Paying for NFL Draft Picks via Trades

A lot has been made of the concept of paying to acquire draft picks in the NFL and it became a big discussion point again when the Denver Broncos traded Von Miller to the Rams, but not before picking up $9 million of Miller’s salary in order to receive a big haul in return of a 2nd and 3rd round draft pick for an expiring contract. With the help of Troy Chapman who has been tracking some of these cash for pick type trades, I decided to see if we can actually place a cost on a draft pick in the NFL since we are seeing more and more of these trades each year.

Many people seem to think that this concept of trading cash for picks is something that began in 2017 in a highly publicized trade when the Browns agreed to take on the entire $16 million guaranteed salary of Brock Osweiler in return for a 2nd round draft pick. While that may have been the first time an acquiring team paid the bill, so to speak, for a draft pick, the concept of prepaying a contract to finalize a trade package has been in place for quite some time, at least as early as 2011. 2011 was when the Seahawks ate a few million to move Aaron Curry to the Raiders for a few picks, essentially paying for some draft picks to move a player they had no reason to keep any longer.

Troy and I went back and tried to piece together trades that saw a team pick up a large portion of the cost during the OTC era (2013 onward) and in return be awarded draft picks. We did not include trades that had players as a centerpiece (i.e. the recent Matt Stafford trade) and I made no attempt to untangle the worth of the player in a straight trade had the salary not been paid prior to a trade.

For each player I calculated the salary paid to execute the trade and then determined the draft compensation. For draft compensation I used the Fitzgerald-Spielberger trade values to determine how many points were acquired in a trade. Unless a pick was known at the time of the trade I valued each pick as a mid round selection. For rounds 1-3 that was simple but for rounds 4 to 7 I used what was the average mid point from 2019 to 2021 to take into account compensatory picks causing fluctuation in draft order. The only exception here was the recent Rams trade since they are clearly going to be a playoff team so I downgraded that to a mid 20s return.

There were two questions that we needed to deal with. The first was a discount rate. If a pick was more than a year out I did discount the value but not by a full round the way most people do. The point value I used here was the average between the last pick of the round that the pick will fall into and the first pick of the next round (i.e. the value of a 2nd rounder one year out would be the average value of the 64th and 65th pick).

The second was the alternative consideration of compensatory value. For a player with an expiring contract the team might be in line to receive a compensatory pick for the player. For the few players this applied to, I estimated what I thought their compensatory level would be. This was then discounted as the average between that pick and a compensatory pick two rounds later. The reason I dropped it this much is because of the uncertainty that lies in the compensatory process. It can be hard to protect a compensatory draft pick in free agency which might mean that the pick is really worth nothing. This number is subtracted from the points calculated above to determine the net value of the trade.

While we may be missing a few trades (I purposely did not include the recent Mark Ingram trade since the number was so small and basically done to help the Saints rather than for a pick)

YearPlayerTeamCash PaidCash SavedPicksAlternativeNet Point GainCost/Point
2013Eugene MonroeJaguars$2,359,118$546,7654th rnd, 5th rnd4th rnd (1Y)628$3,757
2020Leonard WilliamsJets$4,019,500$2,019,5003rd rnd, conditional 4th rnd (1Y)3rd rnd (1Y)756$5,317
2021Von MillerBroncos$9,000,000$722,2222nd rnd, 3rd rnd5th rnd (1Y)1,392$6,466
2021Bradley RobyTexans$7,500,000$03rd rnd, conditional 6th rnd (1Y)1,058$7,089
2021Randall CobbTexans$3,000,000$5,250,0006th rnd330$9,091
2021Joe SchobertJaguars$3,650,000$3,650,0006th rnd330$11,061
2019Ryan TannehillDolphins$5,000,000$04th rnd (1Y), 7th rnd; loss 6th390$12,821
2013Levi BrownCardinals$3,085,588$546,765Conditional 7th (not met)190$16,240
2019Aqib TalibDolphins*$4,235,294$05th rnd; loss 7th rnd (2Y)244$17,358
2019Jadeveon ClowneyTexans$7,000,000$03rd rnd4th rnd (1Y)399$17,544
2021Teddy BridgewaterPanthers$7,062,500$3,000,0006th rnd330$21,402
2017Brock OsweilerBrowns*$16,000,000$02nd rnd (1Y), 6th rnd, loss 4th rd746$21,448
2019Case KeenumBroncos$4,000,000$3,000,0006th rnd(1Y); loss 7th rnd(1Y)89$44,944
2015Dashon GoldsonBuccaneers$4,000,000$4,000,0006th rnd(1Y); loss 7th rnd(1Y)89$44,944
2021Ereck FlowersDolphins$6,000,000$3,000,0007th rnd; loss 7th rnd24$250,000

Here are some thoughts on each trade going from the worst to the best.

15. Dolphins Trade Ereck Flowers for a swap of 7th round picks- $250,000/point

This was a wild one. Flowers was part of the Dolphins purge this year where the Dolphins quickly changed course and moved almost every 2020 signing off the team. In order to get someone to take Flowers, the Dolphins paid $6 million of the contract and received almost no value. The impetus for this trade simply had to be saving cash for Miami since they had already guaranteed Flowers $9 million for the season. So really they paid $6 million to save $3 million and just included the picks because the NFL requires that. That being said I think its important to include this trade only to point out how many different opportunities should have existed for Miami here because the return here was absurdly bad even for a player like Flowers.

