Reduced risk, increased activity: It's a new day in drafting

INDIANAPOLIS -- Trading up to draft Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III will come with risk for whoever pulls the trigger on the expected move.

Presuming Andrew Luck goes first, and Griffin creates a market for himself, the St. Louis Rams will be able to auction the second pick for a sizeable ransom. The club ascending into St. Louis' No. 2 slot will assume the incumbent franchise-shaking impact of selecting a quarterback that high, and surrender significant draft capital in the process.

But for the first time in a long time, such a move won't be accompanied with a financial swing-for-the-fences.

And because of that, there may be more deals within the top five picks beyond just that obvious one. Maybe a few more.

The new CBA didn't just usher in a new era of labor peace. Through rookie salary constraints, it also promises to alter the way folks around the NFL handle the draft, and that should start at the very top of the board in 2012.

"There's gonna be a lot more of that," said one NFC general manager. "We've had that discussion, about some of the owners and the people they've put in place hoping to turn things around right away. People are gonna take their shot to last as first-time coaches and GMs. I think some of those first-timers, the younger guys, are gonna be throwing some of the old philosophical standby beliefs aside. And there will definitely be more movement, because of how close the salaries are."

As that gap widened over the last decade, the dollars became toxic, and trades at the highest rungs nearly non-existent. From 1995-99, there were 11 trades involving top-10 picks and five involving top-five picks. From 2000-04, there were 12 trades of top-10 picks, and six of top-five picks. Then, the bottom fell out -- From 2005-2010, there were just five deals involving top-10 picks and one involving a top-five pick.

That lone top five deal was the Jets' trade with Cleveland for Mark Sanchez in 2009. And as the New York brass worked on getting that one in place, one of their main selling points to potential partners was how much money would be saved by dropping from the top five to 17th, where the Jets' slotted selection was.

"To be honest," said one person working on a deal with the Jets, "they were absolutely right."

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Back then, there were two layers of risk, beyond just taking a quarterback like Sanchez that early, for the Jets in moving up. First, there was the mortgaging of draft picks. Second, there was the financial gamble of committing $28 million guaranteed and up to $60 million total over five years to the player.

"And there was the opportunity cost of what you could do with the money otherwise there," said one top NFC team executive. "If you're Miami (now), moving up from ninth to second, it's just a couple million dollars difference. That's not going to change the franchise's future. It removes one of the pieces of risk, but what it also does is make it so it won't just be the quarterbacks you're moving up for.

"Take Eric Berry -- the Chiefs drafted him and made him the highest paid safety in the league instantly. At some positions, that's what you had to do to take a player that high. This brings the whole pick back."

And that brings you back to the fraying of the old rules. Now, it won't be as big a deal to take the linebacker or safety so high if you don't like the pass rusher available. Or fill a need with such a pick. Or properly balance free agents against rookies.

"Say you're the Jets, and say they'd love to (sign free agent Ray) Rice," the NFC team exec continued. "They could trade from 16 to, say, 8 and it might cost them a 2. Now, you get Trent Richardson at $3-4 million a year for his first four years, rather than paying $10 million for Rice, who's already got four years of carries on his body. Is that worth the 2? That's where the economics in free agency start to carry over."

Then -- and you could probably go on endlessly with the fallout here -- that dynamic bleeds over into how much a team can get in dealing a pick.

If you take the Jets' logic in the Sanchez deal, holding that the financials hurt the value of a high pick, then those selections should be enhanced now. But as the NFC GM quoted above said, a newer school of thinking is starting to take hold in some front offices, where the draft-value chart that was developed by Jimmy Johnson is becoming obsolete.

Instead of there being rigid values, now, it appears, supply-and-demand dictates the power of each selection more than ever before. Last year, the Browns-Falcons megatrade, by the old chart, showed that Atlanta gave up too much in draft capital to get to a place where it could take Julio Jones. In the end, though, a star athlete the club had conviction on was more important than the picks to GM Thomas Dimitroff and Co.

Cleveland has Phil Taylor, Greg Little and Owen Marecic as a result of the deal so far, with first- and fourth-round picks to go. So while the Browns did well, it doesn't look now like an unfair trade, based on the ability Jones has flashed. But it did take outside-the-box thinking to get there.

"It's, 'Where am I gonna get an explosive player who's gonna make a difference?' I think Thomas was saying, 'I have depth, I can do this,' " said a second NFC GM. "You do have a bunch of teams that stick to the value chart. But I really think that's because of all of you (in the media) have it, so you can all say they didn't get it right. And then you have a bunch of us who say, 'I don't give a (crap) about that'. I use the chart as a resource, but not as a bible."

Part of the Jones trade's expense, too, was the anticipation that we'd get to where we are now -- with the cost control over the picks.

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All of this is why the Rams find themselves in such an enviable position. If Griffin does as well as many around the league expect him to over the next two months, St. Louis will have a robust market for the second pick, and the player himself will be even more attractive given the circumstances.

"The real liability of missing on the draft pick, like the Raiders did with JaMarcus Russell, was huge," said another NFC personnel executive. "If you use 2010 as an example, moving up from 8 to the first pick in the draft would have cost you your 1, plus a 1 next year, plus another decent pick, a second or third, and possibly more. And then, you'd be paying your top pick an additional $27 million guaranteed -- the first pick vs. the eighth -- and the total value of the deal would go from $30 million to $78 million.

"In the new system, the difference between the eighth and first picks is $10 million, in both guaranteed money and four-year total compensation."

In short, the change is monumental, and the aftershocks of the old system are finished being felt. The Lions, for example, have an interesting issue on their hands, with Calvin Johnson holding tremendous leverage now, and Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh set to have the same type of negotiating power, as a result of the megadeals of the past. It's a good problem to have, having hit on those picks. But it's problem nonetheless.

The flip side of that starts now, with the draft this year being a whole different ballgame than it has been.

And soon enough, the ringing of the Rams' phones will be proof positive of that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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