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The Battle for Second Place

Who will make a play to move up the NFL draft board and grab Robert Griffin III?

Robert Griffin III
Although there’s still plenty of time between now and the NFL draft, the football world appears to have come to a consensus on one Robert Griffin III. Somebody is going to make a deal with the St. Louis Rams to trade up for the second overall pick in order to grab RG3. Nothing is written in stone before the Scouting Combine and Pro Days are completed, but the tablets are currently being prepared for inscription.

If that’s the case, it leaves us with an exciting amount of wild speculation to put together. About a dozen teams could logically express some level of interest in acquiring Griffin, which should sound like hosannas ringing in the ears of Rams fans. The second pick could return a serious haul for a St. Louis franchise that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003. How serious? Well, that’s up for debate, along with a number of other topics, like this one:

Is it wise to invest in second best?

As impressive as RG3’s Heisman-winning season was, it’s almost impossible to figure that he’ll surpass Andrew Luck and end up as the first selection of the Indianapolis Colts. That leaves him as, quite possibly, both the second-best player and the second-best quarterback on consensus draft boards. While other quarterbacks (notably Texas A&M passer Ryan Tannehill) might end up landing somewhere in the first round, there’s a pretty big chasm between Luck, Griffin, and the rest of the signal callers in this year’s draft class.

Of course, scouting and drafting is an inexact science, so the huge differences perceived by teams and fans on draft day don’t always play out that way once the professional careers start. And when teams have had to choose between two viable top picks at quarterback, the one that goes second has usually been a disappointment.1 There have been four drafts since 1990 where quarterbacks were chosen with the first overall pick and then with one (or both) of the subsequent two picks. Those picks have not worked out very well.

It’s an incredibly small sample size, but that sure looks like four busts in five picks to me. Expanding it to the top five adds Philip Rivers (yea) and Mark Sanchez (nay). Because there are so few examples to work with, it’s entirely possible that we could just be staring at a mirage, and there’s nothing for a team drafting Griffin to be concerned about. On the other hand, there might be some sort of magnet effect in play here, where a quarterback at the top of the draft class lures another quarterback up to the top of the charts, even if he doesn’t deserve to be there. Maybe fans and teams spend so much time comparing the two quarterbacks that they begin to overemphasize the relative strengths of the second passer, which causes them to rise up draft boards. That’s what happened with Leaf in 1998, thanks to his otherworldly arm strength. Griffin has a level of athletic ability that Luck will never be able to touch. That’s not to say that Griffin is the next Leaf, of course, but doing something important at a much higher level than the top player both at your position and in the draft class is naturally going to make you look good. It just might make you look too good.

How much will it cost teams to trade up?

This becomes a tricky question to answer for a variety of reasons. You may have heard about the draft value chart, which assigns every selection in the draft a numerical value for trade purposes. While some of the league’s teams may use that chart in making trades, it’s based upon the old draft salary structure that led to absurd deals for rookies. When the NFL renegotiated its collective bargaining agreement last year, rookie salaries at the top of the draft board were flattened severely. That totally changes the draft value chart, making top-five picks far more valuable than they were three or four years ago, since the penalty for failing (and paying a below-average player) is far less severe.

In addition, while the draft value chart can be useful for identifying fair value when two teams are negotiating a trade between each other, it doesn’t really apply in situations where teams deal up for the first or second overall pick because the demand is so high and the trading team’s leverage is so strong. If the 49ers want to trade up from 30 to the Lions’ pick at 23 this year and the Lions want a king’s ransom, chances are that the Steelers will be happy to take something resembling fair value with the 24th pick, and the odds are still reasonably good that the Niners will still get the player they want. The Lions aren’t likely to get many other offers for the pick. On the other hand, teams only trade up to the second overall pick when they are desperately after one particular player, a guy who is almost surely coveted by several other teams and is impossible to replace with a similar player later in the draft.

Consider a situation similar to the Griffin scenario that’s about to unfold with the Rams. As the 1998 NFL draft approached with the Colts on the clock, the Cardinals held the second overall pick. Like the Rams this year, they had a young quarterback who had shown some signs of promise, as rookie second-rounder Jake Plummer had gone 3-62 while nearly leading the team to an upset win over the 11-5 Steelers. They weren’t quite as invested in Plummer as the Rams are in Sam Bradford, but they had plenty of needs besides quarterback and seemed unlikely to take Leaf with the second overall pick.

