NFL Draft 2011: Stay Put Or Trade Down?

At this time of year, large parts of every fanbase of every NFL team are indulging in trade down fantasies. And we are no different here at BTB. Look at our board, and at the other SB Nation boards, almost everybody is talking about trade-down options. Not many are talking about trading up. Let's review our options:

Outside of Jerry miraculously getting his hands on Patrick Peterson, the most likely candidates for the Cowboys at No. 9 probably are USC OT Tyron Smith and Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt and perhaps even Da’Quan Bowers have outsider chances at best, as the offensive line and cornerback are considered the most pressing needs that the Cowboys could address at No. 9.

But the first round has depth at offensive tackle and very good corners will also likely be available at the end of the first round. According to Jerry Jones, the Cowboys are already fielding offers for their No. 9 overall pick, and the Cowboys could trade down for a first and second and still conceivably end up with an offensive tackle like Anthony Castonzo, Gabe Cramini or Nate Solder. They could then package some picks to move back into the bottom of the first to grab either a corner like Aaron Williams, Brandon Harris or Jimmy Smith. Or grab a C/G like Mike Pouncey, Stefen Wisniewski or Danny Watkins.

Assuming you get the biggest hurdle out of the way - finding a team that actually wants to move up - would you rather have arguably the best tackle in the draft in Tyron Smith, or would you take the combo platter of, say, Gabe Carimi and Mike Pouncey? 

DMN writer Rick Gosselin had an interesting take recently on what the Cowboys should do with their number nine pick.

"You win in the NFL with blue-chip players. You find the blue chippers in the first 10 picks of a draft. The Cowboys are sitting on a blue-chip player in the 2011 draft with the ninth overall selection. So stop all this talk about trading down. The Cowboys should stay right where they are, take the blue chipper at nine and get on with the rebuilding process."

Late last year, Gosselin offered a very similar sentiment.

"When you're drafting in the Top 10, you can never go wrong taking the best player on your board. In the second, third and fourth rounds I'd try to address needs. But never, ever, ever pass up a blue-chip player at the top of a draft to fill a need with a lesser player at a need position. You win championships with blue-chip players. You get them in the Top 10 of drafts."

While I understand and agree with Gosselin's general premise that you need blue-chip players to win in the NFL, I'm not sure that you get blue-chip players only in the top 10. Your chances may be higher of getting one, sure, but if the secret to success in the NFL was having as many top ten picks on your roster as possible, the league standings would literally be turned upside down.

The Raiders and Redskins had seven former top ten picks on their rosters in 2010, the Bengals and 49ers had six each. Together, these four teams had almost a third of the league's 90 active top ten picks on their rosters in 2010, yet combined for a 24-40 W/L record. In stark contrast, the last four Super Bowl finalists had a combined eight top ten picks on their roster in 2010 (Packers: 3, Steelers: 2, Saints: 2, Colts: 1).

But don't take these stats as an endorsement of trading down, far from it. The chances are that the player you get if you stay put is better than when you trade down. And trading down doesn’t always produce the return that everyone imagines. In fact, the scenario I proposed above might very well turn out to be Cannon and Ijalana instead of Carimi and Pouncey. Still willing to give up Tyron Smith for that scenario?

The Bricklayer and the Gladiator

Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats published an article a while back in which he looked at rookie compensation. To explain why top players’ salaries are so high, Burke uses an example by economics professor Robert Schenk to illustrate the concept of economic ‘tournament theory.’ 

Say you’re a contractor and your company builds brick walls. Most of your bricklayers lay about 3 bricks per minute and make about $8 per hour. (You can think of this as the replacement level.) But along comes a guy who lays bricks twice as fast--6 bricks per minute. How much would you be willing to pay him? Simple fairness suggests $16 per hour. Certainly no more than that because you could just replace him by hiring two replacement-level guys and get the same production. So in this example rewards are based on absolute differences in productivity. Large differences in productivity result in large differences in rewards. Similarly, small differences in bricklaying ability would result in small differences in hourly pay.

Now consider two ancient gladiators entertaining the emperor in combat. Even if one gladiator is only slightly better than the other, he’ll very likely win, and the differences in rewards could be extreme. Here, in a winner-take-all system, absolute differences in ability do not matter, only relative differences.

