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The Cost of Trading Up

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How much would it cost to own the top two picks in the 2017 draft?

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the NFL combine underway this week, silly season is truly upon us. So let’s consider something a little silly. The Browns currently own the first overall pick in the draft. Fans are split on whether the team should select a quarterback at that spot, or use it on whoever the “best player available” might be, with the leading option there being Myles Garrett. What if they could have both, though? What if the Browns could somehow come away with the top QB on their board, as well as the top player at another position? That would be pretty neat. So what would it take to make it happen?

To answer that question we’ll use my favorite draft chart, created by Chase Stuart at Football Perspective. Stuart used historical data to estimate the average approximate value (AV) you could expect from a player drafted at each pick in the draft. This chart only used the first five years of a player’s production, the years during which they’re under team control before they hit free agency. It also subtracted a “marginal value” from each season, to account for that fact that basically anyone can provide 1-2 AV in a year. For more details, see the links here and here. The important thing to remember is that this is based on real data, unlike the infamous Jimmy Johnson draft value chart.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the numbers. The second overall pick is worth 30.2 AV, about 4 AV less than the first pick. It’s pretty valuable. Other than the first pick, the Browns own picks 12, 33, 52, 65, 108, 142, 145, 177, 183, and 187. That’s a lot of picks. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios to see what kind of trade we might be able to swing here.

Scenario 1

Browns receive pick #2 (30.2 AV)

49ers receive pick #12 (18.8 AV) and pick #33 (12.3 AV) for a total of 31.1 AV

This is probably the simplest deal that makes the values work out. In exchange for dropping 10 picks, the 49ers receive another valuable first round pick and the top pick of the second round. An alternative to this involves the Browns sending next year’s first round pick instead of pick #33, as teams tend to view picks the following year as roughly equal to picks from one round lower in the current year.

Scenario 2

Browns receiver pick #2 (30.2 AV)

49ers receive pick #33 (12.3 AV), pick #52, (9.4 AV), pick #65 (8 AV) and pick #177 (1.6 AV) for a total of 31.3 AV

This trade involves sending a couple second round picks along with a high third and a fifth. Intuitively, this seems like too little to make the trade happen, but the values match up, and it would allow the Browns to make three selections in the first round of the draft. That would be quite a haul of talented rookies. The only reason I could see San Francisco making this trade is if they decide the cupboard is truly bare, and they want an large influx of decent talent rather than looking to grab a real difference maker.

Scenario 3

Browns receive #2 pick (30.2 AV) and pick #143 (3 AV) for a total of 33.2 AV

49ers receive pick #12 (18.8 AV), pick #33 (12.3 AV), pick #65 (8 AV), pick #108 (4.8 AV) and a second round pick two years from now (we’ll estimate this as roughly the first pick in this year’s fourth round, another 4.8 AV) for a total of 48.7 AV

One of these things is not like the other. In the real draft, teams aren’t working in abstractions, they are targeting specific players. That tends to drive the cost of these early picks up quite a bit. If this trade looks sorta-kinda-almost familiar, it’s about as close as the Browns can get to matching what they received from the Eagles last year for Carson Wentz. This scenario is in here to highlight the limitations of using the draft value chart for this kind of analysis.

Wrap Up

So what do you think, would you make any of these deals to grab the top two picks in the draft? I personally would have no problem pulling the trigger on scenario one or two, but I would not be in favor of scenario three. I don’t view the first two as real options, however, they just intuitively do not seem like enough to entice San Francisco to move down. What this exercise has taught me is that even though the data-based draft chart more accurately represents expected return, it’s possible the Jimmy Johnson chart actually does a better job reflecting how front offices value those picks. This is likely because front offices don’t see individual picks as conforming to the expected distribution of outcomes. When they make a trade like this they are expecting the specific player they’re targeting to outperform the average. That is especially true when quarterbacks are involved, which is usually the case with trades like this. Whether or not that is actually the outcome is an interesting question for another time. Maybe NFL front offices only make trades like this when they know they’re right and they really do beat the expected value, or maybe that confidence is misplaced and they’re wasting valuable resources. Either way, in this time of crazy ideas, I hope this article gave you some insight into how to craft your own outrageous trade proposals.