Reflecting on last weekend’s NFL draft results…
This draft featured four name-worthy quarterbacks – Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, and Colt McCoy. It’s noteworthy that both the 49ers and the Raiders had the opportunity to select any one of the last three – a few times, even – and passed.
The Raiders opted instead to trade a 4th-round pick to the Redskins in exchange for Jason Campbell, who was bumped from his starting spot with the arrival of Donovan McNabb in Washington. Campbell figures to push and perhaps mercifully replace JaMarcus Russell.
The 49ers’ decision to pass on the available QB talent suggests that they are quite content with their trio of Alex Smith, David Carr, and 2009 5th-round pick Nate Davis.
Or does it?
Perhaps there’s another possibility. Perhaps the Raiders and the 49ers have realized that, although their quarterback situations remain less than ideal, it doesn’t make sense for them to burn precious picks in the top rounds to acquire a signal-caller.
They only had to look on their own rosters to learn that painful lesson.
The incumbent starters in San Francisco and Oakland - Smith and Russell – are both former No. 1 overall picks. Both have been colossal busts thus far in their NFL careers. Injury prone (Smith), perpetually out of shape (Russell), poor decision-making and a lack of leadership (both) – you name a quarterbacking attribute, and this duo lacks it. When the six-year rookie contracts of Russell and Smith are up, the two Bay Area franchises will have paid more than $100 million for some world-class clipboard holding.
To be fair, Smith showed flashes of hope last season when Coach Singletary experimented with a spread offense, the system Smith thrived in at Utah in college. But Singletary has made no secret of his distaste for air-based offenses and San Francisco’s 2010 draft suggests the team plans to continue toward the conservative ground attack he prefers.
Smith (who turns 26 in May) and Russell (25 in August) are too young to completely give up on. But their organizations have already had to give up on the hope of earning surplus value from their rookie contracts.
Surplus value is term that’s talked about a lot in baseball economics. As any fan of a small-market team can tell you, one of the keys to small-market success in MLB is having a few great core players in their first three major-league seasons, when players can be paid the league minimum of $400K. These star players can produce at a level that would cost their teams millions, on the free-agent market, yet they are paid a fraction of that.
Similarly, the key to success in the NFL, and any hard-salary cap league, is acquiring these bargains – players who can outperform their contracts. The most likely source of bargains in the NFL is the draft, and sure enough, perpetually successful teams like the Patriots and Colts are those that covet draft picks and then draft very well.
Russell and Smith, even if they enjoy a mid-career renaissance in their late-20s, stand no chance of outperforming their rookie contracts. Smith is about to enter the 5th year of a six-year, $49.5 million pact he signed with San Francisco in July 2005. He may have a small chance of becoming an elite NFL quarterback – but it won’t happen under his current deal. So far, you’d have to consider the $35M+ the 49ers have invested in him to be wasted money.
Russell’s situation is similar. After a lengthy hold out, he finally signed a massive six-year deal worth $68 million on September 12, 2007. The Raiders might as well have lit the first $40M of that deal on fire. Even with three years left on his rookie deal, Russell stands no chance of outperforming that rookie contract.
One wonders if the Rams are headed down that same dreaded path. This year’s No. 1 overall, Sam Bradford, figures to sign a six-year deal worth nearly $80 in the coming months, with $40M in guaranteed money. That’s a hell of an investment in a 22-year-old who played three games last year before having his shoulder operated on.
It appears other teams continue to be drawn in by the mystique of the franchise quarterback and the temptation to hit a home run on draft day.
Rather than repeat these mistakes, the 49ers and Raiders have chosen to invest in safer top draft picks this season. They’ve accepted that their quarterback play might be middling this season or worse, but they’ve given themselves better pieces to build around.
It was a hard, expensive lesson to learn, but it appears they’ve learned it.