The argument for trading down in the draft
Last week I posted an article titled The statistical argument for trading down in the draft.
One of the problems with the central argument was that it treated the NFL draft much like the stock market or other primary or secondary trade markets. In the stock market, which was the central model that the 538 article started with, buyers and sellers are trading stocks, which have the characteristics of commodities.
In economics, the term commodity is used specifically for economic goods or services that have full or partial but substantial fungibility; that is, individual units are essentially interchangeable, and each of its parts is indistinguishable from another part.
Think of one ounce silver or gold ingots. They all have the same size, shape, weight and color. One is like the next, and each has the same value.
If you are buying a ton of wheat, one ton is much like the next. Karl Marx described this property as follows: “From the taste of wheat, it is not possible to tell who produced it — a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.”
Petroleum and copper are other examples of commodity goods; their supply and demand are a part of one universal market.
The stock market is the same. Once a price is set for a share of, say, IBM, Microsoft or Starbucks, it doesn’t matter whether the buyer purchases a bundle of shares all from a single seller or aggregates the purchase from a dozen different sellers; the product (the share itself) is indistinguishable one from the next.
Not so with NFL players — the grist in the mill of the NFL draft. Unlike grist, NFL players are not commodities. Each player is different, and each will carve a unique path in his future career.
One might argue that they can, to a large extent, be graded (like, say cuts of beef) to make them more like commodities, and to some extent that’s true. Isn’t that largely the intent of the annual NFL combine — to use standard ‘grading’ in order to create a uniformly informed market of ‘buyers’ among the 32 NFL franchises?
Still, even after all the measuring and sorting has been done, the draft is about analysis of individuals across a wide array of tangible and intangible characteristics, and there isn’t even one absolute “best” standard for players; often, a player’s value is affected by how he “fits” a particular team’s culture and roster needs.
In short, the evaluation of players in a model that treats them like commodities that can be easily graded (using AV) like cuts of meat ignores a huge number of realities in the NFL.
The argument for trading up to get your franchise quarterback
Realizing that the argument put forward in the 538 article was flawed, I authored a new article more recently that tried to explain why NFL teams are forced by the rules of parity — salary cap, free agency, the draft, and so on — trade up in the draft in search of a franchise quarterback.
Trading up is actually a pot-luck affair
However, that article glossed over a huge problem: a high draft pick doesn’t guarantee that the player selected will actually develop into the franchise cornerstone that the team is hoping for, and the front office might well burn up a lot of draft capital to acquire that premium draft pick and get no real payoff on its investment.
There are questions about Jameis Winston that need to be answered soon; the Jaguars seem to have finally answered all their questions about Blake Bortles, resulting in his release; the first QB off the board in 2013 was the 13th pick, and not a single quarterback from that class has developed into a reliable starter; we all know the RG3 story by heart, and 8th overall pick Ryan Tannehill seems to have finally washed out without ever really succeeding.
The fact is, successful quarterbacks are more likely to come from outside the top-10 picks in the draft. Consider the draft position of these NFL signal callers:
- Lamar Jackson 32nd overall
- Deshaun Watson 12th overall
- Dak Prescott 135th overall
- Teddy Bridgewater 32nd overall
- Derek Carr 36th overall
- Jimmy Garoppolo 62nd overall
- Russell Wilson 75th overall
- Nick Foles 88th overall
- Kirk Cousins 102nd overall
- Andy Dalton 35th overall
- Tyrod Taylor 180th overall
- Colt McCoy 85th overall
- Case Keenum Undrafted
- Joe Flacco 18th overall
- Aaron Rodgers 24th overall
- Ryan Fitzpatrick 250th overall
- Ben Rothlisberger 11th overall
- Drew Brees 32nd overall
- Tom Brady 199th overall
That’s 19 quarterbacks, with at least 16 of them likely to be opening day starters, drafted outside of the top-ten picks.
