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How one rule change altered competitive balance in the NFL

05 FEB 2016: NFL Shield at the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year Press Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco California. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

A little more than three years after the housing market collapsed, the NFL refinanced its collective house. Rookie salaries had ballooned to Goldman Sachs levels and, in an exceedingly rare moment, the players and owners understood how unsustainable this model was.

Why should Sam Bradford get $50 million before he plays an NFL snap while veteran and Pro Bowl quarterbacks were making half that?

A year later, Cam Newton got a four-year, $22 million deal under a new collective bargaining agreement — one that hadn’t been ratified when he was drafted.

The 2011 CBA changed the NFL salary paradigm, likewise billed as a game changer for the draft itself.

If teams weren’t paying such a ridiculously high price for players, perhaps those teams would be free to worry less about drafting quarterbacks to justify that price tag, or offensive linemen to mitigate risk.

“If you had a top choice, in the top 10 of the draft, you definitely tried to find a player that was a quarterback, a left tackle, a pass rusher, a corner, a big play wideout,” explains former Browns GM Phil Savage, who now runs the Senior Bowl.

“You tried to make sure that with that kind of investment of money, you’d get a player where you’d get a big bang for your buck out of it.”

The conventional wisdom could now be turned on its head under the new salary structure.

Would we see more non-priority positions at the top of the draft because it was finally reasonable to pay a guard or a tight end what it now cost for a first-round pick?

“You could not afford to pay an interior lineman that kind of money where you’re picking that high in the draft when you could probably get a serviceable guy in the fourth, fifth, sixth guy,” Savage explains.

“But now that the money’s not as high … it’s not a bad investment,” he says, citing players like Zach Martin who might not have been drafted as early in the old system.

(AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Examining the outcomes of the past six drafts compared to the six drafts under the old CBA, however, no such change appears to be happening.

In fact, the opposite appears to be true.
Take the prime positions Savage mentioned — quarterback, tackle, pass rusher, corner, and wideout — and 37 such players were drafted in the top 10 in the six drafts under the old CBA.

In the six drafts since then, 49 players at prime positions were drafted in the top 10.

At first blush, the development doesn’t square with the original premise. Part of the reason is the premise may have been faulty to begin with, but more on that later.

The second point is made over and over lately related to one position in particular: Quarterback. It turns out, that same idea could be at play with other priority position players as well.

Russell Wilson’s rookie contract alleviated a significant financial burden on the Seahawks compared to what it would cost to pay a veteran as good as Wilson. Joe Flacco’s contract buoyed the Ravens to a Super Bowl and they’ve been up and down ever since he signed his mega-deal.

Teams learned quickly how advantageous a quarterback on a rookie contract was, whereas pre-2011, the cost was prohibitive to the point of being damaging to franchises. Some suggested it was actually punitive to struggling teams because they were locked in paying exorbitant money to entirely unproven players.

Now, Carson Wentz’s entire contract is only slightly more than what Andrew Luck will make just this season. And being able to have the fifth-year team option ramps up the value of having such a contract.

That same logic extends to every premium position.

Why pay a free agent receiver $10 million per year when you can draft Mike Evans or Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round?

In fact, the pay scale could even be responsible for the uptick in running backs being drafted in the top 10. That’s not a typo: An uptick.

True, five compared to four is hardly a statistically significant number, nor is it a huge data set, but given the narrative about the death of franchise running backs and their importance to the game, it’s difficult to imagine the CBA not playing a role.

In fact, former GM Charley Casserly believes the pay scale played a role in Christian McCaffrey being drafted No. 8 overall by the Panthers. Casserly points out the Panthers have intimated they plan to use him as an every-down back, but under the old contract structure, he doesn’t see how a team could have invested such draft capital into a part-time player.

And yet, in the same breath, Casserley, a long-time personnel evaluator, insists money wasn’t a factor in deciding draft order even in the old model.

“No. And I did it in an era when the money was absurd. You pick the best player,” he asserts.

“Some teams rig the board if you will so some positions aren’t as high. So they may say, ‘We’re not going to take a guard there, because we don’t value that high.’ … We did not let money influence us on the pick.”

