The Ultimate Guessing Game

“The Detroit Lions are now on the clock….”

We’ll be hearing those words in a matter of days. This weekend the NFL will hold its annual entry draft at the historic Radio City Music Hall in New York City. There won’t be a chorus line, but there will be a line of athletes waiting to hear their name called. All 32 teams will have a stake in what has become one of the biggest gambles in all of professional sports. Navigating the pitfalls of a draft is like tip-toeing through a minefield on a moon-less night. It is a perilous undertaking for sure.

Millions of dollars are on the line, as are jobs and reputations. Screw-up one draft and several people may find themselves pounding the pavement. Scouting departments, General Managers and Head Coaches all cross their fingers when they enter their respective team’s war room every April. Hands will wring and heart rates will rise. Talent evaluators get paid to be right, but the reality is, they are often wrong.

One can read countless scouting reports, watch hours upon hours of game tape, attend numerous personal workouts, conduct a litany of interviews, and still end up rolling craps on draft day. Making an educated guess doesn’t change the fact that a guess is being made. Whether you stick to the book or trust the gut, each selection carries the same amount of risk. Nobody wants to miss, but the likelihood of getting a hit every time up is improbable.

However, where you miss is important. Botch a 5th round pick and you’ll be no worse for the wear. Blow a top-five choice and it might cripple a franchise. The Detroit Lions whiffed on quarterback Joey Harrington back in 2002 and have been reeling ever since. Just seven years later they find themselves sitting atop the draft board after suffering through an agonizing stretch of deplorable campaigns which culminated in last season’s 0-16 nightmare.

It doesn’t get easier for the Lions. Now they must decide if rolling the dice on another potential franchise quarterback is the right move. This year’s golden-armed savior is Matt Stafford, a junior from the University of Georgia. Stafford has most draft pundits salivating over his potential. He may very well be the answer, but there are no certainties when it comes to drafting college prospects.

Again, Detroit can ill-afford to miss. If they do miss on Stafford it could set them back another seven years, if not more. The new regime in Detroit knows this better than any draft expert or fan. In order to put the organization on a path to success, they must make the correct decision regarding their number-one overall selection.

The amount of guaranteed money committed to a top-five player adds extra pressure to get it right. There is no rookie wage scale in the NFL, so a top-five pick will cost a team roughly $50 to $70 million over the duration of a contract, and that’s without having ever played a down in a professional game. It’s no wonder NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has referred to the rookie pay scale as “ridiculous.” It makes little sense to reward an unproven commodity with such handsome riches.

The 2008 first overall pick, Miami Dolphins’ tackle Jake Long, signed a 5-year, $57.75 million contract, $30 million of which was guaranteed. Long may end up being a perennial Pro Bowl player, but it’s just as likely he could be out of the league in five years, either due to injury or ineffectiveness. His salary may be guaranteed, but his future in the NFL is not.

It’s no wonder teams sitting at the top of the draft board are willing to move back into the first round. Finding a player of equal value later in the round is more reasonable, especially to those persons in charge of the purse strings. Selecting a bust at #20 will still smart, but at least it won’t be as costly as nabbing one at #5. Like it or not, the NFL is big business and big businesses hate to make unsound investments. Even billionaire sports franchises are feeling the economic pinch, but that won’t stop them from doling out gaudy contracts nonetheless.

All 32 teams tread the same territory on draft weekend. When they’re on the clock, each will cross their collective fingers and postulate. Most will have to repeat this guesstimating adventure between eight and twelve times over two days. Each time out they will endure the same arduous process and hope their decision is correct. When the 48 hours concludes, they will pack up their charts and graphs and begin preparations for the 2010 draft.

Post-draft interviews will be conducted and grades handed out. To deconstruct a draft days after is a fruitless endeavor. It will take at least three years before teams can properly ascertain whether or not the 2009 draft was a success. At that point, the brain trusts will either look like geniuses or fools.

Winning franchises are built through drafts. Owners, GMs and coaches are important, but what separates the strong from the weak is talent. It takes talent to notch victories, conquer divisions, gain entry to playoffs and win Super Bowls. Teams acquire talent by drafting well. When all is said and done, the origins of a championship can be traced back to the draft war rooms of years past. To triumph in the game of pro football means to triumph in the ultimate guessing game known as the NFL Draft.

Scott Tunstall – Inside the Iggles

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