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.