What about sports like football? First, in many ways the NFL is a winner-take-all system. Whoever wins the game earns 100% of the win while the loser eats all of the loss, and there is only one champion left standing at the end of the season.

Second, football players are not like bricklayers. You cannot replace an All-Pro QB by sending two average QBs out on the field and expect the same productivity. When there is a constraint on the number of people that can be employed at one time, the value of the most productive people rapidly increases.

The bricklayer example is sometimes taken to an extreme in draft scenarios based on the draft value chart: giving up a first pick for a second and third rounder may look good on paper from a value points perspective, but it doesn't help you win games.

In 1996 Jerry Jones was already on the phone with DE Tony Brackens, whom he was going to take with the 30th pick (620 pts), when the Redskins called and offered the 37th (530) and 67th pick (255). Jerry took the offer. After all, that was a 165 point gain. The Cowboys then drafted DE Kavika Pittman and C Clay Shiver. Brackens proved to be a quality starter from the get-go for Jacksonville. Pittman and Shiver were both busts.

Maximizing value does not automatically win games.

O-Ring Theory and The Clustering Theorem

The O-Ring-Theory was developed by Harvard Professor Michael Kremer, in part based on the 1986 Challenger disaster. The O-Ring, worth a couple of bucks at most, was defective and caused the explosion of a multimillion dollar spacecraft and the loss of seven lives. The O-Ring Theory in essence states that in otherwise equal production processes, the worst input factor (or 'weakest link') will determine the overall quality level of the final product (Read up on the O-Ring theory in this post from last year).

Henning Voepel from the World Economic Institute in Hamburg, Germany, reapplied the theory to team sports (The Clustering Theorem) and found that like in the economic theory, the weakest player on a team (the 'weak link') determines the overall quality of a team. And here's where his model gets interesting:

To judge the true quality of a team, you can't simply add up the quality of the individual players, you actually have to multiply it in order to adequately account for the impact a of weaker player. Let's use this model to assess the [Smith] > [Carimi + Pouncey] postulate.

For argument's sake, let's assume that each player on the Cowboys line has a value of 50 out of a possible 100. Adding up all five positions would make the unit worth 250 points. Let's further assume that Tyron Smith is indeed a blue-chip prospect and will be worth 100 points. Adding Smith to the four others pushes the total value of the unit up to 300, an improvement of 50 points.

In the Carimi + Pouncey scenario, I'll assume that combined they'll also add 50 points to the line, but since they currently do not appear to be blue-chippers, I'll give each a value of 75 points. Again, the sum of the line is 300, which would make both options equally appealing. But that's not the end of the story, as the table below illustrates:

Options
LT LG C RG RT Total Quality
(addition)
Total Quality
(multiplication)
2010 Cowboys 50 50 50 50 50 25 3.125
Tyron Smith
50 50 50 50 100 30 6.250
Carimi + Pouncey
50 50 50 75 75 30 7.031

The clustering theorem argues that to judge the true quality of the three O-line options, you can't simply add up the quality of the individual players, you have to multiply it. The column on the right does just that, and shows that our fictional Carimi & Pouncey scenario has a clear advantage when you multiply the quality of the individual players.

So does this mean the Cowboys should trade down?

Not so fast. I am a firm believer in the clustering theorem, and that the weakest link determines the overall quality of a position group, unit or team. In theory, the trading down option - especially for the O-line - makes sense. But can anybody tell me what Smith's value really is going to be? Equally, would the duo of Carimi and Pouncey come in at a score of 75 each? Consider that if I had given each of them 70 points instead of 75, the multiplication result would have been 6.125, lower than the Smith-only option. And that's not even factoring in the risk that those two players may not be available anymore when the Cowboys are on the clock.

For all the evaluations, film study and measurements going into evaluating a potential draft pick, it is still a very imprecise science. But one thing is clear, the higher up you draft, the lower your risk of getting it wrong. And with the Cowboys' history of trading down, that could be a very real risk.

If the Cowboys see somebody they like, they should jump, not dump.

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