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Do the Denver Broncos Even Need a Draft? And What The Answer Could Say About the NFL Lockout

If your are still here at MHR during the NFL offseason, chances are you either can't get enough of the Denver Broncos, or you can't live without the NFL Draft.  Probably both.

So believe me, I don't suggest to you lightly that I don't see the point in the Denver Broncos participating in the NFL draft.

And I'm not talking about recent reports of a NFLPA sponsored boycott of draft eligible players at the Combine (unlikely) or of the "green room" at the NFL Draft event in New York City (not a terrible idea, and many players will be staying home anyways).  No, I'm talking about the whole NFL Draft itself.

If you are a typical draftnik, you have probably asked a million questions about the draft, from who is who, to what is a pick worth, to how fast a player ran.  If you really get into the theory, you probably have openly debated with your fellow draftniks about whether a top ten draft choice is actually a valuable thing or not, given the escalating player salaries associated with them.

But have you ever stepped outside of the draft context, and asked, "Why have a draft at all?"

With the labor negotiations (or lack thereof) has come a sticking point, one among many, that declares that a rookie wage scale must be introduced.  Both Labor and Owners embrace the concept.  It will be the easiest problem to solve of the offseason.  It doesn't take a scholar to look at the aforementioned escalating scale and recognize that it is seriously unbalanced.  When Matt Stafford makes more money than Tom Brady, without ever having played a down in the NFL, something isn't right.

Now, before we get into the meat of this discussion, I just want to point out that at this moment, a particular question is just begging to be asked.  But you didn't ask it.  And so far, neither has anyone else.  We'll deal with the more popular elements of this debate first, but mark my words, we will eventually end up right back here, still without an answer.  And then the unasked question will be the only one we have left.

First, lets take a look at the Draft.

What would you say is the reason for drafting players, as opposed to just signing them as free agents out of college?  There are a number of minor considerations, but the one that outweighs them all, by a large margin, is the idea of "parity."  Indeed, the entire secret of success for the NFL has often been described as its vested interest in parity.  I take issue with that, but we'll discuss that topic another time.  For now, it is enough to recognize that it is a likely driving force behind the draft as status quo.

For one, it should be noted that around 700 players per year have made up the last decade's rookie classes.  Approximately 250 of those players were regulated by the NFL draft, while 400+ entered the league through college free agency.  This indicates to us that really, the draft is all about regulating a very specific group of players that enter the league in any given year.  This specific group represents the best of the best, the most talented players that class has to offer, as determined by the staffs of the teams making the selections.  And since talent, whether that is speed, brains or brawn, is the ultimate difference maker on the field, it isn't a far stretch to say that the draft allows the teams to control an NFL commodity.

So what does the league do with control of that commodity?  This is where parity comes in.  They determine who the worst teams were in the previous league year ( I guess the assumption is that they are still the worst), and they give those teams first dibs at the best talent.  Voila!  Competitiveness and parity for everyone!

But does the draft ordering system create parity?  And is that even the goal?

If we look back over the last ten years, we can divide the teams selecting in the top ten of the draft into a handful of different groups.  Over this past decade 29 teams made selections in the top ten picks of the draft (DEN, PIT and PHI are the only three teams that never broke the top ten barrier, until this year of course)

In Group 1 we have what I call the "incidentals."  These are teams that drifted into the top ten either from a single off year, or by trading up to select a desired playmaker.  This includes teams like NE, IND, CAR, NYG, TEN, NO, BAL, NYJ and GB.  All told this group of 9 teams makes up 12% of top ten players taken over this decade.

In Group 2 we have the "reloaders."  These are teams that suffered 3 or 4 year losing streaks, or a couple of bad years followed by a boost, then a return to the draft well for a couple of more years.  Overall this group drafted fewer players than the number of times it qualified to, which means these teams probably benefited from management that knew when to trade back to stockpile picks and players.  In general these teams could be said to have struggled for a period, drafted some playmakers, and eventually managed to start climbing back up the ranks.  This group of 9 teams includes SD, KC, SEA, BUF, MIA, STL, DAL, CHI, and TB.  This group of rebuilding teams accounts for 24% of top ten players taken over the last decade.

