A quarter of a century after Jimmy Johnson went to work building the Dallas Cowboys dynasty through a series of trades that brought forth a bounty of talent in the draft, NFL teams are still aware of the draft chart the Cowboys used to assess what constitutes a fair trade. But while the chart is still used for quick back-of-the-envelope calculations when teams are on the clock and trying to pull off fast trades, the value of the chart itself shouldn’t be overstated.
Some teams have moved on to more sophisticated charts that they believe better approximate the true value of draft picks. Newer charts take into consideration things like the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which makes high first-round picks much more affordable than they were under the old CBA. (When Johnson first put the chart together, the NFL didn’t even have a salary cap, which meant the Cowboys were free to consider football skill alone without also worrying about whether they could squeeze in the salaries of all their picks.)
“It’s the standard,” 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke said of Johnson’s old Cowboys trade chart. “Everybody uses it, so you have to understand it and take a look at it.”
The 49ers, however, have developed their own chart, which hasn’t been made public like the old Jimmy Johnson chart has. There have been some indications that the 49ers’ chart looks more like the chart published in 2011 by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, but the reality is that charts don’t dictate trades. For proof of that, just look at the trade last year between the 49ers and the Cowboys, whose owner and General Manager Jerry Jones was standing side by side with Johnson in the Dallas draft room back in the 1990s. If teams closely followed their own draft charts, you’d expect Jones to make a trade only when it looked beneficial according to the old draft chart, and you’d expect Baalke to make a trade only when it looked beneficial according to the Harvard draft chart.
In reality, it was the opposite: When the Cowboys gave up the 18th pick in last year’s first round and acquired the 31st overall pick and the 74th overall pick from the 49ers, it was a “bad” trade for the Cowboys from the perspective of the old Jimmy Johnson chart: The 18th pick was worth 900 points, and the 49ers’ two picks were worth a total of only 820 points. But it was also a “bad” trade for the 49ers from the perspective of the new Harvard chart: The 18th pick was worth 249.2 points on the new chart, while the 31st and 74th picks were worth a total of 322.4 points on the new chart.
Why would both the Cowboys and the 49ers do a deal that went against both of their charts? Because the charts are nothing more than a rough estimate. The 49ers weren’t trading up for Pick 18, they were trading up for the player they took at Pick 18, safety Eric Reid. And the Cowboys weren’t trading down for Pick 31 and Pick 74, they were trading down into a couple of spots in the draft where they had players identified they thought would be available. (They chose center Travis Frederick at 31 and receiver Terrance Williams at 74.)
“There’s flexibility in it,” Baalke said of his draft trade chart. “But identifying the player is the critical thing. And finding a way to get them is the next stop.”
Using a newer chart published by Football Perspective, Bill Barnwell of Grantland calculates that the Browns are in the best shape of any team heading into the draft, with all of their own picks and extra first-, third- and fourth-round picks acquired in trades. That looks about right. But as Baalke noted, all that will matter a week from now is identifying the right players.