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Five Ways the 2010 Draft Affected—and Is Still Affecting—the NFL

Nine years ago, players like Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Thomas, and Gronk entered the league. That group has shaped the sport over this past decade, and they’ve seen a renewed relevance this spring.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, a pair of transactions brought the 2010 NFL draft back into the spotlight. After spending the first nine seasons of his career with the Buccaneers, former no. 3 overall pick Gerald McCoy was released by Tampa Bay on Monday. A day later, the team signed Ndamukong Suh—who, coincidentally, was taken one pick ahead of McCoy in 2010—to a one-year contract. Nearly a decade after they were drafted back to back, Suh will replace McCoy in the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense.

It’s an odd sequence of events for two players who’ve long been linked and measured against one another. It’s also just the latest NFL headline involving players from the 2010 draft class—from stars like Suh and McCoy to Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Eric Berry, and others. With so many members of that group still in the news almost 10 years after entering the league, I decided to examine some of the ways the 2010 class shaped—and continues to shape—the league.

1. As the last class before the new CBA was implemented, the financial impact of this group’s rookie contracts affected teams in ways we’ll likely never see again. Since the rookie wage scale was introduced ahead of the 2011 season, rookie contracts have been the most valuable commodity in the NFL—but that wasn’t the case before the current CBA. Players taken outside the top half of the draft’s first round still had cheap first deals; if you compare the contract of Derrick Morgan (taken 16th overall in 2010) and that of Ryan Kerrigan (taken 16th overall in 2011), the difference in their average annual values was only about $800,000. Look at the players at the top of the draft, though, and the gap widens significantly. Cam Newton, the no. 1 overall pick in 2011, carried an AAV of $5.5 million over the first four years of his deal. Sam Bradford, who was selected first overall the previous year, had an AAV of $11 million.

During Bradford’s second season, his $12.5 million cap hit accounted for 10.1 percent of the Rams’ salary cap. Compare that with Baker Mayfield who, as a fellow no. 1 pick entering his second year, will account for just 3 percent of the Browns’ 2019 salary cap. That difference is massive, and Bradford’s contract negatively impacted the Rams for years. By the time the 2014 season began—Bradford’s last on his rookie deal—the Rams were spending a higher percentage of their cap on quarterbacks than all but two other teams (the Steelers and Giants). And unlike Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, Bradford wasn’t a Super Bowl–winning passer with a proven track record that spanned more than a decade. He was an injury-prone QB who’d never averaged more than 6.7 yards per attempt in a season.

The 2014 campaign—which Bradford missed entirely because of a torn ACL—was his fifth in the league. Under today’s CBA, fifth-year options ensure that players taken in the top 10 are expensive by that point, as options amount to the transition tag at their position. But even with Jared Goff’s salary on the books for 2020, the Rams are still slated to have only the 12th-largest QB payroll in the league. And unlike the situation with Bradford, these Rams benefited from several years of paying Goff well below the league average price for a starting quarterback.

Bradford’s deal may have been onerous, but no team felt the collective crush of the old CBA’s structure more recently than the Lions. Of the final four drafts before the new CBA was put into place, Detroit picked in the top two on three occasions: The team took Calvin Johnson in 2007, Matthew Stafford in 2009, and Suh in 2010. It didn’t take long before the combined weight of those contracts forced the Lions to make desperate, short-sighted moves to fill in the roster around their young stars. Suh played only two seasons before Detroit restructured his five-year, $64.5 million contract for the first time. By converting about $10 million of Suh’s base salary into a signing bonus, the Lions were able to free up enough space to sign a handful of free agents (including Reggie Bush and Glover Quin) while also working out an extension for Johnson. The following year, they did it again, turning $11.5 million of Suh’s base salary into a signing bonus.

Converting base salaries into signing bonuses is a common practice in the NFL, but the tactic has recently been reserved for players on sizable second and third deals—not for guys entering their third season in the league. The problem with kicking the financial can down the road is that eventually, a team still has to pay up, and thanks in part to a $6.3 million restructure bonus, Suh’s cap hit in 2014 was a whopping $22.41 million, which accounted for 17 percent of the Lions’ cap that season. For reference, no team in 2019 will have a quarterback room that accounts for more than 16.1 percent.

Suh was excellent during his first several seasons with the Lions, but when a team’s best young players don’t provide value on their rookie deals, it makes franchises’ financial situations significantly more difficult to build around—especially compared with other teams that hit on picks outside the top 10 and get bargains in the process. Detroit faced that problem for years, and contracts like Suh’s and Bradford’s were some of the pitfalls the NFL was trying to avoid when the rookie salary scale was put into place.

