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Attacking the draft: A path for optimizing value for the Redskins

NFL Combine - Day 2

It’s hard to believe the 2020 NFL Draft is a mere day away, but despite the rest of the uncertainty and turmoil in the world around us, it appears the NFL show will go on. This offseason there have been lively discussions about who the Redskins should take at the #2 position in the draft - or whether they should take anyone there at all. There have been lengthy discussions on the nuances and advantages of taking the “best player available” over drafting for need. There have even been numerous attempts to divine the intent of Ron Rivera and Kyle Smith in their pressers leading up to the draft.

In addition, I’ve undertaken a few lookbacks at the draft histories of teams that have been particularly active in draft day trades, including the Ravens, Seahawks, and Falcons, to see what lessons, if any, could be taken from them. Finally, this past weekend, the last of the big mock drafts before the real thing took place here on SBNation. And it was in the midst of that process that things clicked for me.

An Epiphany

MattInBrisVegas has done an amazing series of posts, looking at the eventual outcomes for players selected throughout the draft as well as the value of players against the traditional trade value charts, that provides some key insights on the general expectations of where certain kinds of players can most probably be located in the selection process.

I, myself, have been a strenuous advocate of aggressively trading back throughout the draft based on the numbers and the statistical value of getting more “bites at the apple.” With some additional consideration, I still think that’s an important piece of the puzzle, but an incomplete element that needs some fleshing out.

Shortly after completing the SBNation mock, where I held firm at #2 - in large part because there were no other teams interested in the pick - but did trade back from the Redskins’ early third and fourth round picks to collect a third, two fourths, a fifth, and a seventh, I came across this article at Analyzing Draft Trades & Current GM Trends.

The article itself is really a descriptive piece that looks at the GMs across the NFL and bundles them by their draft day trading patterns. Some trade up about as much as they trade down (e.g., Snead, Roseman, and Elway), others reliably move up to grab guys they want (e.g., Loomis, Dimitroff, and Robinson), some like to stand pat (e.g., Colbert, Brown, and Jones).

A final group, though, likes to move down and stockpile draft capital. This group is comprised of Bill Belichick, John Schneider, Chris Ballard, and Rick Spielman. I’ve made my admiration for this group (with the exception of Spielman) pretty clear time and again. Collectively, in their time in the league, that group has traded down 69 times and traded up 28 times. So, it’s not as though they never trade up. Then, it struck me.

In the narrative following the draft day trading observations of this remarkably successful group, the author, Brad Spielberger, writes the following:

It’s important to point out they are also not averse to moving up to get their guy when they have conviction. They understand that in order to do so without sacrificing their shot at multiple impact players each year, it’s smart to bolster their arsenal beforehand. Trading down often allows you to trade up.

And boom, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was the exact same experience I had had during the SBNation mock, where my eventual trade ups, after my initial trade downs, drew some needling for alleged ideological inconsistency. In every case, however, they allowed me to grab players later than their predicted draft positions, probably by around half a round, on average.

Washington Redskins v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Optimizing Value

If you trust your scouting and your team’s collective talent evaluation capacity, each player has - roughly - a value. Each draft spot also has - roughly - a value, approximated by the various trade value charts, but probably kept somewhat independently by each of the most studious teams. Each team obviously also has its own sets of needs, with the ideal pick - presumably, having the best player value at the lowest pick value at a position of need. Represented something like this:

((Player value)/(Pick value)) * Need weighting = Optimal pick.

So let’s walk through a highly oversimplified example, where a first round pick costs $100, second round $50, third round $20, fourth round $10, and so on. Under normal circumstances, each team has seven picks, one in each of the rounds. But what if there aren’t 32 players (or perhaps more plausibly, 32 players at a position of need) worth $100? Let’s say there are only 20 in a given draft worth at least $100, and all those players are taken off the your board in the first 22 picks. Then, if you’re one of the teams in slots 23-32, you can’t possibly achieve the full value of your pick. Your pick will necessarily cost more than the pick is worth. You will lose value without having done anything.

But, that doesn’t mean the player on the board at 25 isn’t worth taking. It may just mean that he’s worth taking at some fractional amount of $100, say $85. (I can hear Matt’s head exploding from halfway across the globe at the notion that scouts could score players with this level of accuracy, but please, indulge me this flight of fancy). It may also be that a player, say for this example, the fictional Young Chase, is worth $150 but only costs that same $100. In that instance, taking that particular player could indeed be a very good value.

Trading back early however, like the Seahawks do in nearly every first round, does at least two things: 1) In the back end of the first round, it prevents a team from “reaching,” from paying $100 for an $85 player. The allure of a first round pick, married with an overestimation of one’s own picking prowess, could be an unfortunate combination here, causing teams to overdraft players in this zone. 2) It “fattens the wallet with broken bills.” At some level, it may seem ridiculous to say it’s more valuable to have a $50, two $20s, and a $10, than it is to have a $100 bill. But in this instance, psychologically, I believe that it is. As you sit in the second, third, or fourth round, with a wallet full of the currency necessary to more closely marry up player value with pick value, you are now poised not to be a passive viewer of the draft - waiting for it to come to you (which probably isn’t the worst strategy) - but an active manipulator of the draft, attacking it on your own terms, and trading up to snatch value (players worth more than they cost at positions of need).

Looking more closely at the way the GMs above operate, I believe this is their approach. They have sufficient trust in their ability to scout talent (as borne out by past history), that they arm themselves in the early phases of the draft (or even just before it) with a broad compliment of picks, so that they can sit back, lay in wait, and feast when the opportunity presents itself. I will be watching intently over the next couple of days to see if Ron Rivera and Kyle Smith model this approach, or some other in the 2020 draft.