The Detroit Lions are on the clock.
In the wake of Matthew Stafford's "flawless" private workout with the Detroit brass Tuesday, some sources have reported the Lions' intention to draft the Georgia quarterback with the No. 1-overall pick is a "done deal."
Other reports, however, indicate Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith remains the Lions' top choice and they point to the fact that the Lions have begun preliminary negotiations with Smith's representation. Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry and Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe also remain in the conversation as the Lions' new brain trust makes its biggest decision to date.
Here's some free advice for the Lions: Strongly consider passing on the No. 1 pick. Just let the time run out, Minnesota Vikings-style. Don't bother skimming the rest of the column looking for an April Fool's Day reveal. It's a serious suggestion. Given the financial commitment inherent in making the No. 1 pick and the lack of a clear-cut best player, the Lions should consider letting the clock strike zero and let the Rams make the first selection. Maybe even let the Chiefs slide in there too, before making a pick at three or four.
The money paid to the top five rookies has gotten so steep that this approach could be a legitimate option for a team. With the top pick, the Lions are looking at doling out a contract upward of $35 million in guaranteed compensation. (The top pick last year, Jake Long, got a five-year, $57.75 million deal from the Dolphins, with $30 million guaranteed.) The Lions are smart enough to negotiate with a couple of the top prospects in an effort to leverage them against each other and wrap up a contract before the draft, but maybe they shouldn't bother.
If the Lions would truly be content with any of the aforementioned four players, there's no need to waste time negotiating or spend top-slot money when they can simply let the clock run out and take one of the other players a pick or two down the line. Over the last few years -- differences in contract length aside -- every subsequent pick in the top five of the draft has ended up commanding around $2 million less in guaranteed compensation than the prior pick. That means the Lions could save a cool $4 million at least by letting the Rams and Chiefs pick first, while still landing a very good player who they were considering taking with the top pick anyway.
There's precedent. In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings were in trade talks with the Ravens when their time to make the No. 7-overall pick ran out. Jacksonville and Carolina, the two teams supposed to pick immediately after the Vikings, hurriedly got their selections into the commissioner's hands before the Vikings could ultimately take defensive tackle Kevin Williams in the nine spot. Though that move has, in hindsight, turned out very well for the Vikings, they took a big public relations hit when it happened. The Lions would likewise face an avalanche of criticism, but could take comfort in knowing they had a good reason for the move.
The money paid to top rookies has gotten so out of whack that teams don't even want to have a top five pick anymore, let alone No. 1. The top pick used to be a consolation prize for teams that were coming off a horrible season. Now it seems more like cruel and unusual punishment. The top picks are so costly that they are virtually untradeable, which is not good for a league that prides itself on competitive balance.
The thing that seems to get lost when discussing a rookie wage scale is that the money has only gotten out of hand for the first 10, maybe 15, selections. In fact, the later portion of the first round and almost all of the selections in the second round often represent a tremendous value for the teams picking in that range. The sweet spot in terms of return on investment appears to be spots 20-50, where a team can select a player with a high probability to be a quality starter at a price that is less than what a veteran starter would likely get on the open market at that position.
The same cannot be said for the top five or 10 picks, however. For example, if the Lions choose Curry, Monroe or Smith instead of Stafford with the top pick, that player will immediately become the highest-paid player in league history at his position, a reality that makes no sense considering he will basically be getting paid for what he did in college and what he might be able to do in the NFL. This can lead to a laundry list of problems, from resentment in the locker room to a lack of incentive for the player to whom all the money is given.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has already said the concept of a rookie wage scale will be among the items addressed as the league and the NFLPA enter into negotiations on a new CBA. The owners are hoping to not only cut back on the amount they spend on players, but, just as important, to mitigate that risk by spending the big bucks on players who have already performed at the NFL level. The goal, of course, is to have more of the available money going to players who have proven themselves in the NFL.
Opponents of a rookie wage scale will say that these contracts act as a market driver for veteran deals, but the better argument is that there are way too many teams that are closer to the salary floor than the ceiling. If they aren't spending their available cap space on veteran free agents now, there's no guarantee the money will trickle toward veteran players if the league establishes a rookie wage scale. Any rookie wage scale would have to include an increase in the salary floor as well, a trade-off the owners should be willing to make.
But that's talk for another time and place. The Lions are staring the here and now squarely in the face, and their best option, as crazy as it sounds, might be to simply let time run out.