The merits and perils of passing in the draft

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
It's back. Every spring for the past six years, some wise guy has wondered when the mistake will transform into strategy.

It was an accident when Minnesota missed its turn in the 2003 NFL draft, slipping from No. 7 to No. 9 before grabbing defensive tackle Kevin Williams. But at what point will a team intentionally pass in order to lower its costs while still acquiring a talented player? And has there ever been better timing for it than at the top of the 2009 draft, which doesn't offer a clear-cut No. 1 pick?

Ross Tucker of SportsIllustrated.com penned a thoughtful argument last week suggesting that Detroit should pass on drafting No. 1 overall. Tucker noted the Lions' multiple options -- from Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford to Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith to Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry -- and concluded:

"... 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."

Tucker's piece instigated some Internet buzz, and recently Andrew of Traverse City, Mich., asked if the NFL would allow the maneuver. The answer, Andrew, is that it's an entirely legal move under league rules. If it happened, that team's rookie pool would be adjusted to correspond with the new position of its pick.

It seems to make perfect sense. If you look at the chart below, you can see how rookie contract values decreased in 2008 with the exception of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. (Quarterback contracts generally don't adhere strictly to the slotting system.) The difference between the No. 1 and No. 4 picks last season was $4 million in guarantees and $1.55 million on an annual basis.

If your scouting department offers similar grades to multiple players, why not wait a few spots and take the one who is remaining at a substantial discount? It's just good business, right?

I've spent some time checking with agents and team executives on this issue, and no one has provided a argument that completely deconstructs this approach. But if the Lions consider it, they must weigh a number of unique obstacles. (Ultimately, these hurdles probably will conspire to make it an unlikely scenario -- but a perfectly fine blog entry!)

Let's take the complications one at a time:

You could expect a strong pushback from agents, who would argue their clients' value have been artificially reduced. Were it not for this loophole, the player the Lions select would be the No. 1 overall pick. Passing is an implicit admission that a team feels strongly about a player but believes it can get him at a lower price than the one required in the NFL slotting system. It's a legal maneuver that nonetheless betrays some intent.

The only precedent came when the Vikings and Tom Condon, the agent for Kevin Williams, began the complicated task of negotiating a contract in 2003. Although the NFL had calculated Minnesota's rookie pool based on having the No. 9 pick, Condon maintained Williams deserved No. 7 value.

Ultimately, Williams' deal fell below that level. But Condon was able to extract $8 million in guaranteed money, a 21.4 percent increase over the bonuses given to the No. 9 pick of the 2002 draft. That's more than three times the normal raise.

The instances aren't entirely comparable because the Vikings would have taken Williams at No. 7 were it not for a miscommunication during trade discussions. It wouldn't be as easy to trace the Lions' intentions if they passed at No. 1 this year. But the maneuver would at least hand agents an additional tool for complicating negotiations; at worst, it would engender mistrust before the player sets foot in the team's practice facility.

Few have considered the mechanics of passing, which aren't as obvious as they seem and carry inherent risk.

Passing from the No. 1 spot would cede the only control a team has during the entire draft. Every other pick is a variable based on the decisions of the previous teams.

Technically, you can re-enter the draft at any time after passing. Now, however, you partially are at the mercy of teams that leap-frog you, and with a twist: You're competing against those teams to submit your choice. It literally becomes a race to the NFL draft table in New York City.

The risk might be minimal if the Lions have four or five players on their "list." But if they are passing with the hope of moving down, say, two spots, the Lions would be in jeopardy of losing out on all their options.

Every team has a protocol for the "Minnesota scenario." St. Louis (No. 2) and Kansas City (No. 3) and even Seattle (No. 4) could each be waiting at the draft table to submit their selections ahead of the Lions following the "pass." The Lions would have to plan the logistics carefully and execute them remotely from their draft room in Detroit.

NFL officials would have to make a judgment call at the moment. Which team representative arrived at the table first? The Lions, instead of being in total control of the player they draft, would be at the league's mercy in determining draft order. They would hope for a fair ruling, but the only way to guarantee it is to pick in their original spot.

The No. 1 overall pick carries great scrutiny, but the Lions would be remiss if they believe that passing would mitigate that pressure. If anything, it would cast a brighter spotlight on the decision.

Why? Because the Lions would be giving up draft value for nothing. It's one thing to trade down from the No. 1 spot in exchange for extra draft picks. It's another simply to give it up. According to some draft trade charts, the cost of trading from the No. 1 to the No. 2 pick is a late second-round choice.

You could argue there is no actual value in that scenario because no one would give the Lions a second-rounder to move up one spot. But there should be some value to having the chance to pick any player on the board, and the Lions would squander it by passing.

The decision might ultimately make them look smart. But if it fails -- if a player they passed on proves superior to the one they selected -- the scrutiny would be greater than traditional second-guessing. The only benefit from the move would be cash savings, hardly a consolation prize when the ultimate judgment day arrives.

Finally, observers shouldn't discount the role of peer pressure. An intentional pass would start a domino effect that would impact multiple teams.

Suddenly, St. Louis would be obligated to pay No. 1 money. Kansas City could ascend into the No. 2 spot. The shuffle works counter to the way the NFL has arranged its system -- teams that finish last pick first -- and almost certainly would incur the wrath of the owners forced to take on additional financial obligations.

Consider another Vikings creation: The "poison p
" contract they gave guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006. The clause, which made it impossible for Seattle to retain Hutchinson as its transition player, was legal under NFL rules. The league has never closed the loophole, but guess how often it's been repeated?


(Update: Thesawat points out the Seahawks retaliated by inserting a poison pill into the contract of receiver Nate Burleson a few weeks later. But, since THEN, I'm not aware of another repeat.)

The NFL's collective economic approach has long tentacles and powerful enforcers. The Lions, or any other team that passed on a high draft pick, would face legitimate fury from their business partners.

If they follow a similar thought process, I think the Lions will be unlikely to pass at No. 1. But isn't it fun to imagine the possibilities?