The NFL Draft Shell Game

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

For 362 days each year, NFL teams hoard their draft picks while privately and publicly preaching that they are irreplaceable foundational assets. Then, on the other three days, those same organizations abandon those principles to move up and target the player of their desires.

That’s part of the weird psychology when teams use multiple picks to trade up during the NFL draft. The classic argument you hear from teams after a trade relates to their board; a team that moves up into the bottom of the second round will invariably say it had a first-round grade on the guy, which justifies the move. To them, sure. At the same time, it’s a trade for a player who the rest of the league clearly doesn’t value at that same first-round level; you’re basically betting that your front office is smarter than the rest of the league.

You can imagine why general managers, even the smart ones, do it on a regular basis. Think about the thousands of scouts and personnel men around the league who would love to make their way up the chain and become a general manager. Now, imagine you’re one of the 32 executives who actually managed to pull that feat off. Wouldn’t you believe that you knew something everyone else was missing? Wouldn’t you be able to convince yourself that your ability to scout players and properly value incoming college talent had gotten you promoted to that role in the first place?

Of course you would. So would I. And sometimes those trade-ups work out. We know from looking at trades in the past, though, that teams are almost always better off trading down to acquire more picks than trading up to grab a lone player. The consensus is almost always a better judge than any individual talent evaluator. Ozzie Newsome traded up for Kyle Boller. Ted Thompson moved up to grab Jerel Worthy. Bill Belichick dealt several picks for the chance to draft Ron Brace. Drafting is tough, and the best way to draft well is to get as many chances to pick players as possible.

With that in mind, let’s examine the trades that took place during this year’s NFL draft. To evaluate the selections, I’ll be using the draft value chart developed by Chase Stuart, which uses historical estimates of return to place a value on each selection.1 First, I’ll run through the 10 most lopsided trades from the draft. I’ll finish up by looking at the teams that gained or gave away the most draft capital with the moves they made.

Trade Deficit

10. Dallas–San Francisco
San Francisco sends: 7-2462
Dallas sends: 2016 sixth-rounder
Value on the dollar: infinite

OK, so I’m going to start by cheating a bit. This is technically the best trade in the draft because the 49ers get something for “nothing.” Stuart’s model assigns the 246th selection, which the Cowboys used to draft Texas tight end Geoff Swaim, a value of zero. Players drafted that late do occasionally turn into contributors, but the roster penalty Stuart assigns as an estimate of replacement value (and the opportunity cost of not having the roster spot open for another player) reduces the value of the pick to nil.

In return, the 49ers get a future sixth-rounder, which does have some modest value. I don’t believe in applying a reduction for the cost of acquiring future picks unless it’s something extreme (like the Robert Griffin trade), and while we have no idea how the Cowboys will do this year, we can be conservative and estimate that their sixth-rounder will fall somewhere around the 20th pick of the round. Even if the 49ers have to wait a year, 196 (or so) for 246 is a good deal. I wanted to include it in the top 10, but it’s not really the best trade of the weekend.

9. Miami-Philadelphia
Miami sends: 2-47, 6-191
Philadelphia sends: 2-52, 5-145, 5-156
Value on the dollar: 130.1 percent

Chip Kelly quietly subverted a lot of our expectations during this year’s draft. Of course, some of that might have been because the Titans weren’t interested in any sort of Godfather offer for Marcus Mariota, but after a wild free-agency period, Kelly didn’t do anything so dramatic in the draft. He used his first-round pick on Nelson Agholor, and while Agholor is yet another Pac-12 player on Kelly’s roster, the 6-foot-0 pass-catcher isn’t exactly the sort of mammoth wideout he usually seeks out. Kelly didn’t deal any of the veterans he was rumored to have on the block, like Evan Mathis and Mychal Kendricks.

And while he traded up here to grab Utah cornerback Eric Rowe, Kelly really didn’t do anything that stands out as particularly egregious or value-ignorant. He was on the other end of one of the draft’s best trades, which I’ll get to later on. He went after well-regarded players with his first three picks without obviously reaching for a player who would have likely been available two or three rounds later. If you’re looking for signs that Kelly’s tenure as head of personnel in Philly won’t be a disaster, the 2015 draft is one.

8. Minnesota-Atlanta
Minnesota sends: 5-137
Atlanta sends: 5-146, 6-185
Value on the dollar: 130.3 percent

This is a classic value trade-up. The Falcons moved up to grab Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who was one of the highest-rated players available on virtually every draft pundit’s board (let alone Atlanta’s) at the beginning of the fifth round. Atlanta still needs bodies along its defensive line, even after investing heavily in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai during last year’s free-agent period, and Scott Pioli has a history of attempting to build his teams around a strong defensive line, going back to his days in New England.

You can understand why the Falcons made this deal. The frustrating thing about it if you’re an Atlanta fan is an argument that will pop up again as we run through these trades. Atlanta’s roster has been a mess for the last couple of seasons because the team has been stuck employing replacement-level talent in meaningful roles. A top-heavy approach to roster construction under Thomas Dimitroff left the Falcons with undrafted rookies and cheap veterans dotting the roster in 2013 and 2014. A sixth-round pick doesn’t sound like much, but that sixth-rounder is far more likely to be an average player than a guy off the street. Pioli, Dimitroff, and the Falcons need all the picks they can get.

