How big free agency price tags are dictating top of NFL draft

If the Jets are criticized for negotiating a contract near the top of a $16 million per year market to keep All-Pro safety Jamal Adams from free agency …

If the Panthers (and soon the Giants) will be lambasted for deciding to invest more than $16 million in game-changing running backs Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, respectively …

Then isn’t the NFL really saying the first 10 picks of the draft now are reserved only for quarterbacks, pass rushers, offensive tackles and cornerbacks?

Sure enough, 2020 mock drafts show that exclusivity, so The Post posed a paradox to four NFL analysts: Why bother with any other position if it is later considered foolish to pay top dollar to young stars exceeding expectations?

“It’s a really smart question,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said. “You can get away with drafting anyone anywhere if they are a special player. It’s when you go to re-sign them: Do you think the value is still going to be there?”

The “best player available” philosophy could become “best premium position player available” within the top 10.

“I think that’s where the league is going,” McShay said. “You want to re-sign your own guys for continuity, but it’s a lot easier to throw money at rookies than it is that second contract. Jamal and Saquon bring a lot of leadership and competitiveness to those teams, but you have to get those other positions right if you are going to turn the corner.”

“ ‘Build through the draft’ is a cliché, but if the right decision is to let go of an elite player entering his prime based on his position, then either the system or the thinking is broken.”

“The expectation is you are going to hit on your picks at the top of the draft, and you will either pay them or trade them to get something of value, a la Jacksonville with Jalen Ramsey,” former NFL agent turned CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry said. “How you play dictates your second contract more than anything else.”

First-round picks earn a preset wage based entirely on draft slot for four seasons, which makes it enticing to fill those four positions that otherwise eat up the salary cap. Negotiations on a second contract can begin after three seasons, so Adams and McCaffrey are first eligible now, with Barkley up next offseason.

“I don’t think those guys ever leave the building,” said ESPN’s Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets general manager and Dolphins vice president. “I think those are foundational players that are part of winning locker rooms.

“We are building teams here, and to the extent they provide value beyond the normal discussion of just the position, that’s something that oftentimes gets lost in the wash.”

A preposterous theory that floated around the NFL combine — based on some buyer’s remorse from the Rams on Todd Gurley (four years, $57 million) and salary-cap complications Ezekiel Elliott’s six-year, $90 million contract cause for the Cowboys — is that Jacksonville lucked out.

Unlike the Giants, Rams, Panthers and Cowboys, the Jaguars will not have to sink a large contract into a running back because top 10 pick Leonard Fournette hasn’t earned it. Think about that backwards logic.

“You are talking about a running back who has taken all these hits,” McShay said. “What you are paying them in year 6-10 hurts your cap so much more than when you drafted them in the top 10 as a rookie.”

Five of the top 10 picks in 2015 already have changed teams and others soon could in free agency. A swing-and-miss at a premium position is more easily forgiven than a risk.

“These head coaches and general managers have to win now,” said SiriusXM NFL Radio host Brady Quinn, a former NFL quarterback. “It starts with a combination of need and using those five positions to prioritize what you are going to take in the top 10.”

The reward for bucking convention can be seen with the Redskins and Colts, who were questioned for over-drafting guards. Brandon Scherff and Quenton Nelson quickly became two of the best in the NFL.

“People question it and he goes in and he’s an All-Pro,” Quinn said. “You see that happen and you say to yourself, ‘Hmm.’ But, more often than not, I think teams are apprehensive.”

Quinn’s fifth premium position is wide receiver, but he admits even that is being phased out. Many scouts see Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy as a top-five talent in 2020 who could slip based on position.

It’s common for quarterbacks to be over-drafted — four could be in the top 10 again — but now four or five offensive tackles could go before the first wide receiver, tight end, running back, guard or safety.

Is that just the strength of the 2020 draft class? Or a sign of things to come?

“You may see it leaning in that direction,” Corry said. “I still think if you are one of the best players available, you are going to go high regardless of position.”

Subject to change.

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