Dwight from the Falcons, was advantageous.

But for every such trade-down that succeeds, there are just as many that fall apart, and leave general managers pondering the wisdom of their moves.

"There are times," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, notoriously active during past drafts, "when you think you've got (a trade-down) all figured out. And it still doesn't work out the way it was supposed to. It takes a lot of legwork and preparation. And it takes, as much as anything, some luck, too."

Historically, those drafts which have featured the most retreats in the first round as those that, like this year's lottery, are considered mediocre. Some teams go into such drafts assuming that, at some juncture of the first round, the top-shelf players are gone, and the pool is essentially leavened out. The theory then becomes thus: Why take a player at my current slot in the round when I can get one of equal value, but a few spots lower, and perhaps glean an additional choice or two by retrenching?

Not surprisingly, that mindset is normally pervasive among organizations in full rebuilding mode, and where a pursuit of quantity supercedes the notion that franchises are resurrected on the deeds of superstar performers. But in many cases, such as the two examples from 1997, draft hauls purported to serve as franchise foundations crumbled prematurely.

When you go back, no matter how much you've gone over all of the possibilities, there is still some uncertainty. Especially when you move back more than a few spots, you're holding your breath, because a lot of things can happen to ruin the move.
Vinny Cerrato, Redskins personnel chief

And the players on whom the Jets and Falcons passed -- with the exception of Russell, whose career has been waylaid by repeat violations of the NFL substance abuse policy, and who may never play again in the league -- were singularly superior to the multiple choices gained by swapping down.

Parcells not only passed on Pace, Springs and Boulware at the top of the '97 draft, but then moved down again, from the sixth spot to the No. 8 position, and spurned standout offensive tackle Walter Jones. The Falcons didn't get Springs, and can now point to the fact his career has been marred by a series of hamstring injuries, but seem to be forever chasing a shut-down corner of his ilk. Atlanta has spent plenty of time, money and draft choices attempting to land the kind of player a healthy Springs might have become.

The lesson learned, and certain to be re-taught again when the 2003 draft is evaluated a few years from now, is that trading back is a dicey maneuver.

"One (drawback) is that you spend weeks of preparation getting ready to make a choice at, say, pick 'A,' and then, because of a trade-down, you're picking at 'B' instead, and some of the homework goes out the window," said Carolina Panthers personnel director Jack Bushofsky.

Added one AFC college scouting director: "When you move back, it's a little bit of a deflating thing (to your scouts). It shouldn't be, because it is no reflection on them, but it does take some air out of the balloon. Even if the (trade down) looks good on paper, it's sort of tantamount to an admission of weakness in a draft, that you couldn't find a guy you were able to justify at the spot you traded out from."

Several personnel directors argued strongly against the basic philosophy of moving back which, in most cases, is to gain additional picks. Their theory was that, in shallow drafts, it is still better to grab a premier prospect rather than to select an assemblage of evenly-graded ones.

One great player, with a grade in the top 10, is still better than two or three prospects rated in the lower quadrant of the first round, emphasized a scout with more than 20 years of experience in the league. "It's become a league where stars win games and you'd better have a couple," said the scout.

That opinion aside, there still figures to be plenty of trade-down action in Saturday's first round, most general managers acknowledge. The advantage in such cases, said many of them, goes to the team moving up.

"You go up when the player you want is still sitting there and you know precisely what you are getting," said Washington personnel chief Vinny Cerrato. "When you go back, no matter how much you've gone over all of the possibilities, there is still some uncertainty. Especially when you move back more than a few spots, you're holding your breath, because a lot of things can happen to ruin the move."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.