Three playoff spots and a slew of seedings will be determined on the final day of the regular season Sunday. But for a longer-term impact on the NFL, look to the otherwise meaningless game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts.
Two weeks ago, the Colts were winless and had a stranglehold on the first overall draft pick. Now, after a late-season surge, they have two victories. That is nice for the current players and for coach Jim Caldwell. It is a catastrophe for Colts fans, who had become used to the idea of Stanford’s Andrew Luck eventually taking over for Peyton Manning and continuing Indianapolis’s run of remarkable quarterbacking. If the Colts lose, they get the first overall pick. The team’s owner, Jim Irsay, has said he would keep Manning if he was healthy but also would take a “young quarterback” if one was available. But if the Colts beat the Jaguars on Sunday – entirely possible, considering the Jaguars have just four victories – and the St. Louis Rams lose to the San Francisco 49ers – highly likely considering San Francisco could be playing for the NFC’s second seed – the Rams would suddenly seize the first overall pick.
Then what? That all depends on what the Rams’ relatively new owner, Stan Kroenke, does long before the draft. Kroenke is no neophyte sports owner – he long held a minority stake in the Rams, and also owns the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and the English soccer team Arsenal – but if his team gets the first overall pick, his decision about the future of coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney could shape the NFL for at least a decade. Spagnuolo and Devaney are tied to Sam Bradford, who was the top overall draft pick in 2010 and who looked to everyone like the next great quarterback as a rookie before injuries and the collapse of the Rams this season dragged him down, too. Their potential successors? Maybe not.
“Andrew Luck is the No. 1 pick, no matter who has it,” said Jack Mula, a former agent and a member of the Patriots’ personnel department who now advises some of college football’s elite teams. “If a new regime comes in, it’s pretty well established new people like to win with their people. People make moves in order to get their people on the roster. If history is any indicator, with a new regime in St. Louis, perhaps they feel they want Luck over Bradford.”
If the Rams stick with Bradford, they will trade the first overall pick. With the new rookie wage system in place, the No. 1 pick is more attractive than ever before (remember, Cam Newton got about half the guaranteed money Bradford did in his rookie contract), and the Rams could get, perhaps, three first-round picks, a haul that could surround Bradford with elite talent for years. The teams most desperate for a quarterback, like Miami and Washington, would be tempted to do anything necessary to get Luck. But if the Rams opted to draft Luck, Bradford could be available in a trade, also an enticement for teams. (Another factor: Will former Chiefs executive Carl Peterson, a close friend of the Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, have a prominent role in decision-making about the draft even though Jeff Ireland will remain as general manager?)
While Matt Barkley’s decision last week to remain at the University of Southern California affects the depth of the quarterback pool, it does not change the value of the first overall pick. That is because Luck will be the first pick no matter how many quarterbacks are in the draft. After him, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner, will likely be the second quarterback taken. But while Luck is a consensus pick, after that teams will have to determine who fits in best with their systems.
It is too early for teams to be locked in on their draft plans. Only one thing is certain. Even though it might help the Jaguars’ future to give up and let the Colts win – and try to keep Luck out of the AFC South – don’t expect it to happen. The Jaguars, just like the Colts, are playing to save their own jobs and perhaps to impress new coaches. Shaping the roster for next season and beyond is the work of the front office, whoever inhabits it.