Are Teams Overvaluing First Round Picks?

The only certainty in the NFL Draft is that we really don’t know! For how many GMs, Draft Analysts, and fans are confidently predicting a player’s future at this time of the year, it comes down to a calculated guess. I’m not saying what these people do isn’t important, I listen regularly to lots of draft commentators to gather as much information as possible.

A question that has been playing on my mind over the last couple of years is, are first-round picks worth what you would get in exchange? Rather than fall in love with a non-quarterback in the first round, how about trade back and add the extra assets instead. I didn’t feel confident enough asking the question publicly until this offseason as more and more information becomes available. This article wouldn’t be possible without some amazing pieces of work from some fantastic minds. I would recommend checking out all the incredible authors and content I will link their work and Twitter accounts throughout.

Everything in the article is focused on 2011 through to today as that was when the rookie wage scale was introduced which dramatically altered roster construction.

Throughout this piece, I am going to keep a running commentary of the Browns and what they should do with the 10th pick, in relation to the mentioned topic. If you follow another team or want to look from someone else perspective then, by all means, add that team/pick in instead.

Lots Of First Round Picks Bust

Hardik Sanghavi’s research on Over The Cap shows that for the 2011 to 2016 draft classes 62.8% (120/191) of players got their fifth-year option exercised. Only 72 of these 120 players went on to get a second contract with the team that drafted them. This means of all first-round picks we are only seeing 37.7% (72/191) hang around long term on the team that drafted them. It hardly inspires confidence that teams are picking well in the first round.

When people look at a pick in the draft they regularly want to jump to the best possible scenarios and look at the successes teams had with x pick or with x player. It is important to note as we see from this data above that the majority of players don’t pan out for the team that drafted them. Another trap is looking at a player’s career and their second/third team. They might turn into a stud but if you had to move them on to achieve that is doesn’t benefit the drafting team.

Let’s look at the history of the #10 pick. For each of them I have broken down their average PFF grade by snap while on their drafting team over the first five years plus fifth-year status and if they stayed:
2011 – QB Blaine Gabbert (40.8) – Traded after year 3
2012 – CB Stephon Gilmore (65.8) – 5th Year Option then walk after year 5
2013 – G Chance Warmack (74.9) – Option Declined
2014 – TE Eric Ebron (64.4) – 5th Year Option but cut after year 4
2015 – RB Todd Gurley (71.5) – 5th Year Option then extended (cut after year 5)
2016 – CB Eli Apple (64.7) – Traded during year 3
2017 – QB Patrick Mahomes (91.1) – N/A
2018 – QB Josh Rosen (49.1) – Traded after year 1
2019 – LB Devin Bush (62.9) – N/A

In those first eight picks (2019 is too early to tell) made at #10 since 2011 we can see the majority haven’t delivered with their drafting team. If we are calling a fifth-year option and an extension a success we would say Gurley and soon to be Mahomes are the only two. That would be a 25% success rate, which is shocking for what is considered a ‘high pick’. Gurley obviously was a bad extension and the ‘RB’s don’t matter’ community will say ‘I told you so’. People will point to Gilmore’s career spike after his move to the Patriots but that doesn’t help the Bills out who drafted him so it’s considered a bad move for them. Overall we can see the hype around having pick #10 is higher than the results show.

Positional Value – The QB Exceptions?

There is one position in the NFL that is much more important than any of the others and that is the quarterback position. Unlike the other positions you are very unlikely to find the quarterback, you are looking for outside of that first round. You get rare exceptions like Brady but it is about focusing on the majority of cases because drafting the best available at 199 isn’t a sound strategy for roster construction. For that reason, if you want one you have to go shopping in the first round, likely trading up. So having additional draft capital to move around is very useful to have.

There has been extensive work this offseason from many figures that show you can still get high-quality players outside of the first round at every position outside of QB. Two of the best pieces have been in a book called ‘The Drafting Stage‘ by Brad Spielberger & Jason Fitzgerald from Over The Cap plus PFF’s Timo Riske on positional drafting by pick on offense & defense.

Considering this data tells us that there isn’t a massive drop off to find starter-level talent between Round 1 and then Rounds 2 & 3 we have to ask ourselves why the difference in draft pick value is so high?

