What’s more valuable? Getting a star player, or getting a couple of decent starters (and thus, theoretically, one fewer hole)? I think it’s a legitimate question at the center of draft trades and value.
Several years ago, Chase Stuart created a draft value chart using “first five years” approximate value (AV) numbers available at pro-football-reference.com. That is an alternative to the traditional “Jimmy Johnson” draft value chart used by many teams, and which is largely the language used in trade evaluations. Stuart’s chart, based on actual results at each draft spot, suggests that top picks are overvalued by the traditional chart, and trading down is generally the move if you apply the Jimmy Johnson chart values. (You can see how any trade works with his calculator for both his chart and the Jimmy Johnson one.)
This is my attempt to add to that conversation.
It struck me, when going through to identify the best player drafted in each draft slot, that if you just went by Hall of Famers, the Jimmy Johnson chart was probably more accurate as to the relative values of the picks. The top 2 slots have produced way more than even slots by the mid-first round, and orders of magnitude more than later rounds.
Then, I decided to take a look at those values, and try to convert them to wins. The first question I asked is “are wins linear when it comes to value”? So what I did was take every first round pick between 2004 and 2013 (over 300 in total) and calculate the team winning percentage in the first 5 years, sorted by the player AV for those 5 years.
This is simplistic in many ways, and I acknowledge that. I’m not looking at games played, or trades, or players who never saw the field. It’s more of a “how did teams do that drafted this level of player?”
Here are the results, by player AV for the first five years:
That’s decidedly non-linear. Only 35 of the first round picks occupy those top two slots, so they represent the upper 11% of all first rounders. But we see the impact in win percentage. Meanwhile, at the bottom, the busts weren’t that much more costly than getting a mediocre starter. That bottom group of players is probably not much different than the guys with AVs of 10 to 19, except some played for slightly better teams that were able to move on from them sooner.
But here’s what I did. I set that group centered at AV of 15 as replacement level. A team made up of 15 AV guys might luck into a win but would be like a bad expansion team. And then I looked at the marginal win difference with each increase in AV, which is small at first but starts growing. For example, a 35 AV player is expected to add .022 of win percentage, which equates to 0.35 wins per year and 1.75 wins over a five-year period. A 65 AV player (superstars, all-pros) thus add about 10.2 wins over a five-year period.
Then, I took that wins added curve, and added it into the actual AVs produced by each draft slot from 1970-2013. So the wins added will mostly be driven by the top 20% or so of players drafted at the position. For example, Pick #27 has Dan Marino, at 10.2 wins added. Then, you’ve got a group that includes Neal Anderson, Larry Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Roddy White, which add between 3 and 4 wins each. But the median player at that pick produced 22 AV, and thus over half produced little or no added win value.
Do that for all positions, and I get my chart. Here’s how it looks compared to the Football Perspective (red) and Jimmy Johnson (green) charts, with this iteration in blue. (All three charts were calibrated so they were equal at pick 100).
It splits the difference between the two in the first half of the chart. After pick 100, it’s actually higher than both on the value of later picks. This is because even in the late 6th and 7th round, there are a few lottery tickets, even though most picks provide nothing.
While it looks like it splits those two charts, it’s closer to Football Perspective when it comes to processing trades involving the top five picks.
For example, let’s say the team at 5 (Denver this year) wanted to get the #1 overall.
The Historic Draft Value Chart would say: 1st overall pick is worth more than every pick owned by the team holding the 5th overall pick (assuming they have a pick in each round) and thus this trade would not happen.
Football Perspective would say: 1st overall pick worth the 5th overall pick and 37th pick.
My chart would say: The 1st overall pick (and late 7th rounder) is worth the 5th overall pick and 37th pick, plus the 101st pick.
Here’s my chart based on all of the above, normalizing the values so the 1st overall pick is worth 100 points and the last pick is worth 1 point. (The 1st overall pick averaged 3.1 wins added over 5 years, while the 253rd pick averaged 0.03 wins added once the curve was smoothed out).
Now let’s look at the notable first round trades from this year and how my “wins added” approach would assess them.
