The Upside to Trading Up for Draft Choices
We all know that making wise decisions during draft days is a big deal for every NFL team.
We know that making wise decisions that keep a team under the salary cap is a big deal.
I think that those four-year rookie contracts, at essentially pre-set salaries – which came out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) – is another, but less appreciated, big deal.
Rob’s Draft Theory
By mixing the above three notions together, I’ve come up with Rob’s Draft Theory: By drafting players who are ready to play quickly, or immediately, an NFL team can get tremendous bargains in a player’s first four years.
Of course, teams want to get its draftees out on the field and being productive as soon as possible. However, I don’t think most teams fully take into account the bargain that lies within those rookie contracts. If they did, they would make it a high priority on draft days to select players who will be ready to play quickly – or instantly – in the pros. Without lots of starters subject to the limited pay set forth in rookie contracts, teams would be unable to field a competitive team and primarily due to this reason, some of them don’t.
The salary cap dictates that a team can afford to pay maybe a half dozen players $10 million or more annually. Therefore, the only way teams can have good-quality players at most of the 22 offensive and defensive starting positions is to have most of them being paid under their rookie deals.
To give you an idea of the terms of rookie contracts, let’s take some 2017 Packers’ rookies as examples. Kevin King (Rd. 2, Pick 1) will average $1.77 million for his first four years. Josh Jones (Rd. 2, Pick 29) will earn $1.06 million annually. Montravius Adams (Rd. 3, Pick 29) will make $819,000 annually. Jamaal Williams (Rd. 4, Pick 27) will make $741,000 annually. Aaron Jones (Rd. 5, Pick 38) will make $650,000 annually.
That means, for example, that Kevin King will make just over $7 million in his first four years. And Aaron Jones will make a total of $2.6 million. In almost every case, players subject to the terms of their rookie contracts are being vastly underpaid. That’s bad, and quite unfair for the player, but it’s wonderful in terms of teams trying to stay under the salary cap.
In the case of Davante Adams, his salary increased by around 1,500 percent after his rookie deal expired. Aaron Jones was paid about $650,000 in 2017 – in contrast, Adrian Peterson was not long ago playing under a six-year contract that awarded him $691,000 – per game! The CBA has led to some pretty outrageous salary disparities.
The Packers selected Vince Biegel in round four – knowing that he had a worrisome foot problem. Due to the subsequent foot surgery, Biegel missed most of last season, which means he failed to provide much value for the team at a time when he was costing less than $800,000. Furthermore, in his second year, his experience level will be more like that of a rookie than a two-year man.
Teams occasionally draft a player knowing he will miss most or all of his first season due to injury. When they do this, they miss out on one of those four bargain years.
Nick Perry was a first-round choice in 2013. The Packers probably were hoping he’d be able to play at a high level early on. Alas, he was both slow to develop and injury prone, so during the four bargain years, all he returned on the investment was 66 tackles and 12.5 sacks. When Perry finally appeared to be hitting his stride, his rookie deal was at an end, so the Packers then gave him a one-year deal, followed by a five-year deal averaging $11.8 million. That’s about twice as much per year as the team paid him in total during his first four years.
A team needs players like David Bakhtiari to balance out players like Perry. At the end of his rookie deal, Bakhtiari received a four-year deal averaging $12 million per year. He’s worth every penny of it, but think of the bargain the Packers had for four years: he started all but two of those 64 games, he was rarely injured, and he played at a high level throughout. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Bakhtiari was as valuable a draft choice as anyone during Ted Thompson’s reign as GM – especially from a monetary viewpoint.
Positions Differ As to Readiness
Some positions take much longer to learn in the pros than others. As the Packers’ rookies showed last year, running backs can often jump right in and play well. I once did a study on the top NFL wide receivers, and most of them were already stars in their second year.
On the other end of the spectrum, quarterbacks and cornerbacks often take three or more years to develop. Some very good edge rushers have taken longer than that. For these positions (other than starting quarterback), I’d be inclined to acquire them by trade – let some other poor sap develop them.
In any event, drafters should strive to draft players who can offer a good return by their second year in the league. The Packers have done quite well of late in this regard with their round-three through round-five selections. If they add to that next month, look out.
Draft and Develop
Green Bay fans have accepted the “draft and develop” mantra as though it was chiseled in stone by Vince Lombardi himself. My theory suggests that, as a salary cap strategy, the Packers might do well to adopt a “draft and play” philosophy. This might cause the roster to be affected in a number of ways.
It might stop the drafting of basketball players, and the switching of players to positions they did not play in college. By the time Herb Waters, Michael Clark, and the dearly departed Damarious Randall (a safety in college) have developed sufficiently to provide some value for the investment, their days of cheap contracts will be over.
This theory discourages the drafting of players who will need two or more years to put on the weight or muscle to be NFL-quality. Some examples: Jared Abbrederis, Quinten Rollins, Richard Rodgers, Jason Spriggs, Demetri Goodson – and perhaps Kevin King, Kyler Fackrell, and Dean Lowry.
The theory might limit the drafting of players from lower-quality conferences (unless they were All-Americans), as they usually will require extra years to play up to the level of guys from Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, etc. Examples: Josh Hawkins (E. Carolina), Chris Odom (Arkansas State), Jake Kumerow (Wisconsis-Whitewater), Quinten Rollins (Miami-Ohio), Joe Thomas (So. Carolina St.), Joe Callahan (Wesley), and Donatello Brown (Valdosta State). They weren’t ready to play when they joined the team.
The other downside to not-ready players who take years to develop is that they clog up the roster. It was a shame to have Max McCaffreym sent to the practice squad, and Taysom Hill, outright released, and then picked off by other teams. I believe Hill, unlike Joe Callahan, would have been given an opportunity to relieve the faltering Brett Hundley at some point last year, had he been on the roster.
Caution: All the above proposals are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Many other factors need to be taken into account when selecting players.
Packers Have a Golden Opportunity
Brian Gutekunst was left with a fantastic going-away present by Ted Thompson: two fourth-, three fifth-, and two sixth-round draft choices. If Gutekunst selects well, he can get the Packers out of the serious salary cap hole they are now in – and keep them out of that hole for several years going forward. The trick will be to have four or five of these seven picks become starters or solid contributors as soon as 2019.
It can be done if the Packers draft wisely – and if they select players who are ready, or nearly so, to play at the professional level when they leave college.
Bottom line: The more the Packers trade up in the draft, the more likely they are to acquire players ready to play in their first or second years. Such players greatly relieve the burden of staying under the salary cap. I like the two draft position upgrades the Packers are getting as a result of the Randall-Kizer deal. Maybe Gutekunst (and Russ Bell) already get this?