One long-time AFC scout said the cost of a player at a position was never part of stacking his team’s board, adding he didn’t believe it played “any factor” in draft strategy.

This suggests we might have been working from a faulty premise when it comes to drafting and rookie salaries, at least for some teams. Remember, Savage, a long-time personnel evaluator for multiple teams, admitted it did affect draft strategy.

Casserly brings up the example of the Houston Texans, when he was the GM, picking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. He insists it was never even much of a debate.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

“The difference between Mario Williams was he was a complete player. He could play the run, he could play the pass. He was a 60-play guy. We did not feel like Bush was that way. There were some people who felt he was. I didn’t. I thought he was a role player, I didn’t think he was a full-time back,” Casserly recalls.

“We weren’t going to pay 9 million dollars for a guy who was going to sit on the bench.”

A notable admission: Money relative to value did matter. And it should. There’s a reason we don’t see punters and kickers taken early in drafts.

Over the entire length of his four-year contract McCaffrey will get less than double what Bush would have gotten in just one year.

“I don’t sense when I talk to teams or when I watch the drafts, that they’re doing anything different,” Casserly said. “They’re taking the best available player.”

Another factor in the difference in draft priorities might have nothing to do with money. Schemes have changed. But that also means positional values have modulated with them.

Six off-ball linebackers were taken in the top-10 pre-2011 CBA time frame (we count the 2011 draft because it took place without a deal in place and therefore the unsettled terms would likely have had a murky impact at most on the draft).

Just one has been taken since: Luke Kuechly. Anthony Barr became an off-ball linebacker in Minnesota, but played on the edge as a pass rusher at UCLA (A similar transaction occurred when Washington drafted Brandon Scherff, who was an offensive tackle and converted him to guard).

Linebackers, even ones who can cover, aren’t prioritized by teams, and lately franchises are eschewing linebackers altogether in favor of speedy safeties to defend spread offenses. Particularly given the hit rate of off-ball linebackers picked early in drafts, and their value to a team, that likely was a smart strategy.

Sure, the financial penalty for taking a linebacker or a guard in the first round fell, but the notion that you can find quality players at those positions in the middle rounds never changed.

You still can.

So why, when you could have a high-value player on a cheap deal, would you instead invest — even at a reduced cost — high-level capital to draft a player a position you could address later?

“The game that’s being played at a college level is almost 180 degrees different than what’s being done at the pro level. And to make those projections, it’s really, really tough right now,” Savage says.

“There was supposedly more ability to move around with trades … I think teams will definitely discuss it more now, like ‘we’re not going to give up picks and have to pay that kind of premium for a player that unproven.’ ”

A change that appeared, from the outside, to be an opportunity for flexibility actually codified the premium positions by making them more valuable at a lower cost.

Let’s say you were going to buy Beats by Dre headphones for $300. Now, they only cost $150. Would you say “Well, I’ll spend my money on something else,” or would you be even more inclined to spend the $150 dollars because you’re getting a $300 product for half that price?

This is the economic principle in play for draft picks.

Teams still want the studio quality headphones, making them even more likely to invest when they’re getting such good value.

In 2017, we saw two teams give up major draft capital to trade up and take quarterbacks who aren’t necessarily expected to start from Day 1. Under the old CBA, a team like the Chiefs could never afford to take a quarterback in the top 15, and pay him that enormous salary, to be a backup quarterback.

Now they can. That offers potentially massive dividends for player development because teams don’t feel obligated to play an unproven and potentially ill-equipped player simply because they’re “being paid like a first-round pick.” That cost-benefit scale has tipped immensely.

Having Von Miller on a rookie deal might not be quite as advantageous as Russell Wilson, but it’s close. That’s why pass rusher saw the biggest jump in top-tier picks after the CBA was ratified and it wasn’t until the 2011 draft right before the new CBA, we even saw a 3-4 outsider linebacker taken in the top 10.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) is sacked by Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

It’s not as though the 3-4 is a new defense to the league either.

The Giants were only able to drop serious dollars last offseason because their best player, Odell Beckham Jr., is on his rookie deal. If he were making Antonio Brown money, which he rightly deserves and would be worth, New York can’t improve through free agency.

