Skyrocketing salaries at the top of the 1st round and the increasing importance of salary cap management has devalued picks near the top of the round.
The speed of the rise has been staggering, far outpacing the rise in the salary cap. In 2003, Carson Palmer was guaranteed about $16M, a lot of money but not altogether unreasonable considering his potential. By 2007, JaMarcus Russell was guaranteed $29M. Last year, Jake Long was guaranteed about $30M. The cost of the 1st round prospects drops dramatically throughout the round until it ends at less than 20% of the cost of the top pick by round's end.
Even at the top of the draft, these players are prospects. Over the past decade, five out of ten top overall picks were complete misses with a couple others highly debatable. Yet every one of these prospects drafted at the top of the draft is paid as a franchise player. Only one of these overall #1 choices, Peyton Manning, actually turned the team that drafted him into a perennial contender.
Making a mistake at the top now can handcuff a team and mess up their salary structure for years.
Looking at the mock drafts for this year, I'd much rather be picking somewhere between 10-15 than in the 1-3 range. This comes down to trying to value cost versus risk/potential. The cost associated with the top picks is far too high in relation to risk/potential, especially considering the historic production of players taken with those picks. Players taken in the 8-15 range are not that much less successful than the players taken at the top...but the cost is far lower, meaning a mistake won't cripple the team while also leaving more money to address other needs.
Colts' president Bill Polian captured the problem exactly around the time of last year's draft. He said, "The value of the draft has priced itself out of existence. The idea that the worst team would get help from a good player or players is out the window because you are saddled in salary cap Hell if the guy is anything but an almost immediate Pro Bowler." Polian estimated that about 50% of picks at the top don't pan out. That looks about right. So, the Russian Roulette analogy is a little off, picking at the top of the draft is more like playing Russian Roulette with three bullets. You might win, but the cost of losing is absurdly high. And even if you do win, you are paying the player essentially what he is worth as opposed to a team that strikes it big later in the round. That team gets a much bigger return on their investment.
Looking at some of the mock drafts for 2009, I'd much rather be Washington drafting tackle Michael Oher at 13 than Detroit drafting tackle Andre Smith first overall. Will Smith be the better player? Likely, although that is far from certain. But, the savings between the draft positions gives the Redskins far more flexibility to address other areas and resign key veterans. At some point, the drop in cost no longer offsets the drop in potential/risk. I think that happens somewhere around the 12th pick, though it might in fact be even later. I suspect the ideal draft spots based upon balancing all these factors are in the range of 8 - 12. This is why teams like the Steelers, Eagles, and Patriots can draft relatively late year after year without seeing much, if any, decline.
Looking at the Steelers' key players, not a single one came from the top of the first round. Out of those current starters that were drafted in the first round by the Steelers, most came from the middle to the bottom of that round....Ben Roethlisberger (position #11), Troy Polamalu (#16), Casey Hampton (#19), Santonio Holmes (#25), Heath Miller (#30), Kendall Simmons (#30). Lawrence Timmons (#15) will likely start next year with Rashard Mendenhall (#23) seeing increased playing time. Their highest drafted player was James Farrior, drafted by the Jets at #8. Several of their key players weren't drafted until later rounds, if at all (James Harrison, Ryan Clark, and Willie Parker were undrafted).
For those of you who have to wait a long time on draft day to hear your team draft the new savior of the franchise, this is worth keeping in mind.