Look to the Top of The Draft To Find Today's Biggest Losers

Todd FlemingAnalyst IApril 26, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 22:  Quarterback Matthew Stafford of Georgia runs the 40 yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine presented by Under Armour at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 22, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

If there was ever a draft in which the deck was stacked against the teams picking at the top, it was this one. The Lions were stuck paying a quarterback who is far from a sure thing pick $41.7 million in guaranteed money as part of a six-year $72 million deal. 

This is a guy that had he been in the 2004 draft would have been the fourth quarterback selected, going no higher than about 15th. 

That said, I don't blame the Lions for taking a quarterback considering what they would have to pay. Quarterback is one of the few positions that can justify that kind of investment.

The Rams took the best player they could take at No. 2, selecting the highest rated tackle in the draft.  But, again, this is not a player that is a sure thing as Orlando Pace, the player he is replacing, was when they drafted him. But, they will have to ransom the farm to sign him.

The Chiefs took a player in Tyson Jackson that may have slid to about fifteen had they not been forced to grab him at three. Next to nobody thinks he deserves the money he'll get as the number three pick, nor did any of the "draft experts" have him anywhere near that spot on their draft boards. 

I imagine Scott Pioli would have done just about anything to move down.  But there were no takers who wanted the salary cap albatross that came with that pick. So he stayed put and took the player he thought would help them the most.

The other teams in the top ten, with the exception of the Raiders, did about as good as they could with their picks. The 49ers likely got a steal in grabbing Michael Crabtree at 10. That is also the place in the draft where the value started to show up.

If there was ever a year when teams at the top of the draft should have pulled a Viking special, it was this year. A team near the top would have been smart to forget to turn their card in for several picks. Nobody is willing to risk the ire of their fans by doing that, but it would be smarter than overpaying a prospect. 

The speed of the skyrocketing of salaries at the top of the draft has been staggering, far outpacing the rise in the salary cap. In 2003, Carson Palmer was guaranteed about $16M, a lot of money but not altogether unreasonable considering his potential. 

By 2007, JaMarcus Russell was guaranteed $29M. Last year, Jake Long was guaranteed about $30M. This year, that has risen another $12M for Stafford. Where does it stop?

The cost of the 1st round prospects drops dramatically throughout the round until it ends at less than 20 percent of the cost of the top pick by round's end.

Even at the top of the draft, these players are nothing more than prospects, even if they are loaded with potential. Over the past decade, five out of ten top overall picks were complete misses with a couple others highly debatable.  

Yet every one of these prospects drafted at the top of the draft is paid as a franchise player. Only one of these overall No. 1 choices, Peyton Manning, actually turned the team that drafted him into a perennial contender. 

Making a mistake at the top now handcuffs a team and messes up their salary structure for years.

The teams that got real value this year were those picking in the 15-30 range.  The dropoff from the top picks was not that significant. Is Michael Oher, taken at 23 by the Ravens, really that much worse of a prospect than Andre Smith taken at 6 by the Bengals? 

Some teams likely had him higher on their boards.  But, the Ravens assumed much less risk and will pay him a fraction of what the three tackles drafted near the top of the draft will be payed. 

Hakeem Nicks, selected 29th by the Giants, may very well prove to be the best wide receiver drafted this year. But he will be payed far far less than the guy with the long name taken by the Raiders at 7. Again, some teams likely had Nicks higher on their boards.

It is hard to know that at this point who will be the better player. This comes down to trying to value potential reward versus risk (cost). 

The costs associated with the top picks is far too high in relation to the potential reward, especially considering the historic production of players taken with those picks. 

Players taken in the 8-15 range are not that much less successful than the players taken at the top...but the cost is far lower, meaning a mistake won't cripple the team while also leaving more money to address other needs. 

Colts' president Bill Polian captured the problem exactly around the time of last year's draft. 

He said, "The value of the draft has priced itself out of existence. The idea that the worst team would get help from a good player or players is out the window because you are saddled in salary cap Hell if the guy is anything but an almost immediate Pro Bowler." 

Polian estimated that about 50% of picks at the top don't pan out.  That looks about right.  I'm betting Stafford will some day be added to that list.  

Picking at the top of the draft is like playing Russian Roulette with three bullets.  You might win, but the cost of losing is absurdly high. And even if you do win, you are paying the player essentially what he is worth as opposed to a team that strikes it big later in the round. 

That team gets a much bigger return on their investment.

At some point, the drop in cost no longer offsets the drop in potential value.  I think that happens somewhere around the 12th pick, though it might in fact be even later this year since the separation between the picks in potential appears to be lower than normal. 

I suspect the ideal draft spots based upon balancing all these factors are in the range of 10-15.  This is why teams like the Steelers, Eagles, Colts, and Patriots can draft relatively late year after year without seeing much, if any, decline. 

Looking at the Super Bowl Champion Steelers' key players, not a single player came from the top of the first round.  Out of those current starters that were drafted in the first round by the Steelers, most came from the middle to the bottom of that round...Ben Roethlisberger (position No. 11), Troy Polamalu (No. 16), Casey Hampton (No. 19), Santonio Holmes (No. 25), Heath Miller (No. 30). 

Lawrence Timmons (No. 15) will likely start next year with Rashard Mendenhall (No. 23) seeing increased playing time.  Their highest drafted player is James Farrior, drafted by the Jets at No. 8. 

Several of their key players weren't drafted until later rounds (Hines Ward, Aaron Smith), if at all (James Harrison, Ryan Clark, and Willie Parker were undrafted).   

So, if you want to know who were the losers in the first round, look at the top of the round.  And it isn't even their fault. The real draft value in having a bad season is drafting near the top of the second and third rounds, but that does not offset the salary cap killing first round pick.