Life After the Draft
Enthusiasm of draft is over ... now what?
By Pat Kirwan
Special to NFL.com
The NFL draft process has a level of excitement and anticipation rivaled by no other professional sport. Television ratings during the selection proceedings routinely defeat all programming for the weekend, and this year was no exception.
Now, however, comes the reality of fitting potential bright young stars, who haven't yet proved a thing, into the NFL salary structure. It's an issue confronting most teams in the league. Call it buyer's remorse or cap management if you want, but the scouts have gone home, the GM is preparing to work on his golf game, and the coaches are working on their playbooks.
That's not the case for the salary-cap administrator who now is sitting at his desk looking at the team's cap space and the amount of space allocated for rookie signings. It is soon time to make the two numbers jive, and that means making roster adjustments. I had that responsibility for a few years, and it is a sobering time. It's not fun to walk down the hall to the coach's office and show him which veteran(s) have to go in order to sign the unproven youngsters.
Let's look at the situation a number of clubs are in, but keep in mind that the exact numbers are ever-changing.
First, here's the good news regarding teams in the best situation.
The Cardinals have about $16 million of cap space and their rookie pool is just under $4 million. They have plenty of room to sign their seven draft picks, but need so much help on the field that they can only hope players who get dumped later this spring will want to come play for them.
The Vikings have $15 million worth of space and will use just over $3.5 million on their rookies. It should be easy sailing for Mike Tice's team.
Will the Bucs attempt to rework Warren Sapp's contract?
As usual, the Eagles are in great cap shape with $11 million of space and a rookie pool number of $2.8 million. Their prudent budget planning has worked nicely in the past, but there is an undercurrent of frustration about a team that has gotten so close to the Super Bowl the past two years and didn't retain Hugh Douglas. Andy Reid has been masterful since his arrival in Philadelphia and deserves the benefit of the doubt this time.
Other teams that will not have to trim the roster or renegotiate veteran contracts to sign rookies include New Orleans, Houston, Chicago and three teams that were in cap jail just two years ago -- Dallas, Buffalo and Baltimore. I give a lot of credit to Jerry Jones, Tom Donahoe and Ozzie Newsome for biting the bullet a few years ago to have the freedom to operate today. Believe me, it's easier said than done.
Facing tough choices
As always, there are teams that will have to make decisions to create enough space to sign the draft picks everyone was excited about.
The Colts have about $100,000 of space available and their eight draft picks have been allocated just over $3 million of space to be signed. Like all teams with a superstar quarterback, Indianapolis will turn to Peyton Manning to renegotiate his contract and create space for the rookies. Manning is young enough and talented enough to make a good business decision.
The Broncos have about $600,000 of space and need to come up with $3.8 million for their 10 picks. Releasing Brian Griese after June 1 will be the first step toward closing the gap.
Tampa Bay may not have had a first-round pick, but it still needs $1.9 million for six picks. With less than half of that available at this time, the Super Bowl champions will need to rework a contract or two. It may be a difficult time to talk with Warren Sapp , whose contract demands may not have a positive effect on creating space for the rookies.
St. Louis has just over $3 million of cap space, but needs $4.5 million to sign 11 draft picks. Tennessee had an excellent draft but appears to be looking for $1.5 million of space. The Giants , Browns, Chiefs and Raiders, among others, will spend the month of May looking at all their options to create space.
The nature of the beast
A few years ago, it was considered bad business to go into the post-draft period with budget issues facing your team. But it is currently looked upon as just another phase of managing the business of pro football.
I was asked the other day if clubs had to spend the whole rookie pool on its players, and the answer is no. But the reality is that since the start of the salary-cap era, teams have used over 90 percent of the rookie pool cap space on rookies, and will do so again this year.
Teams have more leverage than they care to use with these draft picks, and veteran players could care less if rookies didn't sign. But the great enthusiasm we all witnessed during the draft is a pressure point to get the picks signed, and it starts by creating cap space over the next few weeks.
Remember, the last two Super Bowl champions -- the Patriots and Bucs -- really helped themselves during their championship seasons by signing players cut after June 1 to create space for the rookie pool. Look for teams with space now to take advantage of the talent that becomes available. I can see the Eagles, Texans and Bengals upgrading personnel beyond draft picks with their excellent cap-space situations. Cincinnati already has its top draft pick signed and owns more than $2 million of cap space. New head coach Marvin Lewis will make this team attractive to play for.
This time of year, very few teams can sit back and claim to keep their whole team as is and get stronger if they want to without leveraging the future. I know what salary-cap administrators facing problems must do, and I wonder what path teams without problems will take.
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