The truth is that evaluating talent is hard. How hard? For an illustration, consider the case of Eli Manning's older brother, Peyton. In 1998, Peyton entered the NFL draft with tremendous hype. But teams weren't sure whether he would be the first or second quarterback taken. There was a comparably touted quarterback from Washington State, Ryan Leaf, considered by many NFL scouts to be the better prospect. Leaf was bigger and stronger than Manning, and with the support of his college numbers, he was regarded as the better athlete. The Chargers held the third pick of the draft but made a trade with the Cardinals to move up to the second pick to ensure that they got one of the two tantalizing quarterbacks. This move cost them two first-round picks, a second- round pick, reserve linebacker Patrick Sapp and three-time Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf -- all to move up one spot! In the end the Colts, holding the number one pick, took Manning.
The San Diego Chargers took Leaf with the second pick and signed him to a five-year contract worth $31.25 million, including a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus, at the time the largest ever paid to a rookie -- that is, until the Colts paid Manning even more: $48 million over six years, including an $11.6 million signing bonus.
You probably know how the story unfolded. Peyton Manning is the Zeus of NFL quarterbacks, a four-time MVP (the most of any player in history) and a Super Bowl champion riding shotgun on the express bus to the Hall of Fame. And Leaf? After three disastrous seasons, he was released by San Diego.
To their credit, the Chargers learned from their costly mistake. In 2000 they finished 1-15 and were "rewarded" with the top pick in the 2001 NFL draft. They traded the pick to Atlanta for the Falcons' number five pick as well as a third-round pick in '01, a second- round pick in '02 and Tim Dwight, a wide receiver and kick-return specialist. The Falcons used the top pick to select Michael Vick; the Chargers used that fifth selection on LaDainian Tomlinson, who would become the most decorated running back of his generation. To satisfy their quarterback needs, the Chargers waited until the first pick of the second round and tapped Drew Brees, who would go on to become the 2010 Super Bowl MVP, albeit for Saints. Remember, too, the Chargers gave up Eli Manning in 2004 for Philip Rivers and the right to choose Shawne Merriman.
Beyond the money, overinvestment in high draft picks can have other costs. Pampering an underachieving first-round pick -- treating him differently from the sixth-rounders who'd be put on waivers for a comparably dismal performance -- exacts a price on team performance and morale. It also forestalls taking a chance on another athlete. The more chances given Leaf during his three seasons with the Chargers, the fewer chances afforded his backup. And it's not just the team that has drafted the player that's prone to this fallacy. Even after Leaf's miserable performance and behavior in San Diego, three other teams gave him another shot. They still believed the hype. "It'll be different here," they told themselves.
If you look at the top pick in the NFL draft from 1999 to 2009, not a single one was named rookie of the year on either side of the ball. More damning, many of the top picks have turned out to be busts. Of the last 11 number one picks, eight have been quarterbacks. Four of them -- Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith, and the beleaguered JaMarcus Russell -- came nowhere close to justifying the selection. Of the four remaining quarterbacks, it's too early to tell what will become of Matthew Stafford in Detroit, and though Carson Palmer and Michael Vick have each been to the Pro Bowl, both have also spent considerable time on the sidelines. That leaves only one number one quarterback pick, Eli Manning, who has started the majority of games for his team since his debut.
But again, divergent as their careers have been, all the number one picks were paid handsomely. So for the teams selecting at number one, the best-case scenario is that you buy a Camry at Porsche prices. Worst-case scenario, you pay Porsche money for a clunker. What you never get is a great player at a cheap price. In the 2010 draft, the trend continued as the Rams selected quarterback Sam Bradford number one (making nine of the last 12 first picks QBs) and signed him to the richest contract in history -- five years at $86 million, with $50 million guaranteed.
Even with successful high picks on the order of Manning and Palmer, the question isn't how much they cost in salary but also how much they cost in draft picks you could have had instead. In 2005, the 49ers drafted Alex Smith with the first pick; the only quarterbacks from the 2005 draft to have made a Pro Bowl are Aaron Rodgers (number 24), who made it for the first time in 2009, and Derek Anderson, the 11th quarterback taken that year. In 2000, defensive end Courtney Brown was chosen number one. He never made a Pro Bowl. But Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, the second and third defensive ends taken in that draft, did make numerous Pro Bowls. As did Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the 12th defensive end taken that year, with the 149th pick, and Adewale Ogunleye, who wasn't even drafted that year, meaning that at least 24 defensive ends were chosen before him. Bottom line: In football, it's very hard to tell who is going to be great, mediocre, or awful.
So what should a team do if it's blessed (which is to say, cursed) with a top pick? Trade it, as the Chargers learned to do. Drafting number 10 and number 11 instead of number 1 is a much better proposition. With two draws, the chance of having at least one of the two picks succeed is much higher, and the cost is the same or less. Factor in the potential for injuries and off-the-field trouble, and it becomes even more apparent that having two chances to find a future starter is a much better proposition than having only one. Also, the team avoids the potential of a colossal public bust like Leaf. Even if the later picks flop, fans won't care nearly as much as they do when the top pick is a bust.
Over the last decade, two teams in particular created a new model, placing less value on the top picks: the Patriots and the Eagles. Not surprisingly, they have two of the top winning percentages and five Super Bowl appearances since 2000. Tom Brady, one of the few quarterbacks hailed as Manning's equal? He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, with the 199th pick, and thus was obtained cheaply, leaving the Patriots with extra cash for other talent to surround him. Teams that traded draft picks for future ones benefited in subsequent years, too -- and again, the Patriots and Eagles were at the forefront. (Not coincidentally, their coaches, Andy Reid and Bill Belichick, have enough job security to afford the luxury of a long-term focus. Reid even has the additional title of executive vice president of football operations.)
Which teams are on the other end of the spectrum, routinely trading up in the draft to get higher picks and overpaying for them? The answer is unlikely to surprise you: the Raiders and the Redskins, who collectively have the fewest number of wins per dollar spent of all teams in the NFL.
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