Dear NFL teams, beware trading up

After covering the NFL on a daily basis for the last 13-plus years, I’ve noticed a few trends.

When it comes to the draft, the biggest trend is that, no matter how much teams analyze it and how much the media tries to crack the code (or to create the perception there’s a code to even crack), it’s a complete and total crapshoot.

And so, like any other exercise that is a crapshoot, the goal should be to have as many chances to shoot crap.  Which means teams should trade up only sparingly — and only if the team is convinced that the player acquired will be a truly great.

It’s a theme I’ve been hitting hard for the last day or so, and it’s coincidentally the topic of a recent study that demonstrates via tangible evidence that it makes little sense to trade up.

More picks equal more tickets to the lottery.  Despite everything teams know (or think they know) about a player, no one knows how he’ll perform at the NFL level until he gets there.

That said, some teams have recently had great experiences with low-round picks (e.g., the Seahawks), which sets up a chicken/egg question regarding whether some teams have figured out how to find great players late or how to make late-round picks into great players.

Regardless, no one knew Tom Brady would be Tom Brady until he became Tom Brady.  (My nose is bleeding again.)  Plenty of other Tom Bradys (and Slim Shadys) are lurking on the board.  As a result, it makes so much more sense to have as many swings at the plate as possible than to sacrifice chances to find Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame talent in order to secure a guy within whom someone in the building has fallen in love.

59 responses to “Dear NFL teams, beware trading up

  1. They said the same stuff about Bruce Smith, he was lazy as well. We know how that turned out.

  2. NY Jets traded up to nab Revis, that worked out very well for a few years anyway…

    It will be interesting to see how Idzik manages this years draft, needs include:


    12 picks to roll, less than 9 hours away thank God!

  3. I think teams should do the exact opposite of your suggestion. Rookies are cheap under the new bargaining deal so it makes sense to trade up and amass multiple first round picks to select impact players who can start and contribute. I hate to say it, but Rick Spielman of the Vikings seems to be ahead of the curve on this.

  4. Basically, you’ve just described Ted Thompson’s drafting strategy. Accumulate picks.

  5. I totally agree, for the most part. However, I think teams that are 1-2 solid players away from getting to the superbowl should definitely consider it.
    Nowadays the window to keep a great team together is very short, so if you try to develop a kid over 2-3 yrs, the rest of the core players that got you to the top have probably bailed. Then, you’re set back a couple MORE yrs.
    A team like SF is great example of a club that should look to trade up (they’ve got a million picks in this draft anyway) to try to get over that hump and get a SB win now, rather than develop other players.
    Just my 2 cents….

  6. And even when the teams trading up “get it right”, its not necessarily the best thing…for example, even as great of a player as he’s been, ATL would have been better off last season with some of the depth they were missing and could’ve drafted instead of Julio Jones…

  7. Basically, you’ve just described Ted Thompson’s drafting strategy. Accumulate picks.

    >>Except Ozzie Newsome developed that strategy and has accumulated more draft picks since 1998 than any other team.

  8. Mike: I agree & disagree.

    I agree: it’s a crapshoot, and your draft pick is like a box of chocolates “you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get”. Your later round picks very well could end up having longer careers than your earlier picks.

    I disagree: because many teams only have a certain # of players they can sign anyway. ( for example, the SF 49ers should certainly trade up earlier. They only have but maybe 5 to 7 open roster spots available, not counting training camp and veterans like Brandon Lloyd competing for spots)

    so I disagree & agree. Also worth noting, the new CBA rookie wage scale dramatically has changed the draft process. Teams are much more likely to kick tires on veteran(aka, expensive) players and draft a rookie who comes at 1/5 the price. Example- Kaepernicks contract vs. Blaime Gabberts contract is a perfect example.

  9. Victor Cruz went undrafted. Every team missed on him through every round. Then he went to the Giants and did so well he supplanted their #1 draft pick in Hakeem Nicks and sent him packing.

