As we begin our annual draft preparations, two terms will continually make the rounds: 'blue chip prospects' and 'first round grades'.
Blue chip prospects are truly elite talents that are projected to have an immediate impact at the NFL level and are likely to become some of the best players at their position. Depending on your exact definition of the term - and the talent available in a given draft - there are roughly between five and nine of these prospects every year, and usually all of them get picked within the top 10 picks of the draft.
As every team starts building their board for the draft, they assign grades to every prospect. We know that theusually assign a little over 20 first-round grades per year, and this number also varies according to talent level.
With the eighteenth pick, the Cowboys are probably out of reach of a true blue-chip prospect, because not only will the blue chippers all be long gone by the time the clock starts ticking for the Cowboys on draft day, but also because trading up into the top ten will likely be prohibitively expensive. At the same time, some of the early prospects being discussed as options for the Cowboys might require the Cowboys to make moves on draft day.
To get a better feel for the Cowboys' 18th pick, we look at the historical precedent for trades involving the 18th pick.
The Trade Value Chart, sometimes referred to as the Jimmy Johnson draft chart, is the tool of choice for all draftniks contemplating trades, and teams are reported to use very similar versions of this chart. Sure, it may be reworked at some point with the new rookie wage scale, but it'll do for now. The chart assigns a point value to each draft pick, making it easier to compare the relative value of draft picks in different rounds. Using the logic of the value chart, the number 18 pick is worth 900 points. In case of a trade, the Cowboys should - in principle - look to get an equivalent value from another team in return for the pick.
But the reality of draft-day trades is that teams don't always get an equivalent value for their picks. There are many considerations influencing the value of a pick, from supply and demand, draft strategy, available talent through competitive considerations and many more.
So let's look at how teams have historically valued the number 18 pick, and if that is reflective of the trade value chart. Since 1993, there have been only three trade downs from the 18th spot. That's a little thin, so I've added all trades from the 17th spot as well:
|Year||Trade||Team Trading Down||Value||Team Trading Up||Value||Net Value|
|2009||17 = 19, 191||Browns||950||Buccaneers||891||59|
|2007||17 = 21, 86, 198||Jaguars||950||Broncos||973||-23|
|2002||17 = 18, 158||Falcons||950||Raiders||929||21|
|1999||17 = 20, 82, 191||Seahawks||950||Patriots||1,046||-96|
|1996||17 = 21, 91||Lions||950||Seahawks||936||14|
|2008||18 = 26, 89, 173||Texans||900||Ravens||868||32|
|2002||18 = 21, 89||Redskins||900||Raiders||945||-45|
|1993||18 = 20, 116||49ers||900||Cardinals||912||-12|
Note that I've only looked at pick-for-pick trades on draft weekend. There were a couple of trades with the 17th and 18th picks involving player trades that are simply too hard to quantify in terms of value.
One takeaway here is that historically, trading down from a spot in the high teens (17th & 18th) has not consistently favored one side of the trade - at least according to the draft value chart. The net points in the examples above have gone either way, but have generally remained moderately balanced in terms of value.
Since 1993, the 17th and 18th picks have been used eight times to trade down, but only five times to trade up. The table summarizes those five trades.
|Year||Trade||Team Trading Up||Value||Team Trading Down||Value||Net Value|
|2008||15, 76 = 17, 66, 136||Chiefs||1260||Lions||1,248||-12|
|2003||6, 37, 102 = 17, 18, 54||Cardinals||2222||Saints||2,210||-12|
|1997||13, 110 = 18, 91, 116, 181||Chiefs||1,224||Oilers||1,118||-106|
|1996||9 = 17, 48, 109||Raiders||1,350||Oilers||1446||96|
|1996||13 = 18, 83, 201||Rams||1150||Bears||1,087||-63|
Perhaps more important than the net values in this table is the overall price in terms of picks required to trade up into the top ten: in 2003, the Saints had to give up two first round picks (17th & 18th) to move up to the sixth spot, in 1996 the Oilers have up a first, second and fourth to move into the ninth spot.
Of course, a multitude of factors influence the value of a given trade, and the purpose of the draft is not to maximize some hypothetical draft value chart. Trade value does not win games. If you believe you have identified the players that will make a difference to your team, go get them. Make the deal. Do not get hung up on trade value.
The Cowboys are starting their self-evaluations today, and with over three months to go before the draft, we have no idea whether the Cowboys have already set their sights on a couple of football players they believe will make a difference to this team, but we know that they are not averse to draft-day deals. In 2010 the Cowboys went after the players they wanted, trading up twice to get Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. In 2011, they stayed put and let Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray come to them. Last year, they moved up from 14th to sixth to pick Morris Claiborne.
Historically, the late teens have not seen a lot of trade activity. Perhaps because they are in a position where the first-round-graded players are beginning to thin out, so trading down is risky. At the same time, trading up could be too expensive. Absent a clearer understanding of which players will be available at which spots come draft day, it's hard to make a case for or against trading either up or down. Based on the historical precendent - the 18th pick has been involved in only five draft-day trades since 1993 - it might be more prudent to stay put.
Because for every Bobby Carpenter (18th pick, 2006) there might also be an Emmitt Smith (17th pick, 1990) waiting for the Cowboys.