At some point in every NFL draft, executives, scouts and coaches abandon quantifiable data and become irrationally human. Armed with the most sophisticated fact-gathering, they will go directly against science and economics because they stare upward with eternal hope at the first-rounder they believe will rip out of his suit like a superhero for them.
For some years now, economic studies have shown NFL execs exactly what they should do to control the uncertainties of the draft: trade down. Trade down? Why not eat cold porridge. One of the few teams who have shown the will to trade down with any consistency are the New England Patriots. But who wants their dull, unromantic existence.
It’s so difficult, in the clammy, gripping environment of the draft-day war room, to leave that stud built like a Zeus statue on the board, and swap downward for multiple picks. Yet that is what Cade Massey of the Wharton School of Business and Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago advise, based on years of research into NFL drafts. They produced papers in 2005 and again in 2013 that showed teams profoundly overvalue first-round picks, and simply don’t have the ability to discern between a great player and a good one that they think they do.
How often is a team right in picking a high-first-rounder? What will the quantifiable difference be between the top choice taken at a position in the 2019 draft in Nashville on Thursday, and the next available player, or even the third or fourth, in terms of games started and potential Pro Bowl success? You’d think it would be a lot, given all that teams invest. In fact, they prove right only a “sobering” 52 percent of the time, according to Massey.
“It’s a coin flip,” he says.
As Massey and Thaler have written, “This simple observation suggests a discrepancy between the teams’ perceived and actual ability to discriminate between prospective players.”
The difference in making wide receiver D.K. Metcalf a first-round pick, as opposed to waiting patiently on a second-round Deebo Samuel, is negligible. Second-round picks, the economists found, make as many starts and Pro Bowl appearances, and at cheaper cost. The sensible approach is therefore to spread out your picks, to enhance your chances of finding important contributors. “History suggests you do better by trading down from the top, using multiple lesser picks than one high pick,” says Massey, who consults with NFL teams.
This is what the Patriots have done so well. As of 2018 Belichick had traded down fully 21 times on draft day to acquire more picks. Over the last 15 years the Patriots have chosen 39 players in the second and third rounds, the highest number of any team in the AFC. And won Super Bowls with them.
“If you recognize the uncertainty, rather than throwing up your hands, you say, ‘We want as many draws as possible in the lottery,’ ” says Massey. ” ‘We can’t influence one ticket, but we can get as many tickets as possible.’ “
The Patriots aren’t the only team with the discipline to use a trade-down strategy. The Seattle Seahawks are good practitioners of amassing picks as well. But what’s surprising is how uncommon it is, given how much hard data exists on its wisdom.
“It takes a lot of willpower to trade out of that first-round pick, because there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of gravitas goes with that,” says Andrew Brandt, a former vice president of the Green Bay Packers who is now a sports business analyst.
Watch how often teams do the dead opposite of what they should, give away fistfuls of picks to move up and grab a single star prospect. Overconfidence in their own judgment clouds their thinking, according to Massey. Or sometimes it’s just a simple case of seeing a player “you lust after,” says Brandt. That was the case with the Kansas City Chiefs trading up for Patrick Mahomes in 2017. They gave away two low first-rounders (including a future) and a third-rounder to seize him at No. 10, because, as coach Andy Reid said, “Everybody just kind of fell in love with the kid.”
Were the Chiefs right to give up so much? Mahomes is dazzling enough that he makes it all seem worthwhile. But the cost is steep. When a team packages too many picks to trade up for a single player, it hurts a team for years. “It has to turn out to be a home run, and even then, you’re still robbing your team of infrastructure,” Brandt says.
For every Mahomes there is a Robert Griffin III. Let’s revisit the Washington Redskins’ fatal 2012 decision to trade three first-round picks and high-second-rounder to move up four spots and take Griffin at No. 2 overall. It’s not just that it was a bad deal because they gave up so much for a player who is no longer on the roster. It’s that statistically it was idiotic: your chances of a finding a franchise-altering player with four high choices is much better than the odds that you will with just one.
Think of it this way: What if they had followed the principles of Massey and Thaler – who Redskins executives have used as consultants only to reject their advice – and simply waited on the next available quarterback? They’d have taken Ryan Tannehill and still had three other top picks to build with.
It’s not the most go-for-broke or instantly gratifying strategy, and it runs the risk of leaving a superstar on the board for another team, with the attendant what-ifs. But with it comes the postponed joy of discovering buried gems in the middle rounds, and the satisfaction of building a winner based on discipline and hard information, rather than intuition and temptation.
“This is exactly the challenge, to blend these things,” Massey says. “The quants are wrong to think you can quantify every single player. But you also can’t be right without the quantifications.”