Is the Top N.F.L. Draft Pick a Penalty?

At least two factors are conspiring to turn a top N.F.L. draft pick into a liability rather than a prize.

“A No. 1 N.F.L. draft pick may be one of the most overvalued assets in our society.”

The first is the rotten economy, which means that a team with a top pick will be compelled to spend a huge chunk of its budget just to sign an unproven quantity.

While the signing bonuses of N.F.L. picks aren’t set in stone, there are firm precedents that make for a predictable payout. Here’s a paper on the tax implications of an N.F.L. signing bonus, by one Andre Smith — but not, to be sure, this Andre Smith, who will probably score a nice payday in this weekend’s N.F.L. draft.

The second is the fact that top draft picks don’t seem to be helping teams all that much — or, put another way, teams that were already good keep winning Super Bowls without the benefit of top picks.

In light of that, consider this very interesting exchange between Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King and a reader named Matt:

Matt of Atlanta: “I think all the bad teams are desperate to move down in the draft, especially this year — but who’s going to trade up, even if the player has a chance to be better, if it costs two, three, maybe four times as much as your current pick? I think the reason we’ve had such a disparity in the 2000’s within the N.F.L. (e.g. 2008 winless Lions, 2007 unbeaten Patriots) is because the teams that make the playoffs are rewarded with better-valued draft choices. It’s unfair, period. Why is this not the main story from the media during this year’s draft?”

King: Brilliant point, Matt. The league has appointed a committee — with interested parties Tom Lewand of the Lions and Scott Pioli of the Chiefs, both of whom have picks in the top three of the draft — to study the problem of bad teams being penalized by the highest picks making so much money that it’s actually a penalty to pick in the top 10. The solution, I believe, is to give the bad teams a choice where they want to pick. That sounds insane, but why wouldn’t you allow the worst team to analyze the talent in the draft, and if there’s no player the club feels is worth the top pick, allow that team to pick sixth or eighth, for example.

Doesn’t sound insane to me at all. A No. 1 N.F.L. draft pick may be one of the most overvalued assets in our society, since he comes saddled with a mandatory signing bonus that is millions of dollars more than a late-first-round pick or an early-second-round pick. If someone wants him, go ahead and pay him. But if the poor Lions think they can do better by picking, say, tenth — well, wouldn’t that make things interesting?

(Hat tip: Etan Bednarsh)


James

Bad teams already get to choose where they pick: Just let your clock run out, and the next team on the board gets to pick ahead of you. This happened to the Vikings (unintentionally) in 2003.

Bill

Tell the Colts the top pick in the draft wasn't worth it.

John

Teams can already do that to some extent.

The lions could choose to let the clock run out, wait for a few other teams to pick & then draft when they are ready.

Will C

To further that point, the money paid to the unproven rookie may be more than a proven, in-his-prime veteran earns. For instance, an argument against picking Aaron Curry is that the slotted payment system would give him more money than any linebacker has ever been paid.

Chuck

The concept of picking where you draft is actually possible in the draft today. Teams can let their time on the clock expire, and let the team behind them pick. This can happen for as many spots as the team would like to drop.

For example, let's say the Lions think that the best value is the No. 6 spot. They can simply sit on their hands until that pick rolls around, then draft a player at that spot.

The Vikings did this a few years ago with a top 15 pick. I think they slid 2-3 spots down in the draft.

JeremyN

The thing is, they could do it already. They just have to let the time expire on their pick (hasn't been done on "purpose" yet, though last year a team did let the time expire before they could make a choice). Then the next team will be up to pick and the first team just waits until they feel like picking. As far as I know, they can jump in whenever they want. So, if the Lions wanted to wait to pick till 5th or 6th, they just let their 1st pick timer run out and then let 4 teams pick and then pick who they want.
Granted, the agent for the player would try to get him a contract as a 1st pick (seeing as the Lions were supposed to pick 1st), but they would be able to counter that the player was selected at #5 and will be paid as much.
There has been a lot of talk saying the Lions should do it, though they probably won't.

Mark

Letting the clock run isn't a fool-proof plan for dropping down slots.

First, what if the top 3-4 teams all refuse to draft? Does anyone even know how that would work?

Second, when you let your clock run out, you're then required to get your pick in before the other teams do, so you'll have teams scrambling to get their picks in as soon as their turns come up. That seems like a poor way of doing things.

chappy

This post is crazy and based on a faulty assertion. If anything there has been MORE parity in the NFL since 2000! Hello, remember the NFL before the salary cap?

I'm a Lions fan and the reason they are a terrible team has nothing to do with having high draft picks. It has to do with the fact that they've had terrible player evaluation and have not marshalled their resources properly. Of course this is another way of saying that top drafting teams have the opportunity to squander greater value with top picks, but this doesn't mean that the top pick is the problem.

amy

Maybe I'm missing something. The draft pick is a pick. Meaning, you don't have to pick the best player. Why couldn't the teams pick the player that would have been their #8 choice instead of the #1 pick?

