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Valuing the Top Trade Ups in the 2021 NFL Draft

The concept of trading up in the NFL Draft is always a hot topic. Almost every team that trades up gives up far too much for a trade up but the trade is quickly defended because of the player that is selected.  The basic defense is every draft pick made by every other team is basically just a guy but this one particular player targeted by my team is special. Why?  Well football that’s why. Historically the trade up team actually “wins” 20 to 25% of the time so there is a chance that those saying it was a great trade are correct. With that in mind I thought what if we came up with a way to measure that “specialness”.

One of the things that I’ve mentioned through the years and I believe discussed on the podcast last week is that trade charts should never be static. The charts need to be dynamic to account for various factors with a primary one being the positional strength of the selection- a QB for example should cost more than a running back because he is far more valuable to a team. But static charts are what we have always used and so we usually look at trades that way.

When Brad and I worked on the Drafting Stage we wanted to take positional variability out of the equation since we were making a static chart based on average contract outcomes. Using salary data alone was skewing results because a “bust” of a QB (think Marcus Mariota) would outearn a solid hit at a less expensive position. To make the chart position independent we restated everyone’s salary based on the market conditions at the time, thus turning the $9 million QB into something like a 30% value while the $13 million running back would be like a 90% value, solving the problem of market inequalities.

We converted these percentages into a point system because, well that is what everyone does, but what if we utilized those percentages to make our draft chart dynamic to evaluate the draft trades?  What I did here was calculate the average of the top five contracts at every position and multiplied that by the percentage value of every pick. For example the top pick in the draft is expected to be worth 98.3% making Trevor Lawrence worth, on average, $37.8 million per year in today’s NFL market.

Since teams that trade up are trading up for a player we can calculate the expected return based on the specific position that they draft. Likewise we can determine the trade away numbers by taking into account the average result of the picks they traded away. To do that we multiply each pick by the average top 5 positional salary which is about $17.8M with QBs taken out of the list. We don’t use positions here because the trade down is blind. I also used the blind number if a team that traded up received a 2nd pick as part of the trade. As for future considerations I value those simply as being a middle of the round pick the following year or years. You can discount if you want but I just wanted to see the actual potential value being given up not weighing whether or not that how unimportant that is to my situation.

If we add the numbers all together we can determine how much value the teams wound up down in a trade up. By looking at this as a salary we can also determine the exact amount that the player they traded up for would need to add to his expected value to “balance out the trade”. Hence we can see just how special the player has to be to justify the trade.

I only looked at trade ups into the first and second round this year but also included a very oddball trade that the Texans made which included a future pick.

12. Browns Select LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah- $1.040 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

Trading up for a linebacker is one of those decisions that is questionable. It is a position available in free agency and a position that ranks lower on the salary scale despite the presence of a few albatross contracts. Still as far as overpayments go the Browns did not do bad here at all losing about $1M in value. Owusu-Koramoah should bring in $5.1M in value to the team and they need him to be around $6M. That is the equivalent of a jump from what the market perceives AJ Klein to be compared to Jayon Brown. That is a reasonable ask.

11. Bears Select QB Justin Fields-$1.259 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

While the Giants are rightfully being praised for accepting this deal since they were not taking a QB this is also a no brainer for the QB starved Bears. Despite giving up four selections Chicago only comes out about $1.3 million in the red because the pick was used on such a high value position. Depending on how next years 1 turns out the trade could slant more or less in their favor.  A $1M difference in the QB market is the difference between Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, whatever that may be. It is worth nothing that there are really no QBs that fit this salary range (Teddy Bridgewater and Nick Foles are the most recent) so Fields will either blow past this number or fall far below it. Chicago has some insurance against next years 1 being extra high due to having a veteran QB who may play some this year on a veteran team that has been decent the last few years .

10. Eagles Select WR DeVonta Smith-$1.491 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

The Eagles are one of the smarter teams in the NFL and this move fits that mold giving up under $1.5M to make a bit of a leap in the first round for basically a 3rd round pick. By taking a receiver they take a premier position which is a decent use of the trade up. A $1.5 million leap is more or less the difference between Tyler Boyd and Corey Davis, so not something where we would require a massive jump in performance to make the trade worthwhile. Basically they need him to be a top 20 receiver to make this fair.