The Chargers, who picked third that year, could have hoped that the Cardinals would pass on both selecting Leaf or trading the pick to someone who would, allowing the Chargers to take Leaf for themselves without having to give up a single asset. Instead, they traded up one spot to ensure themselves a shot at Leaf and gave up an incredible bounty. Not only did the Cardinals get the third overall pick, but they received San Diego’s second-round pick (the 33rd overall selection) and their first-round pick in the following year’s draft, as well as two marginal players off the San Diego roster. Throw that into the draft value chart and it starts to smoke before collapsing in on itself.

Before Browns fans begin to sweat profusely, though, it’s not usually that bad. When the Falcons dealt up from no. 4 to grab Michael Vick with the first overall pick from those same Chargers, they only gave up a pair of second-rounders and wideout Tim Dwight. The Redskins moved up to the third overall pick in the 2000 draft by trading the 12th and 24th selections in the first round to the Niners. Every team will have different assets to offer, obviously, but if we have to guess, Griffin’s going to cost his new team two first-round picks above the fold.

Who’s going to get him?

We thought you would never ask! Let’s start by eliminating those teams who wouldn’t have a logical interest in trading for RG3. That includes each of the 12 playoff teams. Well, sorta. Hold that thought for now. In addition to the playoff teams, we can also exclude seven clubs who failed to make the playoffs. The Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Jets, Chargers, Titans, and Bears don’t make sense as landing spots for Griffin because their quarterback chairs are full. That leaves 12 other organizations who should at least have a discussion or two about RG3 before draft day. Here are the teams with their picks in reverse draft order. Note: Tiebreakers for the eighth and ninth and 11th and 12th picks will be determined by coin flips at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Oakland Raiders: No first-round picks

Everyone who pretended to like Carson Palmer is gone from Oakland, namely head coach/de facto general manager at the time Hue Jackson, and it’s tempting to imagine Griffin at the head of an offense with so much young talent at receiver. New head coach Dennis Allen has thrown cold water on the idea that the Raiders would move on from Palmer, though, and after trading the 17th overall pick (and a first- or second-round pick next year) to the Bengals in the Palmer deal, the Raiders would only have the assets to deal for RG3 by trading Palmer away for a similar haul. And the problem with that idea is that most teams these days have access to game film.

Dallas Cowboys: Pick no. 14

Jerry Jones splash RG3 Texas Cowboys Stadium Jason Garrett job Tony Romo choke RG3 local. No, that’s not a complete sentence, but every sort of argument surrounding the Cowboys taking RG3 are just those buzzwords. Don’t bother caring: The restructuring of Romo’s deal basically ties him and the Cowboys together at the hip for another couple of years.

Arizona Cardinals: Pick no. 13

Hey, remember when the Cardinals solved their quarterback problem last year and gave Kevin Kolb that monster deal? Well, as it turns out, Kolb is sorta awful and that deal isn’t so onerous after all. The Cardinals can cut Kolb in March without having to pay him another penny in actual money beyond the $12 million they shelled out for his 2011 campaign, although he’ll put an $8 million hit of dead money on the cap for 2012. The problem is that the Cardinals already dealt away their second-round pick to Philadelphia in the trade for Kolb, so if they’re forced to deal two first-rounders and more to the Rams in a Griffin deal, they’re going to be missing a lot of top-level picks. It makes more sense for them to go after a veteran in free agency.

Seattle Seahawks: Pick no. 11 (tie)

The Seahawks were arguably above-average or better at every spot on the field besides quarterback last season, so it certainly makes sense that they would want to upgrade on Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Their huge investment in free agency last season, though, doesn’t jibe with the idea of grabbing a rookie quarterback. In addition, general manager John Schneider came over from Green Bay, where mentor Ted Thompson is famously loath to trade away draft picks. Again, a free-agent signing makes more sense, like former Packers backup Matt Flynn.

Kansas City Chiefs: Pick no. 11 (tie)

Head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli have suggested that the organization might bring in somebody to challenge Matt Cassel, but the operative word is “challenge,” not “replace.” It’s likely to be a veteran, but maybe the overlooked Ricky Stanzi will legally change his name to Pat the Patriot and carry a musket onto the field in the hopes that Crennel and Pioli will take him seriously.

