Draft picks the new NFL currency

With the salary scale re-structured for first-round picks, it has made trading them more manageable and teams are taking advantage of the process with more frequency.

There are several things that are fascinating about Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. His list of 50 or so red flags on potential draftees or free agent signings likely leads the league. His penchant for dangling interest in specific players is a cat-and-mouse game he tends to enjoy with the media. His covert nature to his true intentions is admirable. His attention to detail is part workaholic, part Rainman.

But one of the first impressions we got of Spielman that, toothpick counting aside, the guy was on top of his game. During the Prohibition era, Spielman could have made a good living selling "tonic" to businessmen and housewives. Post-World War II, all those octopus-tentacle roads that link up a housing development would have been sold by a guy like Spielman. He never says he's the smartest guy in the room, but anyone who is in fact the smartest guy in the room never really has make that claim.

His track record on quarterbacks is the only red flag Viking Update has on Spielman's tale of the tape, but he was asked following his first draft with the Vikings – he reluctantly took some guy named Peterson at No. 7 – and spoke to the value of draft picks. In hindsight, he will certainly claim that he knew a significant change was coming at the top of the draft when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached. The time had come for blue-chip rookies to quit being among the highest paid players in the league without ever playing a down against the big boys.

The same year that Spielman took Peterson, the Detroit Lions, still with scorched paws after dipping into the wide receiver first-round fire in the past, came away with Calvin Johnson. Both came after quarterback JaMarcus Russell, a Purple Drank enthusiast who considers 308 pounds an "After Photo." The Raiders haven't recovered from that epic gaffe. It proved to be the cautionary tale needed to tip the scales of NFL salary justice away from the elite college player to the vested young player looking for a second contract.

That process hasn't fully caught up. We're only two years into the New World Order of draft cost. In 2011, there was a mysterious window of opportunity of labor peace (a Christmas cease-fire, if you will) that came on draft weekend but wasn't resolved until months later. Part of the new CBA created a rookie wage scale that made draft picks currency in the NFL. No longer the ten-figure risk/reward investment that they were in the past, the coveted high draft spots became subject to trades for organizations targeting a specific player.

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts were the not-so proud owners of the first draft pick. There was no way that Andrew Luck was going to slide past them. None. From the time VU did its first of a dozen mock drafts after the Super Bowl, Luck was slotted in with the Colts. It never changed. It was a given. However, after that pick, things got a little trade-crazy.

The No. 2 pick was traded and it wasn't a rarity. Of the 32 picks in the first round, half of them ended up being traded.

In the pre-rookie salary cap era, it was a much different story. In 2011, seven first-round picks were traded, including just two in the top 10 picks. In 2010, 11 picks were traded in the first round, but none in the top 10. In 2009, nine first-round picks were traded, but only one in the first half of the round – the Jets trading up to take Mark Sanchez, a move that has convinced other owners, general managers and head coaches to think twice about mortgaging the farm on a USC system quarterback.

Prior to 2011, it would seem that teams were stuck with a high draft pick because trading out of those spots was cost prohibitive – both in what teams would have to give up to move into a blue-chip draft spot and what they would have to pay the player they drafted there. With that hurdle no longer as stiff, an unprecedented number of players got traded – some in the days and hours leading up to the draft and others once the draft was underway.

As things currently stand as we head into Super Bowl week, 31 of the 32 draft picks assigned to teams in the first round still belong to the teams that should have them. The only exception is pick No. 22, acquired by St. Louis from Washington in the Robert Griffin III trade blockbuster. Other than that, everyone else currently has the pick they were assigned. Expect that to change in a big way as the draft draws closer.

In the new-look NFL, draft picks have become the currency by which business is being done. The investment in rookies, even at the top of the draft isn't nearly as steep – Sam Bradford's rookie deal was worth more than Luck's and RG3's combined – and gambles on greatness don't come with the same punitive effect if they fail. Spielman was ahead of curve in recognizing the value of the post-lockout NFL world and that having a pick in the top 10 is no longer a curse, it's an ideal trade-partnering scenario.

As the 2012 season prepares to officially come to an end next Sunday, the preparation for 2013 will begin in earnest. With that will come the process of teams trying to shore up their weaknesses. That will involve draft picks, whether it means adding a blue-chip first-rounder and filling in gaps afterward or trading premium picks to stockpile additional choices later in the draft.

How it will all play out will unfold in the coming weeks, but one thing that seems almost certain is that the new currency in the NFL (high draft picks) will be moved like pieces on a chess board and, when all is said and done, we may see another year where up to half of the first-round draft picks get traded to other teams. So far, there is only one. Expect that number to grow significantly between now and late April.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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