The argument I want to articulate is based on a very simple premise, that in most cases two starter quality players will improve your team more than one starter quality player. There is also a secondary argument that not all drafts are created equal. Some drafts have a distribution of very high quality players clustered at the top of the draft and then a steep drop off of player talent outside of round one or sometimes the early part of round one. These types of drafts are referred to as shallow drafts. Other drafts have a higher number of quality players and the distribution of projected starting quality players extends beyond the first round. These drafts are often called "deep" drafts.
In a shallow draft, the motivation to move up is easy to understand. The logic being that the total value of two marginal players is less than one blue-chip impact player. In deep drafts, the prevailing strategy is to move back in the draft and collect more picks. The logic of moving back in a deep draft is simple, the collective value of two starter quality players is greater than one starter.
Another rationale for trading back is that you increase your chances of hitting on a good player with two picks as opposed to one. Think of it like splitting aces and eights in Black Jack. In a deep draft, you’ve got a good chance of finding a quality player in rounds 1 through 3, so you want to make more bets not fewer.
Let’s start with evidence that the draft is an inexact science and ultimately becomes a numbers game. The following statement is from a great article on FiveThirtyEight.com titled No Team Can Beat the Draft.
All of this means that the NFL draft’s mechanism for sorting players is largely an efficient system, in the sense that none of its individual actors have the ability to "beat the market" in the long run. Some do see short-term deviations from the mean, but those prove unsustainable over larger samples. The implication is that much of what each team gets from its draft picks — the very entryway to the league for almost every NFL player — is determined by pure chance.
If statistical analysis of decades of draft data shows that draft results that exceed the average level of success are largely attributed to chance, then the most logical approach to the draft is to place a high value on picks. This reasoning is even more pronounced in a deep draft. Think of it like a baseball game. If most drafts are like batting against an average pitcher, you’re going to bat your average. But what if one year, or one draft in this case, you’re batting against a below average pitcher and you’re chance of hitting a home run goes way up. You want to take more at bats, not less. You want more picks, not fewer.
In an article titled How Teams Ignore Basic Economics and Draft Players Irrationally, Joseph Stromberg frames the argument from a risk management perspective.
But here's the thing: despite years of data, most NFL teams still have no idea how to work the draft most effectively.It's not their imperfect player evaluation, but something more basic — their refusal to follow the principle of risk diversification.
Stromberg's article is based on an extensive study by two economists named Cade Massey and Richard Thaler who studied 15 years of trade data. Based on his analysis of their work, Stromberg came away with the following conclusion:
Draft picks can be traded, and the success of any one player picked is highly uncertain. Because of that, their data says that in the current trade market, teams are always better off trading down — that is, trading one high pick for multiple lower ones — but many teams become overconfident in their evaluation of one particular player and do the exact opposite: package several low picks for the right to take one player very early.
Stromberg goes on to draw the following conclusion:
[The] numbers suggest that moving up eight picks (the average distance between the first and second players at the same position) should cost a small amount, since you're only increasing the odds of a getting a more productive player by four percent or so. But teams pay a ton to move up, especially at the top of the draft.
In short, extensive research shows that trading up only slightly increases your chances of getting a more valuable player. Here is how Massey describes the decision by teams to isolate a single player at a given position and trade up to "get their guy":
"It's basically a coin flip,but teams are paying a great deal for the right to call which side of the coin.
Further adding to the argument against trading up in a deep draft is years of evidence that shows little difference in Average Value for players drafted between pick 27 and pick 50. Here is a chart from an article OCC. posted here titled The NFL Draft by the Numbers: Do Teams Build Championships Through the Draft?
Twenty four years of data shows that there is no statistically significant difference between the average value of picks 27-50. You could also argue that this point holds even more true in a deep draft, where there is not a steep decline in talent outside of round one, but rather a slow taper of talent level through rounds 2 and 3.
So there are two critical questions you must ask before trading a second round and 3rd round pick to move up in a deep draft. (1) Do I trust my scouting department to deliver two starting quality players in rounds 2 and 3? (2) Is the average value of one starter quality player going to exceed the average value of two starters over their respective careers? If you trust your scouting department and feel confident in hitting on two starter quality players in rounds 2 and 3, then it's a huge stretch in any situation to imagine the average value of one starter to exceed the value of two starters. This holds true for a number different reasons, not the least of which is injuries and health. If you think of value in terms of snaps over a career, just based on injuries and attrition alone two starters should deliver more snaps and more value than one starter.
There are nuances to this debate related to the make-up of a team's roster. If your roster is unproven, with limited on-field success and many roster needs and limited depth, then the two starters versus one argument is framed within that context. So I leave you with these questions. With decades of data showing that hitting home runs in the draft is largely a matter of chance, is our roster proven enough to have the luxury of taking fewer at bats in a deep draft? Lastly, if decades of data shows there is limited difference in value for players between picks 27-50, why would you discount your scouting department's ability to find two starters in rounds 2 and 3 and settle for one starter instead.
(Added 5/11/) Yes, this is pure hindsight, but for the sake of discussion, here are the players that were available had we not traded up. With the benefit of hindsight, do you feel any different about the decision to move up?
Trent Murphy #47
Timmy Jernigan #48
Jerimiah Attacohu #50
Kony Ealy #60
Scott Crichton #72
Jay Bromley #74
Will Sutton #82
Louis Nix #83
Kareem Martin #84
Will Clarke #88
Daquan Jones #112