For weeks before the 1997 NFL Draft, Dan Reeves, in his first year as head coach of an Atlanta Falcons team that won only three games the previous season, reiterated several times that there was no single prospect in that year's lottery capable of reversing the fortunes of one of the league's most dismal franchises.
Typically true to his word, Reeves swapped back on draft day, dropping from the third overall selection to the 11th, packaging his first- and second-rounders and shipping them to Seattle for the Seahawks' selections in the first four rounds. The upshot: The Falcons chose a dud, Nebraska cornerback Michael Booker, a guy who played only three seasons in Atlanta, and finished his NFL career with only eight interceptions in 10 starts in five seasons.
In dealing back in the draft, Reeves bypassed cornerback Shawn Springs and linebacker Peter Boulware -- players chosen after the top two picks, offensive tackle Orlando Pace and defensive tackle Darrell Russell, and prospects whose careers made more of an impact than the tiny ripple Booker created -- and established the tone for a horrific draft class.
Six years later, not a single player from the nine-man draft class of 1997 remained on the Atlanta roster, and only two were in the league. One could make the point that the most productive player that Atlanta selected that year was quarterback Tony Graziani, who started only five games in four league seasons, but went on to become an Arena League star.
And the carnage all began with the trade-back.
Fourteen years later, teams are still dealing back from their original slots in the first round and perhaps re-learning the lessons, albeit not very well at times, from that '97 Atlanta draft. They're likely to continue re-learning them Thursday night, when plenty of draft-watchers predict there will be some backsliding, particularly if there is the run on quarterbacks that some "draftniks" anticipate.
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Some of the franchises that drop back in the first round will score victories. But for every trade-down that works well, there are fall-backs that in a few years, with time to fully evaluate the moves, will have teams questioning the wisdom of their retreats in the first round.
"There are times," Dallas owner Jerry Jones, notoriously active in past years in dealing out of his original first round slot, said a few years ago, "when you think you have (a trade-down) all figured out. And it still doesn't work out the way that it was supposed to. It takes a lot of legwork and preparation. And it takes some luck, too."
Historically, the drafts that have featured the most first-round trade-backs are those that are considered fairly mediocre. Some clubs enter into such drafts surmising that, at some early juncture of the first round, the top-shelf players are off the board, the pool is essentially unleavened and it is reckless to invest so much money in a player who perhaps isn't deemed worthy of the slot. That isn't necessarily the case, though, this year. Instead, there appear to be two dynamics that could well fuel a trade-back epidemic on Thursday evening: The potential reach for quarterbacks that might prompt some trade-up franchises to overpay, and might be too tempting for clubs willing to deal back, and the perception that this is a deep draft at several positions and that similarly-talented players can be secured later on.
No matter, beware the trade-back.
"You'd better have all your ducks in a row, have all the contingencies figured out, and be really sure of yourself," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, one of the league's premier talent evaluators, and a man who has demonstrated very little reluctance to deal back in the past. "(Trading) up, you're probably not going to do it unless the player you've targeted in sitting there. Going back, unless maybe it's just one spot, you have to be careful. A lot of things can happen."
Not all of them good.
"It can be a dicey business," one NFL college scouting director acknowledged last week of a trade-back gambit.
Several personnel directors and general managers contacted in recent days lobbied adamantly against the move-back philosophy, a deal that is generally consummated to collect extra picks. Some theorized that, in shallow drafts, it is still better to grab a premier prospect in lieu of several players a club might have graded closely.
One great player, a veteran scout suggested, might make more of an impact than a player or players rated lower.
Former longtime NFL personnel chief Jack Bushofsky noted that "some of your homework could go out the window" when a club trades back. An AFC scout allowed that it can be "somewhat deflating" to a staff when a team deals back. One would hope, though, that franchises are well prepared for every possibility.
Still, the trade-down watch could begin with the very first pick on Thursday night. Carolina general manager Marty Hurney noted last week that he has not received any nibbles on the initial selection. But if he does eventually receive some interest, Hurney will have to decide whether extra choices gleaned from such a deal might help the struggling Panthers more than, say, Cam Newton.
Sometimes in the old, quantity-versus-quality conundrum. And sometimes, as Dan Reeves found out in '97, it's quality that wins out.