Down they went, one-two-three. The tenants of the top three spots in the 1997 NFL draft all vacated the premises. Call it the Year of the Great Trade Down. New York Jets chief football operations officer and coach Bill Parcells, who originally sat at No. 1, also found his new home at No. 6 uncomfortable and dropped even further, to No. 8. The New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, who in March had traded down from the second and the third positions, respectively, then said they wouldn't mind moving out of their new slots, Nos. 10 and 11, if the deal were right. They wound up staying put.
Even the Oakland Raiders, who had climbed to the No. 2 spot, came close to trading down to the Detroit Lions' No. 5. For weeks the Baltimore Ravens had a FOR SALE sign on their No. 4 spot but couldn't find any buyers. All you heard up and down the NFL was people saying, "Gee, we'd love to trade down." It used to be everyone was looking to trade up.
In the space of 72 hours last week, the No. 6 spot belonged to the St. Louis Rams, the Jets, the Tampa Bay Bucs and finally the Seattle Seahawks, who had truly coveted it from the start. This wheeling and dealing left the Rams at No. 1 and netted New York four extra picks (one in the third round, two in the fourth, one in the seventh) and Tampa Bay one (a third-rounder). What was going on here, anyway?
Caponomics. Free agency. Huge rookie signing bonuses. The play-it-safe mentality, which translates to a fear of making a blunder at the very top of the draft. The lingering memory of Bill Walsh's dazzling array of trade downs in 1986, which got the San Francisco 49ers a hatful of starters and the nucleus of a team that won three Super Bowls. It all figured in.
In a candid moment during his later years with the New York Giants, whom he coached from 1983 to '90, Parcells mentioned that he didn't much like high first-round choices. "You can never sign them," he said. "They come to camp late, and they're not ready to play, and they've got all that money. It tears your team apart. I'd rather not have them around."
Well, he had no choice on the Giants, who ran their draft by committee and never traded their first-round pick. Ditto when he was coach of the New England Patriots the past four years. But on the Jets, Parcells is the man. He runs everything, which meant a double-dip downward last week, giving him, as he put it, "the ability to acquire young, fixed-cost players, and a volume of them."
Fixed-cost players? Has rent control hit the NFL? Is this the answer to runaway inflation, a message to the agents that the days of the huge rookie package are over? Or is it merely a juggling of some teams' priorities? After all, to trade down you've still got to find clubs willing to trade up. The Seahawks, backed by the millions that owner-in-waiting Paul Allen is pouring into the team, were only too happy to grab the third and sixth spots on the board.
"The salary cap enters into the draft like never before," says Carolina Panthers general manager Bill Polian, whose club had the 27th pick and kept it. "At this stage of free agency, teams have spent themselves to the very edge of the limit. From now on, going into the draft you'll have to look at where each team stands in relation to the cap, which ones will spend the $6 million bonus and which ones will trade out of it.
"I count four things that go into the trade-down mentality," Polian says. "One, the first guy drafted probably will hold out, which means he won't be able to help you right away. Two, people want to draft more for need now than with the old best-available-athlete outlook. Three, you're going to have a player for a limited number of seasons, and then you'll lose him [to free agency]. Finally, you can pick up a veteran and plug him into a spot, and he'll be a lot cheaper than a top draft pick."
The Raiders' cap expert, senior assistant Bruce Allen, disagrees. "Trading down is defeatism," he says. "People want multiple players rather than a top guy—they want a few base hits rather than a home run. You've got to dare to be great, dare to challenge, dare to win. I really believe that. Besides, all you're doing is just spreading the same money around. If you trade down, then pick up extra choices, your total will be the same."