Art of deal paints success in draft

Trading up for quality, down for quantity divides best from rest

Nfl Draft

April 20, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL draft is where sick teams come to get well and healthy teams come to get better, where the currency is bartered like beads and results are uncertain for years.

Those who barter best usually win big. Those who don't often pick early the next year.

Indeed, the art of the trade is what separates the contenders from the pretenders, especially in the first round. Few executives ever manipulated the draft better than the San Francisco 49ers' Bill Walsh and Dallas Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson, a pair of coaches with Super Bowl portfolios.

Walsh was exceptional on draft day. In 1985, he traded up in the first round to get small-college wide receiver Jerry Rice. A year later, he traded down three times in the first 29 picks and came away with a core group of eight players who produced two more Super Bowl championships for the 49ers.

Johnson was a wheeler-dealer who collected draft picks like trinkets. In 1991, he had 18 picks for the Cowboys. From that haul, he pulled future Pro Bowl players Russell Maryland with the first choice in the draft, Erik Williams in the third round and Leon Lett in the seventh. All three came via trades.

That was Johnson's third year as Cowboys coach and his first playoff team. Super Bowl titles followed in the 1992 and 1993 seasons.

The draft landscape has changed significantly since then, however. There's a salary cap to manage, exorbitant signing bonuses at the top to pay, and agents to endure.

"The whole process is not as enjoyable as it used to be simply because of the money," said Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts. "Money brings agents, agents bring migraine headaches."

That is not to say there aren't as many draft-day trades now. There might not be as much movement among the first five picks because of the high price of signing bonuses (between $10 million and $13 million last year). But the rest of the first round has become a swap mart. The past four drafts have averaged eight trades in the first round.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said he expects a flurry of trade activity in Saturday's first round because four teams arrive with multiple picks - the New York Jets, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders.

"I think those guys may decide to go quality over quantity," Newsome said. "Then you've got some people at the top of the draft that are thinking more quantity. They need more players. So I think there will be some movement."

That is the ultimate choice in swapping first-round picks. Teams trade down for quantity, up for quality. But it's not as simple as wanting to move from your spot.

"You do your best to target players you think can play," Polian said. "To pull those things off is very difficult. You have to find people willing to be aggressive and move around."

Five of the first six teams in the draft this year - including the Cincinnati Bengals with the first pick - have professed a willingness to trade down. That's because they are losing teams and losing teams need more players.

The Ravens, meanwhile, are open to trading down from 10 because, as Newsome said, "Quantity still means something to us. We need a lot of good players to come onto this team and we think we can get them by the draft."

That's where targeting players becomes important. Teams must weigh the player they're surrendering at their original spot against the players they potentially will get by trading down.

"Are those two players better than the one you're going to get? I think that's where the decision's going to be for us," said Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage. "Are we willing to take one player at 10, or are we willing to take someone else at 17 or 19, with the addition of an extra pick or two?"

Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make. In 2000, Newsome listened to overtures from the Jets and Green Bay Packers for the fifth pick (the Ravens owned the fifth and 10th picks). Ron Wolf, the retired general manager of the Packers, wanted to beat the Chicago Bears, picking ninth, to linebacker Brian Urlacher.

Neither offer satisfied Newsome, who took running back Jamal Lewis instead. Nine months later, the Ravens were in the Super Bowl, in large part due to Lewis' contribution.

Polian was the architect of the Carolina Panthers' first draft in 1995. He owned the top pick in the draft, but "wanted to make more hay out of that pick than one player."

So he traded down to Cincinnati's fifth pick to take quarterback Kerry Collins. Then he maneuvered his way to two more picks in the first round that became cornerback Tyrone Poole and tackle Blake Brockermeyer. They became three productive starters for the expansion team.

Accumulating extra picks is one way to achieve draft day success.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.