Multiple First Round Pick for Player Trades

First round picks are rarely traded in the NFL for existing players. The first round pick has generally been classified as gold by NFL teams and for good reason- first round players have the best chance to be standout players and for the first four years of their career are dirt cheap. Normally it requires a pretty special player and a pretty special circumstance to do the first round for player trade, but we do get maybe one a year or every other year. Two first rounders has generally been crazy talk, which is one reason why franchise players never switch teams, but in the last two years we have three trades where teams have agreed to move two first round picks as part of a trade.  Why?

When the Bears traded for Khalil Mack and included two first rounders as part of the deal I just chalked that up Mack being an ultra special player and also that the Bears did get a 2nd round pick as part of the deal which isn’t that much less valuable than a 1.  The Texans then traded two first round picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil which was just shocking on every level. Tunsil is a good player. Im not sure he is what would be considered a generational talent. Still it was the Texans who had no GM and were just doing things with no consideration for the long term.

Now we had a trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and that to me is the real eye opener. The Rams have a legit front office and are making a football move not really a desperation one. Sure they have been aggressive with some deals in the past but you can find justifications in much of what was done and many trades were more reasonable. Ramsey is a good football player. I don’t think he’s Khalil Mack nor am I certain that one player can make that kind of difference in today’s passing game even if he was Darrelle Revis in his prime. So is this a sign of things to come or not?

There have been many changes in the NFL post the 2011 CBA but one of them may be the lack of top tier talent every available in free agency. There was a time when legit great players hit free agency for a number of reasons relating to lack of cap space, cheap owners, and basic contract structures and/or rules that eliminated the franchise tag from consideration. The last of those players to hit free agency was probably Ndamukong Suh in 2015.

Using the new money annual contract value as the baseline for the ability to find a top player in free agency here is the breakdown of the amount of players that rank in the top 5 or top 10 at the position that were legitimately available in free agency.

Position Top 5 UFA Signings Top 10 UFA Signings
Quarterback 0 1
Running Back 1 3
Wide Receiver 0 1
Tight End 1 3
Left Tackle 1 2
Guard 3 4
Center 2 3
Right Tackle 2 5
Int. D-Line 0 1
Edge Rusher 1 3
Linebacker 2 4
Cornerback 2 5
Safety 3 7

From looking at those numbers it tells me that the places I can find help in free agency are in the interior offensive line, right tackle, safety, linebacker, and cornerback. At the other positions basically nobody shakes loose.

While the annual value of the contract does give up some idea of the type of contract that is being paid in free agency it doesn’t tell us the quality of the player. To get a better idea of where to players are coming from I turned to our valuation metric which basically readjusts everyone’s salary based on their performance this year. Here is the breakdown of the top 10 players at each position and the type of contract they signed (I did not include tight end because it was brought to my attention I may be missing some players).

Position Extension Drafted Free Agent Other Top FA rank
Quarterback 5 5 0 0 24
Running Back 1 7 1 1 10
Wide Receiver 3 6 1 0 9
Left Tackle 6 3 1 0 3
Guard 4 4 2 0 1
Center 4 2 3 1 2
Right Tackle 4 3 2 1 8
Int. D-Line 7 3 0 0 14
Edge Rusher 4 2 4 0 3
Cornerback 1 3 6 0 1
Safety 2 3 4 1 4
Linebacker 4 3 3 0 3

As you look through the list you will see the majority of top performers are either players on contract extensions or draft picks with the exception of (perhaps ironically since we are discussing the Rams) cornerback where the top players were signed as free agents. Safety and edge rusher also have quality players there too.

As I looked through the list for corners I noticed that not many of those free agents were highly regarded players- Brian Poole, Steven Nelson, Jason McCourty, and even the released Richard Sherman. Essentially this is more about finding a needle in the haystack (and since we are just doing a limited 5 or 6 game sample look here Id also imagine year over year not very consistent) and not doing the easy thing of signing a player to a big contract.

So rather than just say that there are players out there what if we averaged the performance of the top 10 salaried players who were signed as free agents at each position (again not including TE).

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $6,099,700 $21,079,000 $15,325,000 2.51
Running Back $3,436,800 $10,130,000 $5,642,500 1.64
Wide Receiver $6,592,100 $14,532,000 $10,747,500 1.63
Left Tackle $5,272,400 $15,756,000 $8,778,000 1.66
Guard $5,953,600 $11,779,000 $9,675,500 1.63
Center $5,113,300 $9,725,000 $7,399,333 1.45
Right Tackle $4,017,600 $8,066,000 $8,155,833 2.03
Int. D-Line $3,738,100 $10,433,000 $9,509,167 2.54
Edge Rusher $11,102,000 $19,951,000 $13,000,000 1.17
Cornerback $5,121,900 $11,278,000 $12,075,000 2.36
Safety $5,790,400 $11,950,000 $10,385,000 1.79
Linebacker $6,108,100 $11,556,000 $10,437,500 1.71

How does that compare with contract extensions? Here is the chart for extensions.

