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
52$5,097,97959$5,434,377
113$3,517,50689$4,221,754
Difference($1,040,646)

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
11$22,509,00120$8,625,390
164$2,418,802
16$9,283,599
116$3,440,217
Difference($1,259,007)

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
10$13,033,22012$10,132,179
84$4,392,305
Difference($1,491,264)

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
3$30,812,71912$10,132,179
16$9,283,599
16$9,283,599
80$4,536,222
Difference($2,422,881)

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
43$5,210,27548$6,043,010
230$1,421,172121$3,315,738
Difference($2,727,302)

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
39$6,526,99952$5,806,907
151$2,662,40983$4,427,632
204$1,775,017
Difference($2,820,148)

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
35$5,582,76840$6,580,806
219$1,565,730114$3,491,518
Difference($2,923,826)

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
89$5,156,812109$3,623,814
158$2,528,742
116$3,440,217
Difference($4,435,960)

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
38$7,728,75846$6,168,549
122$3,291,460
139$2,906,662
Difference($4,637,913)

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
6$14,873,74012$10,132,179
156$2,946,248123$3,267,381
16$9,283,599
Difference($4,863,171)

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
42$5,331,25950$5,922,597
80$4,536,222
Difference($5,127,560)

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
14$8,015,23023$8,213,133
143$2,822,97766$5,103,664
86$4,322,897
Difference($6,801,487)

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.

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
201470.0%72.7%71.9%
201890.0%59.1%68.8%
201170.0%59.1%62.5%
201260.0%63.6%62.5%
201570.0%59.1%62.5%
201350.0%63.6%59.4%
201750.0%59.1%56.3%
201680.0%42.9%54.8%

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
Cowboys13$778,000$59,84615$1,222,000$81,46728$2,000,000$71,429
Patriots12$613,500$51,12515$920,000$61,33327$1,533,500$56,796
49ers12$484,500$40,37510$535,779$53,57822$1,020,279$46,376
Eagles14$518,000$37,00014$764,500$54,60728$1,282,500$45,804
Panthers4$70,000$17,50017$675,500$39,73521$745,500$35,500
Lions15$419,000$27,9337$347,000$49,57122$766,000$34,818
Vikings13$345,000$26,53812$473,300$39,44225$818,300$32,732
Saints22$277,500$12,61413$826,300$63,56235$1,103,800$31,537
Chiefs21$506,500$24,11919$739,000$38,89540$1,245,500$31,138
Jets16$287,000$17,9389$419,150$46,57225$706,150$28,246
Giants18$486,500$27,02816$386,500$24,15634$873,000$25,676
Browns19$173,500$9,13215$654,000$43,60034$827,500$24,338
Dolphins18$391,000$21,72210$254,000$25,40028$645,000$23,036
Texans21$460,000$21,9059$200,000$22,22230$660,000$22,000
Bills11$218,650$19,8779$180,000$20,00020$398,650$19,933
Jaguars26$279,000$10,73118$494,000$27,44444$773,000$17,568
Broncos19$292,000$15,3687$128,500$18,35726$420,500$16,173
Ravens22$251,000$11,40921$419,000$19,95243$670,000$15,581
Titans18$156,500$8,69414$327,000$23,35732$483,500$15,109
Raiders13$144,000$11,0778$172,500$21,56321$316,500$15,071
Buccaneers20$125,000$6,25013$351,800$27,06233$476,800$14,448
Packers12$125,200$10,43315$212,500$14,16727$337,700$12,507
Football Team13$121,000$9,3084$86,500$21,62517$207,500$12,206
Bears25$284,000$11,36011$141,500$12,86436$425,500$11,819
Falcons17$74,500$4,38219$215,500$11,34236$290,000$8,056
Colts13$84,500$6,50011$99,000$9,00024$183,500$7,646
Steelers14$94,000$6,71410$80,000$8,00024$174,000$7,250
Chargers19$88,500$4,65819$151,500$7,97438$240,000$6,316
Seahawks13$73,800$5,67717$102,200$6,01230$176,000$5,867
Cardinals16$89,000$5,56320$111,500$5,57536$200,500$5,569
Bengals13$67,000$5,15410$54,000$5,40023$121,000$5,261
Rams19$70,000$3,68422$123,000$5,59141$193,000$4,707

Further Breaking Down the Top 15 Contracts By Draft Status

Yesterday I looked at where the average top 15 player comes from in the draft and I wanted to expand on that today a little bit. The first thing I looked at this time was just expanding the numbers out to the 2nd round of the draft. The numbers in the chart represent the percentage of top 15 valued contracts that were selected in that range.

