The Saints, the Draft, and the Winner's Curse
Guest column by Chris Bouton
In the spring of 1999, New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka desperately wanted to draft Texas running back Ricky Williams. Ditka did not believe that Williams would fall to the Saints, who held the 12th pick. So he sought a trade partner. The Washington Redskins, owners of the fifth pick, proved willing to move down. Ditka then facilitated one of the most infamous trades in NFL draft history, trading away all six of his picks in the 1999 draft. To sweeten the pot, Ditka included the Saints' first- and third-round picks in 2000 as well. The chart below, put together using Chase Stuart's invaluable draft pick calculator, reveals the cost (according to Pro Football Reference's approximate value) of the trade.
|Saints Picks Lost in
Ricky Williams Trade
In total, Ditka shipped out eight picks to move up seven spots. Let's look at the total cost according to AV.
|AV Traded Away||74.3|
Stuart's draft pick calculator, meanwhile, estimates that the difference between the fifth and 12th picks is 5.5 AV (the equivalent of the 97th pick, a late third-rounder). Ditka, in other words, overpaid for the value of the fifth pick by nine times -- 9.09 times, to be exact. The Jimmy Johnson draft value chart is slightly more charitable, suggesting that Ditka overpaid only by about 5.49 times. As recently as 2010, Ditka defended the logic behind the trade. He told a gathering in Palm Springs, Florida, that "Now you could argue, if you want to: Did we give up too much to get him? Maybe." Ditka, however, remained steadfast in his evaluation of Williams, arguing that "But if you want somebody, why not give it up?"
Ditka's explanation epitomizes the perils of the winner's curse. At its most simple, the curse holds that the winners of certain types of auctions tend to pay more than the items are worth. When Ditka traded away his entire draft, he let his evaluation of Ricky Williams guide his decision making. Ditka decided that no matter what any other team in the league thought, Williams was worth a king's ransom in draft picks. In Williams, Ditka saw a Heisman-winning running back who could rejuvenate the moribund Saints. The acquisition of Williams, however, failed to return the Saints to glory. Instead, in 1999, they finished 3-13 and had to hand the second overall pick in the draft to Washington. The Saints, who had finished 6-10 in Ditka's first two seasons as head coach, quickly learned that they were not one player away from the playoffs.
Following that disastrous 3-13 season, Saints owner Tom Benson fired Ditka. Even with Ditka gone, the Saints under current general manager Mickey Loomis have continued to trade up in pursuit of specific players, trusting their evaluations above all else. Since Loomis ascended to power in the spring of 2002, the Saints have made 16 draft-day trades solely involving the swapping of draft picks. Using Stuart's draft pick calculator, I have calculated the return that Loomis received for each trade. I have divided the trades into three categories below. Overall, Loomis' affinity for trading up has set in motion of a series of events that have crippled the Saints' salary cap and left them bereft of cheap, cost-controlled talent.
Trading Up in the Current Draft
In his very first draft as general manager, Loomis traded two first-round picks (one, coincidentally, acquired from Miami in exchange for Ricky Williams) and a second-rounder to move up 11 spots and select offensive lineman Johnathan Sullivan. The trade established a pattern that Loomis would repeat again and again, giving up valuable assets high in the draft in order to select certain players. One of Loomis' favorite types of trades is packaging a third-round pick with a first-rounder in order to slide up. In 2014, Loomis gave up the 91st pick in order to jump seven spots and draft wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks played 10 games before breaking his thumb in Week 11, leaving the Saints down a third-rounder and with little to show from a draft loaded with wide receiver talent.
The 2008 trade that netted the Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis vividly reveals the dangers of Loomis' strategy. Ellis played five largely mediocre seasons before leaving New Orleans as a free agent. The Saints needed Ellis to become an above-average NFL defender to justify the cost of the trade. When he failed to develop, the Saints lost not only their first-round pick, but the third-rounder they traded away to acquire him as well. Drafting Ellis, however, may have saved them from an even bigger mistake. In 2008, the Saints unsuccessfully tried to trade up to the second overall pick in order to draft defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. The reported offer included, at the minimum, the Saints' first-round pick in 2008 and an additional first-rounder in 2009.
In the early 2010s, Loomis' propensity for trading up continued, even when common sense indicated otherwise. As a result of the BountyGate scandal, the NFL stripped the Saints of second-round picks in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, the Saints had only one pick in the top 100, having traded away their first-rounder the previous year. Instead of trading down in an attempt to accumulate more selections, Loomis stayed put. The Saints drafted five players, none of whom have made a significant impact. In 2013, Loomis resumed his trading ways, sending a pair of fourth-round picks in order to move up into the third round and select defensive tackle John Jenkins (costing themselves 3.1 AV in the process). Already lacking in picks, the Saints doubled down on their ability to scout and develop players.
Research by Cade Massey of the Wharton Business School and Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business concluded that teams generally overestimate their ability to identify and draft talent in comparison to other teams. They found that the differences between successful and unsuccessful teams were largely the result of chance rather than skill. Massey and Thaler recommended trading down in the draft in order to increase the chance of acquiring more talent. In other words, if the draft functions like a lottery, then the best strategy is to collect as many tickets as possible. This logic has long governed the draft-day tactics of teams like the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers. Trading up isn't always a bad idea, though. By consistently trading down, teams accumulate extra assets that they can turn around and use to move back up for specific players. With additional picks, teams can more reasonably take chances on specific players while maintaining a stable of other selections to balance out the potential for failure. Loomis' draft-day behavior reveals that the Saints, like many other NFL teams, have failed to learn this particular lesson.