By this stage in the NFL Draft process, we have all heard there are at least 50 players that are guaranteed locks for the first round. This actually means lots of these really great players will be available on day two of the draft. The conclusions that came from both Brad/Jason & Timo was that you can find great value on day two of the draft in every position other than quarterback.

We had a fascinating piece on defense this offseason and the overall creation of how to make a better team. PFF’s Eric Eager piece shows that defense is more reliant on depth than it on a few stars on the team. So, in turn, you should be looking for more picks to add more depth than focusing on how much star power you can build. That points to the value of trading back rather than trading up to build your defense out. The salary cap is also designed in such a way that star power isn’t sustainable in the NFL over a long period.

Most Picks Tend To Win More

The data in ‘The Drafting Stage‘ tells us that a prospect in Round 2 is less likely to bust than a prospect taken in round 1. This begs the question, would you rather have more darts to throw at the board in Round 2 rather than Round 1. Later in the article we will get into how many darts you can get to throw.

When reading Caponomics by Zack Moore it was staggering the trend between having more draft picks and being more successful. “From 1994 through 2015, only eight teams averaged eight or more draft picks per year: the Patriots, Packers, Titans, Rams, Eagles, Steelers, Bills and Bengals.

Obviously Browns fans will know that isn’t always the case that more draft picks equals more success. Changing Head Coach and Front Office can lead to excessive player turnover, squandering the talent that is on the roster. This is often nearly as important as the strategy a team takes, the ‘not my guys’ ideology can be a dangerous one setting the middle of a roster back years.

First Round Trades

Since we have established that first-round picks are more likely to not stay with a team than be a success we can look at trading them to gain more darts to throw at the board.

If you are trading out of your first-round pick then you would likely do it in stages with multiple trade backs. I have detailed all the trades for first-round picks that have been made since the 2011 NFL Draft in ‘Appendix 1’ at the bottom of this article. All picks that included players as part of the trade have been excluded.

The trades listed are the real historic trades that teams have made when trading back from first-round picks. These aren’t necessarily the exact moves I would make as a general manager but gives a solid flavor of real value you could get. I haven’t just used the best trade backs in these scenarios but taken a fair sample in the middle of historical data.

With what we have seen about second-round picks being less likely to bust than first-round picks. If I was the general manager, I would be focusing on adding as many second-round picks as possible. If the move wouldn’t get you a second-round pick then I would be doing everything I can to add at least a third-round pick. I’m not entirely interested in Day 3 picks, especially those in Rounds 6/7.

To show a real example of how the trade-back in parts would work I will present the real historical trades that it would take to move out of the first round with the #10 pick:
10 > 16, 49 (2011)
16 , 154 > 22, 65 (2018)
22 > 26, 83 (2014)
26 > 46, F2 (2019) [Pick 46 is the Broncos, so they give up the future 2nd too]

Total Given Up – 10, 154
Total Received in 2020 Draft – 46, 49, 65, 83
Total Received in 2021 Draft – Broncos 2nd

For reference, I have done the trade backs for the real first-round pick the Browns have had in every draft since 2011. Obviously different years give better or worse trades but this just gives a flavor of what you can get. To help people visualize the draft haul I have listed all the players that went at the picks gained by trading back to. These are in ‘Appendix 2’ at the bottom of the article.

Cap Savings

Veteran deals in free agency are vastly going to beat anything a player is getting across his four rookie years. The more rookies you have, the more cap space that frees up to spend on other positions. While not all rookies are going to become starters, having them lock up as many of the starting and rotational spots on the roster frees up additional cap space for extending your best players and also attracting talent in free agency.

Kevin Cole from PFF did some brilliant work this offseason focused on drafting vs extending vs free agency when it came to different positions (offense & defense) and where you should focus. Only RB, C & CB showed poor value when it came to larger extensions. Overall though, extending your players is usually the best direction to go as you have a known talent within the scheme you run.