In Group 3, we have what I call the "spectacles."  These teams suffered from various levels and depths of mismanagement over the last decade, and as a result have been consistently poor.  These 11 teams, led by the likes of DET and OAK include ARI, HOU, WAS, CLE, SF, CIN, JAX, ATL, and MIN.  This group has the additional characteristic, unlike Group 2, that even in the few years when they seemed like they might be improving, and managed to finish outside of the bottom ten in the league, they would often find ways to trade back into the top ten, thus accounting for more total players taken in the top ten then their records entitled them to.  All told these teams have gobbled up 64% of the top 100 players over the last decade.  And yet most of them are still poor teams, and have yet to improve.

What masquerades as "parity" in the draft is covering up something worse.  But there is no covering the odor of mismanagement.

In the meantime, a narrative has cropped up over that same timespan, one that never really got much traction before, and that has a national spotlight because of the labor negotiations:  "The Top Picks Are Being Paid Too Much!!"

Mark Murphy, the President of the Green Bay Packers (and the only person on the owner's side of the bargaining table who was elected), pleaded in a Washington Post op-ed for a "return to sanity" at the end of last season:

Our current system of paying rookies doesn't make sense. In 2009, 256 drafted rookies signed contracts calling for $1.2 billion in compensation with $585 million guaranteed. This year the numbers increased to $1.27 billion, including $660 million guaranteed, for 255 draft choices.

No other business operates this way, and no other union gives its entry-level hires such privileges. The system is so bad that some teams no longer want picks in the top part of the first round of the NFL draft. The cost is too high, especially if a player taken that early turns out to be a bust.

He's right, the numbers are insane, there is simply no debating that.  Again, at this point, we should be asking a very important question, but instead of doing that, lets look at how this could be addressed.  Murphy suggested an NBA or NHL-style rookie wage scale.  Makes sense.  And recently, an offer put up by the owners went down in flames:

Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal reported earlier today that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith explained in a memo to certain players that the rookie wage scale proposed by management would affect players with three to five years of experience, or as Smith put it "the core of our membership."

The league proposed a system including five-year deals for first-round picks and four-year contracts for players drafted in all other rounds; the union wants maximum deals of four years in rounds one through three and three years in rounds four through seven.

"This wage scale would have a very dramatic effect on league salaries when you consider the number of players that would be subject to its terms," Smith explained in a memo to the members of the Executive Committee and the various player representatives, claiming that 60 percent of the league would fall under the terms of the league’s proposal.

So when the owner's propose a wage scale, they REALLY propose a wage scale.  So much for solving the problem at the top of the draft.  Owner's LOVE the idea of a wage scale, and have adopted similar measures under the old CBA for tenured vets during regular free agency.  It represents a cost control measure, and there isn't anything inherently wrong with that, so a wage scale most certainly has a place for the future of NFL rookies.

But wait a minute...  So the NFL would love a wage scale, similar to what vets enjoy in free agency.  Two-thirds of every rookie class already enter the league through free agency.  The player's union would probably love to see rookies given some career freedom out from under the current monopsony.  And even vets could get behind rookie free agency, since the balancing effect of negotiating with rookies could allow experience to actually weigh in when teams decide who they want to retain, resulting in fewer veteran cuts to make room for rookies. 

So tell me again why we have a draft?

I guarantee that if the owner's offered up the prospect of rookie free agency to resolve the wage issue, the NFLPA would snap it up in a heartbeat.  But that isn't going to happen because the NFL wants to keep the draft, and they will still want to keep it even if every wage scale they propose is turned down by the Union.  No matter what offer comes along, they all will amount to the same thing, a pay cut for the players, out of their revenue slice.  It doesn't matter that the plan is to funnel any savings to a retirement fund of some kind.  It is still the player's own money being spent on them, sort of like forced savings.  The owner's may hem and haw about how to do that, but in the end, they won't let it come out of their pocket.  It isn't a solution to the wage problem, it is just asking the players to shuffle their money around so the owner's don't have to deal with those signing bonuses anymore. 

And we are back where we started.

Can we please go back and answer that question from the beginning?  The one we keep ignoring?

