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2013 NFL Draft: The Demise Of The Trade Value Chart Is Greatly Exaggerated

A look back at the 2012 NFL draft suggests that even in this day and age of the NFL, the trusty trade value chart from Jimmy Johnson's days remains relevant.

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Every year as we near the draft, there is one topic that surfaces with an uncanny regularity: The Trade Value Chart. Prevailing wisdom credits Jimmy Johnson for developing it during his early days with the Dallas Cowboys. Every year, the analytically inclined come up with new, more accurate and more quantitatively sound ways to of building such a chart (see Football Perspective, Harvard Sports Collective and Datascope Analytics).

But despite these improved proposals, draftniks all across the nation continue to use the "Jimmy Johnson Chart" in its original form, and it's generally assumed that when "NFL general managers consider trading draft picks, they more often than not consult this value chart."

Imagine my surprise then, when just this week I was copied on an e-mail that featured the following bold statement:

The game has changed so much that Jimmy Johnson's point value are all but worthless these days.

That sentence echoes a popular school of thought that argues that since the chart was first deployed in the early 90's, free agency, the salary cap, and most recently the new CBA and the rookie wage scale have rendered the Trade Value Chart largely irrelevant.

The mail also explained that

It's actually very rare for modern day GM's to use value charts for picks. The vast majority of deals start out wildly in favor of one side or another until the two sides eventually work back to a "fair" deal based on the context of the player taken, positional value, and how badly the team with leverage can get away with screwing its trade partner.

For all we know, that description of how the trade process works may be accurate, but the original outright dismissal of the Trade Value Chart didn't sit well with me, as I am always wary of arguments that are made without a factual, quantifiable base. So I decided to take a look at the trades made in the top two rounds of the 2012 draft to see just how "worthless" the Trade Value Chart is today.

There were a total of 13 trades in the first two rounds of the 2012 draft that involved the exchange of 2012 draft picks. I excluded trades for future picks and players, because the value of both is hard to quantify using the Trade Value Chart. Here's an overview of those 13 trades, including the detail of the picks exchanged, their trade value and the trade value gained or lost in the trade:

Pick Teams Trade Trade Value Gain/Loss in %
Trading Down Trading Up Picks exchanged
Trading Down Trading Up Trading Down Trading Up
3 = 4+118+139+211 2,200 1,900.2 -13.6% 15.8%
TB 5 = 7+101 1,700 1,596 -6.1% 6.5%
6 = 14+45 1,600 1,550 -3.1% 3.2%
12 SEA PHI 12 = 15+114+172 1,200 1,139.6 -5.0% 5.3%
21 CIN
NE 21 = 27+93 800 808 1.0% -1.0%
25 DEN
NE 25 = 31+126 720 646 -10.3% 11.5%
29 BAL
MIN 29 = 35+98 640 658 2.8% -2.7%
31 DEN
TB 31+126 = 36+101 646 636 -1.5% 1.6%
43 SEA NYJ 43 = 47+154+232 470 463 -1.5% 1.5%
45 STL
CHI 45 = 50+150 450 431.4 -4.1% 4.3%
51 PHI
GB 51 = 59+123 390 359 -7.9% 8.6%
58 HOU
TB 58+233 = 68+126 322.1 296 -8.1% 8.8%
62 NE
GB 62 = 90+163 284 167.2 -41.1% 69.9%

Of the 13 trades I looked at, eight were close enough in terms of trade value points gained or lost that I consider them an outright validation of the Trade Value Chart. This includes the Cowboys' trade for Morris Claiborne.

The Cowboys traded their 14th and 45th picks (1,550 points) to the Rams in exchange for their 6th pick (1,600 points). The Cowboys came out slightly ahead in trade value gained (+3.2%), but had to give up one extra pick. The Rams lost a little trade value (-3%) but gained an extra pick. All in all, a textbook trade in terms of the Trade Value Chart. But there are five trades (marked in yellow in the table above) that exceed 8% in trade value gained or lost, and look like they may not fit the Trade Value Chart particularly well. So let's look at those trades in a little more detail, and we'll do that in reverse chronological order.

Pick 62: This seems like easily the most lopsided trade on this chart, and looks like the Packers fleeced the Patriots. But did they really? By the time that trade happened, the Packers had already traded away their 123rd pick to the Eagles, and their 132nd and 133rd picks were compensatory picks which, by rule, cannot be used in a trade. The next best available pick for the Packers to trade was the 163rd, which led to the skewed trade value. Teams can only trade what they have.

Pick 58: Instead of offering the Texans their 68th and 126th pick, the Buccaneers could have offered their 68th and 99th. If they had done that, the trade value they offered would have climbed to 354 and left them at a -9.0% disadvantage in trade value, which is almost the same as the -8.1% disadvantage the Texans got by taking the trade offer that included the 126th pick. This is a borderline case, where the wheeling and dealing may have played a bigger role in the trade than the actual trade value.

Pick 51: This is another trade in which it looks like the Packers fleeced their trade partner, as the Packers improved their trade value by 8.6%. Unfortunately for the Eagles, pairing the 59th pick with the Packers' best remaining pick (90th) would have cost the Packers 450 trade points and left them with -13.3% in terms of trade value. The 51=59+123 trade was the most equitable one for both sides.

Pick 25: The Patriots trade their first and fourth for Tampa's first. The Patriots had already traded away their third-round pick (90th), and the next highest pick left would have been their second rounder (62nd). But a 25=31+62 trade would have cost the Patriots 884 points and left them with a -18.6% trade point deficit. 25=31+126 was the more equitable option for both teams.

Pick 3: This looks like a huge disparity, with the Vikings losing almost 300 points in this trade (despite getting three extra picks). So let's look at what the Browns could have offered:

  • 3=4+37: The Browns could have offered their first and second rounder, but that combo would have been worth 2,330 points, and a first and second to move up one spot? Way too much.
  • 3=4+67: The Browns also could have offered their third rounder, and I'm sure the negotiation was about this pick. The combo would have cost the Browns 2,055 points and given them a +7.1% points advantage, but the Browns seemed to be unwilling to part with their third rounder either, although the trade would have been fairly equitable.
  • 3=4+100: Offering their first and fourth to move up one spot would have cost the Browns exactly 1,900 trade value points, which appears to be what they were willing to invest to trade up. But they didn't trade their fourth, instead trading their fifth, sixth an seventh-round picks, which brought the total value of the trade to 1,900.2, almost the exact value of the deal with the fourth-round pick.

Looking at this small selection of trades from last year, it looks like the teams still stick fairly close to the Trade Value Chart (or an updated version of it). However, not all trades work out perfectly "fair" in terms of trade value, in part because the picks available simply don't allow for a more equitable trade. In two specific cases (pick 3 and pick 58) out of the 13 we looked at, the two trading teams did not arrive at the solution that would have been the most equitable for both sides from a trade value point of view.

Overall though, it looks like the Trade Value Chart is alive and well. It is certainly not perfect, but the evidence from the 2012 draft suggests that teams do tend to try to stick fairly close to it. However, teams can only trade the picks they have at their disposal; at times, this can lead to some skewed trade values.

The key takeaway here is that the Trade Value Chart is a good first indicator, but many other factors can influence the value of the trade, and trade value is not the only factor by which to judge a trade. The purpose of the draft is not to maximize some hypothetical trade value. The purpose of the draft is to make sure you get the players you want and that give you the best chance of winning. 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.

Trade value does not win games.

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