It used to be that NFL teams didn’t really want the top overall pick in the NFL draft because it was so expensive to pay an untested rookie. For example, the St. Louis Rams were forced to give former Oklahoma star and Heisman winner Sam Bradford a six-year, $78 million deal as the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. At the time, the deal was worth more than what Peyton Manning or Tom Brady were getting.
But the new collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and the NFL Players’ Association created cost certainty in the draft, much like in the NBA. The past two No. 1 overall picks, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, each got four-year deals for around $22 million. And that cost certainty makes those picks much, much more valuable. It’s part of the reason the Washington Redskins felt comfortable giving up a huge haul to the Rams last year to trade up to No. 2 and take Robert Griffin III. Already that trade looks like a steal for Washington as good as RGIII has been and with Bradford not playing very well.
With six weeks left in the 2012 NFL regular season, it’s time to look at the race for the top overall pick in next spring’s draft. There is no lock franchise quarterback like the Colts’ Luck in the 2013 draft, although things can change at the Combine and with individual workouts. Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley entered this season as a potential top overall pick but has disappointed in his senior year. West Virginia QB Geno Smith got off to an incredible start this season, but he has slowed down considerably and the Mountaineers have lost five straight. They are the only two quarterbacks with first-round grades right now.
So perhaps someone such as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones or Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will land at the top spot. No defensive player has gone at No. 1 overall since Houston chose NC State defensive end Mario Williams over USC Heisman winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart in 2006. Bovada will release Week 12 specials later this week on the team most likely to land the top pick, but here is a look at the contenders.
Kansas City Chiefs (1-9): The Chiefs have lost seven straight games and have the NFL’s worst point differential at minus-132. They have led in regulation in just two games all season and seven of their losses are by double-digits. Kansas City badly needs a franchise quarterback as the Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn experiments have been failures. The Chiefs could still win a few more games this season as they host Carolina and visit Cleveland and Oakland.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9): The Jaguars also have lost seven straight, but they put a huge scare into the Houston Texans on Sunday. In fact, backup QB Chad Henne was so good that he has been named the starter this week versus Tennessee. What does that say about the future of second-year QB Blaine Gabbert? There is also talk the Jaguars could trade franchise player Maurice Jones-Drew this offseason rather than give him a new deal. Jacksonville’s remaining schedule is loaded with winnable games: two against Tennessee, at Buffalo, versus the New York Jets and at Miami. Both Jacksonville and Kansas City are the only winless teams at home in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers (2-8): The Panthers have their franchise quarterback in place so they could address the defense with their first-round pick for the second year in a row (Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly was taken at No. 9 overall in 2012). Carolina also could use a receiver to pair opposite Steve Smith. Overall, the Panthers are too talented to be 2-8, as six of their losses are by eight points or fewer. Carolina has winnable games remaining at Philadelphia (next Monday), at Kansas City and home versus Oakland.
Cleveland Browns (2-8): The Browns are under new ownership and have overhauled the front office, so question No. 1 is whether coach Pat Shurmur is back next year. Most believe no chance. Cleveland badly needs a pass-rusher and Georgia’s Jones would be a perfect fit. Southern Cal receiver Robert Woods also would provide needed help to Brandon Weeden. The Browns have played better of late, winning two of five and should have beaten Dallas on Sunday. They could upset Pittsburgh this week as the Steelers will be forced to start ancient Charlie Batch at QB. The Browns also would have a fighting chance in their next three games: at Oakland and home to Kansas City and Washington. The Browns and Rams are the only winless road teams this year.
Oakland Raiders (3-7): The Raiders will definitely play a big role in determining the team with the worst record this season because they still face the Browns, Chiefs and Panthers. Oakland must address defense in the draft as it has allowed 135 points in its past three games. The Raiders are just the fourth team since the 1970 NFL merger to allow that many in a three-game stretch.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-7): The Eagles have quit on coach Andy Reid, losing six in a row and they may not win again. It’s now a formality that Reid won’t be back in 2013. Philly has as much skill position talent as any team but its offensive line is a disaster and likely will be the top offseason need.