The past two days, I have examined how many draft picks the Ravens, Patriots and Packers have retained under the current people making personnel decisions. As we have observed, not every draft pick was retained after their rookie deals expired, but those that were, were long-time contributors to the franchise, and of those players who did not stay with the franchise for long, not many of them went on to long NFL careers.
So what does this mean for the Broncos? To determine that, we must remember that the landscape for rookie contracts has changed.
For draft picks from 2010 and earlier, rookie contracts tended to be five or six years for first rounders, four or five for second rounders, and four for all other draft picks. Now, it's four years for all draft picks, except first-round picks have a club option for a fifth year.
Given the different structure for rookie contracts, what should the teams that draft well consider First, they want first-round picks that play well enough to make it worth picking up that fifth-year option. Because it must be exercised before the player's fourth season begins, you have three years to evaluate. If you do pick up the option, then that's a sign you want to keep this player for the long term. If you don't, it's a wasted pick. (Note: A team could certainly choose not to pick up the option, but re-sign the player if the team sees improvement in his fourth season. But if that were to happen, it's a sign the team overdrafted the player by a round or two, so it's still not the best use of a first-round pick.)
For the rest of the draft picks, think of it this way: Second round picks should be good starters that you may want to keep for the long term, but there may be occasions when you are unable to do so. Third and fourth rounders should contribute in some form for their four years, but you are not necessarily counting on them staying past their rookie deals, unless your first- and second-round picks don't pan out. Fifth through seventh rounders should ideally contribute, but could get beaten out by other players fighting for roster spots, be they fringe veterans or undrafted rookies. If a pick in the last three rounds is worth keeping, chances are you'll get him at a low cost.
How have those three teams we've discussed approached more recent drafts? The Ravens have picked up the option on 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith and had no first rounder in 2012. In 2012, they selected Courtney Upshaw and Kelechi Osemele in the second round, and it seems reasonable that the Ravens will want to retain one of them. The Patriots picked up the option on 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder and have re-signed 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon. It is almost certain they will pick up the options on the rookie deals for 2012 first rounders Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower. The Packers not only didn't pick up the option for 2011 first rounder Derek Sherrod, but cut him midway through the season. On the other hand, they did extend 2011 second rounder Randall Cobb. It remains to be seen if Green Bay will pick up the rookie deal option for 2012 first rounder Nick Perry, but it seems likely they will want to retain second-round pick Casey Hayward.
In each case, you can see that the teams continued, or are likely to continue, their tendency of retaining at least one player from their draft classes. The Ravens and Patriots each had a first-round pick in 2011 that they want to retain, given that they picked up the options. So how does everything we have gone over apply to Denver?
If you look at the players who the Broncos drafted, who were still with the franchise when John Elway took over, he has focused his attentions on re-signing a few players. He put the franchise tag on 2008 first-round pick Ryan Clady, then signed him to an extension, and now, Clady will enter his eighth season with the Broncos. He then re-signed David Bruton, a fourth-round pick in 2009, and once he finishes his current contract, he will have been with the Broncos for seven seasons. Elway also placed the franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas, a 2010 first-round pick, and this will be the sixth season Thomas will have been with the franchise. Again, Elway's approach has been similar to the other teams we've discussed, in that he has focused on keeping a first-round pick who was worth retaining, while looking closely at players taken in later rounds to determine who is worth keeping, even though Elway didn't draft any of these players.
Then we come to the 2011 draft class. They have picked up the rookie deal option for 2011 first rounder Von Miller, and it is a given that they will eventually extend him. They retained 2011 seventh rounder Virgil Green at a low cost. They probably would have wanted to keep 2011 second rounder Orlando Franklin, but then 2011 undrafted rookie Chris Harris came along and became an impact player (thus an exception to the rule about second-round picks came up).
The Broncos had no 2012 first-round pick, so now they can focus attention on second-round picks Derek Wolfe and Brock Osweiler, the latter who won't demand a big contract at this point. They will have to figure out what to do with Omar Bolden, Malik Jackson, and Danny Trevathan, because not all three will be re-signed at a low cost, but I would expect Denver to retain at least one of those players.
But the bottom line is this: The best organizations know they won't keep every draft pick, especially when certain picks command big money. And in most cases, the picks they allowed to depart, were the right calls.
Elway seems to understand this, and so far, his pattern of which draft picks to retain follows those franchises who draft well. What Elway must continue to do, is keep drafting well.