Falcons should have heeded the fifth in hunt for Price
March 9, 2003
By Pete Prisco
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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There are certain commandments that NFL teams should live by when putting together a roster. Among them:
If you don't have a quarterback, find one.
Use premium draft picks on outside edge players, such as corners, defensive ends and offensive tackles.
Never pay big free-agent money to a player over 30.
Guards, fullbacks and safeties should be low on the acquisition food chain.
And, last but certainly not least, never, ever trade away a first-round pick for any player except a franchise quarterback. Buffalo, for example, gets an exemption for its trade for Drew Bledsoe last year.
The Falcons, the latest breakers of the fifth commandment, do not.
It will take time to figure if Peerless Price was worth it for the Falcons. (AP)
Atlanta traded away its first-round pick in this year's draft to the Buffalo Bills on Friday to acquire wide receiver Peerless Price. In doing so, they also gave him a seven-year contract worth $42 million with a $10 million signing bonus (split over two years).
The Redskins could become the latest to break the rule after signing Jets receiver Laveranues Coles to a seven-year, $35 million offer sheet Monday. The Jets have seven days to match the offer since Coles is a restricted free agent, but if they don't, they will get Washington's first-round pick in the April draft, which is the 13th overall.
Price and Coles are both good players, and if they were true free agents and not players with movement restrictions on them, they'd both be hot properties on the open market. Speed receivers with impressive resumes are hard to find.
Paying them is justified. Giving up first-round picks is not.
The Falcons and owner Arthur Blank certainly think paying Price is worth it. Blank is quickly earning a reputation as an owner who will do what it takes to sign a player, even if it means overpaying.
With a rising star at quarterback in Michael Vick, and the Falcons being a team that plays on a fast track at the Georgia Dome, they had to make a push this offseason to get some outside speed. Price is more than just a deep threat, making big strides the past year as a route runner and a player who can go inside to catch passes, although some opposing teams insist that if he's hit in the mouth he isn't the same player. In other words, he isn't Fearless Price.
He is perfect for the Falcons offense, which ranked 23rd in the league in passing in 2002. At 26, he can grow with Vick as they both move into the best years of their careers.
That said, giving up a first-round pick and paying him that money is a risky move. Losing out on the first-round pick hurts for two reasons. One of those is that draft picks that replenish rosters and help teams stay good.
Five years from now, Price will be in his ninth year and he will be slowing down some. His cap figure provided he doesn't get a restructure before then, will be unmanageable. That could lead to his release. By contrast, that Bills rookie, whoever he turns out to be, will have just finished his fifth season as a cheap player.
See, first-round picks now come cheaply compared to the money being thrown around to free agents. Even the highest rookie deals are far less than the free-agent money the Falcons gave to Price. Rookies on a roster are inexpensive labor that helps balance out the cap. Teams without rookies often have cap troubles in a year or two.
"That's what a lot of people lose sight of when these picks are traded," said one NFC cap guy. "Rookies are cheap in terms of the cap. Without them, it can be tough getting under with a quality roster."
The Falcons can counter any criticism by saying they had to do what they had to do to get Vick a legitimate pass-catching weapon. They certainly weren't going to get a big-play receiver with the 23rd pick, especially because Michigan State's Charles Rogers and Miami's Andre Johnson, the two highest-rated receivers in this draft, will be long gone by that pick.
"If we had a top-five pick, it might be different," said Ron Hill, the Falcons vice president of football operations. "But we knew neither of those guys would be there when we picked. Peerless gives us the speed that we had to get outside. We know the kid. He's got good character, he's a hard worker and he's 26 years old. It's a good fit."
This isn't meant to simply rip the Falcons. They've made nice strides the past couple of years and the trade to get Vick two years ago was one of their best moves. They've also moved to re-sign many of their key players in the past year, including linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive end Patrick Kerney and linebacker Chris Draft.
Blank isn't afraid to spend money, even if he sometimes goes a bit overboard (see Warrick Dunn).
So the money was never an issue with Price. It was always about the trade compensation. The Falcons wanted to part with a second-round pick and an additional pick to get him from the Bills in the sign-and-trade. At one point they tried to hold out for giving up the 2004 first-round choice. But Buffalo held out for this year's first-round pick.
And now, despite trading a first-round pick last year to get Bledsoe, the Bills have back a first-round pick.
If you were a team without a quarterback, which the Bills were before last season, would you trade Price for Bledsoe? You bet. That's essentially what the Bills did, which is why general manager Tom Donahoe remains one of the league's best football minds.
Would Donahue have loved to hold onto Price? Sure, he would. Kevin Gilbride, the teams' offensive coordinator, certainly wanted him back. But when Buffalo traded Price to Atlanta, it freed up $5 million in cap room, which allowed the Bills to sign Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes to an offer sheet. It looks as if the Bengals won't match that sheet, which means the Bills also now have the playmaking linebacker they so badly need.
Atlanta also has the player it wanted, but giving up a first-round pick may come back to bite them in the rump. It has with other teams in the past.
