Rookie wage scale may be a market force
A week from tonight, the NFL draft will start, and Patriots fans will split into two camps.
The hardened realists will expect the Patriots to make a selection with one of their two first-round picks - 27th overall from the Saints, and their own at No. 31 - and trade the other for future picks.
It’s hard to blame them. Bill Belichick has elected to trade down in the first round in each of the past five drafts, including twice in 2009 and ’10.
Then there are the dreamers. Despite recent history, they will snuggle onto their couches, wearing their blue Tom Brady jerseys, and hope this is the year Belichick makes a dramatic leap up the board to take an impact player.
Belichick, who moved up one spot to draft Ty Warren in 2003, hasn’t made that kind of bold move since ’02. The Patriots sent two additional picks to the Redskins to move 11 spots from 32d to 21st to select tight end Daniel Graham.
Those fans see the clock ticking for their hero Brady, who will be 35 in August. They saw a thin Patriots team take players off the street and come just a few plays short of winning a fourth Super Bowl title under Belichick.
One more dynamic playmaker - in the front or back of the defense - could put the Patriots over the top.
And there’s one more reason why those pie-in-the-sky fans might not simply be victims of getting lubed up a little early for the draft.
For the first time, the NFL has a rookie wage scale in place for the draft that severely limits a team’s exposure to the financial risk that comes with missing on a top-end first-round pick.
And nobody assesses risk better than Belichick. It’s one of the big reasons why the Patriots have consistently stayed at the top of the pack in the salary cap era when others go boom and bust in cycles.
Belichick’s former personnel lieutenant, Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, believes there will be more trade action in the first round since the rookie cap has leveled the field.
“I definitely think there’ll be some different dynamics,’’ Pioli said. “I think there’ll be more teams desiring to move. I mean, we’ve already had a trade [the Redskins trading from sixth to second with the Rams].
“There’s going to be a different mind-set and different thinking, I believe, with a lot of picks and people thinking about trades.’’
However, NFL personnel seem to be split on the impact of the rookie scale. In a poll of eight personnel executives, only a slight majority (five) said they expected more trading near the top of the draft.
“I think teams would be more inclined to trade up with less concern of financial risk,’’ said an AFC personnel director. “But I still think a pick is a pick in that if you take a character risk, you still risk losing value with the pick if it fails.’’
Three said business will be conducted the same way.
“Trading is more about the football value of a player than any monetary value,’’ said another AFC personnel director. “Each draft has its own personality based on the quality and substance of each player in each round. Teams will trade when they covet a particular player, regardless of how much that player costs.’’
Everyone has heard of the famous trade-value chart that was developed by Cowboys assistant Geep Chryst under coach Jimmy Johnson in the early 1990s. It was photocopied, and every front office referred to it.
Every pick in the draft was assigned a value. For example, the first overall pick was worth 3,000 points. To acquire that pick, the other team would need to give total draft pick compensation that came close to the pick they were acquiring.
“We were aware of it, had it,’’ said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, former general manager of the Redskins and Texans. “At times, we used it as a discussion point, but I think each draft can take its own character on the value of trades.
“In analyzing it, we had a researcher study it for us. What it’s based on is the Pro Bowl probability of each pick in the draft. I don’t know if that’s what they intended it to, but that’s what it statistically does.’’
Teams developed their own trade-value charts over the years, but money was not part of the computations for a long time because there was no salary cap when the Cowboys developed theirs.
The guaranteed money got so out of hand that the trade-value chart became useless for at least the top 15 selections. In 2010, quarterback Sam Bradford got a six-year contract worth $78 million, with $50 million guaranteed.
“The money was never adjusted as the market rose,’’ said NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a former personnel executive with several teams. “That’s why you saw no trades. The chart might say do it, but the money didn’t match up.’’
When Casserly did his due diligence on the market for the top pick in the 2006 draft, he called Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
“No, you’ve got this wrong,’’ Tannenbaum told Casserly. “It’s what are you going to give me to take that pick?’’
Sure, money was part of it. But there was one other big factor: There simply weren’t that many sure-fire elite players - especially at quarterback - in many of those drafts.
Since 2000, there have been only four trades involving top-five picks: 2001 (Michael Vick, Falcons), 2003 (Dewayne Robertson, Jets), 2004 (Eli Manning, Giants), and 2009 (Mark Sanchez, Jets).
Then look at the other first overall selections: quarterbacks Cam Newton, Bradford, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and David Carr, left tackle Jake Long, and ends Mario Williams and Courtney Brown.
How many of those players would teams trade up for today, even with the benefit of hindsight?
“What people were finding during that period of time was the abilities of the players weren’t that much different, so it’s not so much the money, it’s you have to give up extra draft choices,’’ said Casserly, who picked Williams over running back Reggie Bush in ’06.
“However, it didn’t stop the Giants from trading for Eli Manning because [general manager] Ernie Accorsi had a conviction on it. So it had nothing to do with the money there.
“I think if there’s a player in the old system that people absolutely had to have, they weren’t going to worry about the money. I just don’t think we had a lot of those players, and when you don’t, even when you like a guy a little bit better, how much am I going to give up in draft choices and money?’’
Giants owner John Mara has said there was a lot of trepidation about trading up for Manning, with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers available in the same draft. But Accorsi saw a special player in Manning, and the Giants have two Super Bowl trophies as evidence.
In their March trade with the Rams, the Redskins came out on the short end (2,600 points to 2,870) according to the trade-value chart. But coach Mike Shanahan obviously views Robert Griffin III as a franchise quarterback on the level of Manning.
The bottom line is, it’s about the player.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, another former Patriots personnel executive, said he believed in receiver Julio Jones, and that’s why he sent four picks to the Browns last year to move up 21 spots. It was a trade Belichick advised Dimitroff not to make, because Belichick didn’t believe Jones was special enough.
But Dimitroff acknowledged that economics played a part in limiting the risk. He knew a rookie cap was likely to come after the lockout. Dimitroff was ahead of the curve a bit, but he believes other general managers will be more willing to jump in the trade pond with the rookie cap agreed to.
Newton, last year’s top pick, received a four-year guaranteed contract at $22 million. That’s $3.5 million less guaranteed each year than what Bradford received a year earlier.
“I do believe that’s going to affect the movement in the top 10 picks,’’ Dimitroff said. “I think that is one less element to think about compared to other years, which would have been a monumental difference from 27 up to 6.’’
Expect the old trade-value chart to be dusted off a little bit, because the market has been corrected.
“Look, draft picks are equated to money, so therefore it’s what the value of the money is,’’ said Lombardi. “So now that the money is lower, the value has to change because the numerical system is predicated on money. Now that we have a rookie pool, I think [the trade-value chart is] more inclined to be similar.’’
The question Patriots fans will be asking is, does the market correction mean Belichick will dive into the trade pool and move up the draft?
“I don’t think it can be predicted,’’ said Lombardi, who was Belichick’s personnel man with the Browns. “I think it’s about what’s in front of him and what the decisions are that are on his mind.
“It’s truly a game-time decision. You really don’t know. You shouldn’t go into any draft with the result in mind. You should go in there objectively about what you want to do, so I think he’ll probably go in there with a complete open mind [with the picks in the first three rounds] at 27, 31, 48, 62, and 93.’’