With a host of highly drafted—and massively compensated—young players, including a pair of potential franchise quarterbacks, the Rams and the Lions illustrate the challenges of pro football's money game
This is an article from the Oct. 18, 2010 issue
The play seemed benign enough: With 10 minutes to go in the first quarter on Sunday at Detroit's Ford Field, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford faked a handoff to running back Steven Jackson, dropped back several steps and lofted a pass deep down the left sideline. Wide receiver Mark Clayton and Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith bumped while looking back for the ball, then fell like dominoes to the turf.
Smith bounced up quickly and waved his right hand in a "don't challenge me" gesture, but Clayton remained facedown before rolling onto his back, then his side. When the training staff rushed over and placed an air cast around his right leg, it was obvious there was nothing inconsequential about the play. Clayton was done for the game, and the season, with a torn right patellar tendon.
In the hush of the locker room following a 44--6 defeat, the Rams were left to wonder, How much misfortune can one position take? Donnie Avery was supposed to be the No. 1 wideout, but he tore a knee ligament in the preseason and is out for the year. Needing a veteran threat who could facilitate the development of Bradford, the top selection in this year's draft, St. Louis traded its sixth-round pick in 2011 to the Ravens for Clayton and a seventh-rounder. His 10 receptions for 119 yards in the season opener offered promise that he could be the Rams' top threat; Sunday's injury left Bradford to learn his trade with the most nondescript receiving corps in the NFL.
To address that issue, St. Louis could trade for disgruntled restricted free-agent Vincent Jackson; the Chargers want second- and third-round choices for their Pro Bowl wideout with size (6'5") and speed. But the Rams have no interest. For one, they have lost 45 of their last 53 games and want to rebuild through the draft. For another, Jackson has pleaded guilty to two DUI charges and would face a one-year suspension for a third violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. And finally, Jackson wants to be among the league's highest-paid receivers. For the Rams that's a red flag—they've signed each of their last three No. 1 picks to deals that average around $10 million a year, and adding another big salary would throw their payroll out of whack in the coming seasons.
Such are the pitfalls of consistently selecting at the top of the draft. Sunday's Rams-Lions game was more than a matchup of two long-suffering teams trying to turn their fortunes around. On the field (or the sideline) were six players taken either No. 1 or No. 2 in the last four years: In addition to Bradford, there was right tackle Jason Smith (second, 2009) and defensive end Chris Long (second, '08) for the Rams; and for the Lions, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (second, '10), quarterback Matthew Stafford (first, '09; he missed his fourth straight game while nursing a shoulder injury suffered in Week 1); and receiver Calvin Johnson (second, '07). Those six players' contracts are worth a combined $214 million in guaranteed money.
Ballooning salaries for high picks have become such an issue that owners are calling for a hard rookie wage scale in the next collective bargaining agreement (the current one is set to expire in March; page 44), contending that too much money is being spent on unproven players. Among this year's draft class, Bradford received a record $50 million guarantee as part of a potential $78 million deal; Suh agreed to $40 million in guaranteed money, second among defensive tackles only to the $41 million the Redskins handed Albert Haynesworth as a free agent in 2009; and the Chiefs made Eric Berry, taken fifth, the highest-paid safety in league history, with a six-year deal worth a potential $60 million. None of those three, of course, had played an NFL down before they inked their contracts.
"One reason people talk about the need for a wage scale is what I call the loser's curse," says one NFC executive. "If you're drafting in the top seven or eight, you can expect to get a good player, but you're going to be cursed with having to pay a very, very expensive contract. In a salary-cap world, that player is going to eat up a big part of your cap, so he better be a good player. For the Rams, Long and Smith will take up nearly $100 million of cap space over the lives of their contracts. If those two guys aren't studs—I mean, real studs—you end up drafting high again, like the Rams did this year. That makes it even tougher to think about signing other players."
St. Louis will be on the hook for $112 million in guarantees when Bradford, Smith and Long trigger their incentives and escalators—easily achievable performance or roster benchmarks meant to backload contracts with more money in later years—which each of them is expected to do this season. Couple that with the possibility that the Rams could have a top five pick again in 2011 and that they'll want to re-sign linebacker James Laurinaitis (a second-rounder in '09) and left tackle Rodger Saffold (the first pick of the second round this April) in the next few years, and it's obvious why they'd shy away from Jackson—especially if they're confident a rookie wage scale will be a part of the new CBA.