Buffalo Bills: Pick no. 10

The Bills gave Ryan Fitzpatrick a $59 million contract during the regular season, but his numbers dropped off precipitously during the second half. The organization blamed rib and chest injuries, but Fitzpatrick’s second-half numbers looked eerily like his previous career output. And that contract? Well, it was a lot like the deal Donovan McNabb got from the Redskins a couple of years back, where the extension only kicked in if the team decided to pay him a bonus at the beginning of the subsequent season. The Redskins passed on McNabb, and if the Bills don’t want to pay Fitzpatrick a $5 million bonus on March 19, they can get out of their deal while owing him just $3.2 million. Even if the Bills make that choice, a team with this many holes would really be hard-pressed to give up multiple high draft picks for RG3.

Miami Dolphins: Pick no. 8 (tie with Carolina Panthers)

On the other hand, the Dolphins make much more sense. They have a huge hole at quarterback amid a deep roster with lots of young talent, so they would probably be able to withstand the hit of losing multiple first-round picks. Of course, after hiring former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be their head coach, the Dolphins have also been heavily linked to Flynn. One idea that might work involves cornerback Vontae Davis, who might have worn out his welcome in Miami after showing up hungover to practice and getting into a fight with Brandon Marshall before being suspended for a game last season. The Rams desperately need cornerbacks, and Davis has Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Maybe the Dolphins could get a deal done with the ninth pick and Davis in a package.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Pick no. 7

We’ll cover them in the Vikings section.

Washington Redskins: Pick no. 6

The offseason champs strike again! The Redskins desperately need a quarterback and love shiny new things! So this makes sense, right? Maybe. Does the Shanaclan really have time to develop a young quarterback, though? Under the ownership of Daniel Snyder, only one head coach has managed to last more than two years with this organization. That guy was Joe Gibbs, and he made the playoffs twice. Mike Shanahan’s now entering his third year with the team, but his Redskins have gone 11-21 and haven’t sniffed the playoffs. If Washington goes 6-10 again, will he be able to survive the chopping block? It just seems like they’re another team more likely to shop for a quarterback in free agency than trade up for one on draft day.

Cleveland Browns: Pick no. 4

By a wide margin, the Browns are the team best positioned to go out and grab RG3 from the Rams. They have a huge need at quarterback and no problematic contract standing in their way. Because they were so bad last year, they only need to move up two spots to ensure that they can grab Griffin. Most important, after last year’s Julio Jones trade, the Browns have an extra first-round pick lying around for this year’s draft. The draft value chart suggests that moving up from the fourth pick to the second overall selection would cost a team 800 points, or roughly the equivalent of the 21st overall pick. The Browns have the 22nd pick to go with the fourth selection, so they’re right in that ballpark. Even if the Browns need to send one or two more mid-level picks to seal the deal, they can make a Griffin trade without mortgaging their future.

Alternately, the Browns could sit tight and hope that Griffin falls to them at no. 4. It’s possible to imagine a scenario where that happens. Let’s say the Rams fall in love with Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon or USC tackle Matt Kalil with the second overall pick. They would be hard-pressed to trade down to no. 4, since the Vikings could creditably take either player at no. 3. The Vikings, as we’ll get to in a moment, are unlikely to take a quarterback at no. 3. If they can’t negotiate a trade with a suitor for Griffin in their time on the clock, they would likely draft Kalil, Blackmon, or LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, leaving Griffin for the Browns at four. In either scenario, the Browns are the favorites to end up with Griffin on their roster.

Minnesota Vikings: Pick no. 3

But just in case you think the Vikings would consider Griffin at three, let’s cover that. Both the Vikings and Jaguars have some right to be disappointed with their young starting quarterbacks, as both Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert struggled to varying extents during their rookie seasons. Would they consider giving up on their first-round selections from the 2011 draft after just a single season at the helm?

History suggests that it’s very, very unlikely. Only one quarterback taken in the first round of the draft since the merger failed to throw a single pass after his rookie season, 49ers washout Jim Druckenmiller; 104 of the 108 other quarterbacks threw at least 100 more passes in the NFL. Their careers aren’t over.

