Published in: Forbes.com
Author: Tom Van Riper
What if you showed up unprepared for the most important job interview of your life?
Just ask Andre Smith, the powerful 6-foot-4, 340-pound offensive tackle from the University of Alabama, whose flunking of the NFL draft combine two weeks ago could cost him as much as $13 million.
Too out of shape for a good showing, Smith met with some team officials but blew off the workout, going home early and confounding reps from all 32 teams eager to see him put through the paces of sprints and agility drills. Once projected to go as high as No. 2, most experts now have Smith falling to somewhere between 15th and 17th.
Patrick Rishe, a sports business expert and economics professor at Webster University in St. Louis, estimates that each slot dropped in the draft costs a player as much as $923,000 in guaranteed money. That means Smith could be $13.6 million poorer if he drops 15 spots. Ouch.
"The combine confirmed all the questions that were out there about his work ethic," says Scott Wright, who runs Web site draftcountdown.com.
Also poised to lose millions: star receivers Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech and Jeremy Maclin of Missouri. Both players have suffered minor injuries that alone figure to drop them a few spots.
Headed in the opposite direction, however, is USC's Mark Sanchez. The quarterback's excellent combine performance launched him to the top of the Sporting News' latest mock draft board.
Going to the woeful Detroit Lions, who were 0-16 last season, Sanchez could earn some $35 million to $40 million more in guaranteed money at No. 1 than he would have gotten at the middle of the round, where most pre-combine boards had him. In addition to benefiting from a higher draft position, Sanchez would also profit from the premium that the market places on a quarterback drafted in the top five, where marquee value rules.
Certainly the Lions can better sell distraught fans on a bright future with a strong-armed quarterback from a sexy school than with a relatively anonymous lineman. If he's lucky, Smith might get a contract worth $50 million to $60 million over five or six years, with two-thirds or so of that guaranteed.
All of this begs a question: Is it really fair to basically lock in most of a players' lifetime income based on his performance as a college senior and his draft position? Right now there are huge disparities among the higher, middle and late first-round picks. Last year's fifth overall pick, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, got $23 million in guaranteed money from the Kansas City Chiefs. Just five spots down at No. 10, University of Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo, got just $13.8 million guaranteed in a five-year deal with the New England Patriots.
Since it's generally accepted that quarterback, left tackle (who blocks the quarterback's blind side) and defensive end (the big pass rusher) are the premier positions in the game, managers feel pressured to draft them high in order to keep big salaries tied to those positions. But in any given year, the best left tackle in the draft may not be among the top handful of players available. Hence, inefficiencies pervade.
"It means even if you like a linebacker (with a high pick) you feel like you have to take a left tackle or you're overpaying," Wright says.
About three-quarters of the variation of guaranteed first-round money is explained by draft position, Rishe's analysis shows. A minority of it comes from marquee value--quarterbacks and, to a lesser degree, running backs tend to command more, especially when they're a top-five pick.
The first quarterback chosen last year, Boston College's Matt Ryan, got almost $35 million in guaranteed money from the Atlanta Falcons, who picked him third overall. That's more than the two linemen selected ahead of him, Michigan's Jake Long and Virginia's Chris Long.
Ryan's guarantee was also more than triple that of the second quarterback taken, Delaware's Joe Flacco, who went at No.18 to the Baltimore Ravens. Like the Lions this year, Atlanta was desperately trying to repair its image in 2008, looking to put the Michael Vick fiasco to rest.
The solution may be going to a rookie pay scale, something Commissioner Roger Goodell has hinted bringing up in the next collective bargaining agreement in 2010. Such a plan could take many forms but would basically cut players' incomes during their first three or four seasons, leaving more room under the salary cap for young veterans to cash in. Call it paying your dues: Prove yourself in the league for a few seasons, then you get rich.
"The veterans will certainly support it," says Rishe, who believes that the bum economy will help owners realize they're overpaying a lot of highly drafted rookies.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan is presumably happy a rookie pay scale wasn't in place last year. The moment his deal was signed, Ryan became the NFL's fourth-highest-paid player before taking his first training camp snap. If the league has its way, those days are numbered.
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