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20 Apr 2004

Who Makes Draft Trades and Why

by Michael David Smith

New England's front office loves making draft-day deals, moving down to pick up extra picks. Minnesota's front office moves down, but only because it fails to get its selection in on time. And by looking at how each NFL team has behaved on draft weekend in recent years, we can get a feel for how this year's draft might shape up.

The Patriots made six draft-day deals in both 2001 and 2003 and three trades in 2002. They're also the only team with two first-round picks this year, so it's a good bet that they'll be the driving force on a few trades this year.  Heck, they've already made one that shook up the draft, and we're still a few days away.

As Bill Belichick recently told the Providence Journal, "Some teams don't make trades. Other teams -- like us -- will. And a lot of teams will call us because they know we will deal and pull the trigger. More opportunities come our way because of that."

Meanwhile the Vikings made only one trade during the 2001 draft and none in 2002 or 2003.

Teams typically move up in the draft because they have targeted one specific player who they don't expect will be available at their slot. Teams that move down do it to get extra picks, but there's another advantage that teams don't often state publicly: Rookie salaries are determined by draft position, so a team that moves down doesn't have to pay its choice as much. This year, many analysts say the Chargers want to take North Carolina State quarterback Phillip Rivers. The Chargers have the first pick and could use it to select Rivers, but if they're confident he'll be around later in the first round, they'd rather move down, pick up an extra selection, and pay Rivers less than they would have to if they selected him first overall.

The payment of rookies based on their draft slot can lead to difficult negotiations, especially when one player signs an unusual contract. In 2002 the Cowboys moved from the sixth overall pick to the eighth pick and selected safety Roy Williams of Oklahoma. Jerry Jones was so thrilled to have Williams that he offered Williams' agent the contract that he would have offered him if the Cowboys had stayed at No. 6. Williams and his agent quickly agreed. The players chosen sixth and seventh -- North Carolina's Ryan Sims to Kansas City and Miami's Bryant McKinnie to Minnesota -- insisted that they deserved more money than Williams, while the Chiefs and Vikings insisted that just because the Cowboys had overpaid didn't mean they had to, too. So Sims and McKinnie ended up missing time because of rancorous contract negotiations.

In 2001 there were 17 first-day trades and five second-day trades, in 2002 the draft had 13 first-day trades and four second-day trades, and in 2003 there were 11 first-day trades and 12 second-day trades. Here are the teams that had multiple draft-day trades in the past three years:

2003 2002 2001
Patriots 6 Redskins 4 Patriots 6
Packers 4 Cowboys 3 Rams 4
Bears 3 Raiders 3 Cowboys 3
Eagles 3 Patriots 3 Lions 3
Texans 3 Falcons 2 49ers 2
Panthers 3 Ravens 2 Bills 2
Jets 2 Browns 2 Steelers 2
Cardinals 2 Jaguars 2 Colts 2
Saints 2 Broncos 2 Giants 2
Chiefs 2     Broncos 2
Broncos 2     Dolphins 2
Seahawks 2        
Lions 2        

In deciding whether to make a trade of draft picks, teams rely on a chart that gives an approximate value for each choice. Jimmy Johnson (who had the glee of a scavenger at a swap meet when making draft-day deals) pioneered the use of the chart in Dallas, and it quickly spread through the league when other teams began to envy the Cowboys' draft-day success.

Different teams give different values to picks, but one well-publicized chart gives, for example, the first overall pick a value of 3,000 points, the 10th pick 1,300 points, the 50th pick 400 points and the 244th pick one point.

Do the point values hold up when teams actually trade picks? Let's look at last year's most prominent draft-day trade. The Jets desperately wanted Kentucky defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, so they sent the 13th overall pick, the 22nd overall pick and the 116th overall pick to the Bears in exchange for the fourth overall pick. Here's the point value of those four choices:

  • Pick 4: 1800
  • Pick 13: 1150
  • Pick 22: 780
  • Pick 116: 62

That means the Bears gave up 1800 points and got 1992 points in return. In other words, the Jets were so enamored of Robertson that they were willing to sacrifice 192 points to get their man. Conventional wisdom says the Bears got the better end of the trade, but we won't know for sure until a few years from now, when we can accurately assess the careers of Robertson and the three players the Bears chose with those picks: defensive end Michael Haynes, quarterback Rex Grossman and defensive tackle Ian Scott.

Not all trades are for picks in the same draft. Last year, for example, the Ravens got the 19th overall pick from the Patriots to select Kyle Boller. They gave up the 41st overall pick in 2003, and in addition they gave up their first-round pick in 2004, which turned out to be the 21st overall. In the unpredictable NFL, neither team had any idea just how good the Ravens' first-round pick would be. If the Ravens had been the league's worst team the pick would have been worth 3000 points, whereas if the Ravens had won the Super Bowl the pick would have been worth 590 points. But even if the Ravens had won the Super Bowl, the standard chart indicates that the Patriots got the better end of the deal. The 41st pick is worth 490 points and the 19th pick is worth 875 points. So if you believe the chart, any first-round pick would have been enough to make the trade worth the Patriots' while. As it turned out, the Patriots gave up a pick worth 875 points for two picks totaling 1390 points. But if Boller is the Ravens' quarterback of the future, the trade will have been worth it.

Of course, trades involving future picks are a lot easier for guys like Bill Belichick and Brian Billick, who already had their Super Bowl rings and the job security that goes with them. If you aren't worried about losing your job you have no qualms about building for the future instead of using picks to draft players who can make an immediate impact.

But a guy like Gregg Williams can't look at it that way. He was undoubtedly disappointed when Bills GM Tom Donahoe decided to draft the injured Willis McGahee with last year's selection. Taking a guy coming off a serious knee injury is similar in philosophy to trading away a pick this year for another pick next year. Williams lost his job in Buffalo after a disappointing season in which McGahee didn't play. Perhaps he could have saved his job if the Bills had taken an impact rookie with that pick.

Most personnel men would probably insist that they care only about getting the best deal for their team. But familiarity among coaches and general managers seems to be an important part of how teams work out trades with each other. Seattle's Mike Holmgren has traded with his former assistants, Green Bay's Mike Sherman and Philadelphia's Andy Reid, in each of the past two years, and Sherman and Reid made two trades with each other last year. As the draft clock ticks, personnel men wanting to make a trade sometimes feel more comfortable calling someone they know. As in any other business deal, personal relationships can be vital.

So what does it all mean for this year? Four observations:

1) The Patriots will be players; that seems certain.

2) The Redskins didn't make any draft-day trades last year, but they went into the draft with only three selections after using their other picks on trades and signing restricted free agents. Joe Gibbs always supported Bobby Beathard's draft-day trades during his previous stint in Washington, so there's no reason to believe the Redskins won't make moves this year.

3) If a general manager trades away a pick this year for another pick next year, it's safe to bet he has assurances his job is safe.

4) If Holmgren is on the phone, he's probably talking to one of his former assistants.

Posted by: admin on 20 Apr 2004