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.