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03 Apr 2017
by Tom Gower
From Cleveland, To Atlanta:
From Atlanta, To Cleveland:
Those were the terms of what is commonly called the Julio Jones trade, when Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff moved way up in the first round to snag the potential superstar wideout from Alabama. The deal has been a subject of enduring fascination to many, yours truly among them, and provoked a new round of articles when Jones' league-leading (by receiving DYAR, at least) performance helped power the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Since we just examined that 2011 draft in great detail, it is time to come to some sort of conclusion concerning the trade that was.
The Falcons moved up 20 spots to get into the top ten picks of the draft. Since then, the biggest move a team has made to get a top-ten pick was when the Rams moved up from No. 15 to No. 1 to select Jared Goff last year. The second-biggest move was when Miami moved up nine spots in 2013 to go from No. 12 to No. 3, and the top of the 2013 draft was so lightly regarded that all that move cost them was a second-round pick.
A couple years before 2011, we had seen big moves into the top ten. The Jets moved up from No. 16 to No. 5 in 2009 to acquire quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Jaguars paid a very high price in 2008 to move up from No. 26 to No. 8 to acquire defensive end Derrick Harvey. Those were the first such trades since the Saints gave up two first-round picks, plus a second-round pick (No. 17, No. 18, No. 54) to move up to No. 6 to take defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan in 2003. The Sanchez pick can be defended on the merits of "Well, 2009 was a terrible draft, and he may well have been the second-best quarterback available and we had no way of getting the only good QB in the draft," but the other two trades were abject failures. A more cautious general manager would have heeded the apparent lesson and not made the move. But Dimitroff did not, and gave us something interesting to talk about. For that, as an analyst, I am thankful.
Had Jones been a bust like Harvey or Sullivan, there would be no defense of the trade and it probably would have ended up a footnote or made Dimitroff a punching bag in the big draft column. But Jones has been a great player, arguably as good as or better than A.J. Green, taken before him, and undoubtedly better than any receiver taken after him. (Yes, even Jonathan Baldwin.) Despite the skeptics, Dimitroff absolutely nailed his evaluation of Jones.
One of the reasons we analytical types generally dislike trading up in the draft is that we believe there is relatively little evidence that general managers and/or teams are systematically good at picking players. Teams have good runs of draft picks, thanks to coaching or schematic inefficiencies in the market, and there are some evaluators who seem to be better than others. Yet even general managers with great runs also have really bad runs of their own. (Bill Polian may be the greatest general manager in modern NFL history, with successful team-building runs in Buffalo, Carolina, and Indianapolis, but his end with the Colts was not pretty.)
The pro-Cleveland side of the argument is obvious. For just one pick, they got five in return, all of them in the first four rounds of the draft. Even if the 2012 picks were likely to be later in the first round -- which ended up being the case -- many players through the fourth round end up as contributors to their teams, if not starters. Instead of one potentially great player, the Browns could get two pretty good chances at star players, one good chance at one, and a couple shots at contributors (roughly characterizing the two first-round picks, the second-round pick, and the two fourth-rounders). Especially for a bad team needing to build the overall depth of talent on the roster, that makes a lot of sense.
For Atlanta, this argument is more sophisticated. More picks are better, of course, but you still have to hit on those picks (on which more later). Jones was more of a known quantity -- easier to identify as potentially available at the No. 6 pick than the wider range of players who may or may not actually have been available when No. 26 rolled around, and Dimitroff could be more detailed in his evaluation and more confident that Jones in fact would be a great player.
But at the same time, by robbing the Falcons of potentially four more contributors, the trade put additional pressure on Dimitroff as an evaluator. He had to build better teams using lower-round picks. That made it harder to find contributors for a defense that had given up over 40 points to the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs the year before. And, in fact, the Falcons have ranked No. 22 or lower by defensive DVOA in each of the past four seasons, when defenders chosen in 2011 and 2012 would be emerging into their primes.
The Browns used Atlanta's first-round pick to trade up and acquire Phil Taylor, the draft's most disappointing defensive lineman. As noted in the main 2011 draft column on Friday, Greg Little was suspended for his final season at North Carolina, and proved quite drop-prone in the NFL. Marecic was a disappointment. No analytics-savvy team would ever have taken Brandon Weeden anywhere close to the first round. The 2012 fourth-rounder was used in the trade up for Trent Richardson.
This part of the analysis of the trade could have proceeded a lot differently. Almost everybody drafted around where the Browns picked would have been a better alternative, and generally a lot better. When Danny Tuccitto introduced his VAE metric four years ago, he calculated yhat the picks the Falcons gave up were worth 13.1 CarAV/year. To date, Jones has 67 CarAV in six seasons -- 11.2 AV per year. So, as good as he has been to date, Jones has still been less valuable than the expected average worth of the draft capital the Falcons gave up to get him. That suggests just how much of a super-duper-star Jones needed to be to justify what Dimitroff gave up.
From Atlanta's perspective, how much should this matter? Obviously it matters a great deal in the court of public opinion. Just as obviously, the fact that the Browns chose a particular player with a given pick has fundamentally nothing to do with what the Falcons would have done with that pick had they not made the trade. Notwithstanding Bill Belichick's recommendation of Baldwin as a good potential alternative to Jones, the player Dimitroff would have taken with the 26th pick could have been a successful defensive lineman such as Muhammad Wilkerson (30th, Jets) or Cameron Heyward (31st, Steelers). Or perhaps it would have been Gabe Carimi (29th, Bears), a disappointment on par with Baldwin and Danny Watkins (23rd, Eagles).
By Tuccitto's numbers, or pretty much any other metric you want to use, Jones needed to be a great player to justify the bounty Atlanta gave up to get him. And Jones has in fact been a great player. But that calculation involves a very tricky exercise in judging the worth of superstar players versus the value of non-superstar players of the sort the Falcons could have reasonably expected to select with those picks.
Obviously, Seattle found Richard Sherman in the fifth round in 2011, plus I have to make the ritualistic invocation of Tom Brady going in the sixth round, but one of the reasons Dimitroff would make the Jones trade is that he knew late-round finds like this are essentially flukes of luck and cannot be predicted. After all, both Seattle and New England drafted busts in earlier rounds before they found their late-round gems. But Cleveland sure didn't find any stars with the picks they got from Atlanta. And while there were successful players taken around the picks that Atlanta gave up -- the four picks after Brandon Weeden in 2012 were Riley Reiff, David DeCastro, Donta' Hightower, and Whitney Mercilus -- they still were not Jones-level superstars. Just how much is that worth?
The only answer I can realistically give is: we don't know. It is obviously something. It is easy to oversell that answer. Players who are significant matchup threats and who can tilt coverages and/or who can win in many different ways or especially dangerous ways make other players better and more useful. I was among the many who wondered about paying significant money to Mohamed Sanu last offseason, but it is a lot easier to get value out of a player of Sanu's skill level with Julio as the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho, and potential role players such as Taylor Gabriel become more valuable as well. It is therefore reasonable to believe that Jones' statistics, conventional or advanced, understate his real value.
In the end, I see the merits of this argument, but I am skeptical of it. I want the better players, the more well-rounded team. I think that gives me a better chance of winning. And I really do not want to have to rely on singular great players -- unless they are quarterbacks, but the quarterback discussion is a whole separate one. I do not think I would make this trade if given the chance, even given what we know now. But I am still glad Dimitroff did.
50 comments, Last at 10 Apr 2017, 12:00pm by Bright Blue Shorts