The Upside to Trading Up for Draft Choices

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Vince Biegel

We all know that making wise decisions during draft days is a big deal for every NFL team.

We know that making wise decisions that keep a team under the salary cap is a big deal.

I think that those four-year rookie contracts, at essentially pre-set salaries – which came out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) – is another, but less appreciated, big deal.

Rob’s Draft Theory

By mixing the above three notions together, I’ve come up with Rob’s Draft Theory: By drafting players who are ready to play quickly, or immediately, an NFL team can get tremendous bargains in a player’s first four years.

Of course, teams want to get its draftees out on the field and being productive as soon as possible. However, I don’t think most teams fully take into account the bargain that lies within those rookie contracts. If they did, they would make it a high priority on draft days to select players who will be ready to play quickly – or instantly – in the pros. Without lots of starters subject to the limited pay set forth in rookie contracts, teams would be unable to field a competitive team and primarily due to this reason, some of them don’t.

The salary cap dictates that a team can afford to pay maybe a half dozen players $10 million or more annually. Therefore, the only way teams can have good-quality players at most of the 22 offensive and defensive starting positions is to have most of them being paid under their rookie deals.

Rookie Contracts

To give you an idea of the terms of rookie contracts, let’s take some 2017 Packers’ rookies as examples. Kevin King (Rd. 2, Pick 1) will average $1.77 million for his first four years. Josh Jones (Rd. 2, Pick 29) will earn $1.06 million annually. Montravius Adams (Rd. 3, Pick 29) will make $819,000 annually. Jamaal Williams (Rd. 4, Pick 27) will make $741,000 annually. Aaron Jones (Rd. 5, Pick 38) will make $650,000 annually.

That means, for example, that Kevin King will make just over $7 million in his first four years. And Aaron Jones will make a total of $2.6 million. In almost every case, players subject to the terms of their rookie contracts are being vastly underpaid. That’s bad, and quite unfair for the player, but it’s wonderful in terms of teams trying to stay under the salary cap.

In the case of Davante Adams, his salary increased by around 1,500 percent after his rookie deal expired. Aaron Jones was paid about $650,000 in 2017 – in contrast, Adrian Peterson was not long ago playing under a six-year contract that awarded him $691,000 – per game! The CBA has led to some pretty outrageous salary disparities.

Other Examples

The Packers selected Vince Biegel in round four – knowing that he had a worrisome foot problem. Due to the subsequent foot surgery, Biegel missed most of last season, which means he failed to provide much value for the team at a time when he was costing less than $800,000. Furthermore, in his second year, his experience level will be more like that of a rookie than a two-year man.

Teams occasionally draft a player knowing he will miss most or all of his first season due to injury. When they do this, they miss out on one of those four bargain years.

Nick Perry was a first-round choice in 2013. The Packers probably were hoping he’d be able to play at a high level early on. Alas, he was both slow to develop and injury prone, so during the four bargain years, all he returned on the investment was 66 tackles and 12.5 sacks. When Perry finally appeared to be hitting his stride, his rookie deal was at an end, so the Packers then gave him a one-year deal, followed by a five-year deal averaging $11.8 million. That’s about twice as much per year as the team paid him in total during his first four years.

A team needs players like David Bakhtiari to balance out players like Perry. At the end of his rookie deal, Bakhtiari received a four-year deal averaging $12 million per year. He’s worth every penny of it, but think of the bargain the Packers had for four years: he started all but two of those 64 games, he was rarely injured, and he played at a high level throughout. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Bakhtiari was as valuable a draft choice as anyone during Ted Thompson’s reign as GM – especially from a monetary viewpoint.

Positions Differ As to Readiness

Some positions take much longer to learn in the pros than others. As the Packers’ rookies showed last year, running backs can often jump right in and play well. I once did a study on the top NFL wide receivers, and most of them were already stars in their second year.

On the other end of the spectrum, quarterbacks and cornerbacks often take three or more years to develop. Some very good edge rushers have taken longer than that. For these positions (other than starting quarterback), I’d be inclined to acquire them by trade – let some other poor sap develop them.

In any event, drafters should strive to draft players who can offer a good return by their second year in the league. The Packers have done quite well of late in this regard with their round-three through round-five selections. If they add to that next month, look out.

Draft and Develop

Green Bay fans have accepted the “draft and develop” mantra as though it was chiseled in stone by Vince Lombardi himself. My theory suggests that, as a salary cap strategy, the Packers might do well to adopt a “draft and play” philosophy. This might cause the roster to be affected in a number of ways.

