Current system favors potential over hard work

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Jake Long had a big grin on his face as he slipped the ceremonial hat of his new team on his head. With good reason, because the Miami Dolphins already had agreed to pay the top draft pick at least $30 million before he ever played a down in the NFL.

Glenn Dorsey couldn't stop smiling either after the Kansas City Chiefs made him an instant millionaire-to-be with the No. 5 pick of a draft surprising only because it went so fast.

"I'm happy as all outdoors," Dorsey said.

A lot of general managers and team owners weren't quite as ecstatic. They spent the first day of the draft committing tens of millions of dollars to a group of college stars that could have been used to get proven and experienced players whose ability to play in the league is not in question.

They were more queasy than happy, worrying whether their picks would pay off or the money would be blown. They made them based on 40-yard dash times, psychological surveys and more tests than most of the players ever had to take in college. But predicting the future still is an uncertain business, as evidenced in the roll call of first-round busts over the years.

Will No. 3 pick Matt Ryan turn into a player in the mold of Peyton Manning, or will he be another Akili Smith, selected with the same pick in 1999?

Will Darren McFadden be this year's Adrian Peterson, or will his career mirror that of Lawrence Phillips, an ill-fated No. 6 pick back in 1996?

Nobody knows, of course, and that's what eats up people in the NFL. This is a league in which plays are scripted long before games begin, players are rated off every move they make on the field, and the best teams are run by control freaks who regiment everything.

Yet even they are wrong almost as often as they are right about picking players who will succeed. These, after all, are the same experts who chose quarterbacks Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn long before Tom Brady was picked almost as an afterthought in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by New England.

They grudgingly pay for performance, and for the top players they pay very well. But they hate more than anything handing out millions just to get a player into camp to find out for sure if he has the unique makeup to play week-to-week in a league that doesn't tolerate failures well.

Even worse is that the price for top talent has gone up -- way up.

Five years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals picked up Carson Palmer with the first pick for $16.4 million in guaranteed money, big dollars at the time, a relative bargain when looked at now. Last year, JaMarcus Russell -- who wound up playing in just four games his rookie season -- held out into the first weeks of the season before the Raiders guaranteed him $29 million.

The average first-round guaranteed money, meanwhile, was nearly $11 million last year, up from about $6 million the year Palmer was picked.

Salaries, of course, are up around the league, so much so that owners almost certainly will opt out of the collective bargaining agreement with the player's union later this year. The group of millionaires and billionaires who own NFL teams didn't get rich giving money away, and they are alarmed at the increase to a $116 million salary cap this year.

When a new agreement is negotiated -- and it will be because the player's union recognizes that both it and the league have a sweet thing going -- expect it to include a salary cap on rookie signings that goes far beyond the byzantine system now in play, which does little to control bonuses.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said in March that agents have driven up the costs of the early picks so much that it has hampered the ability of weak teams to improve.

Commissioner Roger Goodell made clear in an interview on his league's own network during Saturday's draft that owners will be raising the issue with the union.

"It's not that we take away from anything that Jake Long has done, and take away from the money he has made," he said. "It's just that he hasn't played yet on an NFL field and neither have any of the other rookies. I think the veterans who have performed on the NFL level deserve that compensation."

A fund designed to boost the earnings of low-salaried players last season increased the pay of Steelers tackle Willie Colon by $309,534, and it also paid bonuses to 24 other players. Not big money by first-round standards, but big to Colon, a fourth-round 2006 selection from Hofstra.

A rookie salary cap makes sense for a lot of reasons, but only if the money that would have been paid finds its way to other players. Merit should be rewarded more than potential, and there's more than enough millions to go around.

That doesn't mean there won't still be smiles on draft day.

They just won't be as big as the ones Long and his fellow first-rounders wore on this day.


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