And the reality is that teams just don’t draft quarterbacks with back-to-back first-rounders. It’s only happened once3 since the merger, and there were some pretty strong extenuating circumstances. The Colts chose John Elway with the first pick of the 1983 draft, but only after Art Schlichter, the fourth overall pick of the 1982 draft, was suspended indefinitely for gambling on football during his rookie year. So expect Gabbert and Ponder to get at least one more season under center before their teams consider parting ways with them.

Two Crazy Trade Possibilities

OK, let’s have some fun. Neither of these scenarios are even remotely likely, but they make at least some sense. There are two playoff teams that could make a case for going deep into the draft and grabbing Griffin, but there’s a lot of moving parts between them and RG3. Let’s move those parts for them.

Trade 1: The Hometown-ish Hero

The Texans might be coming off their most successful season as a franchise, but they have a lot of decisions to make over the next couple of weeks. Pass rusher Mario Williams is an unrestricted free agent, and franchising him would cost the Texans a prohibitive $22 million. Quarterback Matt Schaub is entering the final year of his deal, and while he’s played at a high level, he’s only managed to stay healthy during two of his five seasons in Houston.

Star halfback Arian Foster, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent. The compensation for restricted free agents has changed in the new CBA; while teams could previously restrict a star player by forcing interested suitors to pony up a first- and third-round pick, the maximum compensation in this current CBA is just the first-rounder. Foster’s looked brilliant during his time in Houston, but he’s also playing in a system that’s made stars of unheralded backs going all the way back to the Terrell Davis days in Denver. If the Texans want to re-sign Williams, they might not have the cap room to lock up Foster.

There aren’t many teams that need a running back very badly, but one that does is the Cincinnati Bengals, who just happen to have two first-round picks this year after the Carson Palmer trade. What if the Bengals pony up a huge offer sheet to Foster this offseason? Would the Texans match? If not, they could get the 17th overall pick from Cincinnati to pair with their 25th pick.

That would give Houston the ammunition to go after Griffin, who could learn from Schaub during his rookie season (and serve as a possible injury replacement) before taking over in 2013. The Texans would still have the ability to franchise and trade Schaub after the final year of his contract, when he could have more market value. Griffin would be able to stay in Texas, where he played both his high school and college football about three hours outside of Houston.4 If the Texans don’t want to pay Foster and can’t justify giving the injury-prone Schaub a huge deal, the RG3 option should be on the table.

Trade 2: Obligatory Tebow Discussion

Just kidding about the obligatory part. A Tebow trade would actually make a fair amount of sense right about now. The Broncos clearly aren’t enamored of the guy, considering they were talking about benching him before he led them to a playoff win over the Steelers. If they really think Tebow is going to fail as an NFL quarterback, they would want to sell high on him now before reality sets in and his market value craters. Denver fans would undoubtedly be heartbroken to lose Tebow, but the best way to make up for losing him would be to draft a hot young quarterback like Griffin, who has said he wanted to play like John Elway.

The only problem is that the Rams would have no interest in Tim Tebow. That’s where our third team comes in: the Jacksonville Jaguars. New owner Shahid Khan has already said that the team should have taken Tebow in the 2010 draft, owing to both his abilities as a player and as a ticket-mover. Tebow went to high school in a Jacksonville suburb, played at Florida, and remains active in the Jacksonville community; a trade for Tebow would be great box office for a moribund franchise that often struggles to fill its stadium.

Jacksonville wouldn’t likely give up the seventh overall pick straight-up as part of a Tebow trade, but the Broncos could probably get it for Tebow and a mid-round pick or two. That would leave them with the seventh and 25th picks in this year’s draft, which would be about as much as anyone besides the Browns can offer. If Cleveland decided to lowball the Rams, the Broncos could swoop in and make this deal.

It’s a far-fetched proposal, but everybody wins here. The Rams get the 25th pick and maybe an additional third-rounder to move down five spots. The Broncos get to sell high on Tebow while acquiring a potential franchise quarterback and avoiding mass riots in Denver. And the Jaguars get the one player in football who is more valuable to them than any other team in the league. See? Everybody wins! Well, except for Blaine Gabbert.

Filed Under: People, Robert Griffin III, Sports, Teams

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell