Battle to be first

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – The notion that it’s terrible to slide a few picks from the top of the NFL draft seems a bit over the top.

Really, how bad can it be for someone to be the No. 10 pick instead of the No. 3? After all, you still have to be a pretty terrific player, right?

In actuality, the difference is becoming increasingly extreme – almost to the point of being unhealthy. Small fortunes now ride in the balance, and jockeying for position to be the No. 1, 2 or 9 pick can become vicious.

“You really have to filter out a lot of the stuff that you’re hearing from the media, the agents and even the players,” said St. Louis coach Scott Linehan, whose team holds the No. 2 selection this year. “You have to make a decision on what you really need because you have a chance to take a player who can have such a huge impact on your team. He can change the culture of the whole locker room, so you have to be sure you’re right and not let a lot of outside things influence you.”

On the flipside, however, the attempts to influence are obvious.

Said veteran agent Ralph Cindrich: “What you can’t do is tell these guys their business. What you have to do is come up with some information that’s unique, that they might not have ever considered about a player. You have to get some trainer who has worked with a kid. One of these guys who gets all sweaty and dirty and can tell a coach or a GM, ‘This guy comes out of his break faster than any guy I have ever worked with.’”

The reason for that influence is that the difference between being the first overall pick and the 10th overall pick in the draft has become a chasm in terms of financial reward. Last year, No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, a quarterback from LSU selected by Oakland, received $29 million in guaranteed money for a six-year contract. He also received another $3 million in easily earned incentives, bringing his virtual guarantee to $32 million, according to an NFL Players Association source.

At No. 10 overall, Houston gave defensive tackle Amobi Okoye a five-year deal with $12.8 million guaranteed. While Okoye received the subtle advantage of a shorter contract (he gets to be a free agent sooner), the difference in the guarantee was more than double (there’s a difference of $16.2 million) and is $19.2 million if Russell’s $3 million incentive is counted.

Even the difference between Russell and No. 3 overall pick Joe Thomas was staggering. Like Okoye, Thomas did only get a five-year deal, getting $19 million in guarantees, according to the NFLPA. That’s a $10 million difference.

While Russell is a quarterback, the difference galls many people in and around the NFL. More important, it has led to odd situations the past two years.

Last year, for instance, information leaked in April just before the draft that top picks Okoye, Calvin Johnson and Gaines Adams had all admitted to the NFL that they tried marijuana. While the NFL considered it embarrassing that the information got out, few teams were bothered by it. Johnson ended up going No. 2, Adams No. 4 and Okoye at 10.

But the perception in the agent community is that one agent of another player selected in the top 10 leaked the information to make sure his client didn’t slide in the draft.

In 2006, during the week before the draft, Houston switched its emphasis from running back Reggie Bush to defensive end Mario Williams. The Texans became concerned about news that Bush took benefits while in college and were bothered when Bush barely called them back to explain the situation.

By contract, Williams and agent Ben Dogra jumped at the chance to be No. 1 and the $26.5 million in guarantees, signing the deal before the draft. While some people wrongly criticized the deal as being only a four percent increase over the deal that 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Smith received, Dogra knew that his client would go No. 4, at best, if he wasn’t drafted at No. 1.

If that had happened, Williams would have made roughly $8 million less.

Since becoming commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has repeatedly discussed the growing problem of guaranteed money to high draft picks. Likewise, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome stood in front of last year’s rookie class and berated them for the notion that they deserved so much money.

“You guys haven’t even played a down yet,” Newsome said, incredulously.

Chris Long
Chris Long

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Defensive end Chris Long, Virginia.

The Russell-Okoye comparison chafed one executive very strongly. “Basically, what we’re saying is that Russell is two or three times the player that Okoye is, right?” one long-time NFL executive said. “It’s insane to say that about two guys who have never played a down in the league, particularly when you’re talking about guys drafted that high. Is the success rate of the No. 1 overall pick that much better than No. 10? I haven’t done the research, but I’d bet a lot of money that it’s not.

“Really, just think about that for a minute. It’s stupid.”

What it leads to is a lot of game playing by agents and players, starting with a rush of information. From brochures to highlight DVDs to interviews to measurement to tests, teams are loaded down with information about players, particularly the few hoping to be taken No. 1 overall.

This year, that group is larger than normal because there’s no clear-cut top pick at this point. Defensive end Chris Long, offensive tackle Jake Long, quarterback Matt Ryan, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and running back Darren McFadden have all been mentioned as possibilities to go at the top spot, where Miami currently resides.

“You could make a case for a lot of different players,” New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that, but it’s something you know that everyone is going through trying to figure out as they put together their boards.”

Around the league, there has been speculation that the Dolphins will take Chris Long because he’s considered the safest choice of all the players to be great. Others have indicated that the team will take Jake Long because it badly needs to upgrade the offensive line. Or that Ryan is the guy because the team needs a quarterback.

McFadden echoed the comments of most of those players when he said, “Whether I am (the No. 1 pick) or I'm not, I'm just going to go play my best wherever I go.”

That’s the right thing to say, but expect him and agent Ian Greengross to do every thing they can to make sure he goes as high as possible.

Or as agent Joel Segal put it: “Until a team picks that player, there can be significant bluffing, significant posturing from all sides and you have to work and be prepared to the last minute to make sure you protect your client’s draft position.”

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