All rookie contracts are set by the CBA so where a player is drafted will impact their salary cap hit. If we compare the total value (4 years) of the contact for the first pick in each round we can see a distinct difference. Here is the data from Over The Cap’s draft page:
1st – $36.2m
2nd – $8.7m
3rd – $4.9m
4th – $4.1m
5th – $3.6m
6th – $3.5m
7th – $3.4m

By trading back as we mentioned earlier, the extra picks will result in a cap saving across the roster as you replace starters and backups maybe costing $5 million-$10 million average per year with a player that only costs $2.2m per year in the 2nd round. Due to the cap space created and the extra picks you have you could look to trade for proven players using some surplus picks, the cap space means you can afford them whereas other teams might not.

If we bring it back to the #10 pick, you would be paying this player $19.7 million over their first four years. That would be an average of $5 million a year when you compare it to the top FA OT this year in Jack Conklin who is on $14 million a year, you can see the saving from successful draft picks.

Then we can take the scenario of the trade down and see the total contract for the five picks in the trade down. Rather than having a total cap hit of $23.3 million for picks 10th & 154th we go for $31 million across picks 46, 49, 65, 83, Broncos 2nd. Having each of these five players cost an average of $1.6 million a year for the length of their deal means that even if they are rotational players replacing someone on $2.5 million a year you have a saving, but if one or two replace starters on $10 million-plus a year you are talking about having a large amount of cap space to spend in other areas.

The real-life Browns scenario of where you could spend that extra $17 million a year for four years could be on keeping the most expensive WR tandem in the league together long term. Rather than looking to trade one of OBJ or Landry next offseason, let’s do a contract extension for both. With Vernon leaving after this year and needing to find a rookie to replace him opposite Myles Garrett we could actually go and get Clowney instead and lock him down. (These are just two examples, I’m not saying I would make either move). The more picks you get and the more picks that are successful (particularly in the 2nd round) this frees up cap space to sign top FA talent and extend your own players. If you don’t have draft success and the 37.7% success rate on first-round picks shows it’s unlikely for the majority of teams, you have to move expensive players on.

5th Year Value

In the past, I have always pushed the value of a 5th round option as a great way to get an extra cheap year for a first-round pick. Changes brought in during this new CBA will dramatically lower this value. In the past picks, 11-32 got a cheaper 5th year, this is set to go. The option used to be guaranteed for injury, it is now fully guaranteed. While QB’s and great players picked at the top of the draft will likely get their option there will be a sharp increase in those that aren’t picked up after pick 10.

The 2017 NFL Draft class featuring Myles Garrett & David Njoku will be the last ones on the old rules. Since this ‘extra value’ will no longer be there, it is another benefit of first-round picks disappearing. If teams fail to account for the fall in the value of this change on first-round picks then it is a prime opportunity to trade back out of the second round, especially in the 11-32 range where the large discount will be gone.

Conclusion

We have seen from the data and articles above that the value of a first round pick is greatly over exaggerated. With a success rate of first rounders at 37.7% and the 10th pick in particular at 25% you have to ask what is it really worth? This should make teams question if they are making the right decision putting that much of their draft capital into one pick. I would feel much better spreading the risk across five top 100 picks rather than taking a player at 10 and 154.

When trading back it is about focusing on collection as many second rounders as possible, we aren’t that interested in stacking picks in the 4th and 5th round. The abundance in assets and collection picks in future drafts means you are also in a great position to package and jump up the draft if you are needing to get a QB. If a player like Calais Campbell comes available you can easily trade for him and have the cap space to pay him.

With any edge in NFL, sport or life it usually doesn’t last long. If one team aggressively trades back and has success then it won’t be long until more teams look at it and the value of picks you receive when trading back goes down.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule that you must go all the way back out of the first round or stay where you are, each and every year unless you need a quarterback. Someone might do further research into this and say the 26th pick is the spot you should try to aim for because trading back after that doesn’t give good value. I’m keeping my mind open with this.

I hope you enjoyed the piece, by all means feel free to tweet of DM me any questions you have on Twitter.

Appendix 1 – History Of First Round Trades

The numbers represent the pick that was traded in that round. All future picks are shown with an F and the round which the pick is for. We are only using the round as they are unknown when the trade is made. C shows a conditional pick and the two rounds that it is between.

