To an NFL team, future draft picks are more difficult to pass up than free barbecue.
It makes sense. If everybody in your fantasy league thinks they're a genius, imagine the egos on the people who get paid to make personnel decisions for real-life pro sports teams. They're all on the verge of discovering a diamond in the rough, and every draft pick represents another chance to find that superstar.
The first time I truly realized the allure of the draft pick was in 2007, when Randy Moss was traded from the Raiders to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick.
Here you had a Hall of Fame wide receiver, only 30 years old at the time and still very capable of dominating games, and yet one team was willing to hand Moss over to a conference rival for a fourth-round pick. And the team that got Moss reportedly thought long and hard about this trade. For a fourth-round pick!
Do you know who was picked in the fourth round of the '07 NFL Draft? You might remember Georgia Tech guard Mansfield Wrotto, who has played a total of 27 games in four pro seasons. Or maybe Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback, who is trying to make the Seahawks' roster as a receiver on the practice squad. The best player to emerge from the '07 fourth round has been All-Pro Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain. The second-best player? Zak DeOssie, a Giants linebacker by trade who has been to the Pro Bowl twice ... as a long snapper.
Otherwise, 15 of the 38 players picked in that round aren’t even in the NFL anymore, and three guys never played a minute in the league. (Oakland used the pick they got from New England for Moss on defensive back John Bowie, who has played in five NFL games.)
Yet, every year NFL teams and their fans covet draft picks like Scrooge McDuck coveted gold coins. With the lockout set to end any moment now, and a fast and furious condensed offseason set to commence, a few teams will be more eager than others to pile up those draft chips. Even if they never really pay out:
Under normal circumstances, the Viking would be in full rebuilding mode and in need of accumulating draft picks for long-term development. The team finished 6-10 last season during a tumultuous campaign where 14 players at or over the age of 30 made their way into the starting lineup, and next season they're rolling out a rookie quarterback (Christian Ponder) and a first-year head coach (Leslie Frazier).
The abnormal part of the equation is that Minnesota has Adrian Peterson on its roster.
When your team is fortunate enough to have a superstar running back in his prime, slowly rebuilding can't be the game plan. The Vikings need to take advantage of Peterson's talents while he still has them, meaning the team not only needs draft picks, they need to turn those picks into players who can contribute sooner rather than later.
Defensive end Everson Griffen (who was arrested twice during one week in January), cornerback Cedric Griffin, safety Madieu Williams and guard Anthony Herrera are some of the players Minnesota might use as trade bait to stock up on draft picks.
The Redskins theoretically have more time to patiently rebuild, but a fast-moving, big-spending owner and a city hungry for any kind of pro sports success may not be willing to wait.
Nobody would be surprised if Washington is bad enough next season to land the No. 1 overall pick—most likely Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck—but one shiny new QB isn’t going to turn the franchise around by himself. The Redskins needs depth and talent through the draft, especially for their aging defense and at wide receiver.
Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth are two big-name veterans the Redskins would love to get rid of ASAP, and both could be worth valuable draft picks on the trade market.
The Ravens draft better than any team in the league. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. All-Pro tight end Todd Heap, fullback Le'Ron McClain, running back Ray Rice, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs, and up and coming quarterback Joe Flacco are all homegrown products brought up through the Baltimore system.
And though the team is a current championship contender, it's time to seriously think about a future without the 35-year-old Lewis and 32-year-old Reed ... not to mention 30-year-old Heap, 34-year-old center Matt Birk, 34-year-old nose tackle Kelly Gregg, and ancient receiver Derrick Mason, who reportedly used to run 7-on-7 drills with Bart Starr and Max McGee.
If there are a couple moves to be made (or not made) that would buy the Ravens some draft picks to build up their reserves and make as seamless a transition as possible to the post-Lewis era, they should be explored this summer.
Baltimore has already been linked to Carolina's star WR Steve Smith in trade rumors, but considering he will come at a high price—and that the Ravens drafted two receivers this year—they could take a pass and keep those valuable chips.
The Falcons are far from rebuilding. They're young at the skill positions, talented all over the field, and have enough playoff experience to pose as a legit Super Bowl threat right now. Matt Ryan and crew went 13-3 last season and are focused on winning today, with a solid foundation for tomorrow.
But the Falcons did take a risk this year by giving up five draft picks to land incoming rookie receiver Julio Jones, including their 2012 first-rounder and fourth-rounder. They'd definitely like to get some of those picks back if they can by moving some expendable parts this offseason.
It's not as drastic as the Ricky Williams or Herschel Walker trades, but significant nonetheless.
Last year, the Broncos used their first five draft picks (all in the first three rounds) on offensive players, including soon-to-be anointed franchise quarterback Tim Tebow.
This year, the Broncos used four of their first five picks (all in the first four rounds) on defensive players, including No. 2 overall pick and projected star linebacker Von Miller.
But even if the young core delivers on its early potential, the Broncos are still at least one more strong draft class away from plugging some remaining holes and becoming a factor again in the AFC West. The team that finished 4-12 last season had the worst defense in the league and an offense that needs time to grow.
With Tebow set to take the reigns under center, veteran signal-caller Kyle Orton will be a valuable trade asset for Denver. And to a lesser extent, third-string QB Brady Quinn and receiver Eddie Royal could also be used to help bolster the Broncos' 2012 draft outlook.
Certainly no need to panic yet—the Giants are still very much in the running for an NFC East title—but this offseason presents some crucial decisions that could set the team back a while if not handled correctly.
One tough call is whether or not to satisfy All-Pro defensive end Osi Umenyiora's demands for a restructured contract and another is whether or not to trade running back Brandon Jacobs following the expected re-signing of free agent RB Ahmad Bradshaw. Playoff-caliber teams generally don't unload their defensive MVP and second-leading rusher if they don't have to, but Osi and Jacobs could both be leaving New York if the team decides they'd rather have the draft picks those players could bring back in a trade.
The Giants are getting old and injury-prone on the offensive line and could use some depth there, however they only used one 2011 draft pick (a fourth-rounder) addressing that need.
In the likely event that Cincinnati loses its quarterback (Carson Palmer), two best receivers (Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco), top running back (Cedric Benson), and half of what is arguably the best cornerback duo in the NFL (Johnathan Joseph goes, Leon Hall stays), the franchise that always seems to be rebuilding will be starting from scratch one more time.
That would put the Bengals in the familiar position of looking to stockpile draft picks while eyeing a brighter future, and their fans in the familiar position of looking to find other things to do on Sundays.
The upside is that Palmer and Ochocinco aren't free agents this summer, so the Bengals could attract some good draft picks in return for the two Pro Bowlers. The downside is that Ocho has created the perception that he wants to be famous more than he wants to be a football player, and Palmer has made it clear he wants to be traded worse than a 16-year-old wants a car, lowering the value for both players.
Starting right tackle Andre Smith, defensive end Antwan Odom and receiver Andre Caldwell are some other trade-worthy assets Cincy could flip into picks.