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The NFL Draft: Which Team Has It Best?

Determining who has the most capital to spend in this year’s draft

It’s two weeks late, but the NFL draft is almost here. Delayed from its typical late-April slot because of a spring show booking up Radio City Music Hall (which itself was ultimately postponed), the draft that would typically be in the books by now; instead, we’ve got just over a week to prepare. And with the deepest crop in recent memory, no clear no. 1 selection, and a trade-friendly CBA in place, we could also see plenty of surprises during next Thursday’s opening round. As an event, the NFL draft thrives on shock moments — or, at the very least, Jets moments — and all it takes is one team to fall in love with a player for such a shock to occur. With the extra week of padding in this year’s silly season, that seems more likely to happen than ever before.

Of course, to go get those subjects of affection, teams need assets. Since you can’t buy a pick (like in the NBA) but you can trade picks (unlike in MLB), that capital for making moves on draft day exists almost entirely in the form of selections. When teams have more picks to work with, they find it easier to justify gambling on a lottery ticket. That makes it useful to know in advance exactly what each team has to work with as they all head into draft day.

But how do we determine that? There are a couple ways. Traditionally, organizations have used the trade value chart Jimmy Johnson designed in the 1990s, but those numbers are antiquated and based on an old CBA. While some might still use it, smarter franchises like the 49ers have created their own updated draft value charts. But even those methods have lost their value.

A better method for figuring out the value of each individual pick comes from Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, who used the Approximate Value metric to figure out what teams could expect to receive, on average, from each draft pick. The measure is far from exact — the word “approximate” is there for a reason — but it’s unbiased and should be useful enough for a concept like this. I’ve gone through and measured each team’s expected draft haul given the pick capital it has per the values found by Stuart, which you can find here. I’ll also include the ranks in terms of the more traditional trade value charts in the table at the bottom of this piece.

Enough preamble. Who has the most and least to work with next week? Let’s start with the league’s barest cupboards and go from there. Keep in mind that the average NFL team has 44.8 points of expected Approximate Value to work with from its picks.

The Have-Nots

32. Indianapolis Colts (17.3 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 1st-, 4th-, 7th-round picks
Acquired: 7th-round pick (trade)

It’s no surprise to see the Colts at the bottom of this chart; general manager Ryan Grigson has been more aggressive than anybody else in football in dealing away his picks. While his first foray in trading up landed the Colts T.Y. Hilton, most of these trades have not been great — Trent Richardson, in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb that can’t hold on to footballs. Primarily as a result of that trade, the Colts have actually traded away 17.7 points of expected Approximate Value from this year’s draft class. Unless they make another deal to trade up, their first selection in this year’s draft will be 59th overall, and they’re also missing their fourth-round pick by virtue of another deal with the Browns. This is a really risky way to run a football team, but Andrew Luck cures a lot of ills.

31. Kansas City Chiefs (28.9 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 2nd-, 7th-round picks
Acquired: 6th-round pick (trade)

The Chiefs dealt two second-rounders to the 49ers for Alex Smith, which was pretty good for San Francisco given that the 49ers had little leverage and Smith is up for a new contract. Dallas sent them its sixth-rounder in exchange for the seventh-rounder and reserve linebacker Edgar Jones, who somehow started four games for the Cowboys at end before going on short-season injured reserve and losing his spot altogether.

30. Seattle Seahawks (29.4 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 3rd-, 7th-round picks
Acquired: 5th-round pick (trade)

The third-rounder went to Minnesota as the final piece of the Percy Harvin deal, a trade that still doesn’t have a clear winner. Harvin was great in a limited role during the Super Bowl, but that was his only complete game for the Seahawks all season, and they might very well have gotten more out of Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Vikings took with the first-rounder they received for Harvin. Flags fly forever, but given that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl by [quickly checks] 88 points, that flag’s probably still flying if Harvin’s not wearing Seattle colors. (Doug Baldwin just scored another touchdown on the Broncos. Not even sure how that happened.)