Casey

they could just put in a rookie salary cap similar to what the NBA does. this would not only stop the madness that is rookie contracts, but free up money to be paid to the proven vetrans who both deserve and have earned it.

Vasanth

I read the original post in King's Tuesday morning QB mailbag. I am a bit ambivalent about this. If Matt Stafford, who is widely believed to be the #1 pick, will be drafted by the Lions, he would command at-least 30-35 million in guaranteed money, money that established players don't make. This is grossly unfair. But you look at teams like the Houston Texans or the Tennessee titans and see that they have utilized the draft to get better. The draft does work, provided you draft well, like the colts/patriots/giants/steelers. But the $$$ that the kids make is simply unfair and frankly will be cut back with the new labor deal the league will sign next year.

Joe Hass

I agree with the posters that a team could conceivably wait to draft. There are two issues that come up with that strategy:

1) Fans (in general) do not care about salary issues. From this perspective, they would interpret a pass as a bad thing because the team had an opportunity but chose not to take it (even though they had a logical strategy behind it).

2) Because this has never happened deliberately (the Vikings 2003 pass was inadvertent), a player's representative may argue that the team should pay based on their original draft position, not where they eventually picked the player.

A great example of how contradictory thinking is beaten apart (especially amongst fans and media) was the Lions decision in 2002 to "take the wind" in an overtime game against the Bears. Fans and media raked head coach Marty Mornhinweg over the coals for that.

Dean

What puzzles me about the team with the #1 pick being forced to give an overvalued contract, is why more teams don't utilize bargaining. I understand that there's a PR factor at work, but now it's common knowledge that the first pick is extremely risky. I just don't understand why the team picking first doesn't engage in more bargaining. The first overall pick is the only one where the team actually has bargaining power to look at the entire pool of prospects and find the best value. Even if the top 5 prospects hold out for ridiculous money, the team still has the option of effectively picking at a lower slot by choosing a less highly ranked player (say one projected to go 15th) based off of a deal approximating that value.

Ben D

Maybe the solution is to change the "default option." Now if you pick a player, your choices are to either sign him to a monster contract, or let him hold out for a year and basically waste your pick.

I suggest a system similar to that of franchise players. A drafted player automatically becomes a restricted free agent at some base + bonus that is calculated based on current league salaries for that position. The system seems to work for free agents... there is a balance between good players getting good contracts and teams maintaining rights to their players... why can't it work for draft picks?

Eric

Why not just get rid of mandatory signing bonuses attached to draft pick spots? That seems like the anti-free-market elephant in the room no one is mentioning.

Matt Hill

This is absurd. Look at the trades that routinely take place where one team moves up into the top 10 or top 3. There is a high draft pick premium that a team must pay to do so. If a team doesn't like the number one pick, they will never have any trouble trading it away for any other team's pick lower in the round. Moreover, they will be richly rewarded with additional picks or players to do so.

Brian

The NFL needs a sane and rational rookie payscale. Its a glaring weakness in an otherwise decent labor agreement. It makes no sense for the most unproven person on the team to be paid so much.

John

@amy (#9):
"Maybe I'm missing something. The draft pick is a pick. Meaning, you don't have to pick the best player. Why couldn't the teams pick the player that would have been their #8 choice instead of the #1 pick?"

The pay is generally determined by how high the person in the draft goes, though. The agent for the player would argue for more money, and although he likely wouldn't get the full amount due to a #1 pick, he would probably raise the amount paid. (in other words, the team would have to pay more for picking a #15 pick at #1 than picking a #15 pick at #15)

Now, you would think that, like Dean mentioned in his comment above, that a team picking high could use bargaining power to talk the amount paid down, but the player would always have the option of taking the "natural" money at the lower spot (and likely go to a better team), so the amount paid would likely still have to be more than if the player was taken at the lower spot. (in other words, they have some power also)

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BONA

I am not sure if Kings solution of let the team pick the spot where they want to go is a solution that will really help the worst teams. If I understood correctly the worst team (Lions) will get to pick a position in the draft that they want, and then the second team will get to pick and this will go on until every team has a spot. In this situation the lions picking anything other than #1 is poor game theory because there is too much information. Everyone knows a) what positions a team is most likely looking for b) how many players (and college stars) in that draft play the position c) where the team(s) before them picked.

While this sounds like a good solution, it will cause very little change in the draft. Each team should pick the highest spot so they can pick who they want. Can you imagine the outrage by the fan base if, for example, the lions decide to pick #3 and end up not being able to get their top choice for quarterback, and still have to pay them the #3 $$$.

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Chad Bergeron

So if the price for the top pick is overvalued, isn't the correct move to shift the price of the good to what the market will bear? Obviously the top draftees won't go for this, because eventually they'll go far enough down the team lists that a wealthier team (typically a winning team, according to ticket and merchandise sales) will eventually pick them up for the asking price. Letting poor losing teams choose where to slot their first draft does the same things - the winning teams will continue to buy up the potential best talent, because they'll be picking before the poorer teams do. The winners keep winning, the losers keep losing.