7. San Francisco–San Diego
San Francisco sends: 1-15
San Diego sends: 1-17, 4-117, 2016 fifth-round pick
Value on the dollar: 135.1 percent

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has done a great job rebuilding San Diego’s roster over the last few seasons, but he had one of the more curious drafts this year. It started in the first round, where Telesco strangely doubled down on one of his biggest mistakes when he selected running back Melvin Gordon with the 15th pick. Having inherited a moribund running game from predecessor A.J. Smith, Telesco cobbled together an effective attack by placing his faith in the oft-frustrating Ryan Mathews, even when the former first-round pick’s stock was lowest. He made a brilliant signing by adding Danny Woodhead on a bargain-basement contract, giving the Chargers a pair of backs who complemented each other without making a serious commitment to either player.

Strangely, then, he went into free agency with limited cap space in 2014 and signed Colts rotation back Donald Brown to a relatively lucrative deal for that class, giving Brown three years and $10.5 million. Brown (whose role is now completely marginalized by this draft pick) promptly averaged 2.6 yards per carry and got punter Mike Scifres destroyed as a personal protector. Woodhead and Mathews both got hurt, and in the end the Chargers invested heavily in running backs and got absolutely nothing out of the equation.

You would assume Telesco would notice that and try to fill out his running back rotation on the cheap, but instead he gave up a fourth-round pick to move ahead of the Texans and draft Gordon. Even if Gordon is talented, it’s an odd use of resources.

6. Cleveland-Houston
Cleveland sends: 2-43, 7-229
Houston sends: 2-51, 4-116, 6-195
Value on the dollar: 139.6 percent

It’s almost impossible to not make jokes about the Browns,3 but they’ve been pretty smart in recent years in terms of acquiring additional draft picks. They picked up an extra first-round pick in both the 2013 and 2014 drafts, and they made a pair of useful trades during this year’s draft. Granted, they’ve used first-round picks on Trent Richardson and Johnny Manziel, but if you’re going to be bad at drafting and developing players, you also want to get as many chances to succeed as possible.

Getting an extra fourth-rounder and turning that relatively useless pick at 229 into a slightly more promising selection is a nice return for the Browns here, who had to move down only eight slots, where they grabbed Nate Orchard to serve as a rotational pass-rusher. The Texans, who just had to release Andre Johnson for cap reasons, probably aren’t in a position to be trading draft picks to move up eight spots for inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney.

5. New England–Cleveland
New England sends: 3-96, 7-219
Cleveland sends: 4-111, 5-147, 6-202
Value on the dollar: 141.4 percent

Rats. There goes some of that goodwill. The Browns added more defensive line help here by trading up to snag Washington State’s Xavier Cooper, but it couldn’t have felt good to give up a pick in each of the next three rounds for the privilege of doing so. The Patriots then turned around and dealt the 147th pick to the Packers so Green Bay could draft Brett Hundley; in all, the Patriots turned 96 and 219 into 111, 166, 202, and 247. That’s the second-best double-move of this draft.

4. St. Louis–Carolina
St. Louis sends: 2-41
Carolina sends: 2-57, 3-89, 6-201
Value on the dollar: 142.7 percent

Here’s the other trade I can’t really understand in terms of salary-cap problems. Carolina’s Dave Gettleman has done an incredible job over the last two seasons, taking over a team that was in cap hell and managing to make the playoffs in both 2013 and 2014. But just as his team is beginning to work its way out of the financial doldrums, Gettleman made a pair of aggressive trades that really limit his team’s access to the low-cost talent it desperately needs around the roster. In all, the Panthers traded away four of the seven picks they were allowed to deal over the weekend, leaving them with three selections to go with two untradable compensatory picks in the fifth round.

This deal was the more egregious of the two, as Carolina sent third- and sixth-rounders to the Rams to move up 16 spots and grab Michigan wideout Devin Funchess. Wide receiver was still a position of need for the Panthers, even after grabbing Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of last year’s draft, but it’s really difficult to justify dealing up for a wideout with such enormous holes on their offensive line and in the secondary. The Panthers saved their season last year only after turning to late-round rookies like Tre Boston (4-128 last year) and Bene Benwikere (5-148);4 this year, if Carolina’s starters don’t go according to plan again, there won’t be the same sort of young talent lying in reserve.

3. Minnesota Combo Deal

The Vikings consummated two trades in a five-pick span last Friday night, adding a bevy of picks in the process. Here they are as a package:

Minnesota sends: 3-76
Kansas City sends: 3-80, 6-193

Minnesota sends: 3-80
Detroit sends: 3-88, 5-143

That adds up to …

Minnesota sends: 3-76
Detroit/Kansas City send: 3-88, 5-143, 6-193
Value on the dollar: 145.7 percent

Not bad for moving down 12 spots. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman made what appears to be a major misstep a couple of years ago in dealing four picks for Cordarelle Patterson5 in a deal that ultimately netted the Patriots Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and LeGarrette Blount. Otherwise, though, Spielman has been one of the better draft-day traders in football. The Vikings still came away with a player at a position of relative need at no. 88 in LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter, and MyCole Pruitt is the sort of high-upside project that smart teams grab with their extra picks, as Spielman did at no. 143. The Vikings quietly have one of the deepest rosters in football, and trades like these are why.

