Blog Entry

Tracking the draft picks, part one

Posted on: October 5, 2009 5:54 pm
Before the salary cap system began, players didn't become unrestricted free agents until after they had reached six years of league tenure.  With the salary cap, that time dropped to four years.

Also, the maximum length of the rookie contract for all players drafted after the first round is four years.  (For guys in the first half of the first round, it's six years.  It's five years for the back half of the first round.)

Put it together, and it means that the initial contract is the maximum length of time you can count on keeping your drafted prospects.  Dealing with that is an interesting aspect of personnel that teams approach in different ways.

One ramification is with the draft itself.  Many teams passed on drafting Curtis Martin because the scouts at the time said he'd probably only last a few seasons before wearing out.  That didn't stop Bill Parcells from selecting him in the third round for the Patriots.   Parcells explained that it didn't matter, because four years was as long as you could count on keeping the guy anyway.

The flip side is that top draft prospects now receive contracts out of proportion with the rest of the league.  If the kids need more than average development time, it's a disastrous use of a high draft pick. 

The obvious example for the current Falcons roster is Jamaal Anderson, who is in his third season and has yet to show anything to prove he was worth a first round pick.  An even better case is Brady Quinn, who is also in his third season.  He was selected in the back half of round one (#22 overall), so the Browns only have him for two more years before he's a free agent. 

Likewise, Tarvaris Jackson and Brodie Croyle were second and third round selections by the Vikings and Chiefs.  Both are still works in progress - but they were both drafted in 2006, so this is year four for both of them.  They're free agents at the end of the season, so those teams may end up with very little total return for their first day draft picks.

The other ramification is that since the specific players won't necessarily remain past the first contract, the draft pick should be treated as an asset unto itself.  Whether the player ultimately makes it in the NFL is one thing, but if the team can get ongoing returns through trades or free agency, then the GM has done a fine job of asset management.

For now I'll just hit one example, but it's a pretty good one since it ties together the personnel moves of Dan Reeves, Rich McKay and Thomas Dimitroff:

Ellis Johnson was a first round selection by the Indianapolis Colts in 1995.  He played with them for seven years but was released in the summer before the 2002 season.

Dan Reeves needed another DT to help rest Ed Jasper.  He scooped up Johnson, who then racked up 7 sacks in 2002 and 8 in 2003.  (By comparison, all Falcons defensive tackles combined had only 6 in 2007 and 6.5 last year.)  Note that Reeves got him as an off the street free agent - picking him up did not cost the Falcons a draft pick or anything in trade.

But Johnson wasn't sure he wanted to play for a rebuilding team under Jim Mora in 2004 and talked about retirement rather than playing another season for Atlanta.  New general manager Rich McKay traded him that summer to the Denver Broncos for the ever-popular "unspecified" draft pick, which turned out to be a fifth rounder the following year.  (Johnson appeared in 13 games for Denver in 2004, making 16 total tackles with 3 sacks and an interception - and then retired at the end of the season.)

McKay used Denver's draft pick to select linebacker Michael Boley.  Boley started 53 of the 64 games of his four year rookie contract and played in every game.  He was a defensive star of the horrid 2007 team, racking up 109 total tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and 7 passes defensed. 

He fell out of favor with the new Falcons coaching staff last season and was allowed to leave via free agency.  But the story doesn't end there.  The Giants signed him to a big enough contract that the Falcons will receive a compensatory draft pick in the 2010 draft.  That pick will likely come at the end of the fifth round.  (It may end up at the end of the fourth round, but I'm not getting my hopes up too high on that one.)   Compensatory draft picks can't be traded, but the team is allowed to trade its own fifth or sixth round picks while keeping the compensatory pick.

So for now, Atlanta has the extra firepower to trade for additional personnel if necessary, and Thomas Dimitroff will have an extra Falcons player in the draft next April.  And it all goes back to Dan Reeves scooping up a guy released by the Colts plus Rich McKay talking the Broncos out of a fifth rounder for a guy who was ready to retire.


Since: Aug 9, 2007
Posted on: October 17, 2009 2:59 am

Tracking the draft picks, part one

Something like that - except I'd go for the less obvious ones.  For example, in the draft right after the Super Bowl appearance, Dan Reeves (who must have been experiencing some crazy side effects from Zocor...) made a trade to draft TE Reggie Kelly in the second round.  He gave up the following year's first rounder to get that pick.

