Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Cost of Being Consistently Bad in the NFL

From 2000-2009, the Detroit Lions compiled a miserable 42-118 record for a .263 winning percentage. Over that same period, the New England Patriots boasted a far more marketable 112-48 record for a .700 winning percentage.

The Lions' loathsome winning percentage over the past decade has translated into an average draft position well inside the top ten of the league, with only two picks falling outside of that range. The Patriots, conversely, routinely have drafted outside of the top ten of the draft over the past decade, three times selecting in the bottom third of round one and once having no first-round pick.

Take away the names of these two teams and the casual observer might assume that team one, the Lions, had amassed a stock pile of talent, while team two, the Patriots, had had many more first-round misses.

Sadly, for Lions' fans and other fans similarly situated, quite the opposite has been true. Of the Patriots' first-round picks over the past decade, all are still in the league and all but two, Richard Seymour and Daniel Graham, the Patriots' 2001 and 2002 draft picks, respectively, are still productive NFL players.

Of the Lions' first-round picks since 2001, five are no longer with the team, two are no longer in the NFL, and one more is on his way out of the league.

Not surprisingly, the players that Detroit has selected high in the draft over the past decade and that have not panned out have, with the exception of Ernie Sims, been so-called "skill-position" players, playing either wide-receiver or quarterback. That's an argument against both drafting skill-position players high in the draft and making bad decisions, as Lions' GM Matt Millen routinely was wont to do.

The more glaring lesson, however, is found not in the Lions' failed picks but in the cost of those picks. Setting aside the high base salaries which are not guaranteed in the NFL, NFL teams that routinely select high in the draft, as the Lions routinely do, pay a far more handsome price for their picks than do the rest of the teams in the league.

From 2001-2009, the Lions spent approximately $157 million in guaranteed money alone on their first round picks. This year, they likely will add $26-32 million to that total in signing first-round pick and number two overall selection, Ndamukong Suh.

Compare that figure to that of the Patriots, which, during the same period, spent a far more earthly $43.52 million on salary bonuses for their first-round picks. That's nearly $114 million less over the decade that the Patriots had to guarantee than did the Lions.

The lavish bonus money that the Lions routinely have doled out to first-round picks over the past decade has cost the Lions not only in the pocketbook, but also on the field. With so much cap space devoted to high picks, the Lions, with the exception of uncapped years such as this year, annually are left wanting for cap space to sign players not selected by the team in round one. The Patriots, meanwhile, have ample cap space to sign whomever they wish and, because of their continuing success, are even able to sign some stars at clearly discount rates. The cycle, thus, deepens for the Lions while breezing along for the Patriots.

Add to this depressing disparity for Lions' fans the fact that the Patriots fared far better not only than the Lions but also than most other NFL teams in selecting their first round talent over the past decade, and there is serious reason to wonder why most teams do not spend their money on quality personnel evaluators and trade out of the top half of the draft. Presumably, that is yet another point of distinction between successful and unsuccessful franchises.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

But Ours Goes Up to Eleven

Those who religiously follow the NFL draft, and, more specifically, those who religiously follow the Minnesota Vikings can attest to the fact that the Vikings failed to show for this year's draft. That's not to say that the Vikings might not make something out of the players that they drafted this year, but, almost certainly, they could have done far better--at first blush and probably with the benefit of time and hindsight.

Minnesota's problems began with some unexpected trading up the draft board that allowed other teams to take many of the players whom the Vikings coveted. The team's problems were accentuated, however, when just enough of the Vikings' primary targets remained on the big board to give the team's draft wonks hope that they could drop out of the first round, pick up some middle round pick, and still get the player that they wanted.

Of course, things did not work out as well as the Vikings had hoped--a common occurrence when one hopes for the best case scenario and something less than that suffices to foil one's most modest plans. That left the Vikings holding the bag but without anything yet in the bag. After that, the Vikings panicked, picking a cornerback widely regarded as a player that would be on the board when the Vikings selected at 62 (the team's original second-round slot) and possibly much later, and panicked even more by trading up to take a running back that may or may not be suited for a large role in the NFL.

After day two of the draft, the Vikings, thus, were left with a true reach at the top of the second round--a player who might not even be capable of starting for the Vikings in 2010--and a player who, by almost all accounts, is a far inferior player to two other running backs on whom the Vikings passed in favor of taking a player who could have been gotten much later. For that, the Vikings ceded their own first-, second-, and third-round picks.

If none of that makes your head yet spin or explode, consider what else the Vikings did when they played this year's draft. Prior to free-agency, the New England Patriots tendered restricted free agent, Logan Mankins, at the first- and third-round level. Mankins, a dominating offensive lineman who can play on either side of the ball would have solidified the Vikings' offensive line to an extent not seen in Minnesota perhaps ever. Signing Mankins would have required some work--perhaps another poison pill--$15-20 million in guaranteed money, and a first- and third-round pick. But the doing was not the devil in the details.

