The NFL draft, which will dominate ESPN and ESPN2 this weekend, is one of the biggest lies in all of American sport. But it's too much fun not to follow the results.
The big lie is that the draft is the first step toward bad teams getting better. The reality is much more complex than that. That notion has appeal since the draft, in which NFL teams take turns selecting eligible collegians, is ordered with the worst teams going first and the Super Bowl teams typically going last. It was designed as a key element to guarantee league parity.
The shine comes off that notion when you consider that the draft is a crapshoot. Just look at previous drafts. In 2005, quarterback Alex Smith and running back Cedric Benson were two of the first four selections, eight and eleven selections ahead of game changing linebacker Shawne Merriman. That is not an isolated incident. In 2003 Charles Rogers, a wide receiver who washed out of the league in three seasons, was the second overall selection. Rogers was well-ahead of stars like Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs (10th), Pittsburgh defensive back Troy Polamalu (16th), and Kansas City running back Larry Johnson (27th).
The randomness is not a result of teams failing to perform due diligence (though Lions fans may have reasonable doubts about Team President, Matt Millen, the man who chose Rogers). Before the draft, there are months of group workouts, individual workouts, and psychological tests by team scouting departments. The NFL draft may be the single most analyzed sporting activity of the year. Yet, two academics, Yale's Cade Massey and the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler published a study a few years ago on the drafts from 1991 to 2002. The study revealed that a first rounder stood almost as much chance of being out of the league in five years as he did of making the Pro Bowl. Anyone who has ever parented college-aged kids can probably smile at the notion that the behavior of a large number of 21 and 22-year-old men might be projectable, especially after you hand them several million dollars.
That's a key difference between the bad teams drafting early and the good ones drafting late. The higher the selection, the richer the contract, the first few players selected are going to be guaranteed more money than many of the top stars already make, and they have yet to see any NFL action. That's why many teams look to trade down to later picks in the draft. The Miami Dolphins have the first pick in this weekend's draft and they shopped it for months before finally announcing that they would select University of Michigan offensive tackle, Jake Long and sign him to a 5-year 57.5 million dollar contract with some 30 million of it guaranteed. For point of reference, Indianapolis Colts safety, Bob Sanders, the AFC Defensive Player of the Year signed a contract four months ago for five years and 37.5 million; 20 million guaranteed.
This points out the other problem with the draft. Even if each team with a losing record drafted a useful player in the first round, the salary that they would have to pay would take up a significant amount of salary cap space; making it difficult for them to improve other areas. Most bad teams are indeed deficient in several areas. One unproven player isn't likely to shore up several weaknesses all by himself.
Now, do you see why the first round can take five hours? Each team gets ten minutes to make their selection in the first round. Though, the war room of each organization is probably buzzing with notions of trades and sign-ability issues right up until the moment that they settle on their player. Being on the clock may sound like fun, but if your job depends on a high profile guess that costs millions of dollars, it probably isn't a good time. From a spectator perspective, it would be like your fantasy league draft with team coverage and anchors.
Obviously some teams win during this process. Few football fans in Minnesota and the northern plains states regret last year's draft which brought running back Adrian Peterson. His 5.6 yards per carry helped take the Vikings from double digit losses to playoff contention. Some team is going to draft University of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden and tout him as the same kind of impact player in the hopes that sales of season ticket licenses and team merchandise soar.
Marketing is where the draft has its biggest tangible impact. Almost every NFL team will have a new poster boy, a fresh face that had no part in their downtrodden past. For a team stuck in reverse like the ones in the Bay Area, that can mean a lot.
The draft is one way in which teams improve themselves, but the biggest ways are far from the madding crowds of draftniks. Bad teams become good ones by hiring smart coaches, by signing low priced free agents that fit into their offensive and defensive schemes, and by managing the cap well so that they can grab an all-pro that fills a need when one becomes available. It isn't especially sexy and it won't get wall-to-wall coverage from the so called worldwide leader, but it works. The draft is a small piece of the puzzle, but an entertaining one.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.