Trades are fun. There is no doubt that the uncertainty of teams swapping picks at the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft adds layers of intrigue to the entire affairs. Once that first trade happens, all the hours people spent creating mock drafts go up in smoke as the equation changes.1 One of the more difficult exercises is ascertaining the value of each pick and devising ways to have teams to come to terms.
Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson is given credit for devising a trade value table in the early 1990s that helped teams have starting parameters for how to trade picks to be fair to both sides. The table has been well-circulated and is still used by members of the media to help demonstrate an obvious fairness (or unfairness) of particular trades.
Many people have continued their pursuit to improve upon this table. The value of picks has changed dramatically over the years as the NFL CBA has changed to add more cost-control to the highest draft picks. Gone are the days where Top 10 picks make as much money as the best players at their position. Additionally, as more data is gleamed from historical drafts, the actual value of the picks can be better understood.
One of those individuals was Kevin Meers, who published a paper for Harvard Sport Analysis. Meers also happens to be the Browns current Director of Football Research, which makes his work particularly relevant for those wishing to understand what might happen in the Browns War Room on draft day.
Here is how Meers sought to improve using real statistical evidence:
Using data from 1980 through 2005, I analyzed each overall draft pick from 1 to 224 (the 32nd pick of the 7th round in today’s draft). I found the mean, median, and standard deviation of the CAV for each pick from those 25 years, creating one set of data that represented the historical value of each pick. I then found the mean, median and standard deviation for this new dataset to determine the expected value of a normal draft pick. I then used that normal pick to standardize my data, finding the percentage value over average, or Career Approximate Value Over Average (CAVOA), for every pick in the draft.
Meers notes this study was a mere entry into the analysis needed to be done. There are many caveats with grabbing the Career Approximate Value (CAV) from pro-football-reference.com and extrapolating it to the value of each pick. One of the issues is how to properly measure the rising risk as the draft proceeds (noted as the coefficient of variation in the article). Another item is how to utilize historical draft data when teams are learning and improving year-over-year (or how to demonstrate if they are not).
Average AV per round over last 10 years versus Jimmy Johnson chart
The above graph is an updated yet simplified version of what Meers was presenting. The orange line is a pure average of AV over the last 10 drafts per pick, and the black is the Johnson chart- normalized to map directly onto it.
Whereas the Johnson chart tails off quickly giving almost no value to later round picks, the actual value of those picks is significantly higher. Notice that the Johnson chart is an exponential curve through the rounds though the actual value of Round 3 through Round 7 appear more linear in nature.
Of course, a star player being drafted in later rounds can have a more significant effect on the overall average for that round than an earlier round with more star players present. The other factor not present in this chart is the replacement value of a pick. If an UDFA can provide a similar value to a Round 6 or Round 7 pick, then the actual value of those picks is lessened.
Still, the chart demonstrates there could be a marked gap of understanding between a traditional football front office and one willing to consume a more analytical approach. The quantitative analysis could provide an opportunity to take advantage of market inefficiencies, particularly in small trades in the early rounds.
Average AV per round per year over last 10 years
Looking at the AV of drafts per rounds years later indicate both how well or poorly NFL teams selected players, while also revealing the strength or weakness of each draft. The famed poor 2013 NFL Draft does appear lacking in the Top 5 and first round values,2 but the rest of the draft holds up well compared to recent offerings.
It seems the NFL teams are becoming more intelligent about their drafting. There is a dampening effect for the earlier drafts as players who wash out and/or retire no longer contribute to their AV, but it does not explain the full rise in Top 5 and Round 1 value being seen in recent drafts.
2007 to 2009 saw an average AV of 5.0 for a Top 5 pick and 4.3 for a Round 1 selection. Since then, the average AV has risen to 7.7 for a Top 5 pick and 5.6 for a Round 1 selection. Those increases are a significant step function increase. Whether scouts, data, or analysis through analytics is becoming more advanced, NFL teams are doing a better job at the front-end of the draft, while the value in later round picks has remained stagnant or decreased (when factoring in that dampening, which has a greater effect later).
The rising intelligence of prospect analysis indicates that the above average AV chart might shift closer to the Jimmy Johnson model in a more quantitative way in future years (though not all the way).
The Cleveland Browns have demonstrated they are a willing partner to make trades on draft day. A big part of that equation is figuring out how to make a fair trade for both sides in terms of pick value. The other side is figuring out how to make valueable picks at each selection, but that is a topic for another day.
- Reminder: this is one of the reasons to view mock drafts as an exercise in education about team needs and draft prospect value rather than as actual guesses for specific team selections. [↩]
- 5 AV versus average of 7 AV for Top 5. 4.8 AV for Round 1 versus average of 5.2 AV – also 5.5 is the low-water mark for the more recent Round 1 drafts. [↩]