For the Vikings, as for most other teams, the hurdle in signing a restricted free-agent of Mankins' caliber was in parting with the draft picks. Two high draft picks are the things of which good teams are made.

Apparently, however, the Vikings do not so highly covet their high picks. That's why they bandy them about like monopoly money when maneuvering for players for whom no maneuvering is required. And that's why, now, even more than prior to the draft, a first- and a third-round pick in this year's draft sure seem like they would have been draft picks well spent as the price for the Vikings having acquired Mankins. Given a ledger of Mankins and a second-round pick to fill a need versus what the Vikings hauled in rounds one and two of this year's draft, Mankins and a second-round pick sure look good.

Up Next: Doing Detroit.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Vikings Dance for Net Loss

In 2009, the Minnesota Vikings used their first-round pick in the NFL's entry draft to select arguably the most dynamic player remaining on the draft board. That pick, Florida running back Percy Harvin, became the league's rookie of the year and a major contributor to the Vikings' potent offense.

With significant holes created by injuries in 2009 and the off-season departure of running back Chester Taylor, the Vikings found themselves in a far different environment this year, an environment that compelled the team to draft for need rather than taking either the best player available or a player that could provide depth immediately and a starter for years to come.

After swapping picks with the Detroit Lions--a move that allowed the Lions to draft the running back that they lacked last season--the Vikings set their sights on Florida State cornerback Patrick Robinson.

When Robinson went to the Saints, the Vikings shifted their focus to the sole remaining offensive lineman that they still coveted as a first-round prospect. That player, Indiana guard Rodger Saffold, went to the Rams, however, with the first pick in round two.

By trading down a mere four spots, the Vikings believed that they would do no worse than being left to select one of the two players whom they still coveted as a first-round talent. When the Saints and Rams combined to thwart that vision, however, the Vikings were compelled to look to filling needs, rather than losing any more ground in this year's draft.

Minnesota's curious first-round move--a move that neither saved the Vikings much money nor netted them any significant return, while ensuring that the team would not have the opportunity to select from between two players that the team considered first-round talent--provided Minnesota a player who certainly fills a team need and probably came to Minnesota in the right round, if not necessarily at the right spot within that round.

After missing part of one season with injury and another entire season due to academic issues, Virginia cornerback Chris Cook played well enough in 2009 to be considered a player potentially capable of starting in the NFL as a rookie. His name was not uttered in the same breath as that of Devin McCourty, Joe Haden, Kareem Jackson, Kyle Wilson, or the aforementioned Robinson, but he was not regarded as measurably behind these players, either.

With Lito Shephard in the fold, the Vikings might be able to buy one more year without resorting to Cook as a full-time starter in the base package. That is, unless the team is committed to using Antoine Winfield in the nickel package and/or Cedric Griffin is unable to contribute this season. In short, despite Shephard's signing, the Vikings were in far more dire straits at cornerback than they currently are anywhere along the offensive line.

After selecting Cook, the Vikings immediately moved to shore up their other glaring hole, that left by Taylor's departure to the Chicago Bears. Not surprisingly, the Vikings were not nearly as keen on entering the season with Albert Young serving as Adrian Peterson's fill-in on third-down plays or whenever Peterson fails to protect the ball in a critical situation.

The team's selection of Stanford running back Toby Gerhart as intended understudy to Peterson does not surprise with respect to the team's motivation, but it does surprise with respect to the Vikings' earlier dealings. To obtain Gerhart, the Vikings once again dealt. This time the move was up in the draft.

Had the Vikings committed themselves to need at the outset, they could have retained their first-round pick, and either taken the cornerback that they wanted in Robinson, and then traded up to take Gerhart or they could have traded down to second in round two, taken Dexter McCluster at that point, and then taken Cook with their own second-round pick where, by most accounts, Cook still would have been available.

Clearly, the Vikings have weaknesses, just as do all other teams in the NFL. Drafting Cook and Gerhart ostensibly address those weaknesses, in some fashion or another. And if Chris Degeare measures up as a starting offensive tackle, the Vikings might still show well in this draft. But, had the team opted to be smart over being cute, they might have ended up not only with the players that they needed, but more of those players and players of even higher caliber.

Up Next: The Cost of Being Bad.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Vikings Facing Draft Quandary?

Sources close to the Minnesota Vikings are suggesting that the team is prepared to select Florida quarterback Tim Tebow should the record-setting collegian be available when the Vikings select near the end of the first round on Thursday evening. While predictions regarding Tebow's likelihood of success in the NFL run the gamut, the Vikings, thus, appear to be one of the few teams--if not the only team--to so highly regard Tebow.

