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First-round trade flurry gives glimpse into future of NFL drafts

  • By Jeff Darlington NFL.com
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Something was happening. It was another trade -- the third of the evening -- and the 2012 NFL Draft hadn't even reached the sixth pick. But this time, nobody had any idea what to expect. Nobody knew which team. Nobody knew why.

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"Oh, I was sweating it," laughed Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland during a midnight phone call, still riding the high of his selection of quarterback Ryan Tannehill at No. 8, two spots after the first round's biggest shocker of a trade.

But after 30 very stressful seconds for Ireland, we'd eventually learn Miami had no reason to fret, that the Dallas Cowboys were instead making an unexpected jump to the top of the draft in order to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to cornerback Morris Claiborne.

Craziness? Oh, yes. The first round of the draft had plenty of that -- 14 of the 32 picks changed hands by night's end. And it might very well be our first clear indication of a new set of expectations for years to come. Prepare yourselves, people. The era of mock drafts might be coming to an end.

Predictability is out the window.

While Ireland noted the craziness of the first round might have been partly due to the sheer talent at the top of the board, he also agreed with another theory thrown his way: Might this be the result of the new rookie wage scale?

"I think that has something to do with it," Ireland said. "Over the years, nobody has wanted to pay the price for the player at the top -- not just the price to get up there but the financial cost."

Suddenly, picks are like chess pieces. They can be maneuvered with less monetary implications, allowing more teams to vault themselves toward the top to position themselves to get a great player at a position of need.

At times, in the days of $50 million rookie contracts, it almost felt like some teams at the top of the draft were in a detrimental spot, forced to pay for a player that might not (a) be worth the loot, or (b) fill an immediate need. And finding a suitor to do the same, naturally, was next to impossible.

The Bucs, of course, still got a very solid player in safety Mark Barron despite a mad scramble to pick a player after spending more than nine of their 10 minutes making a decision in the wake of the Cowboys' move for Claiborne. And really, if you just handed someone a piece of paper with the order of the players drafted, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone.

But go scour the Internet for a mock draft that was even close to correct. You'd have as much luck finding a perfect bracket from this year's NCAA Tournament. If this keeps up -- and it very well might -- the idea of a mock draft might be as foolish of an exercise as ever before.

Not only will it require the typical rampant speculation of a team's desires matched with a player's ability, it will also require trade scenarios throughout the round. Have fun with that. And smokescreens? Prepare for a future filled with more than ever leading up to the draft.

Mock drafts, of course, are hardly the most important aspect of this new trend. Instead, we're talking about a period when the most savvy general managers -- those capable of navigating the possibilities with creativity -- will be the ones who ultimately get what they want.

That creativity should make for some fun times in future years, providing drama on the first day of the draft like we've never seen before Thursday night.

Consider this: With the eighth pick, the Dolphins were the first team other than Indianapolis at No. 1 to pick in their original spot. Everyone, including Ireland, was left watching the madness unfold one pick at a time. Fun for the rest of us, sure. But not always fun for the people making the picks.

At one point, when it became clear the Rams were trading their No. 6 pick, Ireland dialed his team representative in New York to get a vibe of the action. Each team rep sits at a different table near the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and when a trade occurs, the team making the trade must walk to the table of the trade partner.

"So I'm talking to our guy, and he's giving me the play-by-play of where the Rams are walking, which would tell us who they were trading with," Ireland said.

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First, it looked like the Rams' representative was stopping at Kansas City's table. Then, it looked like it was going to be Arizona's table. Ireland pegged both teams as spots that might want a quarterback like Tannehill -- creating some serious sweat for 30 seconds.

"Well, which is it?!" Ireland scoffed.

Finally, the Rams stopped at the Cowboys' table.

For Ireland, the craziness of the day was just about over. Two picks later, he'd land Tannehill. But perhaps as long as the new rookie wage scale remains a part of the game, the craziness for years to come is just getting started.

The first round of the draft might now be less predictable than ever before.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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