  10. So you are saying quantity over quality?
    So the Falcons that got Julio Jones and gave the Browns all those picks are worse off? Can you name the Browns players and even if they are still with the team?

  11. except that you only have 52 roster spots and a handful of practice squad spots. It took years for Tom Brady to become anything worth while. No team can invest that much time and coaching into a bunch of mid or late round picks because they have to field a team every week.You can’t develop everyone and you won’t know who will turn into something unless you develop them.

    So it makes sense to get the few guys you think are most likely to develop into good players rather than shoot more crap.

  12. 1/2 of the first 16 drafted usually go to the pro bowl.

    1/4 of the next 16 go to the pro bowl.

    The best players year in and out are at the top of the draft.

    BUT great teams are made up of more than just pro bowl players.

  13. Belichick wrote the book on trading down and accumulating picks. OSmith, who was mentored as a GM by Belichick, has traded both up and down. Oz has accumulated more draft pks than anyone else because of his strategy on supplemental pks more than anything else.

  14. The love of the game is paramount, the ability to be better than your competition when the need arises is crucial, being football smart and socially accepted by your peers is imperative. Where you are drafted means nothing if you are lacking in any of these qualities…just saying!

  15. I wish everyone that ever typed “Just Sayin'” like it was something meaningful, and not one of the most inane additions to the english language got a punch straight to the solar plexus.

  16. This picture is why, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why Teddy Bridgewater being 6’2″ and 214 lbs. is a problem. Aaron Rodgers is the same height and about 10 lbs heavier is all. Brady was 6’4″ and a really weak-looking 211 when he came out of college. He’s still a bit slender, but now listed at 225 after a career of working with strength coaches. Obviously, he had a good line protecting him, but the only time when he got hurt was the Bernard Pollard incident- which can happen to anybody at anytime on the football field. Oh, and Brady isn’t exactly known to have the best deep ball (see: most recent AFC Championship). I’m not saying Bridgewater will become Brady, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a guy who:

    1. Succeeded in a pro-style offense, 31 TD, 4 INT, 70% completion last season and a great season in 2012 as well. Not sure there’s any other NFL material on the L’ville offense.

    2. Knows how to read defenses and calls audibles at the line already- loaded opposing defense into X-box as part of game prep.

    3. He’s played great against good competition when he’s faced it. Beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl when nobody gave them a chance. Was absolutely destroyed by the Gators’ D, but never got happy feet, hung in the pocket and delivered strikes while getting crushed. Played hurt during that 2012 season.

    4. Hardworking and humble, has already graduated, thus is allowed per NFL rules to participate in all spring activities.

    It’s true that Bridgewater doesn’t have the same athletic upside of Bortles or Manziel, but given all he’s accomplished, he will absolutely excel in the short and intermediate passing game, where most throws are anyways. He’s displayed everything a QB needs to show to succeed in the pros, and because NFL GMs know that, there’s no way he falls out of the first round entirely, no matter what Todd McShay thinks. Like I said, he may not have as high a ceiling as BB and JM, but I think he has very low bust potential. I can’t see him being anything less than solid and dependable even if he never becomes a star. How many teams would kill for a hardworking guy that’s accurate and doesn’t turn the ball over?

    Let me tell you all about the Todd McShay- he thought Ryan Nassib was a top-10 pick last year and the best QB in the draft, but Nassib was taken in the 4th round and inactive all 16 games after being able to move past Curtis Painter on the Giants’ depth chart.

    So mark my words, Bridgewater is absolutely going in the first round.

  17. The problem with accumulating picks is that although you have more chances, the odds probably decrease as the draft completes each round. Yes, there are tons of busts in the first round but I would bet that the percentage of 1st round players who become successful is much higher than any other round. This is why good scouting can be such a great benefit.

  18. Best PFT post all year. All drafted players are in the top 2% of college athletes. That means the marginal difference between 6th round and first round is small enough.

