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Running the Numbers: Trading Back In First Round Has Value

Posted Mar 26, 2013


When the Cowboys traded up in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to grab cornerback Morris Claiborne, I noted that teams trading up in the first round have historically fared worse than those who traded back. I wasn’t saying that I disliked Claiborne; actually, the trade up was well worth it because Claiborne was the consensus top defensive player available (and he’s going to be perhaps my top breakout candidate for 2013).

While every trade should be taken on a case-by-case basis, it’s still interesting to note that teams moving back early in the draft have often gotten the last laugh. Grading players based on approximate value, you can see that those teams who have traded back in the first round have secured nearly twice as much total production as those who moved up.

Of course, total value shouldn’t be the only way we grade draft trades. A wide receiver who posts 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns is obviously more valuable than two who each put up 700 yards and five touchdowns. Another way to grade draft trades, then, is to determine how often the team trading up or moving back got the best player in the deal.

And guess what? From 2000 to 2010, the team moving back in the first round of the draft still got the best player over 50 percent of the time. That’s pretty remarkable considering the trade-down teams obviously held a later pick and were presumably forced to choose a “worse” player than the teams who moved up. That means the compensation for trading down – often a mid-round pick, at worst – came “free.”

The Chart

One of the reasons that the Cowboys should generally be interested in trading down early in the draft stems from one of the team’s creations a couple of decades ago. Widely attributed to former coach Jimmy Johnson, the “Draft Trade Value Chart” assigns point values to each pick. Based off of analysis performed prior to the Cowboys’ early 1990s Super Bowl wins, “The Chart” is an attempt, albeit a primitive one, to use analytics in deciphering the value of each draft pick.

Surprisingly, teams still use the chart today to make trades. When the Cowboys moved up from No. 14 to No. 6 last year, for example, they acquired “1,600 points” with the sixth overall pick and yielded 1,550 points by giving up their first and second-rounders. Most draft trades fall neatly within the confines of the chart, suggesting teams still use it as a baseline for deals.

The problem is that the chart is antiquated, assigning too much value to certain picks and not enough to others. Specifically, the chart weighs the value of most first-round picks far too heavily. According to the chart, for example, the No. 1 overall pick is worth over three times as much as the Cowboys’ No. 18 overall selection. Actually, the chart assigns exactly as much value to the top pick as the No. 15, 16, and 17 selections combined. I don’t know about you, but I’ll go ahead and take the three first-round picks all day.

With most teams still using the chart as a basis for trades, there’s certainly an opportunity for shrewd organizations to acquire value by exploiting the sub-optimal strategies of others. But how can they do that? Which picks are worth the most, relative to the cost? Below, I charted the worth of each pick according to both the draft value chart and actual draft results over the past decade.

The biggest inefficiencies arise at the top of the draft; the chart assigns value to the first overall pick as though that player will eat up five percent of the overall value of the entire draft class. In reality, it’s not even half of that.

The inflated value of the early selections on the chart extends until near the end of the first round. At that point, the actual value of draft picks has historically exceeded the value assigned by the chart, and the trend continues until the middle rounds, i.e. it’s generally a good idea to stockpile as many picks as possible in the late-first, second, and third rounds. At least one team, the New England Patriots, has found an amazing amount of success by continually trading out of the first round and grabbing talented players in the second and third rounds. There’s little doubt that mathematics has been the impetus behind their decisions to move back.

The Cowboys have found some success trading up in recent drafts; Claiborne, Anthony Spencer and Dez Bryant have all come via a trade up. With a lot of holes to fill in 2013, though, the team might want to consider moving down from their No. 18 overall pick.

The way the draft unfolds will dictate their decision. They obviously shouldn’t trade back if a highly-ranked prospect is still on the board, but history suggests the Cowboys could potentially find value by trading back in the first, or perhaps out of the round altogether, to grab a handful of talented second- and third-round options.


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