The NFL draft is equivalent to a game show that puts the contestant in front of multiple doors and tells him to choose one. Whatever prize is behind the chosen door is what the contestant will go home with. And when a team has the first overall selection, that team obviously can choose from a full pool of doors.
The only difference for NFL general managers is that their doors have peepholes. They're allowed to poke, prod, interrogate and study their doors so that they aren't simply choosing at random. And they have the advantage of being able to review history's lessons.
But even with the combine, the interviews and the tape study, there is no such thing as an absolute lock in the NFL draft. Sure, players like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are pretty damn good bets, but one poorly maintained field can alter the course of a career.
Thus, when a team has the top overall pick and gets to choose any door it so desires, it's imperative that the franchise finds what they're looking for. Otherwise, those in charge of the picking process will have to watch next year's draft from outside of a window like the rest of us.
The Effects of Not Hitting a Home Run
The above isn't hyperbole. Swinging and missing on the first overall pick can have devastating effects on a general manager or head coach's employment. Just ask Mike Nolan.
All paycheck concerns aside, the financial burden of selecting first overall has been lessened significantly, thanks to the lockout of 2011. Top picks used to get paid sums Pro Bowl players had to hold out for. Things are different now. Back then, Sam Bradford cashed in with a contract that guaranteed him $50 million. To put that in perspective, Andrew Luck got $22.1 million. Basically, the only consolation here is that a miss won't sink your team from a salary cap perspective.
The lasting effects on the team are usually more centered around opportunity cost. The media will continue to remind the San Francisco 49ers that they could have had Aaron Rodgers instead of Alex Smith. There will always be players that could have elevated the franchise to another level that will be selected afterwards. Whiffing on a chance to grab a cornerstone means just that: the team will lack the proper foundation for winning.
Lastly, there is the collective psyche of the fans. Having a headlining rookie is fun and fills stadiums. Keeping a failed top pick on the roster only reinforces the franchise's failure to the fans and gives them pause when deciding whether to renew those season tickets.
Options Available With The Selection
Just like winning the first pick based on your paper-rock-scissors prowess at recess, the first pick provides almost too many possibilities. Whoever is the biggest kid in the class can be on your team with the point of a finger.
However, in spite of all the different options, there are really only three ways that the top pick in the NFL draft is spent. It's either burned on a quarterback, a defensive end or an offensive tackle. The numbers back this up. In the last 20 years, there have been 13 quarterbacks, two offensive tackles, two defensive ends, one wide receiver, one running back and one defensive tackle. For an ever-evolving league, the NFL is quite predictable on this front.
There isn't much argument against taking a quarterback. As the game continues to become more aerial based, the position continues to widen the gap on all the others in terms of importance.
Some teams will eschew the signal-caller if there is more value present at another premium position. In terms of importance, the offensive tackle and defensive end follow quarterback in some order. That's why you see multiple picks for these two positions.
Okay. It's only two each. But the point remains that they are tied for the second-most selected position.
The least utilized is the best-player-available mentality. That's how you end up with a wide receiver as the first pick. This strategy can also be melded with the second to arrive at players like Mario Williams.
Finally, a team can always trade down, but it's rare. The main reason being that it's incredibly difficult to find fair value in return for such a valuable commodity.
A Look Back
Since the most common strategy is grabbing a franchise quarterback, we'll first attack how that has played out. In broad terms, there have been three that have become better-than-good players (Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning) and five that have busted. The last four are still too green for us to reach any definite conclusion, although we are probably looking at a 50/50 split.
The defensive ends didn't fare much better. Out of the two taken, Courtney Brown never developed into much, while Mario Williams played well enough to garner a $100 million payday.
Offensive tackles have yet to miss in the last 20 years. Both Jake Long (despite his recent downswing) and Orlando Pace lived up the hype. Pace finished a stellar career and Long still has plenty of time to regain his former luster.
As for taking the best player available, it's a wash. Keyshawn Johnson had a productive career, but not one worthy of a top selection. Ki-Jana Carter never got a chance to get going after opening his career with a devastating knee injury before science had found a way to make players semi-bionic.
How This All Applies To This Year?
Now that we've seen how the broad history has worked out, let's turn to specific instances that could indicate how three top candidates would fare as the first selection.
First, let's address the scariest scenario for Kansas City Chiefs fans: Geno Smith. Smith is a streaky player who has a Jamal Crawford-type approach. When he's on, he's a one-man wrecking crew. But a coach must find how to keep Smith locked in. Basically, this scenario is David Carr all over again. Carr was a talented passer, but he wasn't a No. 1 guy. It didn't end well in Houston.
Next, there are multiple defensive "ends" in line for consideration, namely Star Lotulelei, Damontre Moore and Bjoern Werner. Any of these players have the ability to immediately upgrade a defensive line, but Moore has the most upside, followed quickly by Lotulelei. They both can replicate Mario Williams' impact. While he isn't with the Texans anymore, here's betting they wouldn't take back their time together.
Lastly, there's the "sure-ish thing." Luke Joeckel has the pedigree and the track record to continue on the tradition passed down by Jake Long. His athleticism will serve him well, just as it did for Long.
So stick to the script that history has provided, Mr. John Dorsey. Your job could very well depend on it someday.