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $22,484,900 $32,809,000 $30,011,333 1.33
Running Back $5,166,400 $11,388,000 $7,252,833 1.40
Wide Receiver $10,648,900 $18,509,000 $17,245,000 1.62
Left Tackle $6,552,500 $14,648,000 $13,040,000 1.99
Guard $6,209,000 $10,651,000 $9,995,390 1.61
Center $6,421,400 $8,949,000 $9,599,060 1.49
Right Tackle $5,077,300 $12,175,000 $7,639,667 1.50
Int. D-Line $10,776,400 $21,144,000 $15,726,667 1.46
Edge Rusher $9,958,500 $21,140,000 $18,141,667 1.82
Cornerback $4,540,400 $10,885,000 $12,412,217 2.73
Safety $5,453,700 $11,230,000 $8,540,000 1.57
Linebacker $7,055,200 $13,946,000 $12,165,906 1.72

Looking at the chart it would tell me that you are probably better off going out of your way to extend top players at QB, RB, WR, DT, LT, C, RT, and LB as long as the price is not outrageous than signing a top player in free agency at the same position. Edge, corner, and safety however are actually showing better performance in free agency. For corner and safety that makes some sense since we already pointed out that some of the top players were free agent signings. For the pass rushers I was generally surprised. Its still early in the year so this may just balance out by years end.

Now what if we look at the top performing draft picks?  Here are the top 10 drafted players currently still under a rookie contract at each position.

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $24,283,200 $31,417,000 $4,594,426 0.19
Running Back $10,769,200 $16,000,000 $2,173,146 0.20
Wide Receiver $15,022,300 $20,367,000 $1,808,321 0.12
Left Tackle $9,003,500 $18,238,000 $2,394,330 0.27
Guard $8,574,100 $10,836,000 $2,264,811 0.26
Center $4,410,500 $8,710,000 $1,244,637 0.28
Right Tackle $6,080,500 $10,507,000 $2,103,099 0.35
Int. D-Line $9,333,400 $12,219,000 $2,266,313 0.24
Edge Rusher $13,105,300 $17,510,000 $4,033,415 0.31
Cornerback $10,511,800 $13,505,000 $1,908,236 0.18
Safety $8,882,700 $12,731,000 $1,920,564 0.22
Linebacker $9,740,500 $14,280,000 $1,756,904 0.18

There is really no comparison here for any position except center and to some extent the interior D-line, unless just interested in hitting the max value where the truly special players perform beyond their rookie deals. The young talent are the best performers in the NFL and the cost benefit is just ridiculous compared to that of a veteran contract.

The chart really identifies why draft picks are so valuable and are usually safeguarded, but draft picks also take time to develop and take skill and/or luck to hit on. In some draft research I am working on with Brad we have identified that the general range of player expectation in the second half of the first round to between 40 and 53% of the average salary of a top 5 paid player at the position. For cornerback that would equate to a player who signs a contract worth between $5.8 and $7.7 million.

Those values are usually indicative of a player’s performance as a rookie so the class of players that a team like the Rams would expect to draft are Pierre Desir, Robert Alford, Bryce Callahan, Jonathan Jones, Ronald Darby, DJ Hayden, Brandon Carr, Darryl Roberts, and Johnathan Joseph. Might some of those players hit?  They might. Our research of past drafts at the position would indicate in the ballpark of a 20% chance of a major hit and 30% chance of a solid player (which is probably similar to the veteran market where we have 2 of those player performing at a $10M+ level and a few duds mixed in).

What is that 70-80% probability that the draft pick is not a top tier player worth to the team?  By making the trade the acquiring team does get the best of both worlds. They get a draft pick that they believe is already worth the top tier salary with no questions asked. They get the player for multiple years under the rookie contract timeframe which should mean the prime years of the player without the initial cost associated with the player’s development. When you factor in the age of someone like Ramsey (he just 24 right now) you may believe that the performance will extend further into those extension years than it would for other players. That should all be valuable to a team.

Of course the Rams will be paying Ramsey a new salary since he will likely hold out if they do not renegotiate his contract but for an acquiring team that cost is definitely looked at differently than trading for say a franchise player. Lets just say for the sake of argument the Rams sign Ramsey to a four year, $70 million extension. For the Rams that works out to somewhere around $85.5 million over six years, or $14.5 million a year, or about what the Jets paid for Trumaine Johnson.  There is far more value in getting a Ramsey at 24 with two rookie years remaining than no rookie years and signing him as a free agent.

Basically what we have in the trade is a 1st round pick for the player and then a 1st round pick for the premium of acquiring a rookie contract with multiple years remaining, maintaining the exclusive negotiating rights with the franchise tag, and getting the player in his prime rather than likely getting ready to come out of his prime. I can at least buy that logic.

Is Ramsey the best player to go with this strategy on?  I’m not sure on that. Ramsey has a great reputation but Im not sure that has played out the last year and a half. He was upset about his contract this year and was likely more in self-preservation mode while trying to get off the Jaguars. Marcus Peters, who he replaced, was more of a boom or bust type that also did things that would normally get someone paid in free agency especially if they had the cache of a Ramsey. Ideally, even with his age, the way to approach Ramsey is not to extend but to tag and maybe after the first tag see if you can recover some draft capital down the line, but I would think that Ramsey would blow up if they did not extend him in 2020 and that makes this a worthless trade.

So the question I have is whether or not this is the future of the NFL.  Teams have short windows of opportunity and the best chance to find immediate talent is not going to be through free agency or the draft but with aggressive trades like this one, unless the free agent pool gets larger and younger. Let another team absorb the cost of the draft pick and keep him for a few years and if the team is still struggling entice them with more draft picks to rebuild while you take their better pieces. It is a high cost to pay but if these teams start to be successful I would expect more teams to consider doing similar things in the future.  

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC