One year after the first 14 picks came off the board without a single draft-day swap, order was restored and trade winds reappeared in Chicago on Thursday night. After the first and second overall picks were dealt away before the first round of the 2016 NFL draft kicked off, the league's 32 organizations combined for five more trades Thursday.
These trades are among the few things we can judge somewhat reliably on and immediately after draft day. When you think about evaluating swaps involving players who haven't yet played in the NFL, you have to approach them from two different angles and keep those two separate. For one, you have to consider the trade return in terms of picks, given the historical context of what picks cost, and then you consider the trade return in terms of the players each team actually selected.
We won't know about the actual trade returns for years because those players still have to run out onto the field, but history tells us that teams that trade up aren't any better at identifying talent when they do so. As much as organizations love to say they moved up and found a player who was rated higher on their board than the spot at which they were eventually drafted, the reality is that teams often make that exact move and fail.
And even when they do, it can often be out of some level of variance. Take the Jaguars, who had their dream draft Thursday when Jalen Ramsey fell in their lap at No. 5. In 2014, they made what looks to be an excellent move up to grab Allen Robinson in the second round with the 61st pick. Robinson has turned into a productive wideout and a key member of Jacksonville's core, and you could make the case that the Jags knew Robinson was undervalued. If you trust that their instincts on Robinson were right, though, you also have to explain away the fact that they chose fellow wide receiver Marqise Lee with the 39th pick, 22 selections before they chose Robinson. Lee has been a disappointment as a pro.
That's not to pick on the Jaguars, but it's an example of how difficult it is to judge trades and how useless the "But he was high on our board!" argument can be. Let's run through these trades, then, strictly from the angle of draft value in a vacuum. If we can't judge whether a player will be better or worse than his draft position and we don't know how much interest there was in a particular selection, the best way to evaluate pick is to assume that pick will produce the average return from a particular slot.
We can estimate that expected return using Chase Stuart's draft value chart. (Stuart will be a guest on my podcast, The Bill Barnwell Show, on Friday.) We also can determine what the majority of the league considers to be each pick's typical trade value using the traditional draft value chart.
Let's start with what is quickly becoming one of the more interesting strategies of the offseason, the quantitatively inclined rebuild occurring in Cleveland. Note that 2016 picks are notated with their round and overall selection number, so the 33rd overall pick would be notated as 2-33.
Cleveland loads up
Browns trade: 1-8, 6-176
Titans trade: 1-15, 3-76, 2017 second-round pick
Traditional chart: Browns win (improved draft capital by 18%)
Stuart chart: Browns win (improved draft capital by 48%)
It has been clear ever since free agency that the Browns are hell-bent on acquiring as many draft picks as possible to rebuild their tattered roster, and they got off to a good start when they traded the second overall pick to Philadelphia for a bevy of selections. Now another facet of their strategy is becoming clear: They're trying to exploit the league's conservativeness in devaluing future picks to extract better picks from teams in the future.
As I wrote about in discussing a Browns-Titans trade possibility for this pick before the draft, the common estimate for future picks is to treat them as one round worse than their listed value for each year you have to wait to use them; in other words, most NFL teams would consider this 2017 second-round pick the Browns acquired equal to a 2016 third-round pick.
That's not an accurate measure. A second-round pick is a second-round pick. Draft picks in the future are treated as though they're less valuable because the general manager trading the picks might not be around to actually use them, which represents part of the moral hazard incumbent with turning over your personnel department to employees who typically last a few years on the job. Future picks then realistically mean different things to different organizations. Les Snead and Jeff Fisher are probably going to get fired unless the Rams make the playoffs in 2016, which no doubt made it easier for them to trade future picks to move up to the first overall slot. Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome aren't going anywhere unless they want to move on, which is why they can trade for future picks with impunity.
All of this is to say that the new Browns brain trust -- Hue Jackson, Sashi Brown and former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta -- likely feels very confident that Cleveland won't be tearing things up very soon. The Browns are stockpiling picks for the future and getting bigger returns because of it. Tennessee probably would have preferred to deal one of its four picks between 33 and 64 to move up from 15 to eight; indeed, had the Titans packaged the 15th and 48th picks, it would have represented 1,470 points of trade value on the traditional chart, right in line with the eighth overall pick, which is worth 1,400 points. Most teams in the league would have gone for that swap.
Instead, the Browns will wait a year and pick up a second-rounder in next year's draft for their troubles. The conservative way to value that pick would be to treat it like an "average" selection, which would be, coincidentally, the 48th pick. Reduce that pick and realize that by deferring their primary compensation for a year, the Browns were able to improve their sixth-round pick by 100 slots, moving up from 176 to 76. That's a pick with 10 times the value of the one the Browns traded on the traditional chart. Ten times!