Even if Chance Warmack had become the best guard in football, his value to the Titans wouldn’t have been the same as Taylor Lewan or Marcus Mariota.

One oddity in the draft numbers is the stark difference in defensive tackles going at the top of the draft. Eight interior defensive linemen were drafted in the top 10 in the six drafts preceding the new CBA. Not one has gone in the top 10 since. In fact, only DeForest Buckner is even close. Buckner did play some along the interior at Oregon, but played mostly end in a 3-4 scheme and was drafted to do the same for the 49ers.

Casserly suggested this is not a matter of cost, but rather circumstance. There just haven’t been guys graded that highly or teams in a position to take a tackle.

But if we also accept the premise that a higher priority has been placed on premium positions, that would lead us the marginalization of the tackle position either way, particularly run-first or run-only defenders.

In fact, let’s use the 2014 draft as an example because Aaron Donald was, by all accounts, the top interior defensive player. He was a freak athlete and highly productive at Pittsburgh, the exact type of pass-rushing defensive tackle who belongs as a high pick.

He fell to 13th. Odd, right?

Now consider: Of the 12 players taken before him, 11 play premium positions, and the one team that didn’t pick one already had Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley at defensive tackle.

When you add the incredible depth the in the ‘14 class, it’s clear that positional value played a role, along with absurd concerns about Donald’s size, caused the drop.

Looking at Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, which improves upon the famous Jimmy Johnson model, this trend shouldn’t be difficult to reckon with.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald tries to fire up the crowd during the team's NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. The Rams play the Buffalo Bills this week. Not only have the Rams won three in a row after an awful opener, they are winning despite ranking dead last in total offense. There's nothing wrong with the defense, led by Donald, and if running back Todd Gurley, last year's top offensive rookie, can get going, Los Angeles might have a contender in its first season back in the NFL. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo, File)

(AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo, File)

Top picks represent the potential for so much more value, even with added financial flexibility, there’s no real incentive for an NFL team to take a guard in the top 10 because even the best guard doesn’t have the same value as the best defensive end, or quarterback, or receiver.

The new CBA made it easier for NFL teams to do what they already should have been doing: Take swings at premium positions because, if you hit, the potential windfall is so much greater than “safe” picks.

It further engrains the value of priority position players rather than freeing up teams to spend on lower value positions. To what end?

Off-ball linebackers are no longer the stars of NFL defenses, even in the middle, and that contributes to their value slide. On the other hand, it appears likely teams would have marginalized them in any event given the incentive structure the new CBA puts in place.

Plenty of current and former NFL personnel evaluators will tell you nothing has changed in their process. The draft trends simply don’t support that data, and frankly not accounting for cost relative to positional value in favor of a “best player available” strategy is just bad management.

The “value” of a player isn’t just what he brings to the field, but what he brings relative to what he costs. That’s true both in the draft capital used to select him and the money he’s owed.

The new CBA made a good rookie even more valuable whereas the old system paid a good rookie commensurate to his impact on the team.

This creates a market inefficiency, one that the best teams exploit and one that lets teams improve quickly if they hit on one or two high picks at premium positions.

Tampa Bay and Tennessee could be playoff teams just two seasons removed from picking 1-2 in the draft. And the Titans even had the first pick in 2016, they just didn’t use it.

Hitting on quarterbacks lets these teams spend money in free agency to bring in players like DeSean Jackson and Logan Ryan, money they almost certainly would not have had if they were paying Jameis Winston and Mariota $60 million.

Not only did the rookie contracts change the value of being good talent evaluators, but went a step further and made the draft even fairer and more beneficial to the teams at the top, its original intention to help the worst teams.

It didn’t change the draft the way we thought, but it changed it in a way most NFL fans, teams and players have always wanted: To make it easier for the bad teams to get better, quicker.

Not only that, it created an incentive structure that seems to make teams smarter at draft strategy. Picking the right kinds of players is just as important as picking the right player.

The rookie wage change hasn’t yet been heralded as a major step forward in competitive balance. It’s now taken for granted that this is just a better way. And it is. It always was.

But no single move in recent history, perhaps since the implementation of a salary cap, has a chance to do so much to improve competitive balance in the NFL.

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