Why the NFL Draft is so Important

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

The cap is a killer. Beware the cap.

As we head into the home stretch of NFL draft week, every writer and pundit has submitted and argued for his or her picks for every team. Some writers have focused solely on the first round, while others have dived head first into the value rounds. Some have projected trades while yet others keep the lineups consistent. The fever of NFL draft week is contagious, but have you ever considered why? Why is it that we put so much stock in the weeks leading up to the draft?

It's because the future of our team rests on the shoulders of these players. The ability of our front office to draft well will directly impact their success not only next year, but for years to come.

But it's more than just that - the salary cap and the rookie wage scale have made the draft more important than ever. Not sold? Just look at the landscape of this NFL offseason. In the past, teams could look towards free agency to remake their team. In fact, NFL history has many stories where free agents went on to take their teams to the next level. Reggie White was the final piece that got the Packers back to the big game. Drew Brees made the Saints a relevant team and eventual champs. And it made sense to grab those guys who were proven commodities - because first round rookies were making major moolah as unproven players.

But that changed after the 2010 season. With draft busts like Jamarcus Russell weighing on the minds of owners, the NFL enacted a rookie wage scale that limited how much an unproven rookie would get paid - and the landscape of the draft was forever changed. When Russell was drafted, the Raiders gave him a 6 year deal worth up to 68 million, with 31.5 of that guaranteed. Today? The number one pick will likely get a 4 year deal (max contract length) worth up to about 22 million (Andrew Luck got 22.1 guaranteed).

Look at this past week for another example. The Bucs are now going to take a cap hit of $16 million per year for the best (assuming he's fully healthy) corner in football. In contrast, the Arizona Cardinals are paying Patrick Peterson - a very good, young corner - $19.5 million over 4 years, a cap hit of just under $5 million. That additional $11 million can be used to secure your franchise QB, or make sure you keep your own key free agents. It's the difference between a team that can sign a Steven Jackson for the short-term, versus one that can only dream about such luxuries.

And the risk of taking a QB in the first round versus bringing in a free agent is night and day. If the rookie doesn't work out, at worst, you're out around $5 million for each year of the contract. If any team was able to sign away Joe Flacco this off season, they would have been looking at around 3X that amount after the first year - and up from there. From a pure financial standpoint, you'd be better off drafting a QB in the first round three straight years than you would be paying a free agent "elite" QB in todays NFL - given the risk.

But in the end it's not just about the money. It's also about the reality of this sport - the careers of our favorite players have to come to an end, sometimes sooner than we hope. It's about trying to find that tight end who will sit in the same room with Tony Gonzalez this year. It's about that next great pass rusher who we hope reminds us of John Abraham. It's about a solid tackle, who will jump in and ease the pain of watching Tyson Clabo leave. For as much as the financial aspects of the draft are important, it's even more important that your team continues to stay young - one player at a time. And in that respect, the NFL draft is the representation of new life - every year - that is a painful reality in this game.

So as Thursday quickly approaches, what are your thoughts on the importance of the draft?

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