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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

What is Wrong with the NFL Draft Structure?

We all hate to wait.  Yogi Berra said it best about a popular restaurant:  "Nobody goes there; it's too crowded."  Most red-blooded American sports fans don't like to wait in line to get into a game, to get tickets, to get their hot dogs, their beer.  And when they have to wait, they don't like it.

Which is why it's surprising that NFL fans put up with the nonsense of the games of chicken that NFL teams play with their top draft picks year after year.  As of mid-day today, only 6 or 7 first-round picks had signed.  And that's out of 32 first-round picks.  And many second- and third-round picks remain unsigned.

"Why is that?" you ask.  Well, because unlike the NBA (whose draft was held, oh, two months later than the NFL's and whose regular season starts, oh, two months after the NFL's), which has a set salary structure (and where more first-round picks already have signed with their teams than in the NFL), there is no lock-step set structure for rookies, and each first-rounder wants to make sure that he doesn't sign for less than someone who gets drafted after him.  And some teams treat their cap dollars like manhole covers, whether because their management is cheap or because they are so tight on cap space that they really don't have as much as they should to sign all their draft picks.  

 Part of the reason why the rookies don't sign is that they don't want to screw up.  Part of the reason they don't sign is that the clubs think that the opprobrium of not signing, of not getting into camp, is an incentive for the rookies to sign and start their careers.  There are plenty of stories, some of them old wives' tales, of rookies whose careers just never get going because they didn't get into their first camp on time.  So the clubs play the waiting game too, trying to use the weight of public opinion to get the rookies to sign.

But the reasoning runs deeper than that.  Unlike the NBA, where careers are longer and the union has done a better job in terms of getting its players to free agency more quickly, for many of these players their rookie contract might be their best contract in their entire career.  Especially in terms of the money they get up front, which, if they manage it wisely, can make them set for life.  The stakes, then, are much bigger than in any other professional league.  The union hasn't negotiated a scale for rookies the way the NBA has, and, most certainly, a scale like the NBA's would end this perennial game of chicken that takes place and that is not good for the game.  And it would ensure that the players don't get overpaid, and that some of the huge signing bonus dollars that the first ten picks get actually would go to veterans, who have done more to earn them.  But if the union were to agree to do so, the owners would have to give up something too. 

And don't think for a moment that they would accede to better free agency terms for veterans.  That probably would be more costly and more disruptive than overpaying players who have never played a down. 

So the silly system will continue, and the NFL will continue to be this amazing cash machine, regardless of this flaw. 

And maybe, if you're lucky, your team's first-rounder will glide into camp without having missed too many repetitions in training camp.