When monumental change occurs in organized football, the handful of smart teams that catch on fast tend to dominate the era. It happened when the forward pass was legalized 100-plus years ago, and it happened when the salary cap arrived two decades ago. The franchises that settle on a vision, exploit it, and win a championship or two are football’s equivalent of the companies that realized the internet was here to stay or that people should talk in movies.
Now, the league is undergoing another seismic shift thanks to the modern draft rules. Five years ago, when the NFL and its players struck a new collective bargaining agreement, few realized that limiting rookie salaries would spark such drastic change. The tweak was supposed to save owners some money and restore some sanity to a sport in which a rookie like 2010 top pick Sam Bradford — before he was perpetually upset about everything — could get a six-year deal worth around $78 million. One year later, no. 1 overall pick Cam Newton got a total of $22 million over four years, but the influx of stars on cheap contracts did far more than put cash back into rich guys’ pockets: It changed teams’ approach to the draft and free agency, and in so doing changed the sport. Every serial Super Bowl contender since has employed the same formula: hit on a cluster of affordable draft picks, extend the absolute superstars, and let everyone else walk.
Two types of teams have emerged: the smart ones, which understand how valuable it is to hoard picks, and the out-of-touch ones, which don’t. The former get that having as many cost-controlled players as possible is a good thing; the latter still mistakenly think that the quarterback trumps all, because they apparently failed to notice that Peyton Manning wasn’t alive during the second half of Denver’s Super Bowl run last season.
We saw this play out in recent weeks with two high-profile draft trades: The Titans and Browns joined the ranks of the woke by bailing from this year’s top two slots to stockpile picks. Meanwhile, the Rams and Eagles, who desperately need franchise quarterbacks, put finding a passer above roster-construction flexibility. Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz will be the top two selections tonight in some order, but whether they’re actually good seems to be beside the point. Tennessee, meanwhile, will spend this draft and next collecting cheap pieces to stick around its own franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota. Cleveland, which now sits at no. 8, reportedly could trade down again.
It’s been almost two decades since the top two picks were last dealt, and before that, it hadn’t happened since 1975. But until every team wakes up, this could be the new normal, with the ripple effect extending far beyond the draft itself. Thanks to a handful of with-it teams, today’s NFL has become an unrecognizable place, where veterans who haven’t lost a step can be cut loose at the first sign of rising cost.
Again, look at Denver, which signed defensive lineman Derek Wolfe to an entirely reasonable extension in January but has yet to lock down anyone else from its young Super Bowl core, and may let some huge names walk to keep the revolving door of good contracts moving. Yahoo’s Charles Robinson spoke with one “prominent NFL agent” who said the Broncos’ cap guy “tries to make everyone eat a [expletive] sandwich.” Aside from being an incredible quote, that speaks to the take-it-or-leave-it approach that savvy teams are now taking, even with superstars like Von Miller, whose near $10 million cap number last season was about half of what he would get on the open market, and who’s yet to receive a long-term deal from Denver.
Draft picks have become so valuable that teams are increasingly less willing to invest in veterans. NFL careers are now alarmingly short, as Rob Arthur noted in The Wall Street Journal in February, saying that “from 2008 to 2014, the average NFL career dropped in length by about two and a half years.” That trend has reinforced the notion that pretty much anyone is expendable in the name of cheap labor. We saw this play out in high-profile fashion last week, when the Panthers rescinded star cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag, letting him go into free agency for nothing; now — surprise, surprise — seemingly every mock draft has Carolina drafting a cheap cornerback as a replacement.
The wise teams have realized that the modern draft pick is one of the most valuable chips in NFL history. Seattle, Carolina, Green Bay, and Denver have all benefited from this. New England, which pioneered collecting below-market deals, has also reaped the rewards of this new era, jettisoning most players (bye, Chandler Jones!) who are due for above-market contracts. Longtime draft observers have noted that teams are now trying to move into the first round simply to get a cost-controlled, fifth-year team option on a player instead of having to sign him for big money after four years.
If you already considered the NFL a cold, ruthless, lifeless institution obsessed with finding a slightly faster tight end for $300,000 less per year, these developments won’t assuage your concerns. But while the chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out system of drafting won’t keep your favorite players in your team’s uniform, it will help your team win.
This piece originally appeared in the April 28, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.