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.