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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)