Here are the other likely 2019 starters who were drafted in the top-10:
(4) 2018: Mayfield, Darnold, Allen, Rosen
(2) 2017: Trubisky, Mahomes
(2) 2016: Goff, Wentz
(2) 2015: Winston, Mariota
(1) 2012: Luck
(1) 2011: Newton
(1) 2008: Matt Ryan
(1) 2005: Eli Manning
That’s 14 quarterbacks drafted in the top-10, still in the NFL, healthy, and likely to start for their teams on opening day in September.
From the first group, 12 players were taken in the 2nd round or later (and one was undrafted!).
What this tells us is one very simple fact:
If you want to draft a starting quarterback for your franchise, you don’t have to be drafting in the top-10. You don’t even have to be drafting in the first round!
Look at 2014, when Jimmy Garoppolo and Derek Carr were taken in the second round (with Bridgewater taken #32 overall).
Or, look two years earlier to 2012, when Russell Wilson & Nick Foles were drafted in the 3rd, and Kirk Cousins was taken in the 4th.
Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?
The good news, if you need a quarterback for your franchise, is that you don’t need to be picking at the top of the draft to get your guy. Starting quarterbacks can be found anywhere in the first round, and often in the 2nd. Today’s current crop of starters includes players taken in the 3rd, 4th and (famously in the case of Tom Brady) 6th rounds.
The bad news is, front offices don’t have a great record at identifying the best quarterback in the class.
In 2017, Trubisky was drafted 8 spots ahead of Mahomes.
In 2016, here are the 5 quarterbacks that came off the board after Wentz but before Dak Prescott: Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Conner Cook.
In 2014, Johnny Manziel was the 2nd QB taken — ahead of Bridgewater, Carr and Garoppolo.
In 2012, Weeden & Osweiler were drafted before Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins.
In 2011, Locker, Gabbert & Ponder went ahead of Andy Dalton.
Starting quarterbacks can be drafted anywhere in the first round — they don’t have to be the top two guys off the board. In addition, plenty of starters have been drafted in the 2nd, with a few even coming in the 3rd or 4th rounds.
By the time the 5th round rolls around, the chance of landing a starting QB falls to nearly zero.
But the track record of NFL personnel people accurately predicting which quarterback is the right quarterback is... undistinguished.
Look at the lists of quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of recent drafts:
2007: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Drew Stanton
2008: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne
2009: Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Pat White
2010: Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen
2011: Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick
2012: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler
2013: E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith
2014: Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo
2015: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota
2016: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg
That’s 40 first and second round draft picks spent at the quarterback position.
I’d say that the record on these 40 picks would be:
- 12 clear successes (30%)
- 20 clear misses (50%)
- 8 mixed bags (20%)
I’ve been in a lot of business meetings in my life.
If I took a business proposal to my boss with an estimate of 30% for a successful outcome and 50% for a failed outcome, then asked for a heavy investment by the company in my proposal, I’d be laughed out of the room. If I did it again, I’d probably get fired.
What does this mean?
NFL evaluators seem to miss as often as they hit on quarterback evaluations.
Of course, if you happen to have a pick among the top two or three in the draft, then your chances of successfully landing a star quarterback are better than if you pick later.
But the historical success rate for GMs picking the right quarterback at the top of the draft simply isn’t good enough for a team to push all their chips to the middle of the table to move up to grab their guy. If Redskins fans learned anything from the RG3 experience, we learned the devastating impact of trading a ton of draft capital for a quarterback prospect, only to get very little return on the investment.
The failure of the RG3 trade set the team back for 5 years to come, in large measure because the front office just didn’t have enough high draft picks left to stock the roster.
Spending a lot of draft capital to trade up for a quarterback is a gamble that is too risky to be warranted. History tells us that the bust rate is far too high to justify the heavy investment of draft picks needed to get there from a mid- or late-round position.
What should be the strategy if a team doesn’t hold a pick near the top of the draft?
First, DON’T TRADE UP!
The chances of missing on the draft pick are simply too great.