The Vikings' reported infatuation with Tebow's upside is not exactly akin to the team's increasingly piqued interest in Troy Williamson in 2005, but it does suggest similar shaky ground. With glaring holes along the offensive line, at cornerback, and, to a lesser though substantial degree, at both safety positions, the Vikings would be well advised to fill immediate needs rather than filling a future need. That note of caution ought to be particularly salient in the Vikings' draft room this year, given that the team expects Brett Favre to return, has a capable back-up in Sage Rosenfels, and, for what it is worth, recently re-signed Tarvaris Jackson. Those options, at a minimum, buy the Vikings some time at the quarterback position--a luxury the team does not have at cornerback and may not have along the offensive line.

These concerns notwithstanding, there might yet be reason for the Vikings to select a quarterback in the first round. In the wake of the Jackson experiment, however, that reason should not be that the Vikings see upside in a quarterback who essentially filled the role of a Sid Luckman-esque running back for four years of college football. Rather, the determination to select a quarterback in round one should obtain for Minnesota if, and only if, Jimmy Clausen is still available when the Vikings pick. That's because Clausen is the one quarterback who could fall to Minnesota in round one who appears ready to play in the NFL with only one or two seasons of nurturing and who also almost certainly would be off the board when the Vikings select in round two.

Barring Clausen's availability in round one, the Vikings must address their cornerback and offensive line issues in the first round, though not necessarily in that order. The general consensus among draft wonks is that there will be a considerable run on offensive linemen in the first round. That suggests one of two things--either the Vikings can wait until the second round to take a lineman in the belief that the teams needing an offensive lineman already have so selected or that the Vikings need to take an offensive lineman early, to avoid having no viable NFL-ready offensive linemen from which to select when drafting later in the draft. Likely, the latter proposition is more accurate.

Drafting an offensive lineman in the first round probably would mean that the Vikings would miss out on drafting a bona fide starter at cornerback--someone like Devin McCourty or Kareem Jackson--but it probably would allow the team to draft Maurkice Pouncey or Rodger Saffold, shoring up the offensive line and, thereby, protecting Favre and making Favre's return for year three with the team that much more appealing.

As Cedric Griffin somewhat demonstrated, taking a cornerback in round two can provide fairly strong, immediate returns. If the Vikings move on an offensive lineman in round one, the subsequent improvement in the offensive line should also reduce the premium otherwise placed on cornerback play and buy some time for Griffin to return to health and playing condition.

Up Next: The Picks.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Giant Sucking Sound?

The Minnesota Twins opened their new outdoor stadium this week to much fanfare. The sight lines reportedly are relatively good, the amenities a substantial upgrade over the Metrodome, and the concessions edible. It helps, as well, that the product on the field is among the best in the majors.

Lost amidst all the euphoria, however, are some of the returns to the Twins. For most fans, those returns are inconsequential. For those weighing the merits of a publicly funded stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, however, they are anything but.

Following the Twins' home opening victory over the Boston Red Sox, Twin Cities' news stations prominently featured two stories pertaining to the game. One story was of a Twins' fan who reportedly lost two hundred dollars when he purchased forged tickets to the opener from a ticket scalper. Somehow, the forged ticket read as a valid ticket, allowing entry to the game to the fan. The fan was later removed from the stadium, however, when his seat was taken by a fan with a legitimate ticket.

While it remains a mystery how the forgery was not detected by the ticket scanners at the gate, but was detected by ushers who then purportedly escorted the fan from the stadium, the more intriguing element of the story, is the universal local news response to the incident. The lesson, we were told, is that, although scalping is legal in Minneapolis, Twins fans that want to ensure the validity of their secondary market ticket purchases should purchase either from the Twins or from MLB's ticket re-selling partner, StubHub. Of course, convincing Twins' fans that there is a substantial risk of purchasing forged tickets and thus scaring them to the Twins' and MLB's re-sale sites adds significant dollars to the Twins bottom line.

Also adding significant cash to the Twins' coffers is the Twins' previously unannounced arrangement with AT&T. That deal ensures that those using AT&T cellular devices will receive reception in the open-air stadium. Those attempting to use non-AT&T cellular devices will remain at the mercy of the air currents, cloud cover, and interference offered by the Twins' front office.

Responding to fan complaints that cellular reception was spotty or non-existent in the stadium for non-AT&T devices, the Twins stated that dissatisfied patrons should "contact their cellular phone provider and request that the provider reach agreement with the Twins" to "boost" cellular reception within the stadium for their specific carrier.

These clear money grabs on the part of the Twins are nothing compared to what the NFL and the Vikings have in store for their own fans, if and when a new Vikings' stadium is built. One may rest assured that, if the Twins are able to manipulate cellular signals, the Vikings will as well. The Vikings are also certain to tack on expenses about which the Twins' ownership can only dream--such as seat licensing fees and season ticket renewal fees.