    The marginal difference between…say 18 and 24…is nothing. Certainly not worth the cost of another “swing” that is another pick…or four. (Washington.)

    I’m still so glad the Browns didn’t acquire RGIII the way Washington did.

  19. This is stating the obvious isnt it? Of course you only trade up if you are cetrain that player will be the face or at least core player on your team for a decade. You dont trade up in the first round for a player that isnt that good just to fill a position..

  20. “For every Tom Brady there are 100 Jamarcus Russell’s.”

    And for every average 1st round pick there are thousands of late round players who never play a down. I’d sacrifice more late picks for a few extra early picks any day.

  21. I agree with this. I still look at Tom Brady as the best QB in the league right now (until Manning stops choking in the big moment that is), and he’s a late pick. Also, Richard Sherman, hate him or love him, is the best CB and he was drafted in the 5th round. Both late round picks and both best in their respective positions.

  22. 30 comments all expressing an opinion on the validity of this strategy and none of them reference the actual article that is the basis of it. If you read the article it is a very thorough statistical proof of this theory. If any of you read the full article you won’t dispute the findings.

  23. Wasn’t trading up in the draft a major plot point in a recent movie about the NFL draft? I think it was called, “Draft Day” or something like that.

  24. Yes, just like that time the Falcons traded up for Julio Jones. That worked out so bad for them! eyeroll

  25. The draft is about “need” as well. An immediate need for a starter outweighs the multiple pick dart board strategy. There are also the “bubble boys” G.M.’s ,coaches,scouts,etc. who are down to their last roll of the dice and don’t have the luxury of time to let multiple picks age and mature like fine wine.

  26. The article referenced “proving” you shouldn’t trade up is seriously flawed. Never base your actions off of one study. For starters, they admit they use the old rookie pay structure to base their value which is invalid now. Secondly, they actually use the Griffin trade for validity and while I hate the Redskins as much as the next guy, its way too early to call the winner of that trade. We don’t even know who the Rams will take yet! Plus, they use “games started” as their primary measure when statistics accumulated would be a much better parameter. The problem is that this could never be accurately studied so it shouldn’t even be done.

  27. It almost seems as if you are saying that a 7th round pick is as good as a first, which we can prove is not true. First rounders, as a class, play longer, make more money, have more Pro Bowl invites and make All Pro much more often than 7th rounders and more often than 2nd rounders. Yes, there are 1st round picks that are complete busts. Yes there are late round picks that are very good players, even great players. But there are also some undrafted players that become good and great.

    So what you are saying boils down to a quarrel with way some teams evaluate the costs of moving up. The example of RGIII comes to mind. But the Ravens traded up to take Joe Flacco and that seems to have worked out well for them, to cite but one example. On other occasions, the Ravens traded out of the first round and the net result was not as good. in 2012 they traded out of the first round and ended up with Courtney Upshaw rather than perhaps Doug Martin, taken late in the 1st round.

  28. It’s NOT “a complete and total crapshoot.” That implies it’s pure luck. What a ridiculous conclusion.

    No one will be right every time, but the fact some have much MUCH higher batting averages than others at making these kinds of calls — proves in and of itself that it is NOT a crapshoot.

    Terrible analysis. Absolutely awful.

  29. C’mon, The NFL Draft is a SCIENCE, not a crapshoot. If treated like a CRAPSHOOT those GM’s and Head Coaches better be spot on or they will be pulling unemployment checks in 2 or 3 years.
    The experienced GM’s will take the best athlete on their board and if it happens to fit their position needs, it’s a bonus.
    The strategy of acquiring additional picks from teams who are anxious and want to move up is key to GM’s like Belichek, Newsome, and Thompson. These guys capitalize on 3rd thru 5th round selections. If you want to keep your team competitive and inside the cap numbers, your roster will change by 50%> every 4 – 5 years. Those 3rd – 5th round picks are key.

