by Andrew Healy
On draft night, analytics can help identify the right players... in some cases. In 2013, teams should probably have liked Jamie Collins more and Dion Jordan less. This year, they should probably reconsider how high they draft Jameis Winston. But those cases appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Teams, at least recently, have not shown a consistent ability to beat the draft by finding better players than other teams find. But certain teams have been finding consistent inefficiencies elsewhere in the draft. In a world where draft picks are just lottery tickets, teams like the Patriots accumulated more tickets for years, while teams like the Raiders consistently gave those tickets away.
Here, I estimate how much value teams have acquired and given away in draft picks over the years. The amounts are large, enough to keep draft-value acquirers in the playoffs year after year, and to keep draft value giver-uppers consistently at the bottom of the league. And if the gap between teams in finding good players has largely disappeared, the gap between teams in acquiring draft pick value appears to be only growing larger.
To estimate the draft value teams gained and lost with trades, I looked at the 1,395 picks that were traded between 1997 and 2014. I am not interested in the players acquired with those picks, just the value of the selections themselves, which I estimated with Chase Stuart's chart. His chart just looks at the Approximate Value (AV) that picks tend to generate in the first five years of their careers and does not adjust for salary. Adjusting for salary, as Massey and Thaler did for the old CBA and Brian Burke just did for the new one, would make draft picks look even more valuable, since draftees are cheaper than veterans.
For each team and year, I took the total value of additional picks that teams acquired and compared it to the picks that teams traded away. By looking only at the value of picks rather than the players involved, I am just looking to identify the teams that have traded to acquire draft value, and those that have ended up trading draft value away. At the end, when I compare current general managers, I will also add in the value of compensatory picks. But my primary focus is on the extra draft value that certain teams acquire through trades.
Best and Worst Drafts by Trade Value
To start, the left side of this table lists the drafts where teams acquired the most value in picks, according to Stuart's chart. The drafts where teams traded away the most value appear on the right. The most-depleted draft according to this measure was New Orleans' post-Ricky Williams draft (and that doesn’t even include the value the Saints also gave up in the 1999 draft, described in Chris Bouton’s great guest article) where they gave away 38.7 points of AV above replacement level, which Stuart sets at 2 AV per year. To put that in perspective, Calvin Johnson generated about that much AV above replacement in his first five years. So we can think of the Saints as giving away Megatron-like value just in those two 2000 picks they gave up to get Williams.
On the positive side of the ledger, the Patriots appear more often than any other team. The Patriots laid the groundwork for their second act in the 2010s by acquiring picks worth more than 17 AV in 2008, 2009, and 2011. The players the Patriots have picked over the years have, on average, actually underperformed their draft positions by a little bit, but the extra value in the picks the Patriots acquired gave them enough Rob Gronkowskis to balance the Ras-I Dowlings.
Best and Worst Teams Over Five-Year Periods
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Daniel Snyder's Redskins stand out as having consistently given away draft value. While the most recent negative value might be forgivable due to the understandable Robert Griffin trade -- for a moment, forget Griffin's post-injury struggles and remember how well-regarded he was by both scouts and statistical projections -- the 2005-09 draft value giveaway was not. Oakland likewise has consistently given away draft value. From 2000-04, the Raiders were actually in the top three for acquiring value. Coinciding with their overall decline was a fall into the bottom three of draft value acquisition for each of the last two five-year cycles.
In the last five years, New England and St. Louis have acquired more draft value than any team did either from 2000-04 or 2005-09. The Rams acquired that value mainly through the Griffin trade. The Patriots did it with more methodical maneuvering year after year, continuing this season with the neat trick they pulled off in the Akeem Ayers trade.
The spread in outcomes actually grew wider from 2010-2014. The variance of acquired draft pick value increased by about 17 percent from 2005-09 to 2010-14. If teams are largely similar in their ability to identify good players, they appear to be growing no closer in how they value draft picks.
General Managers and Acquiring Draft Value
This comparison includes any general manager who was in place for the 2011 draft and stayed through the 2014 draft. Howie Roseman is thus included in the chart even though Chip Kelly is now the general manager. The chart suggests the very different ideas that Roseman and Kelly may have about the draft. While Kelly gave away a second-round pick in the at-best-highly-questionable Sam Bradford trade, Roseman acquired draft pick value at about the same rate as Bill Belichick has during his tenure in New England. I come up with the average excess value per year that general managers have created across trades and compensatory picks (listed here in the far right column).
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The top three names on the list all trade like they can't sit still. Through all that action, trading down and into future drafts, they generate the extra value that helped make their respective teams consistently successful during their tenures. Three of the next four names on the list also are moderately active in the draft trade market. Mike Brown, on the other hand, like Jerry Reese, does only a fraction as much wheeling and dealing. While it might be surprising to see Brown rank so highly on the list, most of that value was acquired in the last five years of consistent success for the Bengals.
More generally, the most consistently successful general managers on the list all acquire significantly more trade value than they give away. Ozzie Newsome is the exception, and he makes up for his trades by generating by far the most value in the NFL in compensatory picks.
The best GMs in the NFL have been the ones who continue to stockpile draft value. Where other GMs may be seduced by the sizzle of a flashy running back, the best GMs can get past our natural tendency to undervalue assets when it is unclear exactly what you will eventually get. It would be hard to be less sexy or more vague than "a future fourth-round pick." While that means yawns to most of us, it spells opportunity for the GMs whose teams are the most consistent winners.