9. 49ers Select QB Trey Lance-$2.422 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

This is a trade that San Francisco will take heat on because they misread the market for QBs in the draft but one that stands a reasonable chance of paying off. Lance would need to give the 49ers about $33 million in value which means he needs to be Kirk Cousins. At $30 million he would be closer to Ryan Tannehill. Im not sure there is an appreciable difference between those two in reality but that gives you the idea of the type of player Lance has to be to make the trade one the 49ers won’t regret. Due to them giving up two first round picks and a chance that one of them could be a very high pick in Lance busts this is a much riskier trade than the Bears one, but it did give the 49ers the ability to pick their guy here.  

8. Raiders Select S Trevon Moehrig-$2.727 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected ValueTradedExpected Value

This is very similar to trading up for a linebacker in that it makes little sense given the positional value where the team actually gives up more by taking a safety than they would sitting pat and “being forced” to take another player. A safety at 43 would be expected to bring about $5.2 million in value to the team which is around the Chuck Clark/Eric Rowe salary range. He will need to be in the Rayshawn Jenkins range to make up the difference. What really ruins this for the Raiders was giving up that second high pick but only getting back number 230. They should have gotten a higher selection in return somewhere around 160. That was where they lost out.

7. Bears Select OT Teven Jenkins- $2.82 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

This was a harder trade to judge because at the time of the draft I would have considered Jenkins a right tackle which would have put the Bears over $4 million down in the trade. I split the value between the two positions which now makes much more sense for Chicago. This is one of those positions where there are no real comparables at $6.5 million (Riley Reiff is around that number but is an older player) so this is either going to be a home run for the Bears as competent starters at left tackle are worth $14 million a year or a flop as non competent left tackles make about $2 million a year. If he does play right tackle he would need to be a top 10 player at the position to make it an even trade.

6. Broncos Select RB Javonte Williams- $2.924 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

I hated this trade when it happened and was actually surprised it wasn’t worse than this. Why anyone packages a second useful pick to move up five spots to grab a running back is beyond me The Broncos expected value here is that of a Kenyan Drake and they will need Williams to wind up being looked at more like Melvin Gordon, who coincidentally is on the Broncos. That would require Williams to be the 8th best back in the NFL. Unlike the other players on this list there is usually little value in the RB beyond the first four years so this is probably a tough one to justify but not as bad as I thought.

5. Texans Select WR Nico Collins- $4.436 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

This is the lone pick I looked at that was not a 1st or 2nd round pick because it was just so bizarre. The team gives up a 4 an a 5 and a future 4 in order to jump into the 3rd round to take a receiver. The expected return here is about $5 million which is the David Moore class of receiver. They need him to nearly double his value to justify the trade and move into the Jamison Crowder/Robby Anderson production level. That 86% required increase is the 2nd highest in the draft this year. There is no explanation that makes any sense for this trade outside of them believing he is a first round talent that only they saw as a 1st rounder.  Given where this trade occurred this was probably the worst trade in the draft even if not the most costly.

4. Patriots Select DT Christian Barmore- $4.638 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

The Patriots have been the most aggressive team this offseason and this trade was in line with that with the Patriots giving up two additional picks to jump 8 spots in the draft for Barmore. The expected production for an interior D-lineman at this spot would be similar to that of Roy Robertson-Harris and Davon Godchaux. The amount the Patriots gave up would need to put the pick closer to the Javon Hargrave/Stephon Tuitt/Akiem Hicks group. This would be an expected jump from around a top 25 player to just outside the top 10. That’s a gigantic leap.

3. Dolphins Select WR Jaylen Waddle- $4.863 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

I defended this trade for the Dolphins when it was made with the expectation they were either still aiming for a QB or hoping to trade back with a QB needy team. Instead they end up trading an extra first round pick for a wide receiver who winds up not even being the top receiver taken. When they made this trade the board was pretty much set to where you knew they were getting the leftovers of the TE/WR group so its not as if they didn’t know what they were doing when they made this trade either. The expected return here is around the 15th highest paid receiver in the NFL and they will need him to him to play around the level of the top 5, similar to that of an Amari Cooper or Michael Thomas.