Position% Drafted Top 10% Drafted 11-32% Drafted 33-48% Drafted 49-64% Drafted Round 1% Drafted Round 2% Drafted Round 3 to 8
CB20.0%53.3%13.3%6.7%73.3%20.0%6.7%
LT26.7%40.0%13.3%6.7%66.7%20.0%13.3%
LB6.7%13.3%33.3%20.0%20.0%53.3%26.7%
IDL13.3%33.3%20.0%6.7%46.7%26.7%26.7%
QB40.0%13.3%6.7%13.3%53.3%20.0%26.7%
EDGE33.3%26.7%6.7%6.7%60.0%13.3%26.7%
G13.3%26.7%13.3%6.7%40.0%20.0%40.0%
WR20.0%20.0%13.3%6.7%40.0%20.0%40.0%
S0.0%20.0%26.7%0.0%20.0%26.7%53.3%
RB20.0%6.7%20.0%0.0%26.7%20.0%53.3%
RT13.3%13.3%0.0%13.3%26.7%13.3%60.0%
C0.0%6.7%6.7%20.0%6.7%26.7%66.7%
TE6.7%0.0%20.0%0.0%6.7%20.0%73.3%

The interesting numbers here is that final column. Cornerback and left tackle basically leave you no opportunity to find a star outside of round 2. The odds are also against you for linebacker, interior d-line, quarterback and edge. The linebacker number surprised me as I usually consider that a position you can draft lower but I guess while you can find good players late the stars are mainly coming in round 2. As you move down the charts you can see how certain positions are still seeing over 50% of the stars come later in the draft.

When looking at some of the draft numbers in round 2 I started to wonder if teams at the end of round 1 don’t approach the draft from an optimal point of view. This was something we noticed in our Draft book where the long term hit rates at the top of round 2 were actually a bit better than the end of round 1 even if the end of round 1 did give slightly better overall results due to less flops.

My thought was that the teams at the end of round 1 are often playoff teams and they sometimes approach the draft different having more of a short term focus where they look for an immediate need compared to the bad teams at the top of round 2 just aiming for talent. So I wanted to break down the hit rates between picks 21 and 32 and compare that with 33 through 44. In addition I looked at the percentage of draft picks at each position between 21 and 32 between 2016 and 2020.

Position% of Picks Used, 21 to 32Top 15 Contracts, 21 to 32Top 15 Contracts, 33 to 44
WR16.9%6.7%6.7%
CB13.6%26.7%13.3%
EDGE11.9%20.0%6.7%
LB10.2%6.7%20.0%
S6.8%20.0%26.7%
RB6.8%0.0%6.7%
RT6.8%6.7%0.0%
IDL6.8%6.7%13.3%
TE5.1%0.0%20.0%
G5.1%6.7%13.3%
QB5.1%13.3%6.7%
LT3.4%6.7%13.3%
C1.7%0.0%6.7%

In looking at the numbers I would say it is pretty clear that receivers are over-drafted at the end of the first round. Teams are investing heavy in the position and the results have been pretty poor both at the end of round 1 and start of round 2. Whatever teams are identifying in these players there are more falling through the cracks than seem to be selected in these ranges. Whether teams might want to adjust their criteria for ranking or simply wait on the position it should be open for change.

Corner and Edge are both right in their approach. They hit rates at the end of round 1 are massive and for Edge in particular the round 2 players are not there so it is a “now or never” kind of position. Running back, right tackle, and center are probably also the correct allocations.