It is often the simple questions we fail to ask, many times because we are in such a rush to solve a problem.  When we are told that the rookie wages of the top 10 or 15 picks are out of hand ridiculous, and can't be sustained, the first question we need to ask is the simplest of all.  Why?

Why are the wages of that select group of players going through the stratosphere?  Why does it seem to only affect a core group around the top 10 to 15 picks?  I think most would answer here: greed.  Greedy players and greedy agents, taking teams for as much as they can.  Ever notice how the agents collude on the matter?  Until one guy signs, no other dominoes in the group seem to be able to topple.  Knowshon Moreno was inadvertantly accused of being a holdout, when it was actually Darius Heyward-Bey in Oakland that was the one holding up the process.  But greed isn't an answer, it is just more questions.  Why would teams give up so much money?  Do these unproven rookies really have that much leverage, that they can squeeze tens of millions of dollars from teams trying to manage a salary cap?  If they have the leverage, where in the world is it coming from?  Their skill?  Is it that much more than someone else you could have taken in the draft?  Or even in next year's draft?  It doesn't make any sense.

Actually, let's look at the Heyward-Bey example one more time.  Moreno's agent was waiting on DHB to sign in Oakland as part of a yearly ritual of not breaking up the pattern of salary slotting among the top picks.  This is a gentleman's agreement between agents, because next year it might be their player stuck in DHB's position.  So they wait.  But what position was DHB in?

Remember Group 3 from the draft discussion above?  You want to know why rookie salaries for the elite players in the top ten escalate to such insane numbers?  Because that is where Group 3 hangs out.

Players don't have any choice where they are signed.  They can only negotiate the best career protection possible for themselves.  Imagine you are a talented young QB, confident in your own ability to succeed in the NFL, assured of a top pick in the draft and a chance to play where you could start and make an impact for your team right away, and you find yourself drafted in the top ten by Mike Brown.  Players are scrambling for the railings of the sinking ship in Cincinnatti.  They don't hide their distaste for the management assembled by the owner.  The rumor is that the team purposefully tries to lose money to stay at the bottom of the league's revenue sharing pool.  Your agent warned you about what could happen to your career if you have to play there.  Talent won't be enough.  So you drive up your price.  It is the only way they will get you into one of their uniforms.  You sign your front loaded contract and you hope for the best.  DHB was in a similar situation, looking at signing with Oakland.  Group 3 is a place where a player's career is in more danger than is typical of the NFL.

This of course isn't true of every team in the top ten.  Denver and Carolina will both be getting a top player in the 2011 draft, but neither team is a Group 3.  Their stop at the bottom, for all intents and purposes is a surprise, an unnatural occurrence not expected to last, and a player who gets on their life raft will probably stand a good chance of having control over how his career turns out.  But Group 3 is right behind:  ARI, SF, CLE, CIN...  It is a good year to be number one or number two, but after that...

The dirty secret that the draft is hiding, what all the proposed and still to be proposed "solutions" to the rookie wage scale are meant to cover up, is that the poorly managed franchises in the NFL are subsidized by the healthy ones in a parasitic relationship that drains coffers, rosters, and the will of individual players.  Players who, if they had a choice, wouldn't dream of playing for the franchises that take all the fun out of dysfunction.

The NFL is an oligopoly, a closely knit group of owners, producing billions in debt and with only one real asset in the form of yearly television contracts that are always in danger of being reduced or changed.  When one owner suffers, the wave reverberates through the entire league structure.  For a host of reasons they are unwilling to step up and address the dysfunction, which will spread before it ever recedes, and they will allow the problems they have created to continue into perpetuity, shackling the players and game in hopes of walling off the inevitable, at least until the next CBA negotiation, when a new masquerade begins.  I don't envy the owner's the position they find themselves in.  With the bubble they have stumbled into, and in many cases created by their own hand, the easiest solution isn't available to them, and chances are, they wouldn't take it if it was.

Which puts us fans in a tricky spot.  Even if you have read this far, chances are you really don't care about anything I've just said:  You just want to see some football.  You love the game, you love the memories, you love the skill, the schemes, the strategy and the crazy bounce of the ball.  To you, the game is a value, one you are happy to be a consumer of.

But going forward, regardless of who "wins" the upcoming labor battle, you will need to decide whose hands that value should ultimately rest in.