13. Bucs trade Dashon Goldson for a 6th/7th pick swap- $44,944/point

Goldson was a big signing for the Buccaneers back in 2013 but he had quickly fallen by 2015 to the point where the Bucs were just looking to get anything in return as a justification for trading away a player they invested so much in the prior two seasons. They found a trade partner in Washington who got the Bucs to eat $4 million of the cost- the remaining guarantee on the contract. In return Washington would give them a 6th round pick the following season as long as they gave them a 7th rounder. Clearly nowhere near as bad as the Flowers deal but certainly not an attempt to exploit the system either.

13. Broncos trade Case Keenum for a 6th/7th pick swap- $44,944/point

Essentially the same trade as above and again featuring Washington as the beneficiary. The Broncos saved themselves $3 million by executing this trade which was probably the main reason for doing the deal rather than the draft picks. As you look at these three “bad” deals you can see just how much teams do value actually saving cash if possible even if it means getting taken in a trade by a team that may have some use for the players.

12. Browns trade for Brock Osweiler a 2nd and 6th for a 4th– $21,448/point

The first real trade on the list to not involve savings as a motivating factor for the team to make the trade. Here we had the Browns taking on a bad contract, in full, from the Texans and for the most part it was a gross overpayment. The Browns actually lost value in the year of the trade losing a 4th and gaining a 6th and had to wait the full year for that 2nd round draft pick. Perhaps that was by design based on that years draft prospects, but it certainly was not, on paper, a great use of $16 million in cash. The blunder by the Browns here was probably overvaluing Osweiler’s worth. I think the Browns thought after executing this trade they could flip Osweiler for more picks if they picked up a chunk of the cost. That never materialized and they ate nearly $16 million.

11. Panthers trade Teddy Bridgewater for a 6th round pick- $21,402/point

This was a clear “we want him off the team” kind of trade as the Panthers picked up slightly more than $7 million in costs and only received a 6th in return. The Panthers did save $3 million by trading Bridgewater rather than cutting him, but they should have gotten more for picking up that much of the price. The Broncos were in need of a QB and Bridgewater was going to compete for a starting job, a job he eventually won. Had they held out a little longer I think they could have gotten more but they probably rushed this and wound up handing Denver a dirt cheap QB.

10. Texans trade Jadeveon Clowney for a 3rd round pick- $17,544/point

This was an interesting trade that perhaps showed the disfunction of the Texans front office. Clowney was designated as the franchise player for Houston but as time went on it seemed clear that regretted that decision and probably wish they never made it. The Texans could have walked away and not owed a penny since Clowney did not sign the tender but by failing to allow him to reach free agency they eliminated their chance to earn a comp pick which could have been a 3rd that year. Seemingly they admitted defeat and paid for the same 3rd rounder by picking up $7 million of Clowney’s salary and sending him to Seattle. Just a very poor strategy that was not thought out. Houston fans would probably disagree with one part of my assessment here and that is that Clowney would have netted at least a 4th as an alternative. To reach that 4th they would have had to pay him over $15 million for the season which is an even worse use of their money. That is a fair argument and maybe the fair value of this is somewhere in the middle where this value encompasses the overall bad decision making by the team.

9. Dolphins trade for Aqib Talib and a 5th round pick for a future 7th– $17,358/point

Miami traded for Talib when he was on IR knowing he had no chance to play for them that season. The trade saw them pick up a bit over $4.2 million in salary that was owed to Talib by the Rams and in return the Rams would give Miami a 5th round draft pick. The Rams got a 7th coming their way two years later. If you apply a deeper discount to that pick this skews more in Miami’s favor but they probably should have had a 7th pick swap in there to make the trade official rather than just giving their away.

8. Cardinals trade Levi Brown for a conditional 7th– $16,240 per point

Arizona was moving on from a mistake they made signing Brown and they opted to pay nearly $3.1 million of his salary to trade him to Pittsburgh. The Cardinals never actually received anything for Brown as the condition was not met (he had a certain amount of games to play and I believe he got hurt after the trade) which really makes this arguably the worst trade, but at the time they made the trade fully believing he would reach that number, but it was certainly foolish to not just get a 7th round pick.

7. Dolphins trade Ryan Tannehill and 6th round pick for 7th round pick and future 4th– $12,821/point

In hindsight this looks bad since Tannehill has made a career in Tennessee, but that was probably never going to happen for him in Miami. Tannehill’s run in Miami was marred by injury and ineffective play on a hefty contract extension which was a gamble by Miami the minute it was signed. Still they made the best of a bad situation by paying $5 million for the picks rather than releasing Tannehill outright and watching him thrive on another team.

6. Jaguars trade Joe Schobert for a 6th round pick- $11,061/point

A nice trade for the Jaguars who not only picked up a 6th rounder but cut their obligation for Schobert in half to help alleviate a bad contract decision made the prior offseason. Jacksonville and the Steelers agreed to split the salary of Schobert at $3.65 million apiece. The savings here were significant for the Jaguars.