Trading Future Assets for Current Ones
The Saints' affinity for aggressively moving up has proven especially damaging when they have sacrificed future assets for current players. In 2011, the Saints acquired the 28th pick in the draft from the Patriots in exchange for their second-round pick and a future first-rounder, which ended up being the 27th pick in 2012. In essence, the Saints gave New England a second-rounder to wait a year and move up one spot. The Saints then used that 2011 pick on Alabama running back Mark Ingram. In his career, Ingram has averaged a pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry. In his best season, in 2014, Ingram ranked 13th in the league with 109 DYAR (nearly 40 percent of his career total). As they did in the Sedrick Ellis trade, the Saints created a situation where the only way they could get a reasonable return would have been for Ingram to become a star player. Additionally the Saints ignored their own history of finding running backs on the cheap (like Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Khiry Robinson), and their inability to develop Reggie Bush into an every-down back.
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The opportunity cost of trading up and selling off future assets has manifested itself later in the draft as well. In 2009, the Saints traded their seventh-round pick (No. 222) and a 2010 fifth-rounder (No. 163) in exchange for the 164th pick in the draft. According to the draft calculator, the loss on this trade was marginal, -0.3 AV. With the 164th pick, the Saints selected punter Thomas Morstead. Since 2009, Morstead has served as the Saints' punter and kickoff specialist. Morstead famously executed the onside kick against the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and has been one of the league's best punters and kickoff men. In 2012, the Saints rewarded Morstead with a six-year contract extension worth $23.2 million with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Besides paying way too much money to a punter, what's the problem? Well, the 222nd pick in the draft became Colts punter Pat McAfee, who was rated by advanced metrics as the best punter/kickoff man in the NFL last season. Had the Saints simply waited, they could have had McAfee and kept their fifth-round pick.
In his second year as the Saints GM, Loomis reversed course from 2003, trading down twice. Loomis turned the 48th and 81st picks in the draft into the 50th pick, the 139th pick, and the 40th pick in 2005 (gaining and then losing the 151st pick in the process). The two transactions netted a return of 7.5 AV. It was a savvy move, worthy of Bill Belichick or Ted Thompson, but unfortunately one that Loomis has repeated only once since.
|Trading Up in Current Draft||-14.0|
|Trading Future Assets||-19.0|
In total, Loomis' trades have cost the Saints -23.4 points of approximate value, equal to the sixth pick in the draft. If you focus on only the trades where Loomis traded up, he cost the Saints -33.0 AV, between the value of the first and second overall pick. By constantly trading up in pursuit of specific players, Loomis has limited his team's ability to acquire cheap and cost-controlled talent. They have drafted 38 players since 2008, fewest of any team in the league. In a business where value stems from paying players less than they are worth on the open market, the Saints have consistently failed to use the draft to create depth and develop star players from within.
Having stripped the Saints' roster bare, Loomis has relied on the free agent market to fill the team's depth chart. This has crippled the Saints' salary cap. While the Saints have found some success with undrafted free agents (Pierre Thomas comes to mind), they have shelled out big money to mid-career veterans. In 2012, down a first-round pick (traded to New England for Mark Ingram) and a second-rounder (BountyGate penalty), Loomis tried to spend his way to depth. He lavished big money on four free agents; guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore), defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (Denver), and linebackers Curtis Lofton (Atlanta) and David Hawthorne (Seattle). He also re-signed wide receiver Marques Colston. Each of those players got five-year contracts (all figures below come from Spotrac).
As the chart shows, the Saints structure their contracts with low cap numbers in the first year in order to spread the cost over the length of the contract. They mortgage their future by placing the increasing salary cap costs in later years (a process described by Grantland's Bill Barnwell last December). By repeating this process again and again, the Saints have bloated their cap with aging veterans who have failed to live up to their contracts. The last two offseasons have demonstrated that even if the Saints constantly renegotiate contracts in a desperate bid to remain competitive, eventually that mortgage comes due.
This free agent spending binge has also cost the Saints in another area: compensatory draft picks. The Saints have received ten compensatory picks since they were instituted in 1994, second fewest of any team in that time (the woeful Browns have received six). Since Loomis became the GM in 2002, the Saints have garnered a grand total of three compensatory picks: seventh-rounders in 2011, 2006 (which became Marques Colston), and 2004. As the Baltimore Ravens have demonstrated, compensatory picks represent a self-replicating asset. Draft and develop players, allow them to leave as free agents, receive a compensatory pick; lather, rinse, and repeat. By trading away draft picks and signing veteran free agents to fill the gaps, the Saints have deprived themselves of another way to replenish their ranks with cheap, cost-controlled talent.
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When we combine all of this together, we can understand how the Saints transformed themselves from a Super Bowl contender to a team in the midst of a radical overhaul. This process of trading up for draft picks meant those new players needed to play at a remarkably high level to justify the cost of acquiring them. Next, in order to fill in the gaps on their roster (normally filled by those missing draft picks), the Saints relied on aging and expensive veteran free agents. These free agent contracts cost the Saints compensatory draft picks and pushed the team into a salary cap mess that will take years to clear up. New Orleans entered the 2014 season with Super Bowl aspirations, but when those players, free agents and homegrown, failed to play up to expectations, the Saints missed the playoffs entirely.
In the past few months, the Saints have aggressively reshaped their roster, trading away Jimmy Graham, Ben Grubbs, and Kenny Stills, all for more draft picks. The Saints currently hold nine picks in the 2015 draft, the most since Loomis became the GM. What they will do with those picks remains a mystery. History suggests that they will trade up. Yet as the Saints sit strained against the cap, with an aging franchise quarterback and a roster in desperate need of repair, they will need to learn from their past, lest they be doomed to repeat it.
Chris Bouton (@chbouton) is a PhD candidate in American history who currently lives in Connecticut. When he's not writing about slave violence, he writes about sports, TV, movies, and food at his blog.