2. Home run drafts for several teams helped mold the NFL’s most recent class of contenders. The Patriots, Seahawks, and Steelers—arguably the league’s three most successful franchises this decade—used that year’s draft to land players that would define an entire era. And strangely enough, those teams all did it in a similar way: by landing an excellent player in the first round and stumbling into an unlikely star a bit later in the draft.

For New England, that combination consisted of defensive back Devin McCourty, who was taken with the 27th pick, and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who the team got in the second round. Pittsburgh landed center Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th pick and found wide receiver Antonio Brown a staggering 177 picks later. And Seattle got safety Earl Thomas with the 14th pick and safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round (no. 133 overall). Beyond hitting on those picks, the 2010 draft also provided some insight into the team-building strategies that allowed all three teams to be so successful over the past decade.

During his time with New England, Gronkowski became not only the best tight end of his generation but possibly the greatest to ever play the position. The Patriots have long been successful at finding overlooked assets in the draft, but the way they implemented Gronkowski speaks to the true genius of their offensive approach. With Gronkowski (and Aaron Hernandez, who was taken in the fourth round of the same draft), New England crafted a two-tight-end system that allowed Gronk to use his versatility as he lined up all over the field. The Patriots have always been creative with formations and concepts that buck current NFL trends—just like last season, when they thrived without top receivers, instead relying on their stable of running backs in the passing game. And though Gronkowski probably would have found success no matter where he landed, the Pats’ approach allowed him to reach unimaginable heights.

The same is true for both Thomas and Chancellor, who landed in the best defensive back development system in the modern NFL. Thomas had the makings of a star either way, but Pete Carroll and his staff’s ability to mold players like Chancellor (and Richard Sherman, who was drafted in the fifth round a year later) into top-flight defenders formed the basis for Seattle’s dominance.

The Steelers’ draftees also benefited from Pittsburgh’s existing player development system. Over the past nine years, the Steelers have consistently employed top offensive line coaches. Pouncey spent the first three seasons of his career (during which he made three straight Pro Bowl trips and was a first-team All Pro selection) working with coach Sean Kugler, who most recently orchestrated a running game that finished no. 5 in DVOA last season in Denver. (Kugler is currently the Cardinals offensive line coach.) Kugler was eventually replaced by Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player who’s considered maybe the league’s top offensive line instructor. The Steelers’ ability to identify and cultivate talent up front has been part of their foundation in recent years, and that reputation began with Pouncey.

The only position where Pittsburgh has a better reputation for unearthing greatness is wide receiver, and the 2010 group was the team’s masterpiece. Finding Emmanuel Sanders in the third round (no. 82 overall) would’ve been impressive on its own, and that’s before you remember they also got Antonio Brown. Brown isn’t just the most valuable draft pick from his own class—he’s among the most valuable draft picks in NFL history. Grabbing a player capable of amassing six straight 100-catch seasons late in the sixth round is the sort of move that can transform an entire offense, and that’s precisely what Brown did during his time in Pittsburgh.

3. But no matter a player’s Hall of Fame credentials, the 2010 class is proof that recent splits have been messy for high-priced veterans. Some members of this class have gotten to play their entire careers for the teams that drafted them. McCourty is in the final year of his deal, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him wind up back in New England. And players like Geno Atkins, Brandon Graham, Trent Williams, and Bryan Bulaga are still in their original homes. But for many of the stars taken at the top of the draft, the past year has been a reminder that, more than ever before, teams are looking to get cheaper and younger at the expense of aging veterans.

McCoy was a staple of the Bucs’ organization for nine seasons; he went to six Pro Bowls over that time and hasn’t finished with fewer than five sacks in a season since 2013. Even last year, in his age-30 season, McCoy finished with 38 disrupted dropbacks in 14 games, which ranked 19th among interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, McCoy’s $13 million cap hit was clearly too much for the Bucs to justify, especially considering their lack of cap space (less than $1 million before McCoy’s release, according to Over the Cap). Replacing McCoy with Suh is a curious use of resources, but even a few million bucks (assuming Suh’s contract is smaller than McCoy’s would have been—the details of his deal have yet to be released) matters to a team that’s as strapped for cash as Tampa Bay.

The divorce between Thomas and the Seahawks was even uglier. Thomas started the 2018 season in a holdout after Seattle refused to extend him over the summer, and he ended that standoff only to break his leg in Week 4 and effectively end his tenure with the team. As Thomas was carted off the field in the fourth quarter of a 20-17 win over Arizona, he famously flipped the bird to the Seattle sideline.