Linebacker has two takeaways for me. One is that like receiver maybe teams need to reconsider what they are looking for with more hits coming in the front end of round two. The other is that with valuable talent seeming available in those next 11 picks that is a position that might be under drafted if teams change their approach. While the impact of the position isn’t great I could see the logic in not picking a receiver, running back, etc… and instead “reaching” for a linebacker.

Safety clearly is a position like that as well. A ton of the top deals come between 21 and 44 yet only 7% of picks are spent on safety. This is another one where if you have a safety on your board and you are contemplating between a safety and receiver or how teams currently rank a linebacker opt for the safety if the goal is finding a star.

Finally 20% of our top tight ends come from the front end of round 2. Now there are tons of tight ends available late in the draft so while I would rarely advocate for a tight end this high maybe it should be more of a consideration over a wide receiver if you must take a shot at upgrading the passing game.

Where the Top 15 Paid Players At Each Position Were Drafted

With all the trade up talk surrounding the draft I wanted to take a quick look at where the top 15 salaried players at every position were drafted. For each position I put together a list that looked at the average round the player was selected, the median round for the group, the average and median pick, and finally the percentage of the top 15 drafted in the top 10 and the percent drafted in the rest of the first round.

PositionAverage RoundMedian RoundAverage PickMedian Pick% Drafted Top 10% Drafted 11-32
CB1.33128.02420.0%53.3%
LT1.53129.31626.7%40.0%
QB2.07146.82440.0%13.3%
IDL2.07251.03713.3%33.3%
EDGE2.13152.52233.3%26.7%
G2.40262.43513.3%26.7%
WR2.47265.04720.0%20.0%
LB2.67271.7476.7%13.3%
S2.80375.3640.0%20.0%
RB3.07385.76720.0%6.7%
RT3.933115.76713.3%13.3%
TE4.003117.91006.7%0.0%
C4.134126.71220.0%6.7%

Just two positions, corner and left tackle, actually average a pick in the first round. Corner is clearly a 1st round dominant position with 73% of the top players coming from somewhere in round 1 left tackle has 67% in round 1 while the edge rusher is at 60%. The only other position with over 50% coming from the first round is QB where 53% were selected in the first round. QB is dominant for the top 10 with 40% coming from the top 10.

I think the takeaway would be if you are going to trade up into the top 10 it has to be for a QB and no other position. I think if you are going to move up in round 1 or into round 1 there is probably a case to be made that its reasonable to do if the pick is going to be a corner or a left tackle. I don’t think you would put Edge in that group though as the split is very even between top 10 and rest of round 1. That makes it a strong position if you have a top 10 pick but probably not one to move up for. On the other end of the spectrum your tight ends, centers, and right tackles come way later in the draft with average rounds close to 4 and median picks near 120. Generally teams do not draft these players high and Im not sure anything would indicate that there is an advantage to drafting the few who do grade that high since there seems to be good talent throughout. Overall I think most of those positions on the bottom of the chart likely do not even warrant a first round draft pick if there is a player who might not grade as well but is in the remote ballpark and he plays one of those top 7 spots

Trading Up to Draft Stars

The other day there was an interesting tweet by Michael Lopez about valuation in the draft not taking into account the high end probabilities of draft picks. This is a topic I’ve touched on before in old posts and something Brad and I looked at a bit in our book, but the question is should teams still be trading up because of the “best case scenario”. 

Generally, any move up in the draft is made because of (over)confidence in the team’s ability to pinpoint a star player. They move up believing that they have the next Julio Jones when in reality they wind up with just another guy in most cases. No team is really infallible and giving up valuable resources can ultimately have a negative effect on the team long term. Using the Falcons as an example if they were perfect every trade up would produce a mega star. It did once with Jones. They got a very good player in a move up for Desmond Trufant two years later. They got a non-player in Takkarist McKinley when they moved up in 2017. They moved up again in 2019 for Kaleb McGary who has been solid but certainly not a standout.