29. Washington (30.0 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 1st-round pick
Acquired: None

Like the Colts, the pick Washington traded away is worth more (30.2 points) than the rest of their draft altogether. The RG3 trade has now gone the full 180; by the 2013 draft, it seemed like an obvious steal by Washington, but now, one year later, it looks like one of the greatest heists in history for the Rams, given that they dealt the second-overall pick for another second-overall pick and picked up eight other selections (including four other top-50 picks from various trades) in the process. Using the values from Chase’s model, the Rams dealt away 30.2 points of approximate value and received 91.3 points in return; that’s like dealing the second overall pick for the second overall pick in the next three drafts. Of course, the Rams have used some of those picks on the likes of Isaiah Pead, and RG3’s value is probably going to land somewhere between our post-2012 and post-2013 observations, but it was very clearly the right idea for the Rams to make the trade.

28. Denver Broncos (32.6 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: None

No moves here. Denver’s low score is a product of making it to the Super Bowl and signing a bunch of free agents each offseason, which prevents the Broncos from receiving compensatory picks under the league’s system. Speaking of …

The Notables

18. Dallas Cowboys (40.5 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 6th-round pick
Acquired: Five 7th-round picks (three compensatory)

That’s exciting, right? Because the Cowboys can’t afford to sign many free agents or retain their own, they’ve managed to come away with three compensatory picks to go along with two other picks they’ve acquired in trades. The bad news? All six of Dallas’s seventh-rounders come at pick 229 or later, and the Football Perspective model finds that these picks are so historically useless that it doesn’t assign them any value whatsoever. Sorry, Cowboys.

11. Baltimore Ravens (48.0 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: 4th-, 5th-, 7th-round picks
Acquired: 3rd-, two 4th-, 5th-round picks (all compensatory)

Nobody seems to get more out of the compensatory draft market than the Ravens, and 2014 is no exception. After losing several key players to free agency and doing little in the marketplace, the Ravens were awarded more compensatory draft value than anybody else; the 13.6 expected points they’ve acquired from those four compensatory picks is roughly equivalent to getting the 27th-overall pick of the draft for free. The compensatory picks represent more than 28 percent of Baltimore’s total draft capital, and if they didn’t have those four picks, they would fall from 11th in draft assets to 28th.

Other teams with large compensatory hauls include the Steelers (third-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks, for 7.7 expected points of value) and the Packers (third- and fifth-rounders, 7.1 points). The picks these teams receive come at the end of their respective rounds and are not tradable.

The Beasts

5. Atlanta Falcons (55.4 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: 4th-, two 7th-round picks (all compensatory)

There should be a neon, blinking “FOR NOW” hovering over this entry. Atlanta, of course, has been heavily linked to a trade for the first-overall pick, which makes sense on a few levels. The Falcons have operated under a stars-and-scrubs approach under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who has been aggressive going after veterans in free agency while giving up multiple picks in past drafts to trade up and acquire wideout Julio Jones and cornerback Desmond Trufant. Dimitroff is a man who trusts his read. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the stars-and-scrubs approach, but it’s a high-variance strategy: When it goes right, you get the 2012 Falcons. When the stars don’t play well or get hurt, you get the 2013 Falcons. The Falcons also had the league’s worst Adjusted Sack Rate last year and did virtually nothing to upgrade their pass rush this offseason, instead bringing in run-first linemen like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson ahead of what might be a move to a 3-4 as their primary defense. (Here’s where you fill in coach buzzwords about hybrid fronts, wanting to be multiple, etc.) Jadeveon Clowney was a 4-3 end at South Carolina, but he’s a true athletic freak and the 3-4 shouldn’t be a problem.

