It's not that later picks are inherently better than earlier ones, no matter what you might read at DallasCowboys.com. But when you're talking about pick swaps, there's a certain price to pay for teams that want to move up.
Although some teams have slightly adapted their requirements for moving up or down, almost all NFL draft trades still abide by the old NFL trade-value chart. The chart assigns a value to each pick, presumably based on how much the players are "worth" in each respective slot.
The problem is it's wrong. The trade-value chart doesn't match up with historic NFL production, which opens up a potential inefficiency for shrewd teams to exploit. Simply put, they should be looking for locations in the draft when a prospect's anticipated production exceeds the cost of the pick (or the price to move to that pick).
The data suggests that if an elite player doesn't fall to them in the first round of this year's draft, the Cowboys should move down from the mid-first to either the back of the first round or out of it completely.
The Numbers on Draft Pick Value
I charted the value of each NFL draft pick in regards to both the NFL trade-value chart and their actual NFL production. For actual value, I used Pro Football Reference's approximate value as a grading tool.
I charted both forms of value in terms of the percentage of overall draft value that each individual pick encompasses. The first overall pick is worth 5.0 percent of the overall value on the trade chart, for example, but has historically accounted for far less in terms of the overall approximate value from his respective draft class.
At locations where the blue line surpasses the orange line, the cost of trading up is presumably too high. You can see that's the case all the way up until around pick 20. There, the cost of the pick on the NFL's trade-value chart is representative of how well that player should actually be expected to perform.
The obvious conclusion is that NFL teams are typically paying way too much to move up in the first round. They're overrating the potential impact of the players selected there, particularly in the top 10. Those players are still expected to be the best in the class, but the cost for a team outside of the top 10 to move there is prohibitive.
First-Round Trade Results
Historically, teams trading down in the first round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.
Amazingly, the teams moving down in first-round trades have acquired 64.4 percent of the total approximate value accumulated by the players involved in those deals, i.e. trading down has been far superior to moving up.
Perhaps even more amazing, the team trading down has gotten the best player in the deal 50.9 percent of the time! I mentioned that stat on Twitter and a reader responded that it simply makes it a coin flip. He was right that it's a coin flip as to which team will acquire the best player, so the prudent thing to do would be to get that player at the cheapest cost possible. Stockpile picks in the range where production surpasses cost and maximize the probability of hitting on an undervalued asset.
Would you pay $30,000 for a car you can get elsewhere for $28,000? Of course not. Well, NFL teams that trade up in the first round have historically been paying extra for something they could have just gotten later. The cost is too high right now.
The idea here isn't that you should never trade up in the first round, but rather that because the numbers are so disproportionately in favor of moving down, you'd better be sure you're getting an elite player (a Dez Bryant in the 20s, for example).
It's certainly possible that a truly elite option falls into the double-digits this year, in which case it might (might!) make sense for Dallas to move up. In all likelihood, though, the market will be efficient enough that none of those top-tier players will fall, thus creating a favorable trade-down situation for Dallas.
If the 'Boys move to, say, the late part of the first round, here are a few prospects I like for them in that range:
- DE Trent Murphy, Stanford
- DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
- FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville
- WR Allen Robinson, Penn State
All of the above players have specific predictors of success that are undervalued by NFL teams. Murphy's length, Pryor's age and Robinson's combination of age, size and market share of receiving stats at Penn State will all go undervalued by teams in an area of the draft in which picks are already undervalued.
If the Cowboys hold the No. 16 overall pick (it will be either No. 16 or No. 17, depending on a coin flip) and move down to, say, pick No. 32, they'd receive a draft pick in the range of a mid-second round choice. Based on the data regarding trade downs and historic pick value, that move could be highly advantageous for them, especially in a deep draft.