|Wednesday, July 9
Drafted players don't stick around
By John Clayton
In preparation for training camp, studying how teams were built produced an interesting stat that sums up pro football in the free-agency era.
From the 1999 draft, only 63 players -- that's right, 63 or two per club -- are with the teams that drafted them. From that group of 63, 21 are first-round choices, but only four -- defensive end Patrick Kerney (Atlanta), quarterback Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota), quarterback Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia) and left tackle Luke Petitgout (NY Giants) -- have received huge contract extensions. Several players whose rookie contracts are set to expire over the next year or two may be heading to different teams in free agency.
The salary cap limits the number of big contracts a team can give players. Maybe 10 or 12 players per team can get huge contracts. So when draft choices taken in the top two rounds come close to free agency, many hit the market and leave.
If you want a scarier number, go to the 1998 draft. Only 44 draft choices are left with their teams, including 14 first-rounders. By next March, expect the number of survivors from the 1999 draft to be in the 40s.
"It's tough," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Every five years, you are recycling your team. With us, it was different because we made our Super Bowl run and had to let a lot of starters go to rebuild, because of the cap. But if you are looking at a draft, you have to know what you have in a player by the middle of the third year."
Texans general manager Charley Casserly speaks to every NFL rookie at the league's symposium at the end of June. To illustrate the difficulties of the NFL, he'll have a third of the 262 draft choices stand up and then tell them to sit down. He'll then tell the remaining players to stand up and look at those who are seated.
"My point to them is that two-thirds of them will be gone within five years," Casserly said. "All you hear about is free agency and how players are going to get big money. But from our research, we know that 70 percent of the players won't be starting by their third or fourth year. If only 30 or 33 percent of the group is going to be starting, that means the other players are going to be cut or have to move on to another team to find a chance to start."
As it is so often noted, the NFL stands for Not For Long. That isn't changing in this era of free agency.
That's why it's been funny listening to discussions between agents and teams whether choices taken after the second round should sign four- or five-year contracts or take the standard three-year deals.
Agents grumble that signing their third- or fourth-round draft choices to a four-year deal takes away those players' chances to hit it big in the restricted free-agent market (as was exploited by the Redskins this offseason) once their first contracts expire.
They also argue that players should take as much signing bonus in their first year as possible, because if the team doesn't like the player by the third or fourth year, it is going to let him go.
In the end, it probably doesn't matter because more than 70 percent of the players aren't getting that big second contract anyway.
"How They Are Built" charts are fascinating. Tenure doesn't guarantee anything in today's game. Each year, the totals fall in the same pattern. Leaguewide, there are only 99 active players who came to their teams in 1999 (including the 63 draft picks from that year). That compares to 65 from 1998, 50 from 1997, 31 from 1996, 22 from 1995 and 36 from 1994 and before. The 1999 draft choices are entering their fifth seasons, and many are only with their teams because they signed five-to-seven year contracts as rookies.
That's why the numbers drop so dramatically for tenure after years four through five. Most of the first-round choices don't get those second contracts from the team that drafted them. That doesn't mean that they aren't good players, but finances dictate the wisdom of taking a rookie who is coming off a contract worth around $2 million and giving him $4 million to $6 million a year.
The Bucs are close to giving 1999 first-round defensive tackle Booger McFarland a six-year, $33 million contract. The Rams are trying to lock up wide receiver Torry Holt for $6 million a year. The Ravens would love to sign a long-term deal with cornerback Chris McAlister, their franchise player. The Bills want to re-sign cornerback Antoine Winfield.
But others such as tackle L.J. Shelton (Arizona), defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban (Dallas), middle linebacker Al Wilson (Denver), safety Antwan Edwards (Green Bay), cornerback Fernando Bryant (Jacksonville), tackle John Tait (Kansas City), center Damien Woody (New England) and offensive lineman Matt Stinchcomb (Oakland) are entering the final year of their rookie contracts without any guarantees of extensions.
A majority of those players will be with new teams next season.
Anyhow, it's interesting to see how teams are put together. With free agency a crapshoot, there is no substitution for good drafting. The only problem is that most of those draft choices leave after four or five years. In most cities, you see stories in which this team has released the last player from a certain draft class, and that is used as a negative for a team's scouting department.
Bad observation. After four years, a team is lucky to have two or three draft choices left from a particular class. That's so unlike the 1970s and 1980s and even parts of the 1990s when teams stockpiled starters and backups and kept them forever.
Study these numbers. The Saints, who have won 26 games over the past three years, have only two players on their roster from before the year 2000. The Redskins have only four.
On the flip side, seven of last year's playoff teams have between 20 and 25 players who have been on their roster from 2000 or before. Those teams were Pittsburgh (25), Philadelphia (24), Green Bay and Oakland (23), Tennessee (21) and the New York Giants and San Francisco (20).
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have only 17 players from 2000 or before, but that group includes eight starters on defense. The Bucs have built their success around defense, and Jon Gruden came in and re-did the offense and produced a Super Bowl.
Another interesting team to examine is the Rams. They have only 12 players from 2000 and before, including 10 starters. The Rams have been criticized for bad drafts, so their success this year will be dependent on how well they have stockpiled the team over the past two years and how well the older players bounce back from last year's seven-win season.
For personnel directors, roster churning is part of the job. Between 13 and 22 new players make rosters each year. It's not "how they were built" anymore, as much as it is "what have we kept." For players, it means more renting than buying.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.