No NFL team likes to give up three first-round picks for a player. High draft picks are the cement blocks with which championship clubs are built. But sacrificing that many No. 1s (along with a No. 2) for this year’s second selection — and the chance to get Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III — doesn’t necessarily have to damage the Washington Redskins‘ long-term prospects.
How do we know this? Because the Redskins, in the not-too-distant past, got by quite nicely without first-rounders. A whole bunch of them. From 1971 to ‘91, they had exactly four No. 1 picks … and traded away the other 17. And these, I’ll just remind you, were the glory years, years that saw them go to five Super Bowls and win three. Nobody thought more outside the box in that period than George Allen and Bobby Beathard, the architects of those teams. While Allen and Beathard didn’t bat 1.000 in the wheeling-and-dealing department, their record speaks for itself. In those 21 seasons, no franchise won more games than Washington did (223, counting the playoffs).
So, yes, it’s entirely possible the Redskins will survive this latest extravagance, as costly as the second pick was. It isn’t, after all, something they’re likely to do again soon. (So far, they’ve done a swap of this magnitude — three first-rounders for one — once in 81 years.)
Besides, trading a No. 1 doesn’t mean as much now as it did in Allen and Beathard’s time. When George and Bobby dealt all those first-rounders, remember, there was no free agency — except, briefly, in 1976, when a federal court liberated a handful of players. Granted, there was Plan B free agency from ‘89 to ‘91, but that was basically a yard sale of second- and third-tier guys. So when you gave up a No. 1 back then, you knew that, outside of signing some CFL star like Warren Moon, there was little you could do to make up for it. Your best hope was to draft well in the lower rounds and try to fill the void that way.
But nowadays we have quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, defensive ends like Mario Williams, wide receivers like Vincent Jackson (already signed by Tampa Bay) and cornerbacks like Cortland Finnegan (snapped up by St. Louis) — among many others — available to the highest bidder. If a club is willing to pay the price, it can address just about any need, and do it right now. It doesn’t have to wait a year or three for a draftee to get his legs under him. The trick, of course, is to spend your money wisely, because prices tend to be inflated in the quick-fix world of free agency. If you make a mistake, it can come back to bite you.
Just ask Dan Snyder, whose paparazzilike pursuit of name-brand players has left him with more teeth marks than Robert Shaw in “Jaws.” But the Redskins have done better in free agency since Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen came aboard, staying away from the glitz and focusing on piece-of-the-puzzle producers like Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen and, in Tuesday’s frenzy, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. If they can continue to get good value for their cap dollars, they can do much to compensate for the loss of several high draft picks.
The Redskins‘ No. 1 pick last year, for instance, Ryan Kerrigan (who went 16th), got a four-year deal worth a reported $8.72 million. Since the team won’t have a first-rounder the next two years, it can put those millions into free agency — or into restructured contracts that would improve its salary cap situation down the road. The picks are lost, but the money isn’t. And the money can do the Redskins plenty of good.
That’s not to say that first-round picks aren’t important … or that trading three No. 1s for a player is ideal. Heck, with the new rookie wage scale, No. 1s are more affordable than they’ve been in decades — and less expensive than many free agents. But if George Allen and Bobby Beathard could win without first-rounders, in a much more restrictive environment, there’s no reason Shanny and George’s son can’t so the same, can’t have their cake and RG3, too. The opportunities will be there for them.