At this point, any Saints fan who follows the NFL Draft is aware of the existence of an NFL Draft Trade Chart that assigns a numerical value to every pick in the draft — and is used by the Saints and every one of the other 32 NFL teams.
The NFL Draft Trade Chart was invented by the Dallas Cowboys early in the Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones tenure as a way to ensure they got proper value on all of their deals.
You hear it referenced so often the assumption is that all teams are not only aware of the chart but use the chart when lining up deals.
This really begs the question: Do NFL Draft trades really “line up” with the assigned values on the chart?
The answer to that is yes, sometimes — kinda sort of — they do. Except when they don’t……which is a lot of the time. And when the difference is basically impossible to measure, which is most of the time.
To find out just how teams use the Draft Trade Value Chart, I looked at every trade in each of the last five drafts.
I discarded any trades involving active players because they can’t be measured with points. Then I added up the points of all the picks that changed hands on each side.
I assessed whether the trade was even, or whether the team trading up overpaid or underpaid. I then compared the point value of the uneven trades and compared those values to their corresponding draft picks.
In addition to looking at the trades I looked at the chart itself, and to be honest it isn’t without it’s problems even before you consider the real life ramifications of actual draft trades.
Still, by looking a little more deeply into draft trades using this chart as a tool I was able to learn a few things and get a better understanding of the way NFL GM’s value draft picks and put together deals.
If you look at the chart itself a couple of obvious flaws stand out. First off, the standard chart assigns values to seven rounds of 32 picks each. This is wrong, the NFL Draft does not have seven rounds of 32 picks each.
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The NFL hands out an extra 32 compensatory draft picks each year, until this year when they handed out 33. This means there is a full extra round of picks spread out between rounds three and seven.
This means you have to go by overall pick number, not round, and the picks in the last round are pretty much without value according to the chart.
The other major issue with the chart is the spacing between the picks. The numbers start very high and drop off quickly, to the point that late round picks are virtually interchangeable.
The combined value of every pick in the seventh round is 256.3 points. The difference between picks number six and nine in the first round is 250 points.
Because of this the point value assigned to late round picks is basically meaningless. A sixth round pick is a sixth round pick. A seventh round pick is a seventh round pick.
The difference between a sixth worth 25 points and a sixth worth 19 points is negligible in terms of overall trade value when the team trading up is trying to make up a gap worth hundreds of points.
This doesn’t mean the pick itself doesn’t matter. Fans of a team like the Saints that has turned seventh rounders into stars like Marques Colston and Zach Strief, know the value of a late round pick.
Aug 29, 2002; Hempstead, NY, USA; Hofstra Pride wide receiver Marques Colston vs. the University of Montana Grizzlies in a 2002 game at Shuart Stadium. Mandatory Credit – Hofstra Athletics
This just means the difference between two given late round picks isn’t enough to make a dent in the point difference between higher picks. Later picks therefore have to be treated differently than earlier picks, with a higher point value.
It’s also nearly impossible to get a perfectly ‘even’ trade. The numbers will always be off, a tiny bit off.
To decide whether a trade is an overpay, underpay or even; I settled on measuring the difference and considering anything within five percent of the higher value, as even.
Considering I pretty much automatically discount the numerical values assigned to late round picks, I found the chart itself to be of value; and measuring all the actual trades using it helped me to answer a few questions about the draft.
Do NFL teams — including the New Orleans Saints — really use this chart?
In a word, yes. Teams absolutely use the chart. This was obvious for two reasons.
Apr 28, 2011; New York, NY, USA; A New Orleans Saints helmet is seen prior to the announcement of the Saints selection during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
First off, so many trades ended up close enough to even chart value that it’s impossible to have happened by accident. In these deals, both teams had the chart and made a conscious decision to try to get close to even.
Another thing that stands out in the uneven trades is how often the team moving up threw in a sixth or seventh rounder to make up part of the difference. This also answers another question.
Has using the chart changed the way teams trade?
Again, in a word yes.
I mentioned teams moving up will often throw in a sixth or seventh when they are underpaying, as a way to make up some of the gap. This is a pretty big difference.
If you look back at older draft trades, generally speaking less picks were involved. This is because it was unusual for teams to throw in a late round pick as a sweetener to seal the deal.
Teams using the chart will often see an imbalance between the total value of the picks and the team moving up will be asked to throw in that one extra late round pick. This is a fundamental league wide change in draft strategy brought on by the introduction of value charts.
You said teams are clearly using the chart, does this mean they are using it accurately in most cases?
No, not at all. Teams use the chart, that much is clear from the reasons already stated. But the chart is just one tool.
Apr 25, 2013; New York, N.Y., USA; A helmet with the NFL logo is placed on a table before the start of the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Teams have different ways to value picks. The same number pick in a strong draft is worth more than it would be in a weak draft.
A team trying to chase a player to fill a major need values the pick more than a team trying to get value by taking the best player available.
Ultimately teams are trying to get better, and they are willing to throw away the chart if they see a chance to gain an edge.
OK, enough of why teams value picks differently. How far off do they get, and how often do they break from chart value to make a deal?
