The biggest blunders were Leaf and Russell, who each failed to reach the fourth year of his contract. The Raiders cut Russell, the No. 1 pick in 2007, last off-season after paying him roughly $39 million over three years. Sources say Oakland would have entertained trading down in '07 but couldn't find a partner. "It's tremendously hard to trade out of the top of the draft," says St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney. "Going back to the previous two years, nobody wanted to make a deal when we were at Number 2. When you get to where guys are clumped together and there's not much difference in perceived value—there's not that clear-cut guy, that phenom player who's head and shoulders better—no one is going to make a move up."
So teams stay put—often with troubling results. The Lions have selected in the top 10 in eight of the last nine years, including first or second in three of the last four, yet they averaged fewer than four wins a season over that span, and in 2008 they became the only team in league history to finish 0--16. (The win on Sunday lifted them to 1--4.) The Raiders have drafted in the top eight in six of the last seven years but have not won more than five games in any of those seasons. The Rams, 2--3, have a total of five wins over the last two-plus seasons.
Teams stuck at the top of the draft often reach a crisis point with their former high-priced rookies. After four or five years, decisions have to be made about whether the player's production is worth the bloated salary that kicks in when incentives and escalators are reached. The Cardinals faced such a situation in the off-season, when they chose to release safety Antrel Rolle, the eighth pick in 2005, because escalators pushed his '09 salary to $12 million. They also parted ways with disappointing QB Matt Leinart before his back-end escalators kicked in.
"Antrel Rolle is a good player but not a great player," says one executive. "The Cardinals said, It's $12 million to keep him, or we'll cut him and get Kerry Rhodes at $6 million. [In March, Arizona traded fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Jets for the onetime Pro Bowl safety.] Some of these guys will never be worth the back end of their contracts, and when you get out of the guarantee phase of some of these high picks, I believe you'll see some of these players getting cut or having to renegotiate down."
For now, the Lions and the Rams seem content with their top picks. In Detroit, Calvin Johnson has become a solid No. 1 receiver; Stafford, though injury-prone, has shown no reason that he can't be the long-term answer at quarterback; and Suh has already proven to be a force in the middle, with three sacks in five games. For St. Louis, Long and Smith are both starters (though Smith was beaten out at his draft position, left tackle, by Saffold and has moved to the right), and Bradford has shown impressive poise and an NFL arm.
But with so many high, and high-priced, selections, the teams will be facing questions about their ultimate value in the near future. Thus the Rams' decision not to pursue Jackson. "We knew this wasn't going to be a quick fix," Devaney says. "Could we go out and get someone, not just at receiver, but anywhere? Yeah, we probably could. But you'd have to give up draft choices, and that's not how we've gone about this... . We're not going to give [a free agent] a heck of a lot of money and hope we're right about it.
"That's what happens with the draft, but what's the recourse? You have to pick somebody. That's what the system is. Until it changes, there's nothing you can do."
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