2. Philadelphia-Detroit
Philadelphia sends: 4-113
Detroit sends: 2016 third-round pick
Value on the dollar: 148.9 percent

Teams have basically stopped making this kind of deal at the top of the draft because it so frequently turns out to be a disaster. My favorite is still the Broncos-Seahawks deal from a few years back when the Broncos sent a future first-rounder to draft Alphonso Smith in the second round. Denver moved on from Smith after one season, while the Seahawks used the first-rounder to grab Earl Thomas.

Obviously, a third-round pick is always going to be more valuable than a fourth-rounder. Where this really becomes disconcerting for the Lions is if they take a step backward this year. The estimate above projects that they’ll have the 16th pick in the third round, and even that reasonable estimate — given that they grossly outplayed their peripheral statistics last season — suggests this would be an ugly trade. If the Lions finish 6-10 or so, this could end up looking like no. 113 for, say, the 72nd pick. Detroit took defensive tackle Gabe Wright, and while it had a need at tackle, it’s a serious price to pay when the Lions could have grabbed a veteran like Barry Cofield or Red Bryant off the waiver wire and used that third-round pick on a defensive tackle next year.

1. Washington-Seattle
Washington sends: 3-69
Seattle sends: 3-95, 4-112, 5-167, 6-181
Value on the dollar: 180.2 percent

Wow. Not only is this the worst trade in the draft, it’s the worst by a significant margin. It’s pretty hard to argue with John Schneider’s success, and he’s typically one of the smartest general managers in football, but this is an incredible amount to spend on a third-round pick. If you add up the values of the four picks Schneider sent to former Seahawks executive Scot McCloughan in Washington, he treated the 69th selection as if it were about as valuable as the 27th pick in the first round.6

You can interpret that one of two ways. I have a lot of faith in Schneider’s ability to spot talent, and if he thinks the player he chose — Kansas State wideout Tyler Lockett — was worth that significant of an outlay, chances are it’s worth putting some stock in that opinion. If you’re going to give anybody the benefit of the doubt, it’s Schneider. And given how thin the Seahawks are at receiver even after adding Jimmy Graham, Lockett is Seattle’s best way of adding a weapon who can help them win now.

I find the flip side of that argument far more compelling. If you have Schneider and you think he’s better at spotting talent than your competition, the best thing he can do is get as many chances to exploit that advantage as possible. Trading four picks for one limits Schneider’s shot at adding talent to a roster that isn’t quite as deep as it was in 2013, because Schneider’s midround finds are coming off their rookie contracts and becoming significantly more expensive.

It’s not just about adding Lockett; it’s the opportunity cost of missing out on a chance to find a star in the middle rounds. In the wrong hands, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks might not mean that much. But in those rounds during the 2011 draft, Schneider came away with K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, and Byron Maxwell. The pick Schneider used to draft Sherman came in a deal where the Seahawks traded down with the Lions, picking up an extra pick while swapping selections in the fifth and seventh rounds.

There is no guarantee the Seahawks are missing out on a franchise player like Sherman by trading their fifth-rounder this year, of course. They also chose Kris Durham and Mark LeGree in those rounds in 2011. But when you make trades like this, you limit your chances to get lucky. The Lions traded up that year to fill an obvious hole on their roster, grabbing their long-needed power back in Mikel Leshoure. Leshoure’s been out of football for two years. If Lockett turns out to be a star, the Seahawks will be happy. History tells us, though, that Schneider would have been better off with all of those extra picks.

Team-by-Team Look

By the time the weekend was over, 28 of the league’s 32 teams had consummated a draft-day trade for present or future picks. Only the Bengals, Steelers, Bears, and Bills sat out, and the Bills sat out in part because they were already without their first- and fourth-round picks from last year’s Sammy Watkins trade.

Let’s see who gained and lost the most draft capital over the weekend. I’ve gone through all the trades and calculated each team’s difference after the dust settled. This doesn’t include the few players who were dealt, but as Zac Stacy was the highest-profile player involved in a draft-day trade, I’m not especially concerned the numbers are missing some key contributor. I’ll start with the table for teams that added the most capital over the three-day stretch.

In addition to the values, I’ll also put the numbers in context with the “Like” column on the right. That column assesses the cumulative amount gained over the weekend like it was the value of a single pick in a vacuum. The 49ers, for example, led the league by gaining 6.6 points of draft capital through their trades. Stuart’s model suggests the 81st pick is worth 6.6 points of draft capital, so the 49ers basically generated an 81st pick for free.

Some teams, of course, gave up more than they gained. The pick in the “Like” column estimates the draft capital they lost.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals


Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell