Home > Draft, NFL > Why the top of the NFL Draft doesn’t function like a market and is the lack of a rookie wage scale to blame?

Why the top of the NFL Draft doesn’t function like a market and is the lack of a rookie wage scale to blame?

The inspiration for this article is a piece by Pat Kirwan — by way of the NFL.com staff — on the NFL’s homepage.  Kirwan declares outright that Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton will be picked in the top ten picks.  He’s dead on of course, as both QBs will leave the board early on.  The demand equation says as much.  Teams picking 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, and 10th all need quarterbacks.  Organizations know that Gabbert and Newton comprise a risky class at the top, but also that it’s even more risky to wait if you’re trying to solve a need at the quarterback position.  With so many teams with passing needs picking in the top 10, Kirwan is only openly stating what we all realize already.

Of course, Kirwan also said this about Cam Newton’s “workout” last week:

“[The workout] was phenomenal, according to Trent,” said Kirwan who conferred with former QB and current analyst Trent Dilfer who was on site last week. “But that’s in shorts. Who was rushing him? Nobody. JaMarcus Russell was awesome in his workout too. We’ll see how it pans out.”

Pat Kirwan’s main point helps comprise a greater whole here which is that there is seemingly a logic gap between the general consensus of Cam Newton as a quality prospect and of the obvious fact that he’s bound to be taken in the top ten anyway.

  1. The consensus among teams is that Cam Newton is not one of the ten best prospects in the draft
  2. The consensus among teams is that there’s little chance Cam Newton is available after the 10th pick

The market would describe this as simple supply and demand, and to an extent this is accurate, but certainly it is incomplete.  Value-wise, Newton’s draft profile would place him as a third round value, which is consistent with the perceptions of him as a pro propsect.  There are a lot of Cam Newton believers out there, but those people hold a consensus that Newton will be a competent if not quality starter for someone.  The crowd that thinks Newton will continue to be a star at the next level is, well, it’s considerably smaller.  Which is to say: point me in the direction of the next analyst who thinks Newton will be a top five NFL quarterback by 2015.  I haven’t seen anything endorsing that notion to date.

To be fair, I haven’t heard anyone backing consensus no. 1 QB Blaine Gabbert for anything more than “a franchise quarterback”.  You don’t have to be more than that to justify a top ten selection as a QB.  But Newton is far more perplexing if only because there seems to be no expectation for Blaine Gabbert to fail in the pros, and a considerable expectation that Newton’s skills will not translate.

Here’s the effect we’re seeing: we’ve reached a point where success and failure in terms of drafting quarterbacks is no longer being measured by failure, but by success.  When picking QBs, it’s no longer acceptable to come out of the draft with a guy who can merely earn that second contract and play up to expectation.  No, if you’re going to draft a first round quarterback, he either needs to go to multiple pro bowls in his first seven seasons, or he needs to win a super bowl in his first seven seasons, or absent the above, you’re looking elsewhere for quarterbacks.  But the standard for non-first rounders is even greater, as covered by myself last month.

Success and failures at the quarterback position is defined as such.  The 2004 draft class was a rousing success, with Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers all meeting expectation for the teams that held their draft rights.  Aaron Rodgers now can be qualified as a success in the 2005 class.  But the very promising 2006 class has now netted absolutely nothing.  Vince Young has now been to multiple pro bowls, but wasn’t a success for Tennessee.  Matt Leinart couldn’t get on top of a depth chart after the Cardinals fired Denny Green.  And Jay Cutler has been to only one pro bowl in his first five years, meaning that his clock is ticking in terms of justifying both his draft status and trade to Chicago.  In another era, Cutler would be considered a successful draft pick, but the standards have changed.

The class of 2008 has two potential franchise passers, but the standard for Chad Henne is very different than what it is for Matt Ryan.  Ryan has been better (thus far), but there’s a reason outside of performance that one is heavily criticized and the other is very well off.  And what of Joe Flacco?  Flacco has won four road playoff games in his first three NFL seasons, and has generally performed better than a contemporary in Mark Sanchez, but for Flacco, the clock is ticking to either reach elite status or win a super bowl.

Sanchez is pretty much in the same boat.  An all time record for road playoff victories in his second season, but his performance is a limiting factor on pro bowl candidacy and the Jets haven’t taken the final step to the super bowl, firmly entrenching Sanchez as the future as well as the present.  Josh Freeman has a much better chance in the NFC to be a perennial pro bowler, if not a champ.  And Matthew Stafford’s best shot with Detroit is through team related improvement: if he can stay healthy, the window for the Lions is now.