Messy splits between beloved players and their teams aren’t a new occurrence in the NFL, but teams have more incentive than ever to jettison expensive veterans in favor of younger options. It’s no accident that in a single offseason, Thomas, Berry, Brown, Suh, and McCoy will all change teams. Brown’s move may have been through a trade, but rest assured, if he were five years younger and not looking for a market-setting deal—like the one he got with Oakland—the return would have been much more than third- and fifth-round picks. Even Gronk wasn’t immune to the NFL’s cost-cutting ways. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last September that the Patriots and Lions had been deep in trade talks to send the tight end to Detroit, only for the negotiations to unravel.

The 2010 class is in a fascinating position as it relates to the NFL’s new financial priorities. Its best players have been around just long enough to achieve legendary status at a time when teams have shown they believe that accomplished veterans are less valuable than ever when constructing a roster. That expendability led to plenty of animosity this spring, and that isn’t likely to slow down in the future.

4. The considerable number of late bloomers from 2010 show just how crucial situation can be to a player’s career. Many productive guys from this class only hit their stride after landing with a new team or regime. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham is a perfect example. Originally drafted no. 13 overall by the Eagles as a defensive end for then-defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s 4-3 system, Graham was relegated to backup duty in his first few seasons. In 2012, he broke out for 5.5 sacks and the highest pass rush productivity in the NFL among edge defenders who played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps. But the following season, first-year coach Chip Kelly brought a 3-4 defense to Philadelphia and Graham was marginalized yet again. It took until the arrival of Jim Schwartz in 2016—Graham’s fifth coordinator in seven years—for him to finally reach his ceiling. That season, Graham finished with 83 disrupted dropbacks (third among edge defenders) and 17 QB hits (tied for second among edge defenders). In his three seasons under Schwartz, Graham has emerged as one of the most effective per-snap rushers in the league and became a Super Bowl hero in 2018 before earning a three-year, $40 million contract this offseason.

Graham’s roundabout path to success isn’t unique among his draft mates. Schwartz also transformed the career of pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who was taken by the Colts at no. 31 and considered a bust before being traded to the Bills in 2013. After a breakout first year in Buffalo, Hughes turned in the best season of his career in 2014 (61 disrupted dropbacks, good for 13th among edge defenders). This offseason, Buffalo gave Hughes a two-year, $23 million deal with almost the entire contract guaranteed.

Under Jeff Fisher, the Rams were ready to let guard Rodger Saffold walk in free agency. But after agreeing to a deal with the Raiders, he failed a physical and returned to the Rams—only to turn in the best years of his career under Sean McVay. Saffold has emerged as one of the best guards in the league, and this spring, he got paid like one, earning a four-year, $44 million deal from the Titans. Golden Tate also got a third contract this offseason, when he received $23 million guaranteed from the Giants after the team traded Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns. Tate spent the first four years of his career in the Seahawks’ run-heavy offense before blossoming as a slot receiver in Detroit, where he finished with more than 1,000 yards three times while emerging as the best yards-after-catch wide receiver in the NFL. Collectively, the group is an ideal example of how important the right coaching staff and infrastructure can be for even talented players to find their footing.

5. The 2010 class is a reminder that QB purgatory plagued plenty of the teams in the not-so-distant past—and fear of it still affects how organizations think today. As teams around the NFL are deciding whether to pay their QB upwards of $30 million per season, some have questioned why certain organizations—like the Cowboys—wouldn’t take their chances in the draft to find their next cheap passer. In a vacuum, that approach has its merits. There’s a reasonable chance that the gap between Dak Prescott and a highly drafted QB would be small enough to justify the extra $25 million or so in cap flexibility the Cowboys would gain. But we’re talking about an NFL team here. Risk-taking and trailblazing typically aren’t top priorities. Most of the teams around the league may be set at QB right now, either with an established veteran or a starter in the early, inexpensive years of his rookie deal, but it wasn’t long ago that a significant portion of the league was desperately looking for an answer at the sport’s most important position.

After Bradford was taken no. 1 overall in 2010, two other QBs were taken within the first 50 picks: Florida’s Tim Tebow (no. 25 overall) and Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen (no. 48 overall). That pair started a combined 30 games in their careers. Clausen threw twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (seven). Tebow completed 47.9 percent of his passes. Clausen was bad enough as a rookie that when the Panthers earned the no. 1 pick in 2011, they didn’t hesitate to take Newton. That year, three quarterbacks were drafted after Newton in the first round: Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. There’s no doubt that quarterback play is more efficient than ever and young passers are coming into the league ready to step in immediately, but the NFL’s decision-makers aren’t that far removed from a time when finding a rookie QB wasn’t easy.