"The model some teams follow is paying five or six superstars big contracts and then having 40 lower picks," says Kevin Demoff, the Rams' executive vice president of football operations and chief operating officer. "That's what the Colts use. If we were to have another high pick, we would get to that model, but we would do it artificially. By that I mean, for the Colts it's a conscious decision to pay in that manner. For us it would be a forced choice, which would put a lot of pressure on us to develop undrafted free agents, sixth- and seventh-rounders."
A hard rookie wage scale similar to the NBA's slotting system would relieve some of the financial pressure on teams at the top of the draft. The players association has expressed a willingness to "tinker" with the current system, but only if there are guarantees that the savings would be passed on to veterans and retirees. Some team and union officials point out, though, that the issue is not rookie salaries, but poor scouting and drafting. For instance, of the 15 quarterbacks taken with the first three picks of the draft from 1994 to 2007, only Peyton Manning, Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb could be considered true franchise players—long-term starters who are among the best in the game at the position, year after year. Even if for the sake of argument Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick and Vince Young are included, that still leaves eight top-three quarterbacks who were paid like elite players but never performed in that manner (and in most cases didn't come close): Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Alex Smith.
The biggest blunders were Leaf and Russell, who each failed to reach the fourth year of his contract. The Raiders cut Russell, the No. 1 pick in 2007, last off-season after paying him roughly $39 million over three years. Sources say Oakland would have entertained trading down in '07 but couldn't find a partner. "It's tremendously hard to trade out of the top of the draft," says St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney. "Going back to the previous two years, nobody wanted to make a deal when we were at Number 2. When you get to where guys are clumped together and there's not much difference in perceived value—there's not that clear-cut guy, that phenom player who's head and shoulders better—no one is going to make a move up."
So teams stay put—often with troubling results. The Lions have selected in the top 10 in eight of the last nine years, including first or second in three of the last four, yet they averaged fewer than four wins a season over that span, and in 2008 they became the only team in league history to finish 0--16. (The win on Sunday lifted them to 1--4.) The Raiders have drafted in the top eight in six of the last seven years but have not won more than five games in any of those seasons. The Rams, 2--3, have a total of five wins over the last two-plus seasons.
Teams stuck at the top of the draft often reach a crisis point with their former high-priced rookies. After four or five years, decisions have to be made about whether the player's production is worth the bloated salary that kicks in when incentives and escalators are reached. The Cardinals faced such a situation in the off-season, when they chose to release safety Antrel Rolle, the eighth pick in 2005, because escalators pushed his '09 salary to $12 million. They also parted ways with disappointing QB Matt Leinart before his back-end escalators kicked in.
"Antrel Rolle is a good player but not a great player," says one executive. "The Cardinals said, It's $12 million to keep him, or we'll cut him and get Kerry Rhodes at $6 million. [In March, Arizona traded fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Jets for the onetime Pro Bowl safety.] Some of these guys will never be worth the back end of their contracts, and when you get out of the guarantee phase of some of these high picks, I believe you'll see some of these players getting cut or having to renegotiate down."
For now, the Lions and the Rams seem content with their top picks. In Detroit, Calvin Johnson has become a solid No. 1 receiver; Stafford, though injury-prone, has shown no reason that he can't be the long-term answer at quarterback; and Suh has already proven to be a force in the middle, with three sacks in five games. For St. Louis, Long and Smith are both starters (though Smith was beaten out at his draft position, left tackle, by Saffold and has moved to the right), and Bradford has shown impressive poise and an NFL arm.
But with so many high, and high-priced, selections, the teams will be facing questions about their ultimate value in the near future. Thus the Rams' decision not to pursue Jackson. "We knew this wasn't going to be a quick fix," Devaney says. "Could we go out and get someone, not just at receiver, but anywhere? Yeah, we probably could. But you'd have to give up draft choices, and that's not how we've gone about this... . We're not going to give [a free agent] a heck of a lot of money and hope we're right about it.
"That's what happens with the draft, but what's the recourse? You have to pick somebody. That's what the system is. Until it changes, there's nothing you can do."
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