As a resident of Trade Down Island, you agree to live by TDI’s Glorious Constitution. If you cannot abide by these divine principles you will incur the righteous anger of your benevolent dictator and be cast off our tropical paradise for NFL draft nerds and wanna-be GMs.
Article 1: Productive players on rookie contracts are the single greatest asset in the NFL behind franchise quarterbacks.
In the modern NFL there is nothing more important than having a franchise quarterback. The second greatest assets are productive contributors playing on rookie contracts because they free up millions of dollars in cap space to use elsewhere. Rookies who produce from Day 1 provide four years of production that significantly exceeds their cap hit. For example, the No. 16 overall pick in 2018 has an average annual cap hit of $3.2 million. By the No. 48 overall pick (mid-second round) the average annual cap hit falls to just $1.4 million. Picks in the mid-third and mid-fourth rounds count just $870k and $763k per year over their first four years. Finding productive players on rookie deals, especially those drafted in Rounds 2-4, literally unlocks millions of dollars in cap space to re-sign key players and land difference-making free agents.
Article 2: The NFL draft is largely educated guesswork, so more picks means more correct guesses.
While on the whole first round picks outperform second round picks, and second round picks outperform third round picks, every individual player selection is fraught with risk, uncertainty, and guesswork. As the data nerds at FiveThirtyEight have pointed out, “there’s practically no correlation between a team’s picking performance from one draft to the next.” Draft data analysis from Football Perspective produced the same conclusion, “the correlation coefficient between a team’s draft grade in one year and draft grade in the next year was just 0.07. This means that there is essentially no relationship between how well a team does relative to expectation in the draft this year to how they did the prior year.” Teams that think they can “beat the draft” over the long run are kidding themselves. Because of this, the only way for teams to find more value in the draft than their peers is to acquire more draft picks.
Article 3: If you are drafting a stud, DON’T trade down.
If Luke Kuechly is available at No. 9 (which he was), you draft Luke Kuechly! If Aaron Donald is available at No. 13 (which he was), you draft Aaron Donald! Heck, if your GM and scouts can find the next Kuechly or Donald in the draft, then teams should trade up to get them. This is particularly true with early first round picks where franchise-changing talent can be available. The biggest misconception about trading down is teams are swapping a dollar bill for three quarters. Teams that smartly trade down never do this. Teams should never trade down when they can stand pat and draft a future Pro Bowler.
Article 4: If you aren’t sure you are drafting a stud, then smartly trade down.
The problem with Article 3 is that for every Luke Kuechly drafted at No. 9, there’s a Reggie Williams (2004), Ted Ginn (2007), Keith Rivers (2008), or Dee Milliner (2013) who never live up to their lofty draft position. If GMs and scouts aren’t certain they can draft the following caliber of player then they should trade down every time:
*No. 1-15 – Definite Pro Bowler, All-Pro potential
*No. 16-32 – Likely to become Pro Bowler
*2nd Rd. – Quality starter, could develop into Pro Bowler
*3rd Rd. – Capable starter, could develop into quality starter
*4th Rd. – Quality depth, could develop into starter
*5th Rd. – Can make 53-man roster, play special teams, provide limited depth in an emergency.
*6th-7th Rd. – Players rarely pan out so more value can be found by using these picks to either trade up this year or by trading these picks away for higher selections next year (e.g. this year’s 6th round for a 5th round next year.)
Article 4-A: Examples of smartly trading down.
Here are some examples of what it means to “smartly” trade down:
*2018: Buccaneers trade No. 7 (1st) and No. 255 (7th) for No. 12 (1st), No. 53 (2nd), and No. 56 (2nd). Trade #18.2.
*2018: Raiders trade No. 41 (2nd) for No. 57 (2nd) and No. 89 (3rd). Trade #18.9.
*2018: Buccaneers trade No. 56 (2nd) for No. 63 (2nd) and No. 117 (4th). Trade #18.15
“Smartly” trading down means that teams draft a little later in the first and second rounds for additional picks in Rounds 2-4 where quality players are still available. Instead of swapping a one dollar bill for three quarters, smart teams turn a one dollar bill into five quarters.
Article 5: If you trust your GM and scouts to nail No. 10, you should also trust them to nail No. 15.
You either trust your GM and your scouts, or you don’t. The more you trust your team to pick the right players, the more you should want them to trade down! Trading down means your team’s strong talent evaluators now have more picks to work with in Rounds 2-4 and bring in quality players on dirt-cheap rookie contracts. On the flip side, if you don’t trust your teams GM and scouts, you should also want them to trade down! If they are going to mess up at No. 10, they are likely going to mess up at No. 15 as well! But by trading down to No. 15 they will at least get another chance to stumble into a good pick later on in the draft.
Article 6: Picks No. 61-100 yield roughly the same production, so aggressively trade back from the mid-second round into the third round as long you don’t violate Article 1.
Your benevolent dictator also writes for SB Nation’s Cat Scratch Reader (Carolina Panthers) and encourages you to read this article from 2017 which shows nearly all players drafted between No. 61 (mid-second round) and No. 100 (end third round) tend to become “regular contributors” who play at least 40% of offensive/defensive snaps at nearly the same rate. More players drafted between No. 61-80 become Pro Bowlers than those drafted between No. 81-100, so if you can draft a stud in the 60s or 70s, then do it! Otherwise, trade down 10-20 spots, get another 4th round pick, and take two bites at the apple instead of just one.
Article 7: Third round picks are incredibly valuable when comparing production to cap hit, so the more the merrier!
Here at TDI we love the risk-reward dynamic with third round picks where their average annual cap hits fall between $840k and $1.0 million per season for four years! While it’s not realistic to expect Pro Bowlers in the third round, good talent evaluators can still find starters. Using data from Football Reference, between 2010 and 2015 a total of 205 players were drafted in the third round. Football Reference shows how many years each player was the “primary starter” at his position and through 2018 a total of 121 (55 percent) have started at least one season. A total of 88 of the 205 third rounders (43 percent) have started for two or more seasons. It’s fairly easy for smart teams to give up very little and get an additional third round pick in return. When combining their tiny cap hits with better than 50/50 odds they can start when called upon, your benevolent dictator loves him some third round picks!
Article 8: Picks in Rounds 5-7 rarely yield value, so use these to trade up for studs this year or a better pick next year.
Article 8 is pretty self-explanatory. A good example of this strategy is the Raiders trading No. 159 (5th Rd.) and No. 185 (6th Rd.) to move up 19 spots to No. 140 (5th Rd.) With the No. 140 pick they landed DT Maurice Hurst who ended up as a rookie starting in 10 games, playing 45.9 percent of Oakland’s defensive snaps, and racking up 31 tackles and 4.0 sacks. The Raiders thought correctly that Hurst could be a “stud” (by fifth round standards) so they smartly traded up. In the end the value Oakland got out of their sixth round pick was moving up 19 spots in the fifth round, which is more value than most players drafted in the sixth round end up delivering on the field.
As the benevolent dictator of Trade Down Island I reserve the right to amend our glorious Constitution as I deem necessary. My wisdom is infallible, but I am still open to hearing the opinions of my residents. Feel free to comment below with any other insights that could be incorporated into TDI’s Constitution and please your dictator.