2. Dolphins Select RT Liam Eichenberg- $5.128 Million Given Up

SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

This was another terrible trade for Miami giving up a 3rd next year that they hope everyone will forget about to move up 8 spots to take a position where the top players on average are drafted in the 4th round. They need to get nearly double the value from Eicenberg, about 10% more than the other two trades requiring a massive jump. They will need him to go from a projected level of around Zach Banner, around the 20th highest paid, to Bryan Bulaga who is the fifth highest paid. Now Eichenberg is versatile and perhaps could wind up at left tackle or guard which changes the equation and would not make it as bad as shown here but if right tackle is the spot they need him to be a top tier player.  

1. Jets Select G Alija Vera-Tucker- $6.801 Million Given Up

  SelectionExpected Value AddedTradedExpected Value Lost

The Jets, by far, gave up the most to trade up this year. Guard is one of the lower valued positions that a team can draft and the Jets lose value just based on that alone. The expected return for pick 14 would be around $8 million for a guard, around the level of player as Gabe Jackson- basically the 13th or so highest paid guard in the league. To balance out the trade the Jets need him to increase that figure to $14.8 million. Among players on a multi-year contract that would mean he has to end up the second highest paid guard in the NFL. That’s a huge hill to climb and a very bullish assessment by the Jets as it would be the highest expectation level for any player in this years draft.

Ja’Wuan James Out With Achilles Tear

In what will probably go down as one of the worst free agent signings of all time, Broncos right tackle Ja’Wuan James tore his Achilles today while working out away from the Broncos facility.

James had a fully guaranteed $10 million salary from the Broncos this season and $5 million in injury protection in 2022 but salary in the NFL is only protected for football related injuries. A workout at the Broncos facility or under Broncos supervision would have maintained the protection for James for the season. His injury guarantee will not cover injuries that are sustained doing other activities. The Broncos were one of the first of the high profile “opt outs” from the team offseason programs as advised by the NFLPA.

James signed a pretty stunning four year, $51 million contract with the Broncos in free agency in 2019. James received $27 million guaranteed at signing with another $5 million in vesting injury protection. James played in a total of 63 snaps in 2019 due to a number of somewhat mysterious injuries. James opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid and now will miss the 2021 season. Assuming they release him the Broncos will have paid $17 million for 3 games and 63 snaps.

Even if the Broncos release James they will still carry a salary cap charge of $9 million due to his $12 million signing bonus paid in 2019. The Broncos could instead place James on the NFI list and not pay him for the season. If they did that they would likely maintain their right to try to recover $3 million of his signing bonus through violation of his player contract by engaging in an activity that caused him to tear his Achilles. I think this would be highly unlikely, given that his injury appears to at least be workout related, but just wanted to point out that it is the team’s right to attempt to go down that path if they wanted to. If anything Denver will probably look at this as a get of jail free card since they will avoid paying $10 million in salary on the year.

Denver could also opt to keep him for the year and pay him a salary. It does not have to be the full $10 million but can be any number they agree to. Years ago the Eagles paid left tackle Jason Peters about half his salary when he suffered an Achilles injury away from the team.

Rookie Option Pick Up Near All Time High

The 5th year option decision for the 2018 draft class was today and there were some questions about how the new rules would impact the process. The new rules fully guaranteed the option at the date it was exercised compared to just injury guaranteed and also reduced the cost for some picks while raising it for others. Whatever concerns there were may not have been warranted with the 2018 draft class having the second highest option rate since the option was instituted in 2011 and the highest ever for the top 10 picks in the draft.

YearTop 10 Picked Up11-32 Picked UpTotal

Who Added The Most Expected Value in the 2021 NFL Draft

With the NFL draft now complete I wanted to take a look at the teams that added the most value to their teams in the draft. To calculate value I went back and looked at the Fitzgerald-Spielberger draft points for each slot and converted those back into the percentages to reflect the expected contract value for each draft slot. That was then multiplied by the current top 5 contract average for the draft pick’s position to determine what the value added to the team should be if the pick meets the average expectation. For example the top pick in the draft is expected to return about 98% of the top five value at the position meaning Trevor Lawrence should provide the Jaguars with about $37 million in value per year.

I added all the teams values to the chart below. The line represents what value the team would have realized if they had taken the average salaried position at every pick. Teams above the line made better use of their draft capital by typically drafting premier salary positions while those under the line spent their draft capital on less valuable positions.

