One of the most significant benefits of the NFL draft is also the least talked about. The gems of the NFL draft are not found in the first round. It’s Round 2 and beyond that can make the most significant contributions to an NFL roster.
The best example is Pittsburgh Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley. In his second year Lamarr has become one of the most productive 3-4 OLBs in the NFL. His season statistics rival some of the games’ best pass rushers / ends (T. Suggs, T. Mathis, D. Freeney, Shaun Phillips). The difference? About 50 million dollars!
Don’t get me wrong. Lamarr will get paid much like the guys above him did but for the next two years he’ll be playing for peanuts under his rookie contract as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Whether or not he remains a Steeler after his 4 year contract is up will have a lot to do with the success of the 2009 and 2010 drafts.
After Week 3 of the 2008 season many of the Steelers fans (me included) thought signing Bryant McFadden prior to the 2009 season was a must. Seven William Gay starts later it doesn’t look so dire. Like Lamarr, William is only in his second season. That means he’s a Steeler for at least one more year (he signed a three year contract) and with a modest RFA offer it’s almost assured he’ll be here through 2010.
William Gay is a 5th round draft pick who will likely start for the next two seasons (assuming Bryant walks). He’ll do it for $460,000 in 2009. For approx. 1.5 million in 2010 we can assure ourselves of a 2nd round pick should someone sign him to a contract we don’t choose to match. With a $2M RFA offer we could assure ourselves of a 1st round pick should someone choose to sign him.
Free agency is great for the players but it is also very effective for the NFL owners. Regardless of whether you were drafted in the 1st round or the 7th all NFL players must complete 4 years of NFL service to become an unrestricted free agent.
If you’re a first round draft pick you will likely sign a 5 or 6 year deal as a rookie but if you’re a 3rd -7th round pick you’re more likely to sign a three year deal making you a restricted free agent until after you’ve completed 4 years of service (Nate Washington in 2008, Willie Colon in 2009, William Gay 2010).
Managing the NFL salary cap is like waging a war with a limited amount of soldiers. If you put too many guys at the front line you leave yourself vulnerable in the flank. There is only so much money to go around.
Great veteran players with more than 4 years of NFL service GET PAID! By comparison great young players play for peanuts. The most successful NFL franchises strike a balance between the two and they achieve that through the draft. They maintain that balance year in and year out by taking advantage of the 4 year rule of free agency.
The perennial cellar dwellers in the NFL fall prey to the FA trap and attempt to turn their team around with veterans. They trade away draft picks for high priced NFL veterans. They too will fill the remaining starter positions with young players - just not talented ones. Without their full compliment of draft picks they don't have talented young guys on the roster. They must rely on practice squad players and waiver wire pickups.
The NFL draft isn't just about adding talent to your roster. It's about "Cheap Labor".