In truth, the strategy would hold true for any number of teams in the first round of the draft. It also applies to Dallas, Minnesota and Miami, depending on how the top selections unfold, although without the extensive savings as the Bengals might reap. It's a simple plan, requiring a team exhaust the 10 minutes while "on the clock" trying to trade down. Then, because the prospect of trading down is always a near impossibility in the first half of the first round (and particularly now given all of the lockout uncertainty), they merely don't turn in a card to the league.
I'm talking about making a conscious, strategic, organizational decision to skip a particular selection if the draft board goes a certain way. Then, pop back up a few selections later only to land the same original target, or if not, then certainly a similar player of need. It's a bit risky, sure. But I think in most cases the gamble is not as great as it sounds. It would certainly be brassy, controversial, and take a certain chutzpah to execute. But it could end up making tremendous fiscal sense without really compromising the ability to land a quality prospect.
You can call me crazy, but I'm not alone. I ran the theory past several bright, innovative general managers, who all could extol the virtues of the thinking behind it and said they would not be shocked if a team actually did it this year. I also spoke with several of the top agents in the game, many of whom already knew where I was going with the theory from the moment I started yapping about it. They were thinking along the same lines.
Allow me to make the case.
First, we have to dissect the economic realities. NFL teams are budgeting and projecting for the fact that we might end up playing the 2011 season under 2010 rules, or something quite close to them, based on the outcome of the Brady et al v. National Football League et al case, mediation, appeals, etc. No one knows what the future holds in that regard, and we're virtually certain of having no clarity about the 2011 operating rules at the time these selections are made. As teams prepare, contingencies are in place if we revert to the 2010 system, which, remember, resulted in top pick Sam Bradford getting a record $50 million guaranteed as the first overall selection.
If we are operating at least one more season under those rules, you can look for Cam Newton or whoever goes first overall to come in somewhere around $55 million guaranteed. Teams and agents also know that whenever we do get a new economic system in place, there is a high probability that the days of top-10 picks getting that level of financial compensation are over. So we could be in the final year, or years, under what most believe is an antiquated system of paying first-year players.
Now, consider the current crop of potential rookies. Besides what could be record depth at the defensive end/hybrid outside linebacker position, the scouts, GMs and talent evaluators I've spoken to believe its lacking in sure-fire, first-round talent. The various warts on all of the quarterbacks have been expounded on for months -- yet we still could see four of them taken in the first round. There are also still serious questions about many projected top-10 players. As one GM put it to me, "You've got (linebacker Von) Miller, (defensive tackle Marcell) Dareus, two wide receivers (Julio Jones and A.J. Green), two corners (Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara), and then a lot of question marks."
I couldn't find anyone who could envision scenarios in which teams were looking to trade into the top 10, or top five, for a player. That negates the ability for teams sitting in those spots to be able to trade down (and trust me, there is no shortage of teams who would love to drop out of the top 10). Kind of a bleak picture, eh?
Then factor in the lockout. Teams are laying off and/or furloughing employees. Some coaches are seeing their salaries cut and/or are being asked to take on additional scouting duties. Budgetary constraints have become the norm.
So now I ask you this: If the top three fall as many expect -- with Newton to the Panthers, Dareus to the Broncos and Miller to the Bills -- what should the Bengals do? Remember, this is a small-market team, a mom-and-pop shop as the Brown family business. Remember, this is an organization that gave $21 million guaranteed to Andre Smith as the sixth pick in 2009 (a bust to this point) and $15.9 million the year before to ninth overall pick Keith Rivers, getting solid-at-best production from him at weak side linebacker but nothing close to spectacular.
If Blaine Gabbert is the Bengals' guy, so be it. Make the pick, because if you don't take him the Cardinals (fifth overall), Titans (eighth overall) or Redskins (10th overall) just might. But it's no secret that the Bengals are also looking very hard at Jones and Green, far and away the top two receivers in this draft. It's also a coin toss as to which is better or will be better. It's a topic of some debate, though there is much less debate as to the fact that either is worthy of being a legit top-10 pick.
So again, Bengals, skip the pick. Don't make it. You don't need to go for Gabbert here. Andy Dalton makes a lot of sense for you, and there's a good chance he's around at pick No. 35. He fits Jay Gruden's system. So address quarterback at that point. At No. 4 overall, you need someone who is going to impact your team on the field immediately, particularly a receiver with true No. 1 potential.
So let the Cards take Gabbert, or a defensive lineman, at fifth overall. The Browns, with the sixth pick, have a massive need at receiver. Cool. Let's go ahead and say they take Jones or Green. It wouldn't be a certainty, mind you, that they would. The 49ers, up next, won't take a receiver there. The Titans could with the next pick, although if Gabbert is still on the board they would have to strongly consider him as well.
If the Bengals pass, it could very well be that the Cowboys are on the clock with what was originally the No. 9 pick and both Green and Jones still on the board. Maybe some team trades up to try and thwart the plan, but again, I doubt it.
