NFL Draft Strategy: Why Trading Up Is the New Trading Down
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During the NFL Draft, fans of every team scream at their TVs for their squad to slide down the draft order. They think it's a no-lose scenario. It seems like every rookie is like a lottery ticket, either priceless or worthless. The more players their favorite team drafts, they think, greater the odds one of them turns out to be valuable.
Every fan loves to hear their team's a draft day winner. The NFL Draft is the only competition between February and September; you want your team in the "Winners" section of the inevitable post-draft columns. The surest way for teams to get great grades from the draftniks is to "fill" as many "holes" as possible; the more picks they have to do that with, the better.
Fans love when their team trades on draft day, because 1) it means a guaranteed few minutes of attention, and 2) it show their team has an active strategy, and isn't just sitting around waiting for other teams to steal all their best targets.
Trading is another chance for a fan's team to "beat" somebody, too. One team will be hailed as the victor of the trade, and the team with the higher pick has leverage to extract a premium from the other team.
But fans' real love of trading down has nothing to do with pride, victory or winning. Fans don't like risk.
Fans don't want their team to be like the Mike Ditka-led New Orleans Saints, who traded their entire 1999 draft, plus their 2000 first- and third-round picks, for Ricky Williams. They want their team to be like the Washington Redskins, who received that mighty haul of value for the their No. 5 overall pick. They don't want their franchise pinned on one player—one player who might not work out.
But the Redskins didn't stand pat with the Saints' crop of picks. They packaged much of what they got in the trade to move back up to the No. 7 overall pick, and took cornerback Champ Bailey. The Redskins' 1999 draft class ultimately consisted of one pick each in the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds; one pick less than they were originally allocated.
Why didn't the Redskins hold on to all the Saints' mid-round picks? Because high picks have much more value. That is to say, they're worth much more.
There are many variations on former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson's Trade Value Chart, but they all reveal something important: draft picks get exponentially more valuable the closer you get to the top.
Per the TVC linked above, the No. 1 overall draft pick has a value of 3,000. The first pick of the third round has a value of 265. Think about that for a moment: if you offered an NFL team either their top-graded prospect from the entire draft class, or take their favorite 11 players left on the third day, they should take the top prospect.
The difference in value between a first- and third-round pick is quite large, but the difference between mid-round picks is negligible. The first pick of the second round is worth 580 points, slightly more than double the third-rounder's 265. Two hundred sixty-five is slightly more than double the top fourth-round pick's 112.
To put that in perspective, the difference between Ricky Williams' draft position (No. 5 overall) and Champ Bailey's (No. 7) is 200, the same as the 14th pick of the third round. In fact, if you added together the first pick in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds, you'd only have 1,041.2 points of trade value: a third of the 3,000 you'd need to acquire the No. 1 overall.
Of course, once you translate these picks into players, it doesn't always convert. Any player in any point in the draft (or even those undrafted) could become a Hall of Famer. But the odds that top picks pan out are much, much higher; these values often accurately describe what these players mean to the bottom line.
Would the Carolina Panthers rather have Cam Newton or eleven Terrell McClains? Newton, or every other player they drafted in 2011? The Panthers would take Newton every time. Newton is a game-changer, a difference-maker, a franchise player.
A "smart" trade down could still have netted the Panthers a quarterback. But by giving up Newton for a Jake Locker or a Colin Kaepernick, the Panthers would have passed up the player that saved their team.
This is the risk fans don't see: the opportunity cost of passing on a game-changing player. Stocking the roster with second- and third-rounders sounds like a great way to build a team. The reality is, those players are "busts" even more frequently than top picks, and their quality is rarely as high.
This is why higher picks have more value: you can "fill holes" with second-, third- and fourth-round picks—but if the players can't do what the team needs them to do, that hole hasn't been filled.
In 2004, Matt Millen needed a starting middle linebacker, and he drafted Teddy Lehman. Lehman was undersized and unheralded, but a productive tackler in the Big 12. Millen rolled the dice on Lehman, selecting him with a second-round pick, but they came up snake eyes.
In 2008, Millen still needed a starting middle linebacker, so he drafted Jordon Dizon in the second round. Dizon was undersized and unheralded, but a productive tackler in the Big 12. Again, Millen gambled that Dizon could make the jump to the pros, and again he couldn't.
Instead of "saving" resources by not spending a first-round pick or large free-agent contract on a middle linebacker, Millen wasted resources by trying to meet major needs with minimal resources. Instead of getting value for money, he threw good money after bad.
If your franchise needs a difference-maker at a certain position, they'd better acquire one or leave the "hole" unfilled. Don't "get a [position] later," get the player you need at that position or don't get one at all. Millen found this out the hard way: A starting lineup full of middle-round picks is not a middling team, it's a terrible team.
The Saints gave up an entire draft to get Ricky Williams, and Williams didn't save the franchise. But Williams was an excellent player; he finished with over 10,000 career rushing yards. Moreover, when the Saints gave up on Williams, they got four picks, including two first-rounders, in return.
Though history remembers the Saints' trade up as a massive blunder, they got a difference-making player in return. When they traded him, they got nearly all their draft value back—because nothing's more valuable to an NFL than a difference maker.
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