With all the holes in the Dolphins’ roster this year, some draft analysts have suggested that trading back in the draft to get more picks would be a smart move. Others would like to see the Dolphins trade up from pick 11, in the hope of snagging one of the top quarterback prospects available this year. Which move would offer better value? And in each case, what picks should the Dolphins offer or demand in return?
In my last “Voice of the Fan” post, I argued that a drafted player’s real value is equal to his expected “replacement cost”—the cost of an equivalent free agent player against the salary cap. I also suggested that a simple way to measure the value of a draft pick would be to use the fifth-year salaries of players drafted using that pick in previous years as an approximation for those players’ replacement cost during their rookie contracts. In this post, I’ll use this method to evaluate draft picks in general, and then apply the results to the Dolphins’ draft situation this year.
The traditional measure of draft value is former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson’s point system, which assigns a point value to every draft pick. It’s not known how Johnson and his staff came up with their point values, but the system is widely used among teams to assess the fairness of proposed trades. If we can come up with a better valuation system, though, then we can identify trades that would look fair to both teams according to the Johnson system, but would actually give one team—say, the Dolphins—a significant advantage.
To calculate values under the replacement cost method, I used spotrac.com and overthecap.com to compile a list of fifth-year salaries of the first 200 players drafted in each of the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 NFL drafts. I then grouped the picks in groups of 20 (except for picks 1-10 and 11-20, which I separated), and charted the average fifth-year salary for each group over the five years. I then scaled these salaries to match the Jimmy Johnson point values for both the top and bottom ranges. The results are as follows:
The most striking feature of this chart is that both methods assign uniformly tiny values to draft picks in the 120-200 range and beyond. We often hear of trades in which these picks (in roughly the fifth through seventh rounds) are included as if they have small but meaningful value. There are even occasional exchanges of picks in these ranges.
Yet a widely established pick valuation system assigns all of these picks extremely small, barely distinguishable values—and our replacement cost-based system confirms that evaluation (These picks are all in the “hit or miss” category—they do occasionally produce quality players, but none appreciably more often than another, or than, say, a team’s complement of undrafted free agents).
It follows that if any team offers significant value in return for a trade down within this range—say, giving up a fifth-round pick for a seventh—the Dolphins should jump at the chance.
On higher picks, however, the two methods differ sharply. Under the Johnson method, pick values decline steeply through the first couple of rounds, before leveling off at a fairly low value from the third round onward. Under the replacement cost method, on the other hand, pick values stay quite high, slowly declining through the early third round, before dropping off sharply around the mid-third round.
This pattern reflects the likelihood of drafting a starting-caliber player, which also drops off sharply around the middle of the third round. Since starters generally have much higher salaries than backups, their salaries play the biggest role in determining a draft pick’s value under the replacement cost method.
From the above chart, we can see that high draft picks generally have considerably higher value under the replacement cost method than under the Johnson system until about the end of the fourth round. Those draft picks can therefore be considered “bargains”—other teams are likely to part with them for less than they’re worth, judging them based on Johnson point values rather than expected replacement costs.
The difference is particularly extreme from the mid-second through mid-third rounds, making those picks especially good targets in trade-back scenarios. For example, trading back from pick 11 to the late first round under the Johnson system would require an early second-round pick, or perhaps a late-second and a fourth, as additional compensation—a huge net profit under the replacement cost system.
As for trade-ups into the top 10, they’re a bad deal under any circumstances, given the Johnson system’s tendency to comparatively undervalue picks in the range below the top 10. But this year especially, when teams are expecting to be overpaid handsomely for a crack at a top quarterback prospect, they’re guaranteed to be horrendous for the team trading up, in terms of replacement cost-based value surrendered.
For a team like the Dolphins that has a reasonable option at starting quarterback, trading into the top ten should be out of the question entirely.
The writer of this "Voice of the Fan" story goes by Football Noob. Follow him on Twitter: @PhinsNoob
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