  30. Did some people even READ the article? First of all to trade UP in the 1st Round – teams are NOT giving up late round picks. They are giving up 1st and 2nd Round picks. Look what Washington gave up to move up for RGIII. Plus, the article does not say NEVER move up. If you are SF AND you have extra picks AND you have few expected roster openings AND you need a WR AND you have Super Bowl expectations… then maybe you move up to get your guy. But there is speculation teams like Atlanta (better than last year -but not a Super Bowl), Buffalo and Detroit are looking to mortgage their futures to move up.

  31. Has anyone compiled a stat comparison on 1st/2nd/3rd…etc round picks to see what historically has been the result by %?

  32. Lol, I wonder what the NFL thinks about this analysis? I can see it all now, the draft will soon become a lottery!!!

  33. Case Keenum’s college numbers were comparable to Bridgewater’s. I’m just pointing out stats are only a part of the puzzle in projecting players as pros.

    Generally speaking, teams need to stand pat and take the best value where they’re at. But the Bears traded up a few picks for Alshon Jeffery, the Niners traded up to take Jerry Rice. There are times when it is necessary and senisible. It’s just too many bad gms do it too often.

    And these blockbuster moves rarely make sense. It’s hard to build a team when you trade four (or more) high draft picks for one in return.

  34. Or…… You might trade up to grab a HOFer!!! #GOAT!!!!!

    In the first round of the 1985 NFL draft, Dallas had the 17th selection and San Francisco had the last (as Super Bowl champions from 1984). 49ers coach Bill Walsh reportedly sought Rice after watching highlights of Rice the Saturday night before San Francisco was to play the Houston Oilers on October 21, 1984. On draft day (April 30, 1985), the 49ers traded its first two picks for New England’s first-round choice, the 16th selection overall (the teams also swapped third-round picks as part of the deal), and selected Rice before, as some report, the Cowboys were intending to pick him. Rice was prized more highly by the USFL, as he was the #2 pick overall in that short-lived league’s 1985 draft.

  35. Well, the Vikings got half of it right, the crap part of the crap shoot.

    But if you take time to read the article, you will understand that the authors are dealing in probabilities and not absolutes. So picking any individual draft pick or trade out the stack does not diminish their conclusions.

    Still, all in all, the GM can make a big difference. If you hire a GM that has been fired for incompetence and your team then proceeds to finish last in 3 out of the last 4 seasons, it might be time for the Vikings to look at the GM.

  36. Again, no one is saying NEVER move up! Is Julio Jones a stud? Of course he is… But exactly how many Super Bowls have the Falcons played in since the deal? They gave up an extra 1st round pick, a 2nd round pick (that should be two starters) and two 4th round picks (plus their own 1st round pick). That should be 3 or 4 starters for 1. You get to add players to your team without having to give up any assets (other than $) – those picks should be treated like gold and some teams treat the picks like loose change they find in the couch.

  37. How much do you think that Brady whiteboard sign would sell for today? 50k? 100k?

  38. 1999: The Falcons trade their 1st rounder in 2015 to move up in Round 2. The Ravens got Jamal Lewis and the Falcons got some scrub. 2001: The Falcons trade with the Chargers to get Vick at #1. The Chargers got LaDanian Tomlinson. 2003: The Ravens trade a 1st in 2004 to get Kyle Boller. They would miss out on Vince Wilfork. 2009: The Jets trade up to get Mark Sanchez. Enough said. 2010: The Broncos trade up with the Ravens to land Tim Tebow. 2011: The Jaguars trade up for Blaine Gabbert. 2011: The Falcons trade up with the Browns for Julio Jones and miss out on Jimmy Smith, Muhammad Wilkerson, Randall Cobb, Cortez Allen, Julius Thomas, Phil Taylor, Cameron Jordan, Harrison Smith, and Doug Martin. 2012: The Redskins trade a ton of picks for RG3. More teams that trade up in the are worse off in the long run.