How happy would the Dallas Cowboys be if they had Seattle running back Shaun Alexander and Seahawks receiver Koren Robinson on their roster right now? Those are the two players the Seahawks got with the picks they obtained from Dallas when they traded away receiver Joey Galloway as a franchise player.
Galloway also got a seven-year, $42 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus. He will count $6.64 million against the Cowboys cap this year unless they re-do his deal. Galloway caught 61 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Robinson caught 78 passes for 1,240 yards and five touchdowns in his second season. He will be 23 later this month, while Galloway will be 32 in November. Robinson also has a cap figure of $1.917 million this year. Alexander has a cap figure of $1.521 million, which means those two combined have a cap figure about $3 million less than Galloway.
So who was it that got the best of that deal?
In 1998, the Carolina Panthers gave up two first-round picks to sign Washington Redskins defensive tackle Sean Gilbert. They gave him a $10 million signing bonus on a five-year deal and have never received their money's worth.
Those lost two draft choices helped cripple the franchise, which is now just recovering from that awful trade. Washington traded one of those draft picks to New Orleans, who used it to draft Ricky Williams. The other pick wound up with the New York Jets via trades and they used it to take Shaun Ellis with the 12th overall pick.
That means the Panthers gave up the fifth overall pick in 1999 and the 12th overall pick in 2000 to get Gilbert. And they paid him big money on top of that.
Miami did the same thing to get Williams last year from the Saints. They gave up what ended up being two first-round picks, the second one moving to that level based on Williams' performance in 2002, to get him. He rushed for 1,888 yards, turning a third-round conditional pick into a first-round pick in this year's draft. Miami also gave Williams a new contract, something it didn't have to do.
The Dolphins failed to make the playoffs, despite Williams' impressive numbers. The Saints took defensive end Charles Grant with the first-round pick obtained from Miami last year, and Grant proved to be a starter who showed pass-rush ability. The Saints will also have the 18th pick in the first round of this April's draft, courtesy of that trade.
Both teams seem more than pleased with the trade, but in the long run those lost draft picks will affect Miami on the field and against the cap.
Not all teams that let franchise players walk in exchange for draft-pick compensation can say the deals work out for them. In 1993, the Packers signed Reggie White as a franchise player away from the Eagles, but the Packers did not have to give up any picks. Under the rules that year, Philadelphia was awarded two first-round picks as compensation.
Philadelphia used one of those picks to take guard Lester Holmes, who proved to be a so-so player, and then traded the other one in 1994 to Cleveland, who used the pick on wide receiver Derrick Alexander.
Green Bay went on to win a Super Bowl and get to another with White playing defensive end. In his six seasons with the Packers, White had 68½ sacks. It was a big win-win for the Packers.
That same year, the 49ers signed Arizona safety Tim McDonald as a franchise player. The Cardinals received a first-round pick as compensation, which turned out to be tackle Ernest Dye. McDonald was a six-year starter for the 49ers, while Dye was somewhat of a disappointment. Advantage 49ers.
Tampa Bay traded away two first-round picks to get Keyshawn Johnson. They now have a Super Bowl ring since that trade, so they will say it is one that worked out. But those two picks turned out to be John Abraham and Anthony Becht for the Jets, two solid starters.
In 1998, the Redskins signed Bengals tackle Dan Wilkinson to an offer sheet that included a $5 million signing bonus. Designated as a franchise player, the Bengals declined to match. They received a first- and a third-round pick as compensation. The first-round pick turned out to be linebacker Brian Simmons, while the third-round pick was guard Mike Goff. Wilkinson has been a major disappointment in Washington, while Simmons is a good starting linebacker.
The Chiefs traded away a first-round pick to get quarterback Trent Green in 2001, a deal that certainly worked out well for them. The Rams used the pick they got from the Chiefs, 12th overall, to take defensive tackle Damione Lewis, who has proved to be a decent starter. But getting Green was a coup for the Chiefs, especially since he had two years left on a cap-friendly deal. That's why trading first-round picks for quarterbacks is the exception to any roster-building rules.
The verdict on the Price deal won't be known for some time. The Falcons obviously are thrilled to have acquired a speed option outside for Vick. And they should be, although some coaches and personnel people around the league wonder if he is truly a No. 1 receiver.
Price caught 94 passes last year, but the reality is that Eric Moulds was the Bills' No. 1 option. Price has to prove to the league that he is capable of taking over that role. If he doesn't, the trade will be one the Falcons will regret. If Price does step up, perhaps this will be one of those moves, like the Packers' move to get White, that will work out for the team giving up draft choice No. 23 in the first round.
"You guys would rip us if we didn't get the speed receiver, now some of you will rip us because of the way we got him," said Hill. "Let's just say we're excited about adding a player like that to our offense. It's a move we're glad we made."
Check back in five years. If Price is a Pro Bowl player for three of those years and the Falcons have made it at least to the NFC title game, it will be termed a great deal. If he proves to be a one-year wonder, the Falcons will regret it.