Thursday, April 19, 2012

NFL Draft Strategy: Trade Up, or Down?

Jacksonville traded up six spots for Gabbert...I'm sure you can guess who won that trade.
It’s a hard thing to explain, but in many ways, the NFL offseason is more interesting to me than the actual season. Of course, there aren’t many people who share this point of view, and that’s OK. I admit, my obsession with the offseason is overtly depraved. It’s gotten so bad that I routinely rush through the actual games on my Madden franchise, sometimes simulating whole blocks of them, just so I can get to the offseason.

If this makes me some kind of sick, corrupted weirdo in your eyes, then so be it. It’s just that team building has always been a major interest of mine. The salary cap management, the meshing of personalities and styles, the various theories and strategies of player acquisition; it’s all fascinating to me, and in many ways, it really is the most important aspect of the game. Before a championship can be won on the field, it must be won in the front office. I guess that’s what piques my interest.

With this in mind, next Thursday is my Super Bowl. The draft is the ultimate test in management skill, combining player evaluation, valuation strategy, maneuvering, and PR tactics, among other things. One of the more prominent aspects is trading. Even now, there are many teams actively seeking to either move up for a player, or move down for extra picks. This is obviously a common draft day practice, but it occurred to me that I had no concrete idea of which strategy is more likely to succeed. So I went back and looked recent history to find out how these types of deals have turned out. Keep the following things in mind as you look at the data:

1. I’m limiting this research to the first rounds of the 2006-2011 drafts. Obviously that isn’t enough data to make the results truly significant, but there were enough trades to draw some informed conclusions.

2. My early hypothesis was that trading up would normally yield a better result, with the exception of trading up for quarterbacks. I’m somewhat going against the grain there, since the “experts” always go out of their way to praise teams for getting extra picks, but it seems logical that trading up would actually be smarter. The odds of landing a good player after the top half of the first round decrease significantly, especially once you get into the third round and beyond. Moving up for a high pick would seem to increase your odds beyond the point where multiple later picks could compensate. Once again, I except QB’s from this theory, since it’s clear that teams have a tendency to grossly overvalue them.

3. Evaluating some of these trades was difficult, especially when a pick was moved multiple times. In the end, there’s no perfect way to evaluate these deals. To keep things in their simplest terms, I tried to evaluate a trade based solely on the end result of the picks dealt, regardless of where those picks ended up.

(Beware. Tons of raw information ahead.)

The Data


Cleveland trades: #12 overall (DT Haloti Ngata)
Baltimore trades: #13 overall (LB Kamerion Wimbley), #181 overall (DT Babatunde Oshinowo)

Advantage: Trade Up – Clearly, #181 did not make up for the gap in talent between Ngata and Wimbley.


St. Louis trades: #11 overall (QB Jay Cutler)
Denver trades: #15 overall (CB Tye Hill), #68 overall (DT Claude Wroten)

Advantage: Trade Up – Hill only lasted three seasons in St. Louis, while Cutler turned into a pretty good QB. Even though it didn’t work out in Denver, the Broncos got a few strong seasons and then a whole bunch of picks for him.


Carolina trades: #14 overall (CB Darrelle Revis)
New York trades: #25 overall (LB Jon Beason), #59 overall (C Ryan Kalil), #164 overall (LB Tim Shaw)

Advantage: Push – If you forced me to pick, I’d say the Jets won because of Revis’ overwhelming value at a premium position. But when someone lands two All-Pro’s in a deal, it’s kinda hard to declare them losers.


Jacksonville trades: #17 overall (DE Jarvis Moss)
Denver trades: #21 overall (S Reggie Nelson), #86 overall (G Marshall Yanda), #198 overall (C Doug Datish)

Advantage: Trade Down – Nelson gave the Jags three mediocre seasons, which alone is enough to declare them winners. Of course, the real gem of this deal was Yanda, though #86 was subsequently dealt to Baltimore.


