The Patriots hold the No. 32 pick in the draft, held Thursday night in Chicago, and it's no longer simply the last pick of the first round, holding little difference in value than a second-round pick.
No. 32 actually has gained some value and given Bill Belichick an intriguing trade chip thanks to the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement, adopted in 2011.
Why does the No. 32 pick have extra value? It has to do with the rules for rookie contracts, specifically first-rounders. In the new CBA, all drafted rookies automatically sign four-year deals (undrafted rookies sign three-year deals). Teams and players are prohibited from renegotiating a contract until after their third season, meaning the rookies are locked into their deals for at least three years.
However, first-round picks also come with a fifth-year option that is triggered at the team's discretion. The fifth-year option salary is pre-determined by a formula and is often a lower salary than a player could potentially receive on the open market as a free agent.
So the Patriots' No. 32 pick has a good amount of value compared with the first pick of the second round, No. 33 — it's the cheapest pick that also comes with the highly coveted fifth-year option (last year's No. 32 overall, Teddy Bridgewater, received a relatively modest $5.495 million guaranteed on his four-year deal).
If a player drafted at No. 32 forges a great career, a team could control his rights for below-market value for seven years — the four-year contract, fifth-year option, then two straight franchise tags, which is often below market as well. But if a player at No. 33 turns out to be a great player, you might have to open your wallet for him as early as his third offseason.
"The 33d pick, you've got four years and then he walks. You just don't have as much time and as much leverage," former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said. "I think 32d and above gives you a lot more leverage as a club, a lot more control on a player. It's very affordable, and it just gives you a chance, not only for the fifth-year option, but then you can double franchise him. So you really have a player's rights tied up for seven years, which is forever in the NFL."
Realistically, the trade market is active for the last few picks of the first round — not just No. 32 — as teams try to lock up the players they want into a contract with a fifth-year option. No team is more aware of this than the Vikings and GM Rick Spielman, who traded up to the 29th pick in 2012 to select safety Harrison Smith, traded up with the Patriots in 2013 to get the 29th pick and select receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, then traded up last year to select Bridgewater. If Bridgewater develops into a franchise quarterback, the Vikings could potentially save millions by drafting him at No. 32 instead of No. 33.
That said, a good case can also be made for Belichick to trade down from No. 32 and into the second round, anyway. He did well in divesting his first-round pick in 2013, drafting Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Josh Boyce for the pick traded to Minnesota. And there is a significant difference in up-front money between the Nos. 32 and 33 picks — Bridgewater got $1.5 million more guaranteed in his rookie deal than did last year's No. 33 pick, Houston offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo.
The new draft structure also encourages a lot of trades at the end of the night and the beginning of the next day. With only the first round on Thursday night, teams have all day Friday to reset their boards and figure out certain players they want to target in trades at the top of the second round (the same dynamic works on Saturday for the start of the fourth round).
In 2012, Dominik traded up to No. 31 to draft running back Doug Martin because he wanted to grab him before teams had a chance to really study and reset their boards.
"I didn't want clubs to sit around all night long thinking about, 'Well wait a second, we really like Doug Martin, he's clearly the best player on our board, let's go get him,' " Dominik said.
Of the first three drafts under the new CBA, the Packers and Ravens both used the No. 32 pick, while the Seahawks traded it last year.
So what will the Patriots do?
Belichick will certainly listen to and possibly initiate trade offers. In Belichick's 15 drafts with New England, he's made at least one trade in every year except 2004. He's made 28 trades in the past seven years, with as many as seven in 2009 and 2010 and as few as one last year.
But Belichick doesn't have tendencies, of course, other than doing what he feels is best for the Patriots. Seventeen times, Belichick has traded up. Seventeen times, he has traded down. He'll completely trade out of the first round (2013), or package picks to move up and target a specific player (2012).
"I personally think he'll select the pick, just because I think the 32d pick has value," Dominik said. "If I were to guess on Belichick, which is dangerous — impossible might be the better word — I think he is more prone to trade down [than trade up]. But I think his selection is a good spot for a team."