At the very least, the Bengals could drop back to seventh overall behind the 49ers and still be assured of getting either Jones or Green -- players who grade out very similarly. What does that mean financially? Well, the fourth overall pick last year, Trent Williams, got a low-tier max base of $60 million, with $36.75 million guaranteed. The seventh overall pick, Joe Haden, got a low-tier max of $40 million, with $25 million guaranteed. That's a savings of at least $12 million -- enough to pay for several key starters. If the Bengals dropped down to the ninth overall pick, well, they would save at least $17 million in guaranteed money and potentially $40 million on the low-tier max salary.
That's a massive difference for any team, let alone this particular club, and during a lockout, no less. Plus, with the ninth pick the Bengals could still end up getting the player they coveted all along, or something very close. There would also still be value on the defensive side of the ball for them at No. 9 assuming the receivers are gone. The Bengals have plenty of needs.
A "skip the pick" strategy would create quite the stir, but let's not forget Mike Brown is an iconoclast and immune to groupthink (one of the things I admire most about him). He refused to trade Chad Ochocinco for two first-round picks, he was one of only two dissenting voters on the last CBA agreement (proving prescient among his peers) and he has spent his entire life in the game. I'm not saying he'd ever seriously consider this plan. I'm only saying I'd applaud him roundly if he did while others around the league would be quietly, understandingly, nodding along. Brown is not the type to let criticism or public perception shape his actions.
"I see where you're going with this, and I wouldn't call it crazy at all," one general manager told me. "From a value standpoint, it's not off the wall. Particularly this year, with the lockout, and with there being uncertainty with entry-level contracts moving forward. It's a strategy that could make sense for a few teams, actually.
"I could understand ownership looking at it that way and it could be an unusual way to find value in the draft even if you can't trade down. I know we wouldn't look at that, for us, and it would maybe be a tough sell as a general manager to your scouts and others in the organization. Something about it would feel weird -- almost un-American -- about it, but I wouldn't be shocked if at some point someone did it. I just don't think it would be for us."
I asked the general manager to consider if ownership gave a promise that of the $20-$40 million saved, a big chunk was earmarked for free agency, and specifically maybe the often under-utilized restricted free-agent market to target younger players. Could you sell that? Would that feel any more "American?"
"Good thought," the general manager said after a pregnant pause. "If you funnel that savings back into free agency, it makes even more sense. As a general manager I wouldn't want to do it, but I could live with it and you could probably make it work."
Another general manager said: "I don't think you're off on this at all, and the Bengals could be a great example of where it makes sense. Minnesota, if you're really looking at a quarterback there (at 12th overall), would be another one. If you're looking at teams that might be kind of cash-strapped, too, those come to mind. This is a really hard year to be picking in the top 10. I'm really glad we're not picking there ... I'd be surprised if it happened, but certainly not shocked."
Both general managers expressed concern about the public relations side of such a move. You might look like you're being cheap. Fans might get upset. However, I pointed out that league-wide, positive PR is in short supply, with the lockout a pox on both the owners and the players. Fans are already upset and good will from them will be in short supply until football returns, and rightfully so.
"You'd have to worry some about a backlash," the second general manager said. "I guess you eventually make the pick and do a conference call and explain the strategy to the media and make the case to the fans? You'd have to be proactive with that. And I don't know how the league would look at it. It might be something they frowned on."
All valid, but during an offseason when both sides are trying to squeeze every bit of leverage from the just-expired CBA, and with decertification, lockout and lawyer-speak dominating football talk, to me there is no better time than now to drop down a few spots under the right scenario. Public relations be damned; it could end up making the team better in the short and long term.
I probed several agents for how they would respond if one of their clients ended up on the wrong end of a "skip the pick" scenario. They agreed that while the natural inclination would be to try to get the kind of contract the team would have had to deliver with its original pick, it would be a tough sell to an owner gutsy enough to do it in the first place. One agent actually went so far as to endorse the strategy, saying he believed certain teams would be smarter and benefit potentially greatly by skipping several picks. Two other prominent agents agreed they didn't think a player and agent would have much leverage in an instance such as this.
Though it was accidental at the time, it's not unprecedented for a team not to make its pick in time. In 2003, the Vikings exhausted their time on the clock while involved in trade talks and the Jacksonville Jaguars rushed in their draft card, using it to take Byron Leftwich before Minnesota could pick.
Would it make sense for Minnesota or Miami (15th overall) to take a quarterback, knowing that whomever they took would be a considerable risk and would have a late first-round grade at best? They would do so knowing that most of the teams picking behind them in the first round would have little-to-no interest in taking a quarterback that high. They would be taking a quarterback who they knew, quite likely, would still be available in the second round. Considering the premiums paid on quarterback contracts, taking them five picks back -- heck, maybe even 8-10 back -- wouldn't be nuts to me.
If the financial situation for some teams is trending as ominously as we are being led to believe, then there's no better way to frame the argument. The player who lands five spots down might well be the one they always wanted, only cheaper.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.