He figured a 14-2 team wouldn't slide too badly.  But the Falcons did, finishing the 1999 season at 5-11, and the pick they gave up turned out to be the #5 overall.  The Ravens happily used that pick to select Jamal Lewis.

But again, the real idea here is to get across the idea that a draft pick is an asset.  You can cash in that asset to select a player during the draft, or you can trade it for other assets - either other draft picks or other players.  If the guy you pick is a total bust, you've lost that asset.  But if he succeeds, you have that asset for years.  And even if you don't re-sign the guy, you can still retain the asset - either by trading him or receiving a compensatory draft pick if he signs a big free agent contract with another team.

The more a GM can get in return for his departed players, the more he increases his team's total assets.  In the salary cap era of the CBA, that's a big part of long term success for a franchise.  Each team theoretically receives the same assets each year - all teams have a fixed, specific amount of money to spend.  Each team has 53 total roster spots available plus eight practice squad slots.  And each team receives seven regular draft picks each year, one per round.

From there, it's a matter of asset management.  The better your assets, the more firepower you have to get the best players available for your roster.  (I like to introduce the perspective that a GM's job really boils down to a great big math problem:  maximize your assets within the constraints of the roster size, draft picks, salary cap, and other rules of the CBA.)

It's obviously important to do a good job scouting the players you draft and sign in free agency to avoid getting duds.  But it's also important to get what you can from players either leaving your team or being jettisoned. 

Ellis Johnson is a perfect case study for that kind of asset management.  Dan Reeves got something for nothing by scooping Johnson up off of waivers.  Rich McKay spun straw into gold when he traded Johnson to the Broncos for a future fifth rounder - which became Michael Boley.  Dimitroff will have his turn with that same asset next April, since the Falcons will receive a compensatory draft pick (I'm officially projecting it as a fifth rounder, but it may end up being a fourth) for Boley.

It's quite impressive if you really stop and think about it.  A guy coming in off of waivers will still have a legacy with the Falcons in the NINTH season after he was let go by the Colts.  Perhaps a lot longer, if Dimitroff selects a good prospect with that compensatory pick.  That kind of long-lasting return doesn't happen very often.

To my knowledge, the longest lasting case of something for nothing in Falcons history is Jesse Tuggle, who didn't require a trade or draft pick to acquire (undrafted free agent from Valdosta State) and lasted 14 seasons here.  If Dimitroff gets a gem with the compensatory pick, this case might last even longer.

Since: Mar 1, 2008
Posted on: October 13, 2009 9:01 pm

Tracking the draft picks, part one

You mean like LT being the pick the Chargers used from the Falcons in 2001?

Since: Aug 9, 2007
Posted on: October 11, 2009 9:23 pm

Tracking the draft picks, part one

Yes, it's fun to see what happened with specific top picks and how the players did.  But with this bit, I'm intending to go the other direction - tracking what pick/player became what OTHER pick/player through trades and compensatory picks.  Several ex-Falcons still have a legacy with the team, as they became extra draft picks that were then used to select current Falcons. 

I didn't get into the cap space aspect of it, which I've done before and undoubtedly will again. 

Short version:  under the salary cap system, the draft has much better value at the bottom of round one or the top of round two than there is higher up.   The reason is that the difference in cap costs is so great that teams drafting later also save enough on those rookie contracts to sign a high quality veteran free agent at another position.

But without a new CBA, that goes out the window next year.

Since: Mar 1, 2008
Posted on: October 11, 2009 12:26 am

Tracking the draft picks, part one

Don't forget all the draft picks who are playing (poorly) in the league right now, or in recent years, based soley on their draft position.  Jamarcus Russel comes to mind immediately. 

That is of course why teams don't want top 5 picks.  They're great for fans, we love the drama of having a top pick.  But GMs hate it because you are staking the future, and alot of money, on one player hoping he works out for the franchise.  The Falcons were quite fortunate with the 2007 draft to get Matt Ryan and have him do what he has done.  That is not the norm. 

Following the former first round picks is interesting and also an inditement of the organizations that selected the ones that "didn't work out".

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or