1, 113, 177 > 15, 43, 45, 76, F1, F3 (2016)

2 > 6, 39, F1, FF1 (2012)
2, FC4/5 > 8, 77, 100, F1, FF2 (2016)
2 > 3, 67, 111 (2017)

3 > 4, 118, 139, 211 (2012)
3 > 12, 42 (2013)
3 > 6, 37, 49, F2 (2018)

4 > 9, F1, F4 (2014)

5 > 7, 101 (2012)

6 > 27, 59, 124, F1, F4 (2011)
6 > 14, 45 (2012)

7, 255 > 12, 53, 56 (2018)

8, 71 > 16, 46, 78, 222 (2013)
8 > 9, 145 (2014)
8, 176 > 15, 76, F2 (2016)

9 > 11, 106 (2016)

10 > 16, 49 (2011)
10 > 27, 91, F1 (2017)
10 > 15, 79, 152 (2018)
10 > 20, 52, F3 (2019)

12 > 15, 114, 172 (2012)
12 > 25, F1 (2017)

14 > 27, 147 (2018)

15 > 17, 117, F5 (2015)

16 , 154 > 22, 65 (2018)

18 > 31, 74 (2013)
18, 248 > 27, 76, 186 (2018)

20 > 27, 91 (2014)

21 > 27, 70 (2011)
21 > 27, 93 (2012)
21 > 22, F6 (2016)
21 > 30, 114, 118 (2019)

22, FF7 > 30, 92, 198 (2013)
22 > 26, 83 (2014)
22, 215 > 25, 125 (2018)
22 > 25, 127, 197 (2019)

25 > 31, 126 (2012)

26 > 31, 94 (2016)
26 > 31, 95, 249 (2017)
26 > 46, F2 (2019)

28 > 56, F1 (2011)
28, 249 > 37, 105, 178 (2016)

29 > 35, 98 (2012)
29 > 52, 83, 102, 229 (2013)
29 > 33, 108 (2017)

30 > 37, 132, 142 (2019)

31, 126 > 36, 101 (2012)
31 > 34, 111 (2017)
31, 203 > 45, 79 (2019)

32 > 40, 108 (2014)
32, 132 > 52, 125, F2 (2018)

Appendix 2 – Historical Browns Tradebacks

Here is a table of all previous trade backs if the Browns would have moved down and out of the first round since 2011. I have included the players they would have got at these specific picks as a guide and an example for comparison.

It is important to remember I’m not saying you would make the trades in the way it is done during this piece, these are just examples using real historical trades and players. I would have much more focus on adding round 2 picks and not really anything outside the top 100. If anything, giving up current assets on day 3 to maximise the quality of the day two draft picks.

For the 1st overall pick I have done an extensive breakdown of all the trades that went into taking the 1st overall pick into 19 different picks.

Notes
# – Numbers show the pick it represents
F# – Represents the round a future pick is in, multiple F represents number of years into the future
#* – Shows it is a pick in a future year, multiple * represents number of years into the future

Start with the 1st Pick (2017/2018)
1, 113, 177 > 15, 43, 45, 76, F1, F3 (Rams Pick, F1 = 5* & F3 = 69*)
15 > 17, 117, F5 (Chargers Pick, F5 = 142*)
17 > 31, 74
31 > 34, 111

5* > 7*, 101*
7*, 255* > 12*, 53*, 56*
12* > 15*, 114*, 172*
15* > 17*, 117*, F5* (Chargers Pick, F5* = 142**)
17 > 31, 74
31* > 34*, 111*

Total Given Up – 1, 113, 177, 255*
Total Received Current Year – 34, 43, 45, 74, 76, 111, 117,
Total Received Following Year – 34, 53, 56, 69, 74, 101, 111, 114, 117, 142, 172
Total Received Second Year After – 142

2017 1st Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Myles Garrett ED, Rayshawn Jenkins S, Trent Taylor WR, Austin Proehl WR
Received – Cam Robinson OT, Sidney Jones CB, Adam Shaheen TE, Chris Wormley ED, Alex Anzalone LB, Tedric Thompson S, Josh Reynolds WR, Will Hernandez G, M. J. Stewart CB, Duke Dawson CB, B. J. Hill ID, Geron Christian OT, Ian Thomas TE, Brian Allen C, Da’Shawn Hand ID, Jordan Whitehead S, D. J. Reed CB, JK Scott P, Ben Burr-Kirven LB