Their 2017 draft is shaping up to be a mammoth endeavor. Keep in mind that the Browns now have two first-rounders (their own and one from Philadelphia), two second-rounders (their own and Tennessee's), and as many as four fourth-round picks (their own and up to three compensatory fourth-round picks from losing free agents this offseason). After accounting for the fifth-rounder they sent Philly next year as part of the deal, a reasonable estimate is that those extra picks they've acquired are worth 34 points on the Stuart chart; that's right in line with the first overall pick, which is worth 34 points on its own. Plus the Browns still have their picks (minus fifth- and seventh-rounders) in 2017, and it's not as if they're going to be good next year.
Cleveland could have as much draft capital in 2017 as any team has had in any one draft in recent memory. The Browns still have to hit on those picks, but they're putting themselves in an enviable position in terms of draft capital. (They'll also have an extra second-round pick from the Eagles to work with in 2018.) And they still managed to come out of the first round with Corey Coleman, a player at their biggest position of need, wide receiver.
Tennessee's move up to grab Jack Conklin is colored by the bizarre fall of Laremy Tunsil, whose social media accounts appeared to be hacked minutes before the draft started. The Tunsil story is still developing as I write this, and it's entirely possible that teams like the Titans might have preferred Conklin to the Ole Miss product, but the idea that Tunsil was suddenly undraftable because of the suggestion that he smoked marijuana at one point before being drafted is bizarre. The Ravens, who reportedly took Tunsil off their board after the tweet, famously kept Ray Rice on their roster before video of his brutal assault on his fiancée leaked. The Bears, who badly need a left tackle, passed on Tunsil just one year after they signed troubled defensive end Ray McDonald and had owner George McCaskey try to pass off McDonald as a changed man. As Lions general manager Bob Quinn noted, "If we took players off the board because they smoked pot in college or marijuana, like half the board would be gone." NFL teams chose a bizarre time to get sanctimonious or worried about PR hits.
Looking at the bigger picture, though, the Titans and new general manager Jon Robinson have to be pleased with their first round. Expected to take a tackle with the first pick, they managed to trade down and acquire several additional picks while still managing to shore up the weakest remaining spot on their offensive line. We'll probably never know whether they would have drafted Tunsil without that tweet, but if they traded out of the first overall slot to begin with, chances are that they weren't in love with Tunsil to begin with.
Bears and Bucs swap spots
Bears get: 1-9
Buccaneers get: 1-11, 4-106
Traditional chart: Bears win (improved draft capital by 1.3%)
Stuart chart: Buccaneers win (improved draft capital by 15%)
Here's a trade in which the two charts don't see eye-to-eye. The traditional chart values the difference between nine and 11 as being worth the 100th pick in the draft; Stuart's chart sees the picks as virtually identical and pegs the difference as being closer to the 188th pick.
The Buccaneers were willing to take a little bit off the top because they knew they were likely going to be able to get the player they wanted, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, at 11. That made sense; the Bears likely told them they were going after Georgia pass-rusher Leonard Floyd and wanted to move up to get past the Giants at 10. Jerry Reese's Giants would have been interested in Floyd, but Tampa could have assumed New York wouldn't target a corner after signing Janoris Jenkins this offseason.
The Giants could have traded down to a team that wanted Hargreaves and screwed the Bucs over that way, but that seemed like an exceedingly unlikely scenario given Reese's history. While the Giants have traded up to grab the likes of Ramses Barden and Bryan Kehl during his time at the helm, Big Blue hasn't traded down even one time during the draft since Reese took over as Giants general manager in 2007. The last time they traded down in a trade for picks was in 2006, a full decade ago. It wouldn't surprise me if the Buccaneers were aware of that fact when they made the swap. The jury's out on Floyd, who had only 17 sacks in three years at Georgia, but the Bears didn't pay an exorbitant price to move up, and the Bucs got something for basically nothing.
The peculiar swap at 21 and 22
Texans get: 1-21
Washington gets: 1-22, 2017 sixth-round pick
Traditional chart: Texans win (improved draft capital by 0.6%)
Stuart chart: Washington wins (improved draft capital by 5.6%)
This is a tricky one to understand, because the Texans didn't really jump anybody to make this deal. Granted, they didn't give up much, but the only way they can really justify moving up one spot would be by suggesting that they prevented another team from moving ahead of them into that 21st slot to grab the player they wanted, speedy Notre Dame wideout Will Fuller. You could get behind that logic, I suppose, but if there was really any sort of market for the pick, wouldn't it have cost the Texans more than a sixth-round pick to make that trade?
