Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Teams seeking value outside of top 10
By John Clayton
The consensus on Saturday's NFL draft is that there is no consensus. Some teams have Braylon Edwards No. 1. Another might have Cedric Benson. Yet the 49ers could draft Alex Smith first.
Even more perplexing is figuring out what happens after that. With a draft class that's perceived to be thin on top and lacking star power, more teams are looking to trade out of the top 10 than stay. Conversely, few teams appear interested in moving up.
That's the bad news. But, while Saturday's draft may be thin at the top, it does have depth at several positions, something that most teams consider a positive. Teams have begun the process of stacking their draft boards and the depth of this draft is giving them more flexibility.
The Broncos, for example, believe the cornerback position is deep. Even though six corners could go in the first round, the Broncos were confident enough to trade their first-round choice to Washington, believing they can get the corner they want in the second round.
"It's a weird draft, but I'll say this," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "I think teams will be a little bit more successful in the first round this year than in past years. There aren't a lot of pretty girls in the first round. Something might be missing for height or weight or speed. This year, you've got more football players who are kind of ugly. They might be a step slow. Their time wasn't as good as you like. Maybe he's not as tall as you like. But a lot of these guys have great motors or great work ethic.
"I'd rather spend my life in that kinda draft than most of them."
Prettier drafts tend to get scouts fired. The reality is only about 10-12 of the first-round picks in normal years are getting a second contract from the team that drafts them. For example, the 1998 draft included Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Greg Ellis and Fred Taylor. It also had Ryan Leaf, Curtis Enis and Jason Peter. Only 10 of the first-rounders from that draft are still with their original teams, and Woodson, a four-time Pro Bowler, is available through a trade with the Raiders. Only nine players remain with their teams from the 1999 draft's top round, including only three of the top nine.
So basically, around 20 of the first-rounders either move to other teams or are out of the league once their initial contract expires. Maybe a non-sexy draft such as this one could offer more hope of finding players who will stay with their teams past their first pacts.
Among the positives of this draft is that teams should get more value picks. The best pass-rushing defensive ends and offensive tackles are expected to be available from the 10th pick in the first round and thereafter. Teams can huddle with their cap gurus and smile. Tackles Alex Barron, Jammal Brown and Khalif Barnes could go between the 10th and 20th choices. All three are considered good enough to be potential first-year starters at these expensive positions.
The cost of acquiring those players could be considered bargains with salaries in the neighborhood of $1.7 million or $1.8 million a year and signing bonuses of around $5 million. In free agency for similar positions, teams have to pay $5.4 million a year with signing bonuses in excess of $10 million, and you're getting Jonas Jennings and Kareem McKenzie.
Nearly as expensive is the price of marquee free-agent pass rushers, who are commanding $5 million a year. However, draft prospects Shawne Merriman, Demarcus Ware, David Pollack and Erasmus James can be had for less than $2 million a year with signing bonuses between $5 million-$7 million.
Yet teams in search of depth at the skill positions should be happy as well. The draft is deep with running backs, wide receivers and cornerbacks, three vital positions.
"This is the fastest group of cornerbacks and wide receivers I've ever seen," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "When we were at the combine, we kept seeing cornerbacks and wide receivers running fast times after fast times."
The corners at the combine averaged a 4.47 in the 40. Nine ran in the 4.3s. Fabian Washington of Nebraska blistered the combine with a 4.29.
Those fast times and overall athleticism could allow six corners to go in the first round: Antrel Rolle, Carlos Rogers, Adam Jones, Marlin Jackson, Justin Miller and Washington.
The receivers averaged 4.53 and a half-dozen are also projected as first-rounders: Edwards, Mike Williams, Troy Williamson, Mark Clayton, Reggie Brown and Roddy White. The run on "good" receivers could go into the third or fourth round.
With so many prospects loaded at certain positions, teams are being picky to the specific needs and styles of their head coaches. Every team rates these players differently, and because a couple of positions are so different, No.1 on one draft board could be No. 6 or No. 7 on another. Because the draft is thin at defensive tackle, tight end, fullback and safety, the vastly different ratings at other positions make mocking this draft similar to doing the difficult New York Times crossword puzzle.
||There aren't a lot of pretty girls in the first round. Something might be missing for height or weight or speed. This year, you've got more football players who are kind of ugly. They might be a step slow. Their time wasn't as good as you like. Maybe he's not as tall as you like. But a lot of these guys have great motors or great work ethic.”
||—49ers coach Mike Nolan
To fully predict the first round, you have to understand how teams rate certain positions and not apply the same ratings to different teams. The draft is deep enough that Derrick Johnson could be the No. 1 defensive player on some boards, but might be a second-round pick on others because of the role he played in college.
"Teams are all over the board," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "It's a weird draft. I think it's one of the deeper drafts. There are a lot of good players. To me, it's a draft where you almost would rather not have a first-round pick but instead four second-round picks. More teams are going to want to trade back than trade up."
Titans general manger Floyd Reese calls it a "need" draft, one of the most unusual he's seen. Because so many of the potential best players available are concentrated in a handful of positions, teams can draft more for their need than their draft ratings.
"You could poll 32 teams on how they rate the receivers, and you are going to have so many different splits on how they are rated," Reese said. "What you have to make up your mind is taking the guy to fill the need of your team and there are a lot of different options.
The depth at running back destroys the trade market for veteran running backs. Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander, for example, couldn't net even an offer in a trade. Teams needing running backs knew they could find good young ones in the first and second rounds.
It's a weird draft, a hard-to-figure draft. Maybe that depth will allow more than one-third of these first-round and second-round selections to make it until their second contracts with teams. We'll see.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.