Second, make sure the team has a competent starting quarterback under contract prior to the draft so the front office doesn’t panic and make a bad decision to either trade up for a QB or reach for a player.
Third, use an existing Thursday or Friday draft pick to select the BQBA (best quarterback available). Feel free to double-dip; that could mean drafting two quarterbacks in the same year, or taking quarterbacks in back-to-back drafts. The worst thing that could happen is that they are both successful and you can trade one away (a la Jimmy Garoppolo).
If you don’t believe that the team can acquire a starting quarterback with a mid-first round or second round pick, I invite you to scroll back up to the list of 19 starting quarterbacks currently in the league that were picked outside of the top-10, and particular attention to the dozen who were drafted in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 6th round.
In this strategy, the franchise won’t be wasting draft picks chasing failed quarterback prospects at the top of the draft.
They also won’t be spending a ton of money on free agent quarterbacks.
Instead, the team will likely have an experienced veteran of passable quality paired with a young player with potential.
The remaining draft picks and surplus cap space should be used to bolster the trenches, build up the defense and add weapons on offense.
This is “Plan B”
I wrote about this plan following the end of the 2017 season.
The plan hasn’t changed.
Here’s what I had to say in my January 2018 article:
I’m content to see the Redskins take the field in September with [an average QB], as long as the defense is bolstered with excellent young talent....
This ‘great defense, non-elite quarterback’ concept is by no means an innovative idea. I’ve heard the saying “Defense wins championships” since I was a boy, and lots of teams have had a lot of success by putting the burden on the defense to win games, allowing a quarterback who is merely good (not great) to do enough to win. We can look back to the ‘91 Redskins defense, who allowed the second-lowest points scored and had an +18 turnover ratio, giving quarterback Mark Rypien lots of chances to score points.
A more recent example would be the Minnesota Vikings, whose top ranked defense has allowed the Vikings to reach the playoffs in 2017 despite starting a hobbled Sam Bradford early in the season, and career backup Case Keenum for the balance. The Houston Texans won a couple of AFC South titles with stifling defense and bad quarterback play in recent seasons.
What I mean is that the Redskins are in a position to finish building a top-10 defense this season by repeating the kind of draft strategy that they used a year ago.... This would be both effective on the field of play, and effective in terms of salary cap management.
“The goal ... is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs.”
Let’s take the focus off of the quarterback for a moment.
The Redskins should focus on finishing what they started [two years ago], and create a top-10 defense by focusing on that side of the ball in ... the draft.
With a dominant defense, anything is possible.
Plan B is the option where the Redskins don’t chase an elite quarterback through free agency, trade or by trading up in the draft. They take a mid-1st round or Friday quarterback with NFL potential and let him learn under the guidance of the coaches, Alex Smith, Case Keenum and Colt McCoy. Let Case Keenum lead the team in 2019 while the young quarterback develops. Win with the same formula that worked for the first nine games last year — ball control, low turnover, field position, defensive football.
Come back in the 2020 draft and take another quarterback — two if you need to. One of them is likely to develop well enough to win with this defense-first strategy.
The lottery for a top-3 draft pick is a proven way to burn up draft capital on high risk investments.
Getting a top-tier quarterback in any of those ways is expensive (in dollars or draft capital) and unreliable in terms of results, as history has shown.
It took the Redskins half a decade to recover from the RG3 trade. Other teams (like the Jags with Bortles or the ‘Phins with Tannehill) have spent years wasting competitive opportunities because they had too much invested in the drafted starter to cut bait.
But stocking every position group with top tier talent to help out a middling quarterback who simply takes care of the football and doesn’t lose the game — now that’s a strategy that can be implemented successfully and maintained over a long period of time.
That’s ‘Plan B’.
That’s the plan the Redskins need.
What’s your preference?
This poll is closed
Trade up for a talented quarterback like Haskins who can help reinvigorate the offense
Implement Plan ‘B’ with Case Keenum