It's also hard to imagine Fuller coming off the board at 21. Washington already has DeSean Jackson under contract for another year, and while the team used its own first-round pick on a wideout in TCU's Josh Doctson, he's more likely a replacement for Pierre Garcon than he is for Jackson. And while the Vikings needed a wideout, Fuller is not really a strong fit, given he's primarily a deep burner and Teddy Bridgewater is not a great downfield passer, to which Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson can attest. I think the Texans probably end up with Fuller at 22 if they don't make this trade with a pretty high level of certainty, but again, the cost wasn't exorbitant to be entirely sure.
Seattle gets solid value
Broncos get: 1-26
Seahawks get: 1-31, 3-94
Traditional chart: Seahawks win (improved draft capital by 3.4%)
Stuart chart: Seahawks win (improved draft capital by 32.4%)
We don't know what Paxton Lynch will be as of yet, but the Broncos will likely argue that they had to move ahead of possible trade-up candidates such as the 49ers and Browns to grab a viable quarterback of the future at 26. The Chiefs also were rumored to like Lynch and promptly traded down after Denver drafted him. It helps that the Broncos have an additional third-round pick as a compensatory selection, but they've now invested the equivalent of the 13th overall pick in the draft (by Stuart's chart) in a quarterback who doesn't have that sort of grade on the vast majority of public boards.
The Seahawks passed on populist candidate Myles Jack at 26 and then again at 31 to focus on a position of greater need, instead drafting tackle/guard Germain Ifedi. Jack's knee caused him to fall through the first round, but the reality is that linebackers who aren't primarily pass-rushers, like Jack, simply aren't valued very highly by the league. It's the same reason Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland fell out of the first round in combination with his enlarged aorta or why perennial defensive player of the year candidate Luke Kuechly fell to the ninth pick of the first round. Those players are inside linebackers, and Jack profiles as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3, but teams really pay only for pass-rushing linebackers until you've established yourself as a perennial Pro Bowler. Jack might have fallen to the bottom of the first round even without the concerns surrounding his knee.
The UCLA product will be a fascinating proposition at the top of the second round, where teams will have hours on Friday to try to persuade the Browns to hop out of the 32nd pick. We were waiting for years to see a team picking at the top of the second round on Friday evening use that full day to make a trade, and it finally happened last year, when the Titans picked up fourth- and seventh-round picks from the Giants to move back eight spots. Given what we just said about the Browns, the obvious swap they'll try to pull is to get an organization to offer a 2017 first-round pick for the chance to take Jack (or the player of its choosing) at 32.
It's worth noting that the Seahawks reportedly turned down a slightly better offer from the Cowboys, who were willing to send picks 34 and 67 to Seattle to trade up and grab Lynch. I can't endorse that move for the Cowboys, who would have followed a very Jerry Jones-esque decision by drafting Ezekiel Elliott fourth with an even more Jerry-ish trade. I also can't endorse the Seahawks for turning down that offer, which would have been been comfortably more valuable on both charts. I expect that Seattle didn't want to move down into the second round out of the fear of missing out on Ifedi, but it lost some value comparatively.
Kansas City recoups a pick
49ers get: 1-28, 7-249
Chiefs get: 2-37, 4-105, 6-178
Traditional chart: 49ers win (improved draft capital by 3.9%)
Stuart chart: Chiefs win (improved draft capital by 35.8%)
This is a pick that fits what we know about Kansas City to a T. General manager John Dorsey is a graduate of the Ted Thompson tree in Green Bay, and Thompson loves draft picks more than the internet loves running man challenge videos, so it's no surprise Dorsey covets the extra picks. With the Chiefs down a third-rounder from the Jeremy Maclin tampering case, these extra picks come in handy. The excess value from these picks per the Stuart chart is just about worth the 107th pick in the draft, which is just behind the pick the Chiefs were docked, at 92.
It also simultaneously goes against our expectations of what the 49ers like to do. GM Trent Baalke generally likes to amass draft picks, so while he does trade up, it's a surprise that he gave up three selections to move up nine slots. And while Chip Kelly loves running the football, he moved on from both of his starting guards last offseason in Philly without acquiring any replacements, a move that helped blow up the Philadelphia offense and led to his departure from the Northeast. Now, with a middling offensive line in San Francisco, Kelly traded up to grab guard Joshua Garnett, who could be an immediate starter on the interior. One thing hasn't changed: Where Kelly goes, Pac-12 players follow. In addition to grabbing Garnett out of Stanford, Kelly and Baalke used their first selection to grab Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, who will join fellow Oregon product Arik Armstead up front in 2016. It was a hefty price to pay for a guard, but it's just nice to see the 49ers actually trying to acquire talent for a change.