What might be a problem, though, is the cost of trading up. Assuming the Falcons wanted to move from their sixth slot to the first pick, they’d have to pay a hefty price. The ol’ trade value chart says the first pick is worth 3,000 points, while the sixth pick is worth 1,600 points; Atlanta could deal its entire draft under that chart and still come up well short. It’ll unquestionably take at least one more future first-round pick, but given that general managers often (perhaps incorrectly) devalue future draft picks in trades, the Falcons are probably looking at more than their 2015 first to sweeten the pot. My guess is that it would take Atlanta’s 2014 and 2015 first-round picks, a third-rounder in 2014, and a second-rounder in 2016. And, at that price, are the Falcons better off waiting for the sixth pick, when they might be able to come away with a franchise left tackle to move the disappointing Sam Baker off Matt Ryan’s blind side? The decision could come to define this franchise over the next few years.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (66.3 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: 4th-, two 5th-, 6th-round picks (all trades)

The Jaguars need just about everything except a left tackle and a wide receiver, and they might take Sammy Watkins anyway. If Houston takes a quarterback and the Rams don’t trade down or have interest in Clowney, Jacksonville could have the South Carolina defensive end sitting in its lap. The Jags could very well then field a godfather offer from somebody like Atlanta to move down three spots, where they could draft a quarterback and have multiple future picks with which to rebuild. Even if Clowney’s gone, they could field the same offer for somebody interested in Watkins, like the Buccaneers (who pick seventh), Bills (ninth), or Titans (11th). They have flexibility, and by dealing away three former Gene Smith picks (Eugene Monroe, Mike Thomas, and Blaine Gabbert), they’ve picked up 10.1 points of draft capital, roughly equivalent to the 47th pick.

3. Houston Texans (70.6 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: 4th-, 6th-, 7th-round picks (compensatory), 6th-round pick (trade)

The first-overall pick is worth 34.6 points, just over 49 percent of Houston’s overall draft capital. The Texans could realistically consider one of the big three quarterbacks (Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Johnny Manziel), Clowney, Watkins, or a trade of the pick. Khalil Mack would be a reach, and they won’t pick a left tackle with Duane Brown around.

So here’s what they have to ask themselves: Given that Clowney appears to be the favorite, even if the Texans want to draft a quarterback, which would you prefer? On one side, there’s Clowney. On the other side, there’s — just to throw a possibility out there, if Atlanta gives them two ones and two twos — Manziel, Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford, and a future first- and second-round pick. Or Mack, fast-rising quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and those same future picks. Houston can take Clowney and still draft a quarterback with the 33rd pick, but that also prevents the Texans from going after a much-needed interior lineman at 33. It’ll be a fascinating decision, regardless of what they choose to do.

2. St. Louis Rams (75.1 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: 1st-, 7th-round picks (trade); 6th-, two 7th-round picks (compensatory)

One of the problems with the Rams, of course, is that they always seem to be forced into accounting for their old mistakes. If they draft Auburn tackle Greg Robinson second, it’s because of Jake Long. If they grab Watkins, it’s in part because Tavon Austin was so ineffective during his rookie season. They can’t take Clowney with Chris Long and Robert Quinn around. They could trade down, but after trading down so many times with the picks they got from the RG3 deal, they’re a team that actually needs a star-caliber player more than depth. The default pick is Robinson, but until they move on from Sam Bradford, does it really matter?

1. Cleveland Browns (79.1 points of Approximate Value)
Traded Away: None
Acquired: 1st-, 3rd-, 4th-round picks (all trades)

The Browns may have fired virtually their entire organization, but the outgoing front office left new general manager Kevin Costner Ray Farmer with more 2014 draft capital than anybody else in football. Cleveland has three of the first 35 selections and five of the first 85.

What should the Browns do with all those assets? Tough to say right now, given that they pick fourth and virtually anything could happen with the first three picks. They don’t really have an obvious fit for Clowney, having already invested heavily in Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger as pass-rushers. Watkins and Josh Gordon would be a terrifying wideout tandem, but the team has bigger holes elsewhere. The left tackles are out, with Joe Thomas around. If the Browns stay put at four, that pick will likely end up as one of the quarterbacks (if they’re in love with one particular passer) or Khalil Mack. That would allow them to target a quarterback later in the first round; they could very well use the 26th- and 35th-overall picks to move up to, say, the Giants’ selection at 12 and grab a passer there. It all seems to depend on what the Texans do with the first-overall pick. All we know right now is that the Browns have the most chips at the table.  

Filed Under: NFL, NFL Draft, Bill Barnwell, Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell