In the summer of 2006, then-Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay stood on the sidelines of a training camp practice, and lamented the crippling potential that had developed at the top of the NFL draft. The league was approaching its first $30-million guarantee for a rookie, and it was becoming astronomically tricky to hold what used to be a coveted top three draft choice.
"It's getting to the point where you can't make any mistakes," McKay said at the time. "If you look at it over time, most first-round picks don't pan out for the money they make in the first place. We've studied it. It's really a high percentage over time. But at the top of the draft, for the money they make now, you better not be wrong anymore, or you're really hurting yourself in the long run."
More than any other picks, mistakes made at the top of the draft – particularly in the top five, where guaranteed money has reached the superstar level – pack a devastating punch. Not only has a prime opportunity been blown to secure an impact player, but the accompanying anchor price tag often forces teams to produce unwarranted playing time for marginal players. Consider some of the costly mistakes at the top of the draft that have knocked the wind out of some franchises in recent years: the Houston Texans' selection of David Carr, their first-ever draft pick; the Detroit Lions' selection of Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers in back-to-back seasons; the Oakland Raiders' tabbing of Robert Gallery. Not to mention the precarious situations developing with the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears with Alex Smith and Cedric Benson, respectively.
All of those names paint the picture McKay was drawing, that missing on a top five pick in today's era is a double-whammy.
That reality sets up one of the most intriguing story lines worth watching in this year's draft. Two executives are facing an inordinate amount of pressure in new jobs – the Miami Dolphins' head of operations Bill Parcells, and Atlanta's new GM Tom Dimitroff. While Parcells has already carved out his niché as one of the league's icons, he's putting his reputation on the line with a franchise that has sucked the lifeblood out of previous so-called "draft geniuses" (Jimmy Johnson should ring a bell). And Dimitroff is taking over in Atlanta after McKay was unceremoniously shuffled into the business side of the franchise.
To be sure, neither is in a particularly enviable position. It's one thing to take over a team's talent base in a loaded draft year (as Rick Smith did when he inherited Mario Williams with Houston in 2006). It's quite another to do it in a season when you take over knowing that you will be paying superstar money at the top of a draft devoid of superstars (see Mike Nolan, who used his now usurped decision making powers to tab Smith in '05).
So here you have Parcells and Dimitroff. Starting right at the top, Parcells was essentially sitting at the worst kind of No. 1 slot in the draft. He's coming a year after a quarterback went No. 1 overall, and staring at a crop of upper-tier talent with no true No. 1. However, Parcells signed Long to a five-year, $57.5 million deal that included $30 million in guaranteed money – an eye-popping figure for a rookie offensive lineman. It's a deal that makes Long the league's highest paid offensive lineman before he's taken a single snap. Let that sink in. Long has far outdistanced the seven-year $52.5 million deal signed by the Seattle Seahawks' Walter Jones in 2005, as well as the seven-year, $52.8 million deal inked by Orlando Pace in 2004. Which means, in effect, that Parcells is signing player who would merely be a top 10 pick in a talent-rich draft to a No. 1 overall deal that is similar to the one given to a "marquee" quarterback last year.
And how important is the rest of Parcells' draft? Simply consider what else he has to deal with beyond hoping he made the right choice with Long. He's charged with turning around a Miami team that: has no clear-cut starter at quarterback; a running back coming off a season-ending knee injury; a star defensive end who doesn't want to be with the team; and a totally ineffective "marquee" free agent signee from 2007 in Joey Porter. It's a full plate with few palatable bites.
Then you have Dimitroff, who enters his first draft with an impeccable reputation as one of the league's best young talent evaluators. Indeed, Dimitroff has gotten a bird's-eye view of the last five drafts for the New England Patriots. Having served as the Patriots' director of college scouting, it's been purported that he knows the anatomy of scouting the way a surgeon knows every nook in a chest cavity. He's seen aggressive draft tactics and knows how to find the right players to fit a system. But what he hasn't done is make the final decision on draft picks that will shape a franchise. And with four picks in the top 48 – and seven in the top 103 – Dimitroff gets his shot to lay the foundation for a turnaround. But his decisions could do just as much damage, particularly if he stands pat at the No. 3 pick, which should draw a $50 million-plus contract with a guarantee north of $25 million.
Whether it's Dimitroff or Parcells, both have slightly different vantage points heading into this weekend, but share a similar pressure. As McKay said two years ago, money and impact make the pressure at the top of the draft as much about not failing horribly as it is about succeeding wildy. Theirs should be one of the most fascinating stories come Saturday.
With that in mind, here are five other captivating subplots in this weekend's draft:
Who goes No. 2?
The Rams wanted Jake Long. That much started to become obvious while listening to St. Louis coach Scott Linehan talk about the offensive line situation – and Orlando Pace in particular – at the NFL's owner's meetings three weeks ago. Now that Long is off the board, where do the Rams go? St. Louis will most likely opt for defensive line help, adding to a unit that saw hopeful dividends from last year's rookies, Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan.