Dallas trades: #22 overall (QB Brady Quinn)
Cleveland trades: #36 overall (QB Kevin Kolb), 2008 1st round pick (#22 – RB Felix Jones)

Advantage: Trade Down – Both Felix and Quinn have been underwhelming, but at least the Cowboys have gotten something out of their guy. Plus, #36 overall proved to be a valuable trade chip later on in this draft.


Philadelphia trades: #26 overall (LB Anthony Spencer)
Dallas trades: #36 overall (QB Kevin Kolb), #87 overall (LB Stewart Bradley), #159 (CB C.J. Gaddis)

Advantage: Push – On players alone, Dallas wins this trade.  I’ve been very critical of Spencer for not living up to his potential, but he has actually been a pretty solid starter for the last three years. In fact, he was downright good in one of them. But adding in Kolb’s eventual value as a trade chip, I’d say this can be ruled a push for the time being.


New England trades: #28 overall (T Joe Staley)
San Francisco trades: #110 overall (CB John Bowie), 2008 1st round pick (#7 – DT Sedrick Ellis)

Advantage: Push – Staley’s 2011 season was better than any individual season Ellis has posted, but Ellis has been consistently better over the course of his career. Eventually, I feel certain Staley will be viewed as the better player, but I’ll still be tempted to call it a push since San Francisco stupidly traded the #7 pick for the #28 pick.


New England trades: #7 overall (DT Sedrick Ellis), #164 (G Carl Nicks)
New Orleans trades: #10 overall (LB Jerod Mayo), #78 (LB Shawn Crable)

Advantage: Trade Up – The Saints nailed that late round pick by getting Nicks, which more than makes up for the gap between Mayo and Ellis.


Baltimore trades: #8 overall (DE Derrick Harvey)
Jacksonville trades: #26 overall (T Duane Brown), #71 overall (LB Tavares Gooden), #89 overall (RB Steve Slaton), #125 overall (WR Arman Shields)

Advantage: Trade Down – Harvey just hasn’t worked out in Jacksonville, while Brown has turned into a pretty good LT, albeit for the Texans. More on that later.


Detroit trades: #15 overall (T Branden Albert), #76 overall (TE Brad Cottam)
Kansas City trades: #17 overall (T Gosder Cherilus), #66 overall (DE Kendall Langford), #136 overall (WR Kenneth Moore)

Advantage: Push – Albert gets a slight, slight edge over Cherilus since he ended up at LT while Cherilus is on the right side. But Kendall Langford turned into a nice player, though it was after the pick was dealt to Miami. Either way, this is a pretty even deal.


Houston trades: #18 overall (QB Joe Flacco)
Baltimore trades: #26 overall (T Duane Brown), #89 overall (RB Steve Slaton), #173 overall (S Dominique Barber)

Advantage: Push – You can argue with me all you want, but Flacco is nothing more than a league average QB. But you can do worse than him, which is why I’m calling this trade a push, despite the fact that Brown is an above-average left tackle.


Philadelphia trades: #19 overall (T Jeff Otah)
Carolina trades: #43 overall (S Tyrell Johnson), #109 overall (G Mike McGlynn), 2009 1st Round Pick (#28 – C Eric Wood)

Advantage: Trade Up – Otah has had problems staying on the field, but he’s been pretty good when that has happened. Wood, meanwhile, has been a disappointment.


Washington trades: #21 overall (T Sam Baker), #84 overall (WR Harry Douglas), #154 overall (DE Kroy Biermann)
Atlanta trades: #34 overall (WR Devin Thomas), #48 overall (TE Fred Davis), #103 overall (DE William Hayes)

Advantage: Trade Up – Atlanta crushed Washington in this deal, netting two starters and a pretty good slot receiver while only giving up one player of value.


Seattle trades: #25 overall (CB Mike Jenkins)
Dallas trades: #28 overall (DE Lawrence Jackson), #163 overall (FB Owen Schmitt), #235 overall (K Brandon Coutu)

Advantage: Trade Up – Hard to believe you can win a trade in which you land Mike Jenkins, but at least he’s still on the team.


