Heading into the 1991 NFL draft, the Cowboys were flush with 10 draft picks in the first four rounds of the draft as the result of the Hershel Walker, Steve Walsh and other trades. With that much draft capital, the Cowboys expected to be fairly active deal-makers during the draft. At the same time, then-Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones were concerned that the team had no clear understanding of what each pick was worth.
To help out with that, Mike McCoy, a Cowboys executive and minority owner at the time, began to work on a valuation system for draft picks. McCoy looked at all the NFL Draft day trades over the previous four years to better understand how NFL teams valued their draft picks. When McCoy was done, the Cowboys had their first version of the Trade Value Chart, which assigned a numerical value to each draft pick and significantly simplified the evaluation of trade proposals. Because of its origins with the Cowboys in the early 90s, the Trade Value Chart is sometimes referred to as the "Jimmy Johnson Chart."
In 2007, Clarence Hill of the Star Telegram wrote a highly readable piece on the creation of the trade value chart in which McCoy explains how the chart was created.
"Jerry and Jimmy both liked to trade from Day 1," McCoy recalled. "I was always in the draft meetings. So I said I would give it a try. It took only two days and a few tries. I started out with the basic assumption that a second-round pick is worth two third-round picks. That was the rule of thumb that owners and coaches used for a long time. It wasn't hard once you figured out how to do it."
"To me, it wasn't that special. But it became so to others," said McCoy, 58, whose relationship with Jones dates to 1981 when they started working in the oil and gas business. "I thought it was obvious. But you can't underestimate how valuable it is to make a trade when you have only 15 minutes and it feels like 2 minutes. That's why it became more special than I thought it was. Having that chart gives you confidence that you are making a good decision to trade or not trade based on what the return in value is."
The Cowboys initially tried to keep McCoy’s Trade Value Chart to themselves, but a succession of Cowboys assistant coaches and other staffers took it with them as they were promoted to other teams or simply left to be elsewhere, and the Chart quickly found its way into every war room in the NFL, where you can find it to this day.
But just because it's being used broadly doesn't mean it's perfect. When McCoy created the chart, he merely took a snapshot of how teams had acted in the past, he wasn't looking to create a perfect valuation for each draft pick. We know today that the Chart significantly overvalues the picks at the very top of the draft, undervalues the benefit of having multiple picks, and significantly undervalues future picks (NFL rule of thumb: "gain a round by waiting a year," i.e. a second-round pick this year is worth a first-round pick next year).
Every year as we near the draft, somebody will stand up somewhere and loudly proclaim that the old Jimmy Johnson Trade Value Chart is worthless, citing some of the reasons outlined above, but also changes to the game, or the salary cap, or the new CBA, or the new rookie wage scale, or some insider information only they are privy to, or a plethora of other reasons why the chart has long passed its sell-by date.
In theory, those may all be good reasons why the chart should not be used anymore, but in reality, the chart remains in use regardless.
And the reason for its continued use lies in its primary benefit: The Value Chart is basically a Rosetta Stone for the NFL. It allows different teams to communicate with each other about draft picks because it establishes a common valuation methodology that can be used as a reference to evaluate a trade proposal. Every team can and does supplement that initial information with their own valuation methodology.
One way of finding out whether the Trade Value Chart is still relevant today is by looking at whether trades today still conform to the valuation proposed 25 years ago. Which is why I decided to take a look at the trades made in the top two rounds in the last three drafts to see how many of the most recent draft-day trades still fit the parameters of the Trade Value Chart.
Some caveats before we dive into the individual trades:
- I excluded all trades involving players, because I can't quantify the value of a player using the Trade Value Chart.
- I valued all future picks with the value of the 16th pick in the next lower round.
- I'm going to consider any trade that was within plus or minus about 5% in terms trade value points gained or lost as an outright validation of the Trade Value Chart.
That still leaves a total of 27 trades in the first two rounds of the last three drafts that involved the exchange of draft picks, and that we can perhaps draw some conclusions from. Here's an overview of those 27 trades, including the detail of the picks exchanged, their trade value and the trade value gained or lost in the trade by the team trading down. Trades with a value disparity of less than 5% are marked in green, trades that exceed 5% are marked in yellow.
|Year||Pick||Teams||Trade||Trade Value||Gain/Loss in %|
||Trading Down||Trading Up||Picks exchanged
||Trading Down||Trading Up||Trading Down|
Without any further analysis, the color coding of the table provides us with an early read on the Trade Value Chart. 20 of the 27 trades, or about 75% are an outright validation of Mike McCoy's trusty value chart.
Still, there are 7 trades that exceed 5% in draft value gained or lost. As a general rule of thumb, this can happen for three reasons:
- Top five pick: We know that the Trade Value Chart only has limited use in the top five picks of the draft - trades into the top five have their own unique rules.
- Somebody got screwed. Some deals do not fit the Value Chart, and could have been made more equitable given the picks available to both teams at the time.
- Best deal possible: Teams can only trade the picks they have. Some deals may look lopsided at first, but at second glance turn out to be best possible trades given the picks available to be traded.