As enticing as it would be to plunk Glenn Dorsey down next to Carriker, Virginia defensive end Chris Long is just as safe a pick. Perhaps even more so when you consider the spate of injuries that Dorsey encountered the last two seasons, and the stress fracture in his leg that still has some executives nervous. For the money they will be paying, Chris Long is safe and solid and will team with Carriker to form a formidable twosome for a long time. And when the Rams move Will Witherspoon to defensive end on passing downs, watch out.
Where does Matt Ryan land?
There are several potential landing pads for the Boston College quarterback, with the most sensible being Atlanta and Baltimore Ravens. Atlanta needs a marquee quarterback, and Ryan fits the bill, but if Dimitroff is bringing over the methodology from the Patriots, then he's looking to strengthen his interior lines first. And that seems to point to LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and then tabbing a quarterback later in the draft for development. Once Ryan gets past Atlanta, all bets are off.
Of the four teams between the Falcons and the Ravens, two – the Raiders and Patriots – are a sure bet to steer clear of Ryan. Another, the Kansas City Chiefs, have been a little too open about their interest in Ryan, which seems to suggest they will be looking elsewhere. That leaves two possibilities: the New York Jets and a potential trade-up. Oddly, the Jets showed some early interest in Ryan and even worked him out privately, but have suddenly run cold on him the last week or so. In the wild world of draft conspiracies, that could be construed as a smokescreen to prevent Baltimore from panicking and moving up to lock up their quarterback. Or it could simply mean the Jets weren't overwhelmed by Ryan, and truly covet Arkansas running back Darren McFadden.
As for trade scenarios, there have been published reports suggesting the Carolina Panthers, Lions and Bears have all contemplated moving up to get the B.C. quarterback. But considering the ammunition it would take any of those teams to get ahead of Baltimore at No. 8 – first, second and other picks in later rounds – it smacks of agent Tom Condon pumping up the market for his player. Ultimately, it appears Ryan lands in one of two places. Either the Jets snag him at No. 6, or Baltimore eagerly tabs him at No. 8.
Can the Patriots get Vernon Gholston at No. 7?
Depending how the draft falls, absolutely. It would take a wicked turn of events, but there is still a possibility that Gholston slides down to New England. But that would have to entail the Jets not taking him. And that would only happen if the Jets get a shot at running back Darren McFadden or pull a slight surprise and grab Ryan. If those picks fall right, the Patriots should be in the overjoyed spot of choosing between Gholston, USC linebacker Keith Rivers and Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin.
Yes, it's a slightly unlikely scenario. But only slightly. What's more likely is that the Patriots are left with Rivers and McKelvin on the board. And knowing that the Patriots tend to make due quite well with middle-round corners – and seem to think their play is more a function of the front seven – Rivers appears to be the likeliest player to suit up for the Patriots next season.
Is Darren McFadden the player who slips a few picks?
It all depends on how you define slip. If you expect McFadden to go in the top four, then it is absolutely possible that he slips. There is an overwhelming amount of speculation that Al Davis is angling for McFadden at No. 4. And the arguments to the contrary – that the Raiders already have a stacked backfield – aren't exactly solid. In reality, Oakland doesn't have a boatload of guaranteed money wrapped up in their four running backs: Justin Fargas, Michael Bush, LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes. Even the cap hit incurred by cutting Jordan would be canceled out by his base salary next season, and the Raiders could carry McFadden along with Fargas and his incentive-laden $14 million contract extension.
All of that said, it's possible that Chris Long could be sitting there with the No. 4 overall pick. And two factors lean toward the Raiders going in the direction and passing on McFadden. First, Davis does value the opinion of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and needs to upgrade his line on that side of the ball. And second, the lineage of Long's father, Howie, in silver and black doesn't hurt.
So it's looking more than possible that McFadden gets by the Raiders. There is a lot of buzz of late that the Jets covet him, particularly knowing that Thomas Jones is wearing down and lacks the explosion to be a homerun back. Can McFadden slip? Yes. Beyond the Jets? Don't bet on it.
Who will get traded?
At least a few veterans will get moved over the course of the draft. Last year, we saw several deals go down. One with major implications (Randy Moss) and the rest with not-so-great results (Darrell Jackson, Dante Hall, Mike Williams and Josh McCown). This year's draft once again features some names already on the block (Kansas City defensive end Jared Allen and Jets defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson) along with some guys who could potentially get there by the end of the draft (Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber and New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey). You could throw in wideout Chad Johnson, although the Cincinnati Bengals seem spitefully adamant that he's not going anywhere.
So who gets moved? Allen and Robertson are the likeliest pair, with Allen seemingly destined to go to the Minnesota Vikings, and Robertson landing with a team that misses out on getting the defensive tackle help it needs in the draft. After that pair, Taylor looks to be the next likeliest (but also appearing to be held in spite by Parcells), while Barber (he wants an astronomical contract extension) and Shockey (his feelings have been hurt) appear to be longshots.