Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is no stranger to draft-day trades, frequently moving up and down to acquire the players he covets. Like most aspects of NFL decision-making, the Cowboys could benefit from implementing analytics.
Not all draft trades are created equally, and there are certain areas of the draft that naturally offer more value than others. The best players obviously get drafted the highest (on average), but it also costs more to obtain those picks.
The "cost" of trading for specific picks is a very fluid situation; there's no set-in-stone compensation that a team must receive to move down in the draft. However, most trades still stick rather closely to the Jimmy Johnson Trade Value Chart.
The chart assigns a specific point value to each pick in the draft, guiding teams in making trades. Although Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones says the Cowboys have multiple trade-value charts, almost all draft-day trades still coincide with the original trade-value chart.
Exploiting the Chart
Because teams still use the original trade chart to make moves, the Cowboys can exploit inefficiencies in the way the chart is constructed relative to how players actually perform.
That is, they can and should look for areas on the chart where the cost of trading is less than the value of the player(s) they can expect in return.
Looking at historic NFL production, below is a chart displaying approximate value versus the cost of each pick, both as a function of the overall value.
According to the chart, for example, the top overall pick accounts for five percent of the total value, but in reality, the No. 1 overall selection has accrued around just 2.5 percent of the class' total approximate value.
The cost of the draft's top picks is massive. Teams trading up into the top 10, especially, need to be extremely confident they're acquiring a future star, because the cost of the picks is far more than the production that can normally be expected.
You can see that the cost of trading surpasses the expected production up until around the 20th overall selection. At that point, the cost of draft selections on the original trade value chart drops quite a bit, yet there are still quality players in that range.
That trend continues for a few rounds; in terms of historic production, the largest inefficiencies exist from the back of the first round into the third and fourth rounds. That's the area where the most value exists when you consider the price of each pick.
1st-Round Trade Results
This isn't just a mathematical trick that has little basis in reality. We can look at past first-round trades to see that teams trading down in the round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.
Teams trading down in or out of the first round have accrued the best player 50.9 percent of the time. That's amazing, since the reason a team trades up is because they think they'll acquire the best player.
The numbers suggest that if you believe you'll get the best player by trading up in the first round, think again.
You might think that, because trying to guess the team that will get the top player in a first-round trade is basically a coin flip, it doesn't matter if you move up or down. However, if it's really a coin flip, the smart things to do would be to (1) maximize opportunities and (2) do it as cheaply as possible.
Why trade up to get something you can probably have later?
Further, teams trading down have acquired 64.4 percent of the total player value in those trades. The numbers are staggering.
Loading up and Accounting for Fallibility
Again, the Cowboys should be trying to maximize their chances of hitting by loading up on picks where the greatest inefficiencies exist.
They actually tried to pull this off last year, trading back from the middle of the first to the back of it, grabbing an extra third-rounder in the process. Whether or not they saw the proper return, they at least tried to make a move that was statistically prudent.
Central to the idea that you should accrue draft picks is understanding your own fallibility. Teams trade up as though they're sure the player they covet is going to be as good as they believe, but it's not that black-and-white. There's a lot of uncertainty that goes into drafting for which teams need to account.
Further, teams that trade up are typically selecting a player who is an outlier on their board. If that team didn't have him ranked much higher than others, he probably wouldn't still be available.
By accounting for the fact that they could be wrong in their assessment of said player, the Cowboys and other teams considering trading up might think again.
The common rebuttal is that every situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and that every player is unique. But that line of thinking is probably what's gotten teams that trade up in trouble.
Every player and situation is unique, sure, but teams drastically overrate their ability to predict the future.
To get the best in a trade-up, teams basically need to think they know something that 31 others don't, which will rarely be the case. Once teams accept that they just don't know as much as they think they do, it will become easier to recognize the dangers of trading up and the value of maximizing draft picks.
Put another way, consider two dart throwers, one with zero skill and one with perfect skill. The first has a low probability of hitting a bull's-eye on a given throw, so he wants as many darts as possible. The latter can hit a bull's-eye every time, so if that's the goal, he needs only one dart.
NFL teams have been acting as though they're perfect (or near-perfect) dart throwers.
When they realize that there's just a whole lot more uncertainty involved in the process—that the market itself forces them into being low-skill dart throwers—they'll act differently, maximizing opportunities and minimizing cost.
Understanding Public Perception
Before diving into some 2014 prospects the Cowboys might consider in a first-round trade-down, it's important to understand that trading down isn't inherently valuable; rather, it's simply valuable in general because the cost of trading up is so high.
If teams received less compensation for trading down, it might no longer be worth it. It's all about the cost and expectation.
Last year, the 'Boys received a third-round pick for a trade that should have normally resulted in second-round compensation. There are two ways to look at this. One is that the Cowboys still got a good deal because the expected production exceeded the cost of moving down.
That is, although the traditional trade chart said they should have gotten more, actual historic player production suggests they did fine.
The other way to look at it is that you're always getting a bad deal if you obtain less compensation than you could have. Game theory is a central concept here; the Cowboys need to understand how other teams think and behave to maximize their own value.
Knowing that other teams still typically use the Jimmy Johnson chart, you could argue the Cowboys got a good trade only if the compensation they received was truly the maximum they could have gotten in that situation, which is highly debatable.
Thus, the Cowboys should really be using two trade charts: one with actual value for trading up (when they want to account for uncertainty) and one with perceived value for trading down (when they need to maximize their return).
Options for Dallas in 2014 First-Round Trade-Down
With so many different scenarios involved with any draft, we can't really say right now if it will definitely be in the Cowboys' best interest to trade down from the middle of the first round.
But things sure are shaping up to appear that way. Assuming Dallas pulls off a trade similar to that of 2013, here are a few prospects who might be late-first-round candidates for them:
- Defensive ends Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Scott Crichton (Oregon State)
There's a good chance that the Cowboys will draft a defensive lineman in the first round, in which case it seems like they can easily reproduce the production they'd acquire from their current pick with a later selection.
Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy is the only end who is projected to go in the middle of the first round, but the fact that he had only 12.5 career sacks in three seasons should scare away Dallas.
- Defensive tackles Timmy Jernigan (Florida State) and Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh)
While you could argue the Cowboys might need to reach on a defensive end if they trade down in the first round, that's probably not the case at defensive tackle.
While Jernigan and Donald could both go before the back of the first round, chances are that one will still be available and offer value.
- Wide receiver Allen Robinson (Penn State)
I've already written that the Cowboys need to add a receiver, and Robinson was one player I felt could be worth targeting.
One of the benefits of trading down in the first round is that you're in a better position to select a high-upside player as opposed to taking what you think is "the sure thing."
The value of Robinson in this scenario wouldn't be just Robinson vs. the original first-round pick, but rather Robinson plus additional compensation (hopefully a second-rounder).
Either way, NFL teams display dramatic errors in the way they value wide receivers, and Robinson has everything you could want in a prospect: youth, size and college production. He's a top-10 talent (yes, top 10) who might not even go in the first round.
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