Here's a quick breakdown of those seven lopsided trades and which categories they fit under.
Top Five Pick
Pick 3, 2013 (OAK-MIA): This trade left the Dolphins with a phenomenal 520 trade value point advantage, the equivalent of a pick at the top of the second round. Even the Dolphins' first five picks of the 2013 draft (12+42+77+82+104=2,151 pts) would not have been enough to get Oakland's pick - if the teams would have gone strictly by the Trade Value Chart. We've seen other trades in the top five that resulted in very lopsided trade values, a strong indication that teams may not value top five picks (unless they are QBs) quite as highly as the Value Chart does.
|Rams - Titans trade|
|And as if on cue, the Rams trade up into the first spot of the 2016 NFL draft.
To get the No. 1 pick from the Titans, the Rams gave up their first-round pick this year (No. 15 overall), both of their second-round picks this year (No. 43 & 45), a third rounder this year (No. 76), their first-round pick next year ("gain a round by waiting a year": the equivalent of the 16th pick in the second round this year - No. 48), and their third-round pick next year (equivalent to No. 144 this year). The Titans threw in their fourth- and sixth-round picks this year (No. 113 & 177) to sweeten the deal.
In Trade Value parlance, that's 1+113+177 = 15+43+45+48+76+144 (3,089.6 pts = 2,634 pts). As it is, the Titans are down -14.7% in draft value in this trade, and provide further confirmation that trades within the top five go by their own unique rules. The trade also confirms a point we made yesterday, that teams looking to trade down may have to do so at a discount this year.
Somebody got screwed
Pick 18, 2013 (DAL-SF): The Cowboys trade down with the 49ers (16=31+74; 900 pts = 820 pts) and get publicly blasted for giving up too much value, and rightfully so, even if picking Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams more than validated the trade. At the time, the 49ers still had the 61st pick which could have resulted in a more equitable trade (16=31+61; 900pts = 892 pts). The Cowboys announced that using their own trade charts "for the most part, we either won or hit right on it." Be that as it may, this trade remains outside the norm of the trade value chart, and the 49ers may have simply taken advantage of the Cowboys' wish to trade down and short-changed the Cowboys in the trade.
Pick 22, 2014 (PHI-CLE): The Browns were desperate for a QB and moved up to grab Johnny Manziel. A perfectly equitable deal could have been reached if the Browns had used their fourth-round pick (22=26+106; 780 pts = 782 pts), but the Eagles stood firm and demanded a third-rounder instead. The Browns relented and got screwed twice, in the trade and by the pick.
Pick 42, 2014 (TEN-PHI): No way the Titans should have accepted this trade. The Eagles could have offered their third-rounder in the deal (42=54+86; 480 pts=520 pts), but the Titans settled for the Eagles fourth-rounder (42=54+122; 480 pts=410 pts). They got screwed.
Pick 55, 2013 (GB-SF): The Packers trade out of the 55th spot in exchange for the 49ers second- and sixth-rounder (55=61+173). At the time of the trade, the 49ers had the choice between offering 61+128 or 61+173 (their 131 was an untradeable comp pick, their 164 had already been traded for Colt McCoy). 61+128 would have been the more equitable trade that would have left the Packers with just a -4% disadvantage instead of the -9.9% disadvantage. The Packers would later trade down even further from the 61st pick, so their primary objective probably was to get more picks even if it cost them some draft value. Regardless, the 49ers had their way with them on this trade.
Pick 61, 2014 (SF-JAC): Intent on trading down further, the 49ers traded away the 61st pick they had just traded down for. A more equitable deal could have been reached (61=70+114; 292 pts = 306 pts), but the Jaguars took advantage here.
Best deal possible:
Pick 34, 2014 (WAS-DAL): Teams know the top edge rushers in each draft go early. The Cowboys had a big need at edge rusher and felt it was necessary to trade up for DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round to get the last of the top edge rushers in that draft class. They had two picks to offer, their third-rounder (78) and their fourth-rounder (119). Their third-rounder gave the Redskins a 12.5% value advantage, their fourth would have given the Redskins a -13.2% value disadvantage so the third was the more equitable of the two choices. The trade could have been made even more equitable had the Redskins thrown in a late-rounder to balance the trade a little more, but generally teams trading down expect extra picks, not a swap of picks, so this trade was the most equitable one for both sides given what the Cowboys had to offer.
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. Ultimately, a trade is the result of a negotiation between two teams, and reflects the value each team places on the picks being traded, the players available with those picks and many other things.
There are five trades that look like one team got screwed in the trade, and even with a system like the Trade value Chart in place, those types of trades can always happen when one team a little more needy than another.
Overall though, it looks like the Trade Value Chart is alive and well. It is certainly not perfect, but the evidence from the last three drafts suggests that for the most part teams do tend to try to stick fairly close to it.
[If this post sounded vaguely familiar, it's because I wrote a similar post in 2014 that looked at the 2012-13 drafts and largely offered the same conclusions. Friend-of-BTB KD Drummond recently asked me if I had updated the data. I hadn't. Now I have.]