Green Bay trades: #30 overall (TE Dustin Keller)
New York trades: #36 overall (WR Jordy Nelson), #113 overall (CB Dwight Lowery)

Advantage: Trade Down – Nelson has turned into a really good WR, while Keller pretty much is what he is.


Cleveland trades: #5 overall (QB Mark Sanchez)
New York trades: #17 overall (QB Josh Freeman), #52 overall (DE David Veikune), players

Advantage: Trade Down – The Jets could have had a better QB had they stayed at #17. Of course, the Browns ended up moving that pick as well, continuing their tradition of never drafting a good QB.


Cleveland trades: #17 overall (QB Josh Freeman)
Tampa Bay trades: #19 overall (WR Jeremy Maclin), #191 overall (CB Coye Francis)

Advantage: Trade Down – Cleveland wins their second straight trade down, as Maclin’s consistent playmaking ability supersedes Freeman’s one good year.


Cleveland trades: #19 overall (WR Jeremy Maclin)
Philadelphia trades: #21 overall (C Alex Mack), #195 overall (RB James Davis)

Advantage: Trade Up – And there you have it; the Browns win two trades and still lose the draft. Essentially, they turned the #5 overall pick into Alex Mack, David Veikune, Coye Francis, and James Davis. Mack may be good, but you’d never take a center at #5 overall. Also, the fact that they had their hands on Josh Freeman and Jeremy Maclin, only to end up with a center…well, that’s gotta sting. Trade down strategy failed here.


New England trades: #23 overall (T Michael Oher)
Baltimore trades: #26 overall (LB Clay Matthews), #162 overall (T Jamon Meredith)

Advantage: Trade Down – Clay Matthews. Enough said.


New England trades: #26 overall (LB Clay Matthews), #162 overall (T Jamon Meredith)
Green Bay trades: #41 overall (CB Darius Butler), #73 overall (CB Derek Cox), #83 overall (WR Brandon Tate)

Advantage: Trade Up – Like Cleveland above, the Pats went too far with this. Major, major loss for them.


Denver trades: #11 overall (T Anthony Davis)
San Francisco trades: #13 overall (DE Brandon Graham), #113 overall (TE Aaron Hernandez)

Advantage: Trade Down – Do I need to explain? Too bad Denver didn’t keep that pick…


Miami trades: #12 overall (RB Ryan Matthews), #110 overall (S Darrell Stuckey), #173 overall (RB Anthony Dixon)
San Diego trades: #28 overall (DE Jared Odrick), #40 overall (LB Koa Misi), #126 overall (CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah)

Advantage: Trade Up – Odrick turned out to be a pile of garbage, while Matthews had a breakout second season.


Denver trades: #13 overall (DE Brandon Graham)
Philadelphia trades: #24 overall (WR Dez Bryant), #70 overall (TE Ed Dickson), #87 overall (WR Eric Decker)

Advantage: Trade Down – If Denver had just stopped there and not made any more trades in the draft, they would have turned the #11 pick into Dez Bryant, Aaron Hernandez, Ed Dickson, and Eric Decker. That’s an entire receiving corps!!! A good one, too!!! But no, they had to keep dealing…


New England trades: #22 overall (WR Demaryius Thomas)
Denver trades: #24 overall (WR Dez Bryant), #113 overall (TE Aaron Hernandez)

Advantage: Trade Down – And the dream is now dead…


New England trades: #24 overall (WR Dez Bryant), #119 overall (LB A.J. Edds)
Dallas trades: #27 overall (CB Devin McCourty), #90 overall (WR Taylor Price)

Advantage: Trade Up – If we had done this a year ago, I’d give New England the win for McCourty over Bryant. Now, not so much.


Baltimore trades: #25 overall (QB Tim Tebow)
Denver trades: #43 overall (LB Sergio Kindle), #70 overall (TE Ed Dickson), #114 overall (TE Dennis Pitta)

Advantage: Trade Down – I don’t want to talk about it.


