Draft inflation has turned top pick into a curse by Michael Rosenberg


The NFL Draft is dead.

Wait! I don't mean to alarm you. Please don't roll off your couch.

Of course the NFL Draft will be conducted as usual this weekend, per the terms laid out by our Founding Fathers. (The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms; the Seventeenth Amendment makes an exception for Jets fans on draft day.) But the whole purpose of the draft structure is shot. Remember? It is supposed to help the worst teams by giving them the best picks.

That's not the case anymore. Oh, the worst teams still get the top picks, but the top picks are not the best picks. The top picks cost too much money. They are $100,000 cars that may or may not come equipped with an engine.

How absurd is the money? Last year, No. 1 overall pick Jake Long signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract, with $30 million guaranteed.

OK, fine. He was the top pick, we live in a capitalist society, etc.

But this week, the Philadelphia Eagles signed newly acquired Jason Peters to a six-year, $60 million contract, with $25 million guaranteed.

Peters and Long play the same position, left tackle. Peters is a 27-year-old Pro Bowler. Long, when he signed his contract, was on the verge of turning 23 and had never played a game in the NFL.

What had Long done to earn more money than Peters? Absolutely nothing.

This is why nobody wants the No. 1 pick. Teams would rather draft 15th than first. They don't want to guarantee $30 million to a guy who has never played pro ball. But player agents have done such a masterful job of inflating rookie salaries that the teams at the top have very little choice but to suck it up and overpay.

The top pick currently belongs to the NFL team I cover on a somewhat regular basis, the Detroit Lions. You probably didn't notice, but last year the Lions absolutely sucked. OK, maybe you did notice. In the words of Homer Simpson, they were "the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked." In fact, that is the name of their season highlight film.


Not even a pricey top draft pick may help the hapless Lions.
The Lions finished 0-16. No NFL team had ever done that before, but to be fair, the Lions were the first ones to really try.

And what was the Lions' reward for being so historically, preposterously awful? They get something that nobody else wants!

I see you're having trouble swimming, sir. Here — wear this, a lead necklace. The system is so messed up that some people actually think the Lions should pass on their pick — wait four or five players, than pick somebody, just to knock down the salary commitment. I don't think that would work, but the fact that people are seriously discussing it should tell you there is a problem here.

Just to be clear: this is not about the Lions. They can and will screw up any pick you give them. It's their only real tradition. That's not the point.

This is about the Chiefs and Rams and Seahawks and Raiders, too.

(Well, maybe not the Raiders. I don't worry about Al Davis forking out big money for a draftee. He can always swipe a few million from some city council by pretending he might move his team.)

Everybody in the league knows this is a problem. The NFL and the players association are headed toward thermonuclear labor war, but this is one issue upon which they should agree. Paying rookies this much money hurts both franchises and veteran players, whose slice of the pie shrinks with every big rookie deal.

The NBA dealt with this in the mid '90s and instituted a rookie salary cap. This had one ugly repercussion — players started turning pro out of preschool, so they could finish their rookie contracts and sign a bigger deal. But the NFL won't have that problem.

The league has another incentive to fix the problem: it is hurting the draft's entertainment value. How much more exciting would this week be if the Lions, Rams and Chiefs were all fielding offers from, say, the Cowboys?

This is the league's most entertaining offering from February to July; I'd bet many more TV minutes and web pages are devoted to the draft than any year's Super Bowl matchup.

A new draft system would make spring more fun for NFL fans. And it would give hope to the hopeless in the fall, too.

Hope to the hopeless ... That has a nice ring to it .. yes?