The business of football was on full display during the draft, the NFL’s most important weekend in its seven-month hiatus from playing games. Here are 10 things I think about it:
1. Saquon Barkley, by virtue of being the second pick in the draft, will soon own the second-largest contract for a running back in NFL history for total amount guaranteed (over $31 million, second only to Adrian Peterson who was guaranteed $36 million in his 2011 extension with the Vikings), and one of the top contracts for an active running back in terms of annual value ($7.8 million). Teams are valuing elite runners at the top of the draft—Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and now Barkley—while the veteran running back market has cratered in the past couple of years. Execs realize they can go young, at fixed and reasonable rates, at the position. And despite their early success and promise, one can only wonder the market for these backs after their rookie deals. The business of the NFL is coldest to running backs, the position with the game’s shortest shelf life.
2. While Barkley used a nontraditional agent in Roc Nation, the firm founded by Jay-Z, Lamar Jackson used no agent at all. Yet with his mother as his advisor, Jackson ended up in a good place (last pick of the first round), higher than projected, on a good team (Ravens). This was not good news for the agent community, who criticized his decision through their media contacts. Having been one myself, I understand the value of agents in areas beyond the contract negotiation. However I know that whether or not a player has an agent, or which agent he has, has no bearing on his draft status. Teams have been scouting these players for months; they are not worried about the agent, especially now with these contracts pre-negotiated. As I tell players and families that ask me about agents, if an agent says he can get a player drafted higher than he otherwise would be, run the other way.
3. The party line about all quarterbacks picked at the top of the draft is that they will sit and learn, perhaps all year. That is always the plan, but as the eminent philosopher Mike Tyson says (I’m paraphrasing), We all have a plan until we get punched in the face! Are the Browns, Jets, Bills and Cardinals really going to wait any prolonged period of time to see Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen? The clamoring for the team’s face of the future will start in the preseason and crescendo from there. Remember when the Jaguars were planning to sit Blake Bortles? The Eagles were going to sit Carson Wentz? The Bears were going to sit Mitchell Trubisky? Hell, even Johnny Manziel played in his first year.
Now I know what you’re saying ... Aaron Rodgers sat for three years when you were in Green Bay! True, but not only did Aaron sit behind a Hall-of-Fame quarterback, but there is also much more pressure to play top picks today; the future is now. I believe there will never—yes, never—be a first-round quarterback who does not play for three years again.
4. Carson Palmer’s retirement puts Arizona in one of those “hurry up and play” situations. For the second spring in three years, Sam Bradford negotiated a lucrative contract only to watch his team draft his replacement (Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and now Josh Rosen). With career earnings approaching $130 million for middling performance, Bradford will keep collecting big checks while keeping the seat warm. He is a true Hall-of-Famer in the business of football.
5. Teams selecting their quarterbacks of the future did not include the Giants, Saints or Patriots, all of whom opted for more immediate help. Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady won’t be around forever but finding their replacements will have to wait. Indeed, Giants general manager Dave Gettlemen became downright crabby when discussing the value of a quarterback compared to a running back, knowing the Barkley is special. Gettleman appears to be one of the last bastion of sports executives railing against the tide of more statistic-based evaluation. Speaking of which…
6. Every NFL team uses analytics in coaching and scouting, although many are quiet—even secretive—about it. In the heat of the war room however, emotion and “the chase” can shove aside the analytics people quickly. For example, all draft value charts would never suggest the Saints giving up a 2019 first round pick to move up 13 spots in the first round to take a non-quarterback (Marcus Davenport). However, it was a player they felt like they “had to have.” Similarly, the Raiders only receiving only receiving a third- and fifth-round pick from the Cardinals to move from pick No. 10 to 15 seems like it would fail the analytics charts, but they felt they could get their player with a move down. Some teams are sticklers for draft trade analytics more than others and simply would not have made those deals, but the Saints and Raiders overrode those charts. Ultimately, like every transaction in life, the market is whatever someone is willing to pay or accept.
7. Tavon Austin was the eighth pick in the 2013 draft, selected by the Rams. On Saturday he was traded to the Cowboys for draft pick No. 192. Not only did the Rams have a scouting swing-and-miss, but they compounded it by rewarding Austin with a four-year, $40-million extension eight months ago! Austin will now cost the Rams $4 million of cash and Cap, as that amount was paid to him in a March roster bonus. That is more than he will receive from his new team, the Cowboys, who will pay him $1 million in salary with another potential $2 million in per-game incentives. Austin’s underwhelming career has current earnings of $32 million. Good for him, not so good for the Rams.
And in league news…
8. Jaguars’ owner Shad Kahn’s purchase of Wembley Stadium continues his purposeful trajectory in London in recent years. When the NFL began its annual series of games in London, most teams ran the other way in fear of giving up a home game and disrupting the team’s football operations with an overseas trip in the middle of the season. Khan leaned in, making the Jaguars a fixture in London since the inception of the London games. Khan also purchased the Fulham Football club; Wembley is another logical step. While I do not believe we will be seeing the London Jaguars anytime soon, when we do see a London NFL team years from now there is an obvious leader in the clubhouse for which team that will be.
9. To me, The New York Times report of secret recording of owners’ meetings regarding the player protests and Colin Kaepernick is noteworthy more for the fact it was recorded than for what was said. We knew there was division within ownership ranks on this issue and on the President. We knew there was a majority of owners wanting players to “stick to sports.” Even the condescending and paternalistic tone of some owners that appeared in the recordings is no surprise. I remember being told by a league executive, at the time of those meetings, that the players’ presence inside those meetings upset some owners who felt the players were being put on equal footing with those investing hundreds of millions in the product. Actually, I would have thought those secret recordings would have more inflammatory language than they were.
10. Finally, the NFL achieved another media milestone in its quest to reach new and younger consumers. After one-year agreements with Twitter and Amazon to stream Thursday Night Football games over the past two seasons, the league has re-upped with Amazon for two more years.Amazon now joins Fox, who purchased rights to TNF for in a multi-year deal valued at $650 million per year, while solidifying its NFL presence with traditional media deals expiring in a couple of years. The day is soon coming where the NFL will be receiving bids from both traditional linear networks AND digital media giants. Combined with boffo ratings for the draft, this is more tough news for the “NFL’s in decline” crowd.
• A note that came out of my podcast: Jack Mills, Mayfield’s agent, said that the Patriots were angling to get in position to draft the quarterback. The team was eyeing the No. 2 pick, but it couldn’t make a trade happen, even with the No. 23 and the No. 31 picks and two second-round picks.
• Every general manager seems to be amazed that the players they got were there when they picked them. Please. I would love it if a GM said “Well, we really liked some other guys, but they were gone. These guys will do.”
• Seeing Khalil McKenzie, the son of Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, drafted by the Chiefs was a “Wow, I’m old!” moment. When working alongside Reggie in Green Bay, I watched Khalil grow up, and remember he and my son playing together.
• It was also emotional watching Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome making his final draft pick, as he will retire after the season. When I entered the league and went to my first team meetings, Ozzie treated me the same way he treated the commissioner. He is gracious with everyone, no matter the status. I will never forget that.
• The additions of draft week unfortunately bring deletions as well. As players are picked, players are released; perhaps not right after the draft (although some are) but somewhere in the next couple of months. This is the cold side of the business of the Draft.
• And my Tweet of the Week, sent as teams were hurriedly signing undrafted free agents…