Minnesota trades: #30 overall (RB Jahvid Best), #128 overall (T Jason Fox)
Detroit trades: #34 overall (CB Chris Cook), #100 overall (DE Everson Griffen), #214 overall (TE Mickey Shuler Jr.)

Advantage: Push – Neither Cook nor Best can stay on the field, so this is a draw. However, if Griffen ever figures things out, the Vikings are going to win this trade handily.


Cleveland trades: #6 overall (WR Julio Jones)
Atlanta trades: #26 overall (WR Jonathan Baldwin), #59 overall (WR Greg Little), #124 overall (FB Owen Marecic), 2012 1st round pick (#22 overall), 2012 4th round pick (#118 overall)

Advantage: Trade Up – We obviously need more info before we can close the book on this trade, but the early returns are clearly in Atlanta’s favor. Julio Jones is a dynamic playmaker…pretty much the very thing Cleveland craves so badly. But, as I said, this is to be continued. Greg Little had some good moments, and we need to see who Cleveland gets in this draft.


Washington trades: #10 overall (QB Blaine Gabbert)
Jacksonville trades: #16 overall (LB Ryan Kerrigan), #49 overall (T Ben Ijalana)

Advantage: Trade Down – While I’m not willing to close the book on the Julio Jones trade, I slammed the book shut on this one long ago. Gabbert is horrible, and Kerrigan is good. That is all.


Kansas City trades: #21 overall (DT Phil Taylor)
Cleveland trades: #26 overall (WR Jonathan Baldwin), #70 overall (LB Justin Houston)

Advantage: Push – Taylor was consistently better over the course of last season, but Houston showed a lot as a pass rusher, and looks to be the better player long term. And if Baldwin can get it going, this could end up ugly for Cleveland.


New England trades: #28 overall (RB Mark Ingram)
New Orleans trades: #56 overall (RB Shane Vereen), 2012 1st round pick (#27 overall)

Advantage: Incomplete – Ingram had some good moments, and Vereen got lost in the shuffle, but there’s no way to judge this until we see what New England does with the first round pick.


Of the 30 trades I looked at, here were the results:

Trading Up won 11 times
Trading Down won 12 times
The other 7 times were draws

Basically, my hypothesis was wrong. Trading up did not significantly upgrade a team’s odds of landing more talent. Of course, neither did the strategy of stockpiling picks. As with most things, the results are mostly subject to luck. When a team managed to land an Aaron Hernandez or a Carl Nicks with those late round “throw in” trades, they typically won the trade. Nobody expected those players to develop into All-Pro’s, or else they would have been high first rounders. Rather, the “winning” of those trades was subject to the good fortune of those players being under the radar and being available in that specific draft slot.

I will add one thing, however. In the seven trades involving QB’s, the team trading up for the QB lost five times, while winning only once. This is obviously not a large enough sample size to say my hypothesis was correct, but it is interesting. This one is worth collecting further data on.

As for the rest of the study, my conclusion is this. There is no exact science behind the draft. Even the great Bill Belichick, who is renowned for his drafting ability, has had mixed success when dealing picks. In his five trade-downs (not counting last year’s), he’s lost three times (including a tragic trade-down off Clay Matthews) and only won once. Once again, you cannot game the system by trading up or down for players. You simply have to trust your scouting reports, and hope you get lucky.


  1. If Cleveland takes Tannehill, I'll probably slam my head down on a desk until I have so many concussions, I can sue the desk manufacturer...Also, I feel bad for poor Ryan Mathews as he still gets the Blown Gabhurts treatment, though there were so many names in this post, I'll give you a pass on it.

  2. By the time I got to Mathews, my brain was literally fried. And this was the SECOND time I put this list down! Not to mention the fact that I went through each and every draft!

    By the way, well done on the Blown Gabhurts. I like that one.