Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were first-round selections, proving there is little upside to playing in non-playoff bowls. Just ask Jake Butt, who fell to the fifth round after being injured
Insatiable NFL Thirst
Fans came out in droves to support the NFL draft in Philadelphia, as the league knew they would (its proximity to so many other NFL cities was a major factor).
Last summer, when Philadelphia was announced as the host city for the 2017 draft, the Eagles did not have a first-round pick. While there still would have been considerable interest in the event, the fact the Eagles acquired a first rounder a week later created more buzz. The ripple effect of Teddy Bridgewater’s injury extended to the business of the NFL: a reported 250,000 fans attended the draft, which had more hometown energy because the Eagles recouped a first-round pick when they shipped Sam Bradford to Minnesota.
I attended all three days. I had some speaking events the first two days and took my son and nephew to the final day (that is love). The scene, at the Philadelphia Art Museum and the famed Rocky steps, provided incredible commercial appeal to network advertisers and creative inspiration to representatives from 16 cities in attendance that are candidates to host future drafts.
And as NFL Network hosts were eager to tell us a couple different times, the television audience for NFLN and ESPN combined—more than nine million viewers—dwarfed those of NBA and NHL playoff games. Never underestimate the NFL’s power to turn the reading of names into must-see TV.
Road Map to Avoid Injury
Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipped their teams’ bowl games to protect their health and financial interests, with McCaffrey declining private workouts as well. Had they played in those games or had those workouts and somehow been injured, we may not be talking about them being picked with such lofty status: fourth and eight overall, respectively.
Conversely, Michigan tight end Jake Butt, another potential high pick who was injured in his team’s bowl game, slid to the fifth round. And although there were reports of Butt being paid $10,000 per pick starting in the middle of the third round on an insurance policy, it sounds far too simplistic. Butt will have to prove to the carrier that the injury was the sole reason for his drop in the draft, which had a very deep group of tight ends. We should not be counting Butt’s insurance payout anytime soon.
Players and agents are taking notice. These examples have now provided a road map for other top-rated college players, especially running backs, for optimal draft preparation and presentation. Indeed, the time may be coming when bowl games are just the start of what players decide to forgo in their preparation for future employment.
And no, NFL teams are not worried about this; they, too, are selfish in their interests.
Running Back Roulette
With Fournette and McCaffrey this year, and Ezekiel Elliot from last year, there is a narrative that running backs are increasing in value. Well, perhaps for some special younger ones. After watching this offseason’s soft—or nonexistent— marketplace for players such as Adrian Peterson, Latavius Murray, Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, LeGarrette Blount and others, we are seeing an acceleration of decreasing value past a certain career arc and age.
Players like Elliot, McCaffrey and Fournette are more valuable now because teams know how these assets depreciate over time. We can only wonder what their market value will be in four to six years. With the shortest shelf life in football, a running back’s most productive years are when they’re unpaid (college) and low-paid (rookie contracts). Fournette and McCaffery can’t change the three-year rule for entry into the NFLdraft (Maurice Clarett tried and lost) but they did what they could to minimize the injury risk.
I feel for running backs, at all levels. They truly need their own union.
Character Counts . . . Unless It Doesn’t
Many teams continued to draft players with varying degrees of past “issues,” as we knew they would. Joe Mixon, picked in the second round by the Bengals, and Gareon Conley, drafted in the first round by the Raiders amidst potential sexual assault charges (which he denies), are just the most well known of dozens of players picked with red flags. Again, this illustrates teams’ continued tolerance of past behavior with “due diligence”—if the talent warrants it. Teams will rationalize and talk about second chances when, in truth, many of these players have had dozens of second chances due to their talent.
As written here many times, the league can do all it wants with conduct policies and barring players like Mixon from the combine, but team personnel often view league policies as out of touch when dealing with players; the NFL can try to hide players like Mixon but teams will find them. And Conley, Mixon and so many others didn’t need a lot of teams; they only needed one.
Not the Same Old Browns?
Time will tell, but I like what the Browns are doing. There, I said it.
While their previous deficiencies certainly gave rise to the narrative, “It’s the Browns, they don’t know what they’re doing,” I am seeing some deft moves.
Under the recent leadership of former baseball analytics savant Paul DePodesta, their decision-making is steeped in statistically based data, taking the “gut feelings” out of the equation. The Browns did not reach for a quarterback in the first round, as many suggested they would, with either the first or No. 12 pick. Instead, they took Deshone Kizer in the second round. By that time they had drafted Myles Garrett, David Njoku and Jabril Peppers and acquired a 2018 first round pick from the Texans. That is some admirable production in the first 52 picks of the draft.
Speaking of that extra 2018 first round pick, it comes from the same team from whom they acquired a 2018 second round pick in exchange for taking on Brock Osweiler and his burdensome contract. The Texans 2018 draft might as well have a Browns logo attached to it.
Whether bolstering their offensive line in free agency, executing an NBA-like trade in taking on Osweiler’s contract for a future draft pick or working the draft board adeptly based on their quantitative data, this offseason has been impressive. As I did at the time of his hiring, I applauded the hire of DePodesta; the franchise sorely needed an infusion of new thinking. Perhaps the Brown can help serve as a change-agent in a sport sorely in need of one.
The Bears’ 2017 offseason of quarterbacks seems to be a mirror image of the Eagles 2016’ offseason with quarterbacks. Both spent $18-20 million guaranteed at the start of free agency to secure a veteran—the Eagles re-upped Sam Bradford, the Bears signed Mike Glennon—only to then mortgage future assets to draft a quarterback second overall (Carson Wentz and Mitchell Trubisky, respectively) for $28-29 million guaranteed (over four years).
Unlike the Eagles, though, it is highly doubtful the Bears will trade their veteran as the Eagles did with Bradford in leveraging the Vikings’ desperation for a first-rounder. In both cases, however, the team spent lavishly to provide a bridge to the future, a bridge the Eagles decided they didn’t need when a first-round pick was on the table. As for the Bears, the chants from fans and the media for Trubisky will ring loudly if Glennon falters early in the season. I’m not sure what other options he had, but this is probably not what Glennon had in mind when he signed a first-day free-agent deal with the Bears.
Five Final Thoughts on the Draft . . .
1) As Peter King recounted yesterday, John Lynch handled his first draft like a cagey veteran, even reminiscent of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, a master at acquiring additional draft picks. Hinkie now teaches at Stanford and lives down the road from the 49ers. Just saying . . .
2) Despite the obligatory booing of Roger Goodell whenever he approached the podium, I noticed that when he walked amongst the crowd, the same fans booing him were pushing in for a glimpse, a handshake or, of course, a selfie.
3) Every general manager and coach publicly loves their draft but privately rue the ones that got away. Though it would never happen, it would be refreshing if one stood up and said, “We really wanted another guy but he went right before us, but we like this guy too.”
4) The scorecard is in for player agents who spent so much time recruiting players. CAA Football, which dropped its fees to 1% for rookies last year, had an impressive haul of nine first-round picks, with six in the top 20.
5) Yes, I was among the ESPN layoffs and will discuss that more in depth in a future column. I am grateful for the six years there and tried to do for viewers what I try to do for readers here: take you behind the NFL curtain and hopefully make you smarter. As most people know about me, I always have a lot of faucets running; this one is still flowing every week for you.
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