2018 1st Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Baker Mayfield QB, DaeSean Hamilton WR, Duke Ejiofor ED, Darryl Johnson ED
Received – Will Hernandez G, Kerryon Johnson RB, Josh Jackson CB, Geron Christian OT, Mason Rudolph QB, Brian Allen C, Jordan Whitehead S, Rock Ya-Sin CB, Miles Sanders RB, Mecole Hardman WR, Josh Oliver TE, Devin Singletary RB, Yodny Cajuste OT, Kendall Sheffield CB, Dru Samia G, Austin Bryant ED, Ben Burr-Kirven LB, Jordan Miller CB, 2020 Pick 142.

Start with the 2nd Pick (2016)
Total Given Up – 2
Total Received Current Year – 34, 42, 67, 111, 111, 126
Total Received Following Year – 46, 52, 83, 91, 106, 115
Total Received Second Year After – 34, 34, 74, 111

2016 2nd Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Carson Wentz QB
Received – Jaylon Smith LB, Kamalei Correa LB, Maliek Collins ID, Miles Killebrew S, Malcolm Mitchell WR, Demarcus Robinson WR, Quincy Wilson CB, DeShone Kizer QB, Derek Rivers ED, John Johnson S, Amara Darboh WR, Dorian Johnson G, Will Hernandez G, Nick Chubb RB, Geron Christian G, Brian Allen C

Start with the 4th Pick (2012/2014)
Total Given Up – 4
Total Received Current Year – 46, 52, 91, 106
Total Received Following Year – 34, 34, 74, 83, 111, 115

2012 4th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Matt Kalil OT
Received – Mychal Kendricks LB, Zach Brown LB, Lamar Holmes OT, Robert Turbin RB, Justin Hunter WR, Zach Ertz TE, Terrance Williams WR, Logan Ryan CB, Shamarko Thomas S, Landry Jones QB

2014 4th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Sammy Watkins WR
Received – Stephon Tuitt ID, Troy Niklas TE, John Brown WR, Bruce Ellington WR, Donovan Smith OT, Mario Edwards Jr. ID, Owa Odighizuwa ED, Craig Mager CB, Tre’ Jackson G, Ibraheim Campbell S

Start with the 6th Pick (2011)
Total Given Up – 6
Total Received Current Year – 46, 59, 124
Total Received Following Year – 34, 34, 83, 95, 111, 118, 249

2011 6th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Julio Jones WR
Received – Orlando Franklin OT, Greg Little WR, Owen Marecic FB, Coby Fleener TE, Courtney Upshaw ED, Mohamed Sanu WR, Tony Bergstrom G, Evan Rodriguez TE, Jarius Wright WR, Travian Robertson ID

Start with the 6th Pick (2013)
Total Given Up – 6
Total Received Current Year – 45, 46, 147
Total Received Following Year – 34*

2013 6th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Barkevious Mingo ED
Received – Kevin Minter LB, Kiko Alonso LB, Steven Means LB, DeMarcus Lawrence ED

Start with the 12th Pick (2015)
Total Given Up – 12
Total Received Current Year – 34, 74, 111, 114, 117, 172
Total Received Following Year – 142

2015 12th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Danny Shelton
Received – Donovan Smith OT, Owa Odighizuwa DE, Tre’ Jackson G, Jamil Douglas G, Blake Bell TE, D. J. Alexander LB, Ronald Blair ED

Start with the 17th Pick (2019)
Total Given Up – 17, 154
Total Received Current Year – 46, 65, 83
Total Received Following Year – 46

2019 17th Overall Pick Trade Players
Given Up – Dexter Lawrence ID, Jordan Scarlett RB
Received – Greedy Williams CB, Zach Allen ED, Justin Layne CB, 46th Pick 2020

3 thoughts on “Are Teams Overvaluing First Round Picks?

  1. Facts and stats don’t lie. The great majority of NFL fans cheer and get euphoric over their personal opinions that usually run counter to factual data.
    Jack, this is excellent work you produced. Objective Browns fans–take comfort. Depo, Berry and Stefanski are intelligent and dig deep into factual data.

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