  39. trading up for clay matthews
    trading up for cordarrelle patterson
    trading up for julio jones
    trading up for harrison smith
    trading up for doug martin
    trading up for bruce irvin
    trading up for earl thomas
    trading up for phil taylor

    Point is, I don’t think there’s a black and white rule here where you should ALWAYS do such and such.

  40. I guess everyone thinks RG3 have no chance of having an excellent career from all of the comments I see.

    Those picks for a franchise QB may still turn out well. Hard to judge off of two seasons.

  41. As fans, our opinion on this subject is dependent on how our team has done trading up.

    In ’98, the Panthers, for all intents and purposes, traded up to get Sean Gilbert.
    In ’09, they traded up to get Everette Brown.
    In ’10, they traded up to get Armanti Edwards.

    So no, a team should NEVER trade up, for any reason!

  42. I agree with Florio on this one. Its a total crapshoot, and folks, you rarely win at craps. Ive watched pro football since the Jets won the superbowl (get out your calculators) I was ten years old. If your trading up for Peyton Manning its a no brainer. 99% of the time its a bust.

  43. The problem is this is a one dimensional look at a multiple dimensional problem. You are looking at “expected payout” when there are roster limits. In other words, in theory an infinite amount of UDFAs is better than a single first rounder, but in reality you are limited to 90 players and 11 players on the field at a time, and the difference between 7th rounders and UDFAs are minimal. The facts are it is not about maximizing value from an absolute strategical perspective, but instead, understanding the various distribution of outcomes in a given pick, and applying the best strategy to your team. Additionally, it is not about maximizing wins in a given year, but at some point positioning team to make a Super Bowl run.
    If you move all in on 2 of 4 needs with a greater probability to get 2 multi-year all pro superstars over 2 years instead of getting 8 guys that maximize your chances of getting 3-5 yr starters, you will have a better draft position the following year with 0-2 major holes and 0-2 superstars. You can always find average players through free agency. So to maximize Super Bowl chances, you’re better off trying to find 4 superstars while using free agency to supplement your needs. This isn’t a perfect look at the problem either. A team with a ton of weaknesses may need to find as many starters as possible and special teasers and contributors. A team with a GM that has to make playoffs this year will have to consider getting the most amount of yr 1 impact players which may mean accumulating a lot of special teams, nickel and dime package players, 3rd and 4th WRs, 2nd and 3rd RBs and TEs,etc. But if a team already has depth and a lot of average players, they need to swing for the fence trying to get some superstars, rather then being permanently doomed to a 7-9 year with little chance of winning a Super Bowl.
    The other thing is risk management. If in a poker game you go all in with aces with your entire bankroll, it is only a matter of if, not win that you go bust. There actually is greater long term return in risking 60% of your bankroll than 95% because with a 95% loss, it requires a 2000% return to get back to even. There is a similar principal in drafting, where diversifying your expectation across more bets can reduce the risk of setting yourself back so far it will take years or even decades to get back to even. On the other hand, some GMs have pressure to make major progress now, and a failure to increase wins dramatically in short amount of time equals a job loss anyways.
    If you mortgage your entire draft on one player it can be bad, but if you accumulate 20 draft picks a year, you are going to be forced to cut them before you even get much of an evaluation anyways.
    Any strategy should be looked at as generalities, not absolutes. If you have a guy rated in the 1st round and he falls to the 4th and you can move up a dozen spots to get him, should you not? There are some instances where you might deviate. It is not a crapshoot but more like a stock market with multiple players with different objectives, and various expected payouts towards each objective. Some GM’s may be better than others, but most likely not dramatically so, so base statistics do matter, it’s just a question of whether you look to maximize chance of having a player in the rotation that improves roster at all that will be replaceable in a year or two, or all in one one multiple yr all pro, that could very easily bust and leave you where you started.

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