I went back and looked at every team’s performance in the first round between 2011 and 2016 by calculating the second contract annual value for the player. I was going to adjust for position but for the sake of time decided against doing that. I was also going to separate the non-premium positions, premium positions, and QB but ended up just taking out quarterback as there was little difference in the other two categories (less than $1 million a year on average). Here were the results plotted against draft capital.

While clearly teams that wind up with higher valued picks are typically drafting better players (unless you are the Browns) most teams are lumped pretty close together. The Ravens are the only team I think you could look at with any conviction and say that they really picked above expectations and the Browns the only team way under expectations. The Jaguars were just different some good and some really bad while drafting in huge expectation spots year after year.

What if we separate top 10 and non top 10 picks?  Here is the team by team performance.

The few teams that struck gold in the top 10 were the Chargers (Joey Bosa), Raiders (Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack), Ravens (Ronnie Stanley), and Broncos (Von Miller). The other numbers are quite similar. Did the three teams with one pick just get lucky?  Probably so.

Anyway the average value of a top 10 pick was about $10.7 million and a non top 10 pick $7.3M. But what if we just want to look at high end talent?  If we look at the top 25% of all non-QB picks made between 2011 and 2016 in the top 10 the average value was about $19.4 million. The average value outside of the top 10 is $15.8 million. The next 25% is $14.2 million to $9.9 million.

The concept of trading up just seems so illogical. If you believe your front office is so good that they found the one guy in the draft that is a lock to be worth around $20 million and you are going to give up an extra 1 to get there shouldn’t you also be confident enough that your guys can spot the $14.2 million player in back to back years?

To me there are two major market inefficiencies teams exploit in the draft. One is the trade ups in or into the first round for non quarterbacks. The second is the massive discounts that teams place on future draft capital for a shiny new toy from another team or for the move above in the draft. Teams give up so many potential stars for the hope of a veteran when more often than not they are better off with the draft selections.

As for QB’s it has been very hit or miss. There were 17 QB’s drafted in the first round between 2011 and 2016. Andrew Luck is the one that raised the level of his team the most though the injuries and short career hurt him. Cam Newton had a high peak and quick decline. Carson Wentz and Jared Goff were decent players whose teams grew tired of their shortcomings. Ryan Tannehill has found new life in Tennessee. The rest mainly stunk. Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, RGIII, Teddy Bridgewater, Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden, Jameis Winston, EJ Manuel, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Johnny Manziel, and Paxton Lynch.

I’m not sure if all these failures were simply poor translation of college to NFL games with coaching staffs maybe not best suited to work with the strengths of some of these players. In recent years the track record has been a little better with Mahomes and Watson being stars and Jackson, Murray and Allen probably on the cusp of being stars. Darnold, Trubisky, Rosen, and Haskins stunk. Mayfield is a question mark and Daniel Jones has pretty much stunk but will get another shot this year to change the career.

The value if the QB hits is so high ($40M vs at the most maybe a $25M player) that it is worth the trade up especially because the talent is so scarce. Are the RGIII trades worthwhile?  Probably not. Teams should target the Chiefs, Bills, etc… model where you give up the next years 1 rather than the massive move ups that others have done.

In reality the best course of action is to probably determine before a season begins if you are or are not in the QB market. If you are in the QB market it means you need to rebuild and you should be looking to exploit that market inefficiency for veteran players to build up draft capital if needed to move up. At least if you do that you are trading other teams picks for the right to choose a QB rather than all of your future picks (teams are not trading a top pick for veteran players unless the organization is run by Eric Mangini). You do not need to play to lose but you have to be realistic in your expectations and what value other teams may see in your roster that fits their current needs causing them to overpay. Having to gut a bad team of future good draft picks is basically a recipe for disaster.

Also a recipe for disaster is the team that refuses to embrace that they should be in the QB market. It is always better to make a pick a year early (such as Detroit last year) than waiting to watch the situation unfold and then not being in a prime position to draft a QB and needed to use more resources to find a young QB. If you are bad enough to be in the top 10 you are bad enough to be thinking QB in almost every situation other than having a true elite player (i.e. Mahomes) who missed a full year.