5. Texans trade Randall Cobb for a 6th round pick- $9,091/point

This was a really nice deal for Houston who benefitted from the conflict in Green Bay between Aaron Rodgers and management. The Packers basically threw Rodgers a bone by going out and getting back one of his former receivers which put them at a big disadvantage here. They did get the Texans to pick up $3 million of the contract but this not only got the Texans a pick but saved them millions and got them out of one of the worst contracts in the NFL. While I didn’t try to take into account the value of money saved this is a rare one where it was meaningful and probably the value of another 6th round pick and a 7th round pick. So overall this is one of the best trades made by a team.

4. Texans trade Bradley Roby for a 3rd round pick and conditional 6th round pick- $7,089/point

This value is based on the Texans getting a 6th but I don’t know those conditions and if it was something that should have been considered likely or not, so that is a guess on my part. Still a solid trade even if we take that out as $7.5 million for a 3rd is far better than the Panthers trade of $7 million for a 6th. It is not an apples to apples comparison of course since Bridgewater had no value to the Panthers and the Texans could claim that they valued Roby even though they probably had zero intention of ever playing him this year.

3. Broncos trade Von Miller for a 2nd and 3rd round pick- $6,466/point

This was a no brainer by the Broncos who paid $9 million of Miller’s remaining salary to get back a massive haul of draft picks from the Rams. I think the return on this was pretty eye opening around the NFL and probably gave some general managers new hope that they could get something big in return for expensive declining players that have tremendous name value if they opt to keep them during the year rather than cut them.  The alternative for the Broncos was to pay Miller’s salary for the year anyway and hope that they got a 5th round compensatory pick in return in 2023.  That’s not to say that this was bad for the Rams who are clearly looking to win this year but it was a great trade for Denver any way you slice it.

2. Jets trade Leonard Williams for a 3rd and conditional 4th round pick- $5,317/point

One of the great steals of recent times, the Jets pulled off a really surprising trade here. Williams was set to be a free agent and was not likely to be brought back. One would assume they would have traded him to a contending team for a 4th but the woeful Giants stepped in and offered a 3rd and 4th for Williams provided the Jets picked up about $4 million of Williams’ salary. Had Williams played things out for the Jets they probably would have gotten a 3rd round pick two years later if they could have avoided free agency that year. Instead they saved themselves $2 million, locked in a 3rd rounder that year, and had an exceptional shot at a 4th rounder the following season. A great trade.  

1. Jaguars trade Eugene Monroe for a 3rd and 4th round pick- $3,757/point

One of the earlier trades using this model, the Jaguars prepaid Monroe $2.36 million and shipped him off to the Ravens who needed help along the offensive line in 2013. Monroe was going to be a free agent the following year and his time in Jacksonville was at an end. I estimated his compensatory value to be a 4th round pick which would have come the following season so they got that and more up front by making this trade. The Ravens were only 2-2 at the time of the trade but were coming off a Super Bowl win the prior year and thought this would help, which it did not. The Ravens finished 8-8 and re-signed Monroe who only lasted two more seasons before he was cut. A great decision for the Jaguars to pay so little relative to everyone else.  

Some Other Thoughts

I think one of the important things we do need to consider in the future is the cash component of these trades. It is such a small sample size that its hard to isolate the trades with meaningless cash savings and make much of it, but it clearly is a driver of the worst trades on this list. As a rough estimate maybe something like $3 million in savings should be looked at as a 7th round pick? The best trades here were all more or less in-season deals that seemed to come from finding a team with designs on winning and then robbing them in the trade. Monroe was four games in to the defending champs, Miller was 8 games in to a team that looks as if they could be the best in the NFL, Roby was week 1 to a team desperate for corner help, and the Williams trade seemed to be finding a team with a glass half full outlook that wanted to lock a player up that they liked prior to free agency.  Even the next few deals came on the eve of camp/season.

In that respect unless there is some type of additional offseason payment or other guarantee that locks in it would seem to make the most sense for teams to wait at least until the summer to make these trades if the intention is to pay off the salary anyway as part of the trade. The Flowers, Bridgewater, Goldson, Keenum, etc… tier were all teams that reeked of desperation and arguably made a trade too quickly. Those returns perhaps could have been maximized by holding onto the players rights and then waiting to see what would open up. I’m not saying that the Panthers could have held onto Bridgewater through the season since his salary would have been higher, but imagine a scenario where Jameis Winston got hurt in the preseason rather than regular season. What return would the Panthers have gotten for eating $7 million?  That team paid a 3rd and 6th for a corner and here you may have been able to give them a QB. Patience makes more sense. You should be able to find the same trades even if you wait until the summer and nothing materializes since you will be picking up so much of the cost.

While I am sure we missed a few trades here and there, hopefully we can track some more of these in the future and see if we can get a better handle on the cost vs draft pick return.  It is definitely a different part of NFL trades and one that I think more teams might be able to utilize as a way to build up their draft capital in a given year.