As a simple rule of thumb: the higher the pick, the more likely a team is to break away from the chart completely. In the first round all bets are off, in other words.
In the last five drafts there were 22 trades in the first round involving only picks and no active players. In 17 of those trades, the total pick value on both sides was outside the margin of error I established as an “even” trade (5% of the value of the higher pick).
There was no clear trend on over or underpayment either. Nine of the teams moving up overpaid, and seven underpaid.
What was clear though is that teams that underpaid at least got close. The average underpay was numerically equivalent to a fourth round pick.
Teams that overpaid did so by substantial margins, usually by the equivalent of a second round pick and in one case, the Redskins trade up for RGIII by the value of the second overall pick in the draft or 2,600 points.
Considering that most teams expect to get a front line starter out of a second round pick that overpay is substantial. It’s clear that trading up in a strong draft, or trading up for a player you are really desperate to get involves paying a very high tax.
OK, so the basic conclusions here are?
Simple. Teams including the Saints definitely use the chart. They toss out the number value assigned to later picks, but use those picks to seal the deal when a trade value is a little off.
May 8, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) poses for photos after being selected as the number twenty overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to the New Orleans Saints at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Using the later pick to sweeten the pot is a major difference that started when the chart became popular. And in the first round throw out the chart, teams will take what they can get when they want to trade down but teams desperate to trade up will often overpay by a lot.
Two things really stood out after looking over so many trades. First off, the gap between the two teams is usually pretty close.
Teams don’t trade up more than five or ten slots in the first round very often. They don’t trade up more than one round in later rounds very often.
The number gap between picks with a wide spread between them is so high it’s virtually impossible to close the gap without doing a Ricky Williams or Julio Jones type trade where you are offering a whole pile of picks for one player.
Speaking of a Julio Jones type trade the other thing that stands out is when two teams swap picks the team moving up prefers to add one extra pick, and sometimes a second. They rarely add a third on top of the swap making it a four player for one player deal because the value just isn’t there.
When the Redskins and Falcons made trades offering so many picks for one player both teams got worse, in spite of the Falcons landing an outstanding player in Jones.
The lesson for the Falcons is the same one the Saints learned from Goodell’s sham bountygate investigation and ridiculous punishment: your team can not survive two shorthanded draft classes in a row without problems.
Apr 26, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis looks on during a media availability about the NFL draft at the team’s training facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Spending too many picks means lack of depth. Lack of depth means bringing in free agents to cover holes. Overspending on free agents means cap issues. Overspending by giving up too many draft picks creates a downward spiral.
OK, enough with all the numbers and conclusions. Tell me what I really want to know: How did Kevin Costner do in Draft Day?
OK, Costner made three deals in draft day. Now that we are more familiar with trade value we can assess each trade and see what kind of negotiator he really is.
Trade One: Three Firsts to move up from Seventh Overall To First Overall Pick.
This is the same deal the Redskins made to trade up for RGIII. The Redskins actually did worse than Costner, they traded three ones and a fourth rounder to go from Sixth overall to Second overall. So the Redskins paid more to move less distance.
This is still a bad trade for Costner. The point difference from seven to one is 1,500, which is also the total value of the seventh pick. Unless the rookie QB puts you in the playoffs you end up overpaying in terms of points. Also, giving up two straight first round picks? Not good.
Trade Two: Three Second Round Picks for the Number Six Overall Pick.
Costner is drafting in the number seven slot in the second round and trading up to sixth overall.
His second rounder in the current draft is worth 510 and the pick he is trading up for is worth 1.600. This leaves a gap of 1,090.
If Costner is still in the top ten of the next two drafts, this pick evens out. If he makes his team better, he profits. This is a good deal, except for one little item.
At this point, Costner has traded his first and second round picks in the next two drafts. This means he is looking at two straight shorthanded draft classes with no top talent. He just threw his franchise into a complete tailspin, in other words, by trading six picks for two.
Trade Three: Costner pulls off miracle by talking Seattle into giving him back his first rounders to move up from seven to six overall.
OK, this is a ludicrous trade even by movie standards. Even by Kevin Costner movie standards. And since he also talked Seattle into throwing in a punter technically I can’t grade it because an active player can’t be assessed a numerical value.
Forget the punter though. The point differential between the seventh and sixth overall picks is 100 points, which is equivalent to a high fourth rounder. Kevin Costner talked someone into throwing in two first round picks to move up one spot in the first, a move with the numerical value of a fourth round pick.
This is the most lop sided trade in NFL history. Costner justifies it by implying any NFL team will do anything to get a QB, which is actually true. And by pointing out that Seattle still gets their QB and saves $7 million on his rookie contract.
It’s all pretty ludicrous. In the end, Kevin Costner trades three second round picks to get the first overall pick. He underpays by at least 1,500 points to do so.
I’m pretty confident that two of these trades would never happen in real life. And the third was a bad trade for Costner. By making all three and coming up roses like this it’s certain: Kevin Costner is better than your GM any day of the week.
Let’s hope for all of our sakes that Costner isn’t better than Saints GM Mickey Loomis, later next month…….