It might stop the drafting of basketball players, and the switching of players to positions they did not play in college. By the time Herb Waters, Michael Clark, and the dearly departed Damarious Randall (a safety in college) have developed sufficiently to provide some value for the investment, their days of cheap contracts will be over.

This theory discourages the drafting of players who will need two or more years to put on the weight or muscle to be NFL-quality. Some examples: Jared Abbrederis, Quinten Rollins, Richard Rodgers, Jason Spriggs, Demetri Goodson – and perhaps Kevin King, Kyler Fackrell, and Dean Lowry.

The theory might limit the drafting of players from lower-quality conferences (unless they were All-Americans), as they usually will require extra years to play up to the level of guys from Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, etc. Examples: Josh Hawkins (E. Carolina), Chris Odom (Arkansas State), Jake Kumerow (Wisconsis-Whitewater), Quinten Rollins (Miami-Ohio), Joe Thomas (So. Carolina St.), Joe Callahan (Wesley), and Donatello Brown (Valdosta State). They weren’t ready to play when they joined the team.

The other downside to not-ready players who take years to develop is that they clog up the roster. It was a shame to have Max McCaffreym sent to the practice squad, and Taysom Hill, outright released, and then picked off by other teams. I believe Hill, unlike Joe Callahan, would have been given an opportunity to relieve the faltering Brett Hundley at some point last year, had he been on the roster.

Caution: All the above proposals are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Many other factors need to be taken into account when selecting players.

Packers Have a Golden Opportunity

Brian Gutekunst was left with a fantastic going-away present by Ted Thompson: two fourth-, three fifth-, and two sixth-round draft choices. If Gutekunst selects well, he can get the Packers out of the serious salary cap hole they are now in – and keep them out of that hole for several years going forward. The trick will be to have four or five of these seven picks become starters or solid contributors as soon as 2019.

It can be done if the Packers draft wisely – and if they select players who are ready, or nearly so, to play at the professional level when they leave college.

Bottom line: The more the Packers trade up in the draft, the more likely they are to acquire players ready to play in their first or second years. Such players greatly relieve the burden of staying under the salary cap. I like the two draft position upgrades the Packers are getting as a result of the Randall-Kizer deal. Maybe Gutekunst (and Russ Bell) already get this?

About The Author

Rob is currently twiddling his thumbs on Whidbey Island in Washington. He likes to do research, although he has no shortage of opinions. He saw his first live Packers game in 1958, the only win of the year.

11 Comments on "The Upside to Trading Up for Draft Choices"

  1. Gort

    Rob’s analysis of the value of the rookie contract for draft choices may be part of the reason that TT had so much trouble giving up on his draft choices. He just couldn’t cut those “bargains”, even though they weren’t performing at a level comensurate with their draft position. The develop part of the process now sounds even more stupid for drafting long term projects or guys with injury problems. It doesn’t make good business sense to plan to develop a guy for 3 years, he has a breakout season in year 4, then you lose him in free agency after that. All you did was train and develop a guy for somebode else. I doubt that TT made all the draft choices without input from the coaching staff. McCarthy probably had a voice that urged selection of the projects. There are exceptions, but too many projects just didn’t pan out.

  2. R.Duke

    Thank you, Rob for fleshing out the differences between Thompson and Belichick. How one organization dwells in a Dollar Store mentality and the other seeks championships in the NOW. Thought No. One: I see a fella from USC that has the quicks and power to be a 4-3 DE/pass rusher but we feel he’s better suited to play OLB in a 3-4. Gee after five years he shows up, let”s pay him to the max before he gets offers from Other suitors, so we can best ascertain relative value. In addition, my right hand man in the accounting department, Russ, will extend him with max dead money falling in 2018 2019, so we will be hamstrung when he again is injured for 60% of the season on guaranteed cash. No. Two As you point out, let’s drop a #2 pick on a basketball player w/ one year experience as a football safety in college–ah,show me the precedent. No.3 etc etc Trade and pickup veterans. Move up in the draft and concentrate your picks in the top four spots. Cut/ TRADE your dead weight before it sinks you, again back to Belichick….Two Year rebuilding period. Rodgers gets his money and NO SB for the FANs…

  3. Bobby D

    Oops, two of the big name FA’s the Packers were supposedly in on, Watkins and Robinson, shockingly signed elsewhere already. Count on the same happening in 5 minutes with the CB’s we’re”in” on, Butler and Johnson. When all is said and done, our token free agent splash will result in much the same way as many of the cadavers draft picks. “Who the fuck is that” Too much $ tied up in has beens and overrated Ted guys to be able to afford the going rate for play makers that would actually help this roster of mostly horseshit turn the corner. In the past, we all knew nothing was going to change. Now it’s “here, have a cookie Beaver”. Then “fuck you Beaver, Lumpy took the last one”!

