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Why Cowboys Should Probably Trade Down in First Round

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At Bleacher Report, I explained why the Cowboys should trade down in the first round. Here’s an excerpt:

Exploiting the Chart

Because teams still use the original trade chart to make moves, the Cowboys can exploit inefficiencies in the way the chart is constructed relative to how players actually perform. That is, they can and should look for areas on the chart where the cost of trading is less than the value of they player(s) they can expect in return.

Looking at historic NFL production, here’s a chart displaying approximate value versus the cost of each pick, both as a function of the overall value. According to the chart, for example, the top overall pick accounts for five percent of the total value, but in reality, the No. 1 overall selection has accrued around just 2.5 percent of the class’s total approximate value.

The cost of the draft’s top picks is massive. Teams trading up into the top 10, especially, need to be extremely confident they’re acquiring a future star, because the cost of the picks is far more than the production that can normally be expected.

You can see that the cost of trading surpasses the expected production up until around the 20th overall selection. At that point, the cost of draft selections on the original trade value chart drops quite a bit, yet there are still quality players in that range.

That trend continues for a few rounds; in terms of historic production, the largest inefficiencies exist from the back of the first round into the third and fourth rounds. That’s the area where the most value exists when you consider the price of each pick.

 

First-Round Trade Results

This isn’t just a mathematical trick that has little basis in reality. We can look at past first-round trades to see that teams trading down in the round (or out of it altogether) have found a ton of success.

Teams trading down in or out of the first round have accrued the best player 50.9 percent of the time. That’s amazing since the reason a team trades up is because they think they’ll acquire the best player. The numbers suggest that if you believe you’ll get the best player by trading up in the first round, think again.

You might think that because trying to guess the team that will get the top player in a first-round trade is basically a coin flip, it doesn’t matter if you move up or down. However, if it’s really a coin flip, the smart things to do would be to 1) maximize opportunities and 2) do it as cheaply as possible. Why trade up to get something you can probably have later?

Further, teams trading down have acquired 64.4 percent of the total player value in those trades. The numbers are staggering.

 

Loading Up and Accounting for Fallibility

Again, the Cowboys should be trying to maximize their chances of hitting by loading up on picks where the greatest inefficiencies exist. They actually tried to pull this off last year, trading back from the middle of the first to the back of it, grabbing an extra third-rounder in the process. Whether or not they saw the proper return, they at least tried to make a move that was statistically prudent.

Central to the idea that you should accrue draft picks is understanding your own fallibility. Teams trade up as though they’re sure the player they covet is going to be as good as they believe, but it’s not that black-and-white. There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes into drafting, so teams need to account for that.

Further, teams that trade up are typically selecting a player who is an outlier on their board. If that team didn’t have him ranked much higher than others, he probably wouldn’t still be available. By accounting for the fact that they could be wrong in their assessment of said player, the Cowboys and other teams considering trading up might think again.

The common rebuttal is that every situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and that every player is unique, but that line of thinking is probably what’s gotten teams who trade up in trouble. Every player and situation is unique, sure, but teams drastically overrate their ability to predict the future.

To get the best in a trade-up, teams basically need to think they know something that 31 other teams don’t, which will rarely be the case. Once teams accept that they just don’t know as much as they think they do, it will become easier to recognize the dangers of trading up and the value of maximizing draft picks.

Put another way, consider two dart throwers, one with zero skill and one with perfect skill. The first has a low probability of hitting a bulleye on a given throw, so he wants as many darts as possible. The latter can hit a bullseye every time, so if that’s the goal, he needs only one dart.

NFL teams have been acting as though they’re perfect (or near-perfect) dart throwers. When they realize that there’s just a whole lot more uncertainty involved in the process – when they realize the market itself forces them into being low-skill dart throwers – they’ll act differently, maximizing opportunities and minimizing cost.

Read the full analysis right here.

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