NEW YORK — Let’s make a deal.
The NFL draft that begins Thursday night could see more wheeling and dealing than ever thanks to the new rookie wage scale. With exorbitant salaries for top picks replaced by a compensation plan for rookies, get ready for more teams to make more trades in an effort to land the players they covet most.
“You’ll find teams who want to maneuver to move up to get a player they really like and have a reduced amount they are going to be paying him,” predicts agent Drew Rosenhaus, who usually represents a handful of first-round picks.
“Or, if a team is not enamored of what is there when they pick, they will not only want to move down but will be able to move down because teams are more willing to move higher.”
Rosenhaus also says that with teams now knowing the cost of a contract, they might target a player who fills a glaring need.
“So I think there already is a lot of jockeying among teams and there will be a record number of trades,” he added.
Washington and St. Louis already pulled off a blockbuster last month, with the Redskins jumping from sixth to second overall to get a shot at Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III of Baylor. The Rams got the No. 6 spot, Washington’s second-rounder (39th overall) plus first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
“It evolved I think because of the circumstances of the position and what people wanted that made the pick valuable,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “I think a lot of the teams, including us, wanted to get it done sooner rather than later.”
Limitations on the size of salaries and signing bonuses for untested rookies was talked about for years, especially when top selections such as JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford were signing for more money than Super Bowl winners and All-Pros were getting. The NFL eventually recognized that the value of top-round picks was diminishing.
If a team had the league’s worst record, the first choice in the draft should be a boon, not a burden. If it was costing $70 million before a rookie played a down in the pros, the No. 1 pick didn’t have the most value.
For a while, the players union tried to steer away from restrictions on rookie earnings. But as it became clear the enormous payouts to unproven kids were impacting the job security of veterans, the idea of a set compensation system for rookies grew legs.
Now, not only is more money being funneled into veterans’ salaries through free agency or contract extensions, but next year some of those dollars will get redistributed to retired players and can go toward new benefits.
“There’s some cost certainty now at top of the draft,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “You understand better what you’re getting financially for certain picks and there is more money to spend on the veteran players now.
“The heart of the draft is to get teams improved as quickly as possible and to allow for competitive balance. It doesn’t put you in as big a hole if the player you choose does not work out; remember that 50 percent of those chosen in the first round do not wind up being good starters in the league for a long period of time.
“Add into that significant guaranteed money, and it was more damaging when the pick didn’t work out, not only on the field but financially.”
Roseman is encouraged that the new system gets back to the original purpose of the draft: each selection is based on the value of the player as opposed to the value of the pick. That should mean more trades involving picks.
“In the past few years, the price of the pick was so prohibitive, teams were not inclined to move up,” Roseman said. “If you really like the player, now it will not only be a financial decision. It’s much easier to go to your owner and tell him you want to move up for a player you think will be heck of player for your team, and if it does not work out ... it does not set you back years and years because of guaranteed money and bonuses.”
The best recent example of that is Russell.
One of the all-time draft busts, Russell got paid more than $39 million before being cut after three seasons in Oakland. He held out of his first training camp, was out of shape and won only seven of 25 starts. Russell threw 23 interceptions, lost 15 fumbles, completed 52.1 percent of passes and had a passer rating of 65.2.
Oakland still is trying to move on from that debacle.
“It now becomes less of a risk to the team with the high picks,” Rosenhaus said. “It has reduced dramatically the amount of guaranteed money a first-round pick gets.
“It’s really had a profound impact on the entire first round, then is more limited in the second round, then in the latter rounds it is not impactful except that every contract has to be for four years. This system also means no renegotiating contracts until after the third year, which adds another effect.”
Another effect of the rookie compensation system is how it can change a team’s draft philosophy. Because teams can now devote more money under the salary cap to free agency, they can fill needs that way more efficiently.
“You always want to take the best player anyway,” Roseman said. “But when you’re talking about the guaranteed money, there is no question you also are trying to line it up with priority positions, the ones that cost you more in signing free agents or re-signing your own. Now with the picks more economical, you feel good about taking the best player on your list.”
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