    • Icebowl

      Agreed….
      Worried gute might just be providing lip service, knowing he won’t sign them then just shrugging it off as not his fault that they didn’t wanna come to gb

  4. Savage57

    Interesting read, as usual.

    The quandary is built-in to the CBA and the only solution it is to tear it up and start over. The agreement, like the housing bubble of “08, has been predicated upon ever-increasing values of TV revenue and by association, the cap. By the time the new agreement is negotiated in 2020, I predict TV viewership and the associated rights fees are going to start to decline and once that does the effects of the problems it creates are only going to increase.

    The idea of a cap works, but it needs to become more granular and become a cap-by-position roll-up to the entire cap amount. That way, teams will no longer be forced to allocate half their cap to, usually in descending order, their QB, WR, CB, LT and DE/OLB. Remember how well the rookie salary scale took care of the craziness that used to be rookie deals? Using something that captures the same spirit across the scope of positions and tenure can make all this waste disappear and allow teams to spend more in line with a predictable arc of performance and relative contribution and eliminate the huge sums of money teams piss away on players who wind up neither performing nor contributing.

    And if the players don’t like it? Fuck ’em. Gonna go on strike? Replace ’em. The league will balance out to a new reality after time. Let them go find another job coming out of college that pays them a minumum $465K per year as a starting salary. We all know you, “needs to takes care of my family”, but guess what? So does everyone else. Pro football is a job, not an endowment.

      • MJ

        Yes, by pulling the family line everyone will say “oh, look, what a dedicated father, providing for his children”. It is not to buy the new Ferrari that just came out. Having said that, some of those guys could not do another job to save their lives, and they have one shot at a multi-million-dollar contract, coupled to the fact that anyone there is an injury away from calling it a career. Therefore, it is their big and likely only chance of getting a great income to make a living for the rest of their lives, even if their following job is to flip burgers. Teams, on the other hand, want to maximize talent within the available cap space, so there you have a big conflict of interest. There is no obvious solution, so the only natural one is given by the market (agents and team negotiators), and timeliness plays a strong role, sometimes to a fault. Sam Shields became a FA, and he was able to pull shutdown CB money, because having let him go would have left the Packers paper-thin at DB. Adams… the same. Vastly overpaid, but there is no WR1 behind him, and there weren’t much better WRs becoming FAs at the same time, so it was him or the highway. Players get additional leverage when a team does not have depth behind them, even though they themselves are not exactly All Pros. Incidentally, a few bad drafts will push a team towards that condition.

  5. MJ

    Agree on most points, except for CB, who can come into the pros and play decently. On the contrary, TEs take forever to develop, usually their entire rookie contracts, so better buy them already made, even if we don’t get the top TE.

    Now, for the name “Rob’s theory”. Yeah, very suitable name, because it is mostly Rob-bery of already well known stuff. What’s next? Rob’s rolling device (wheel) and “Rob’s wood and oxygen combustion reaction” (fire)? I kept harping about how different positions clearly take longer to transition, how it makes little sense to develop guys that then you end up paying FA rates for (Perry, and all conversion projects), instead of just drafting someone who will contribute straight away, while his rookie contract lasts. However, even though I did realize those by simple observation, I wouldn’t label them as “MJ’s system”, since I assume that anyone with eyes can come to the very same conclusions. Same goes for the concept of assembling a championship team, which depends on the three previous drafts’ quality. I don’t take those ideas as mine for the very same reason no one claims authorship for inventing the bow and arrow (many civilizations developed it and evolved it separately, although the concept is essentially the same).

  6. mike

    Agree with the general premise. This is why the randall trade will cause cap problems this year in that we lose a starter on rookie wage.

    Also agree with the premise of drafting players who can start relatively soon and giving them playing time asap.

    This isnt necessarily an argument to trade up though. 3 draft picks instead of 1 means you get 3 chances to find your starter. Need to find a starting RG then draft 3 of them in the mid rounds and whoever looks best in TC starts. If you trade up and the guy struggles in TC you have no rookie starter and may need to sign a pricy FA

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