The quarterback decision drives a lot of the value in the draft because the position is simply so valuable compared to everyone else that you can pick. If any of those players hit it will completely change the fortunes of the team. For those who did not take the most optimum of positions they need the players they drafted to hit in a major way to have the draft impact they need to improve. The picks that stand out the most in that regard are Kyle Pitts, Penei Sewell, Landon Dickerson, Alex Leatherwood, Josh Myers, Creed Humphrey, Evan McPherson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Najee Harris, and Travis Etienne.

The teams that derived the most value overall in the draft were the Jaguars ($17.8M over average), Jets ($14.4M), 49ers ($12.8M), Patriots ($11M), and Bears ($10.2M). The least value went to the Falcons (-$7.2M), Steelers (-$5.3M), Raiders (-$5M), Broncos (-$4M), and Chiefs (-$3M).

UDFA Spending Trends by Team

While teams are limited in signing bonuses paid to undrafted free agents there are really no limits on what they can offer as a guarantee to a player. Priority free agents can sometimes land big guarantees- 77 players in the last two years have received a guarantee that is larger than the guarantee that will be paid to the final pick in this years draft. Last year there was even a player who received a $180,000 guarantee- basically the same amount committed to an early 6th round pick. With the UDFA firestorm about to begin I thought it might be interesting to look at the teams who have looked at UDFAs the most over the last two years.

Four teams have signed at least forty players in the last two years. The Jaguars, who have been bad, lead the way and I am sure are the team most would have guessed as the most active, but the next three teams probably not. The Ravens, Rams, and Chiefs are the others over 40 and all with a very different approach. The Ras spend very little on their signings with an average guarantee of just $4,700 all coming as a signing bonus. The Ravens are around the NFL average at $15.6K per player. What about the Chiefs? They aim high with over $31K in guarantees per player, 9th highest in the NFL. Also notable is that these four teams are among the lowest spenders on signing bonuses (in large part because the NFL limits the number) so they should have chances to offset these guarantees if cut.

The team that guarantees the most is Dallas and it is not even close. They have averaged $71.4K per player in guarantees, about $15K more than the Patriots who rank number two. Both rank relatively high in bonus spending too and given that they rank in the middle of the NFL in UDFA signings that probably makes these two of the top targets for UDFAs looking for the best offer. The 49ers and Eagles round out the teams who are over $40,000 in guarantees per player.

Who doesn’t really look at undrafted players? The Football team has only signed 17 post draft UDFAs over the last two seasons, the only team under 20. The Bills have 20 signings while the Raiders have 21. The Panthers also have 21 but with a very wild split- 4 signed in 2019 and then 17 last year when Rhule came to the team. Washington may want to take note as they went from 13 in 2019 to 4 in 2020 which is when they brought in the old Carolina office to run the team. Detroit and San Francisco rounded out the bottom with 22 apiece. These teams, however, are very targeted. They are at the top of the NFL in signing bonus money and signing bonuses are the players to keep with no offsets. So they put forth a strong effort in signing.

Who spends the least? While on a per player basis it is the Rams, the Rams at least sign a lot of player. The Bengals rank dead last in total money guaranteed to undrafteds since 2019 by about $50,000. They rank second to the Rams with just $5,300 spent per player though like the Rams its pretty much all signing bonus money so at least there is no offset. Other teams that aim low- the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Chargers are all under $7,000 per player.

None of this means that all of these teams will or will not continue to spend but it helps give an idea as to why certain teams do seem to stand out with some of the UDFA signings. Money talks and often means opportunity.

It is important to note that teams do only have 90 roster spots to work with. Teams like the 49ers, Giants, Panthers, Jaguars, Texans, and Football Team are near those limits and may not be that interested in signing players. If they are it also means a number of players, those who likely signed futures deals, will be cut to make room. The fact that the NFL is having an offseason program that many are not attending it might make it easier for the team to consider releases for complete unknowns.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the Falcons, Seahawks, Saints, Chargers, Bucs, and Bears with minimal players under contract and in many cases very limited cap space. These are the kind of teams that need undrafteds for the summer and to compete for roster spots with veterans as the low cost is highly beneficial for the teams.

Here is the guarantee data (includes signing bonus money) for the last two years. The column headers should allow you to sort if you click on them.

Team2019 UDFAs2019 Guarantee2019 Avg Guarantee2020 UDFAs2020 Guarantee2020 Avg GuaranteeTotal SignedTotal GuaranteesAvg. Per Player
Football Team13$121,000$9,3084$86,500$21,62517$207,500$12,206