What we’re looking at is about one passer per year that achieves the status of being a successful draft pick — and not one every year.  No quarterback drafted in the 2006 and 2007 drafts has gone on to achieve unconditional success, and Kevin Kolb will likely be the only one to remain with the team that took him into the 2011 season.

What this means for Newton is that teams are much more willing now to fail with a guy like Newton who has a questionable draft profile if he “looks” like the strongest prospect in the draft.  I think teams are well aware of the follies of looking at the film of a player that never had to deal with failure or adversity on the largest stage (he never lost in the SEC), and understand why Newton is a weak prospect, but for any team that has Newton rated even one spot ahead of Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett, or Jake Locker on the big board: once Gabbert is gone, the only thing preventing a flyer on Newton is the question of whether or not he’ll be able to play for them in the near future.

Obviously this goes beyond supply and demand.  Newton will be in demand because he rates out higher than the competition, but historically, drafting unproven college players has proven a losing proposition.  But now, losing propositions are all the rage, because, ultimately, we’re searching for that next big quarterback market inefficiency.  That, and the game has changed.  If Newton plays like a 3rd round value in the pros, and lasts four years with the team that drafts him before becoming a backup elsewhere, it will be perceived as a poor pick.  That was always the case.  What is different now is that, if, at the same time, Blaine Gabbert takes his team to the playoffs in his 2nd and 3rd seasons, but gets hurt after that and then is traded for less than market value after his fifth year in the league (the Byron Leftwich career path), the higher-drafted Gabbert would be seen as a much worse pick than the ineffective Newton.

This doesn’t make any sense to free market economics, but such is the life of an NFL talent evaluator.  Because it can not conclusively be said that there isn’t a franchise quarterback in this draft, the draft will be treated as if their is one, meaning: Gabbert will go early, and when he’s gone, Newton will also go early, evaluations be damned.  If economists are frustrated by this sort of QB madness, the absence of a rookie wage scale might be the only deterrent left until we hit full on QB mania in the NFL draft.

The NFL draft already acts as a wage-depressing entity, which is good for the owners, and particularly good because the public sentiment is very much against unproven players receiving anything close to fair-market value for their services.  Because the fans are so woefully unattuned to the economics of the draft, the owners are going to be able to push in a rookie wage scale at the top of the NFL draft that will protect it’s worst teams and greatly improve parity (as well as improved cost), at the expense of the ability highly drafted players to get fair value on their rookie contracts.  This is really good for the NFL, at least until the door opens for a rival league to start paying more for amateur talent, which would only be a matter of time.

Ridiculous rookie salaries are one of the only things protecting the last relics of fiscal responsibility at the top of the draft.  Currently, you can’t draft a QB high EVERY year because that’s too much money spent at one position, and not enough resources allocated to the rest of your team.  The institution of a strong rookie wage scale will kill the last bastion of responsibility at the top of the draft.  Then teams will absolutely be able to afford to pick a QB every single season in the first round so long as it remains a need.  The effects of such behavior will not be good for the league, I’d imagine: more early commitments to the NFL draft from college quarterbacks, greatly decreasing the percentage chance of a “hit” on a draft prospect, and limiting opportunity to the point where the third round-and-lower effect chronicled above would start to creep into the first round even more than it already has.  Developing quarterbacks — already a lost art — would become so rare as to be a closely guarded secret.  Teams with already established QBs would continue to dominate their divisions, per the current standard.

I do believe that soon, the first round quarterback will become the only kind of quarterback, and we will stop seeing QBs taken in the second and third rounds altogether.  Players taken in the fourth round and lower would be insurance against injury, not legitimate prospects at the position.  This would obviously create inefficiencies all over the draft, but the truth is, only teams with a settled quarterback position will be primed to exploit these inefficiencies.

Cam Newton is the first in a long line of top ten passers that profiles as a mid-round pick.  Newton will probably look a lot more justifiable on film than any similar players in future years.  Does that guarantee him success?  Of course not.  While the economics of the NFL draft are dynamic and undergoing radical change, the formulas for on-field success in the NFL are as entrenched as they have ever been: pass well, and stop the opponent from passing.  In the next decade, look for parity to become even stronger, but only among the “have-not” franchises.  Every organization is going to have ample opportunity to join the elite class, opportunity provided by a rookie wage scale.  But the franchises that “have” will continue to dominate pro football in the next decade.

Those who control all the chips in the quarterback dominated NFL have little to worry about, as their ability to look elsewhere on their roster to improve and sustain comes with inherent, winning tactics, in a QB crazed environment such as the one we are about to see in the National Football League


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