Such fees are neatly tucked under the rug, of course, as the Vikings begin their seasonal assault on Minnesotans' common sense. Much like Mitch McConnell refers to a Democratic proposal to impose a "too big to fail" fee on Wall Street firms as "another bailout by Democrats," the Vikings continue to offer the lines that they "have waited patiently for their turn at a new stadium" and that "time is ticking away on an opportunity to keep the Vikings in Minnesota."

Measured in decades, the latter statement might be true. In the current climate, however, there are neither takers nor options for the Vikings to move elsewhere. Moreover, Minnesota is where the Vikings' bread is buttered, and the organization and NFL understand that. And the NFL clearly has no interest in allowing the Vikings to assume the franchise-fee rich LA market--even if that market otherwise were open to the Wilfs, which it is not.

The patience line is more intriguing, however, primarily for what it does and does not suggest. What the Vikings are implying, if not outright stating, is that the team has waited its turn for public funding, has been promised public funding, has relied on this promise, and that the promise is now due. These statements are valid only the utter abstract.

The Wilfs paid $625 million to purchase the Vikings. Each year, the team receives approximately $220 million from the NFL from various league revenue streams. In addition, the team receives free rent on the Metrodome, naming rights to the dome, approximately $8,000,000 per game in ticket and other sales, and local radio revenue. And the team receives endless free advertising on virtually every local media outlet--all of which shamelessly pimp the need for a new Vikings' stadium so that the Vikings can enjoy greater revenue streams. That's a reasonably healthy return on a private party investment for an enterprise that provides eight guaranteed home games a season.

As the Twins have proven, however, a new stadium and the equity obtained by virtue of that stadium are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential revenue streams--a point even the stadium-at-any-cost evangelicals ought to eye when deciding who ought to pay what for such an edifice.

Up Next: Draft Looms.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Vikings' Next Move Should Be Big

For a team that barely missed a trip to the Super Bowl last season and has realistic ambitions of making the final push this season, the Minnesota Vikings enter the 2010-2011 season with an unusually high number of question marks.

Chief among the Vikings' concerns are whether Brett Favre will return as quarterback, whether linebacker E.J. Henderson will return from a second major injury in as many seasons, whether cornerback Cedric Griffin will return at all in 2010, whether the offensive line can improve on an underwhelming 2009-2010 season, whether the safeties are up to par in the league, whether Albert Young can handle the backup running back duties, and whether Pat and Kevin Williams will be around for the entire season.

That's far more questions than most NFL teams have entering the new season and a slightly uncomfortable level for a team with such high aspirations.

What provides some measure of comfort for the Vikings and their fans regarding these issues is that the Vikings feel reasonably confident about a positive resolution on most of these matters. The Williamses' legal battles could linger for at least another year, Henderson has suggested he will be fine for camp, Griffin reportedly is already on the mend, though with no clear time-table for full recovery, Young appears as intelligent and thoughtful as any Viking player and mindful of what he needs to do to meet his obligations behind Adrian Peterson, and the offensive line, by sheer maturation, cannot help but be better than last year.

Yet, still, there are concerns. Despite the type of dubious on-field performance that led to the banishment of some of his brethren, Bryant McKinnie remains the exception to the Wilfs' pledge to clean house of those of suspect character, John Sullivan struggled at center last season, and Phil Loadholt, though showing significant promise, routinely required tight end coverage in blocking schemes; Young, despite his clear intelligence, has done little in the NFL after shining at Iowa; the Vikings' safeties are far below league average; and the Vikings have no clear replacement for Griffin, should Griffin be unable to return in 2010.

The Vikings appear prepared to enter the 2010 NFL draft with each of these questions at heart, and with the added sense of urgency to identify Favre's eventual replacement. These concerns have prompted the Vikings to scout quarterbacks, offensive linemen, cornerbacks, and running backs as possible first- and second-round selections this year.

Barring Clausen's or McCoy's drop to the Vikings at the end of round one, or a sudden belief on the part of the Vikings' draft team that Tebow can do in the NFL what he did at Florida, the Vikings appear set to take an offensive lineman with their first-round pick.

Maurkice Pouncey of Florida appears to be the Vikings' current first-round target. Pouncey can play either center or guard, fitting the Vikings' need to push two players--Anthony Herrera and John Sullivan--and possessing the ability to start immediately at either guard position. If not Pouncey, the Vikings could look to Rodger Saffold, a left tackle out of Indiana who has the agility that McKinnie never will exhibit, or, if available, guard Mike Iupati of Idaho.

Improving the offensive line would provide the Vikings dividends across the board, lending greater protection for the quarterback, creating bigger holes for Peterson, and allowing the Vikings to keep the defense off the field, when necessary. That's why teams build from the line back and why the Vikings need to go big this year before they return home for the season.

Up Next: Dark Horses.