Jets trade #6, #37, #49, and 2019 2nd Round to Colts for #3
My chart: Jets gave up 128.6 points (3.9 wins over 5 years) for 84.5 points (2.6 wins over 5 years)
Even if you view this as trading for the first overall pick, if the Jets had Sam Darnold at the top (and they couldn’t have known he’d be available), that would be 128.6 for 100. This largely comes down to whether Sam Darnold is a good starting quarterback or not. The good thing about my method–especially here where we have only one player as the Jets’ part of trade–is I can convert those wins back to first 5 year AV. Here are the QBs that would be a break-even on this trade, if Darnold’s career starts like them: Drew Brees (2001-2005), Philip Rivers (2004-2008), Matthew Stafford (2009-2013), Eli Manning (2004-2008).
Bills trade #12, #53, #56 to Bucs for #7 and #255
My chart: Bills gave up 79.7 points (2.4 wins over 5 years) for 63.4 points (1.9 wins over 5 years)
Josh Allen doesn’t have to be quite as good as Darnold to justify and break even on this trade, but he still needs to be a starter for most of the time (Bortles) or be pretty good if he sits for more than a season to get ready (think Kaepernick’s first 5 year production).
Cardinals trade #15, #79, #152 to Raiders for #10
My chart: Cardinals gave up 55.7 points (1.7 wins over 5 years) for 52.2 points (1.6 wins over 5 years)
Relative to the other trades to get a quarterback, the Cardinals gave up relatively less, and provided pretty much even value on my chart.
The expected wins would translate to 36 AV in the first 5 years for Josh Rosen. That’s how much AV Mark Sanchez and Robert Griffin III produced. If Rosen exceeds that, this was a great trade for the Cardinals at #10.
Saints trade #27, #147, and 2019 1st Round pick to Packers for #14
My chart: Saints gave up 69.8 points (2.1 wins over 5 years)–using a median 2019 value of the 20th pick–for 44.6 points (1.4 wins over 5 years)
To justify this trade, Marcus Davenport has to pan out. The list of defensive ends that would be the break-even point on what the Saints gave up includes: Ezekiel Ansah, Elvis Dumervil, Olivier Vernon, and Whitney Mercilus. Giving up future 1sts and treating them like current 2nds is an exorbitant interest rate. And this assumes the pick is around #20. If the Saints collapse and it becomes a pick in the early teens, then Davenport would have to be a guy who made multiple pro bowls and an all-pro in the first 5 years, like John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora, or Robert Quinn to come even on this trade.
Bills trade #22, #65 to Ravens for #16 and #154
My chart: Bills gave up 46.7 points (1.4 wins over 5 years) for 44.7 points (1.4 wins over 5 years)
This one is a dead even wash, with the Bills trading up for Tremaine Edmunds while the Ravens maneuvered to get down further before they took a tight end (while also building up assets to get back in the Lamar Jackson game).
Packers trade #27, #76, #186 to Seahawks for #18 and #248
My chart: Packers gave up 42.5 points (1.3 wins over 5 years) for 39.7 points (1.2 wins over 5 years)
The Packers got huge value in the Saints trade to drop back out of #14, and then came back up with what looks like a pretty even trade to get Jaire Alexander, while the Seahawks–who must have been eyeing Rashaad Penny as a target–correctly decided they could get him later than at #18.
Titans trade #25, #125 to Ravens for #22 and #215
My chart: Titans gave up 35.8 points (1.1 wins over 5 years) for 36.0 points (1.1 wins over 5 years)
This one is dead even on my win value chart, as the Titans moved up to get Rashaan Evans at linebacker, while the Ravens moved down again before picking their tight end in Hayden Hurst.
Ravens trade #52, #125, and 2019 2nd Round pick to Eagles for #32 and #132
My chart: Ravens gave up 39.4 points (1.2 wins over 5 years)–using a median 2019 value of the 48th pick–for 30.5 points (0.9 wins over 5 years)
The defending Super Bowl champions don’t have glaring needs, and traded down while picking up another 2nd in a year. All of the surplus value in this for the Eagles is by being willing to delay gratification for a year, because going from a mid-third valuation to mid-second is worth 10 points and 0.3 wins on my chart.
Meanwhile, for the Ravens, how good does Lamar Jackson have to be to justify this move? He needs to be a serviceable starter. About 50 starts in the first 5 years, of near-average play. Anything above that is gravy for where they took him and what they gave up.