Trading Back


Apr 25, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Lane Johnson (Oklahoma) is introduced as the number four overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Trading back in the NFL draft.  There was a time when Philadelphia Eagles fans hoped the team would trade back in the NFL draft.   The success rate for the team was not very high, and if the team traded back the hope was the team would be able to find talent from a sheer weight of numbers.

There are no guarantees in the NFL draft.  For every “can’t miss” pick who succeeds in the NFL, there are more who do not.  Heisman trophy winners, the theoretical “BEST” of the NCAA, is not a guarantee in the NFL.

But in recent years, the Eagles have had a good run in the NFL draft.   In fact, in the past two years, the Eagles have found seven starters and six part time / reserve players.    This is a good trend, but in the universe of the NFL Draft, it’s unsustainable.   Not only will the Birds run out of starting roster spots which are readily upgradeable,  but it ignores the natural learning curve of some of the more complex positions to master in the NFL.
In a recent interview, Howie Roseman described the logic of the Eagles assessment of the wide receiver position:

"“I think there will be a point in this draft, and that could be in the seventh round when we have a guy in the fourth round, that there’s going to be a really talented receiver.” – Howie Roseman"

And that’s one of the keys to a successful draft – much like bargain shopping, you want to find someone who is undervalued. With each pick, you should consider it as “draft currency” and you want to buy as much as you can.   There are several methods to doing so.  If a high value player drops, you can trade up to a point where you can select that player below their projected slot, and that’s a bargain.   You can wait at your original spot and hope a player of higher value falls to you.  If neither happen, you can attempt to trade back and build value by exchanging your pick for multiple picks later in the draft.

The skill that is needed is quick math, because as the draft evolves, the likelihood of that selection starting in the NFL diminishes.   That is not to say that the first selection of the NFL draft is a certainty, nor that Mr. Irrelevant (the last draft selection) is an automatic bust, but the odds of success become less favorable per selection as your trade back.

When Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson arrived into the NFL, he developed a “draft value chart” that is still a mainstay of the NFL general manager’s to this day.   In essence, it captured all of the success/fail salary factors into a comparative index which would enable a GM to quickly generate competitive values to conduct the rapid fire trades common on draft day.   In short, it was an NFL draft “cheat sheet”.  Those values are relative, as a team trading up to select a specific player may be required to pay a premium in order to get the rights to select.  But it’s a good starting point.

The function between draft pick number and chance of success in the NFL is a regressive curve.   The later in the draft you go, the less likely for success.    So how does this translate into trading up or back?

In trading up, the Eagles would need to package picks.   If they packaged their first three rounds of picks, and using the commonly accepted NFL draft value chart, they could reach the 10th pick in the draft.   At that pick, their player is 95% likely to be a success in the NFL.  But in doing so, the team would have surrendered picks that were 85%, 70%, and 55% likely for success.  To do so, the Eagles should be very much enamoured with that player, because they have exchanged the likelihood of two starting players for just one starter.   That’s the cost of trading up.

Let’s try the other direction.   If the Eagles sit at 22 and have no compelling reason to use the pick and have offers to trade back, say the Washington Redskins, how does that appear?    Well from the draft value chart, the Eagles could consider a trade of their 22 and 150 picks for the Redskins 34 and 66 picks.  But who wins in the probability?

Well, the 22 pick is 85% likely for success, and the 150 pick is approximately 30% likely.   In comparison, the Eagles acquire picks 34 (80% likely to succeed) and 66 (70% likely to succeed).   In this scenario, the Eagles likely end up with more value.  They have a reasonable chance to get two starters.

This is skewed depending on the depth (or inversely, shallowness) of the talent.   As 2014 is considered a very deep draft, trading back takes on even more value as chances of succeeding at finding a starting with each pick improves.

Some fans fall in love with a particular player, or position, and in those cases they are likely drafting out of sentiment.   In all honesty, had the Philadelphia Eagles followed my mock in 2013, we would have enjoyed the starting services of just one player, not three.    No matter how stellar a player’s projection and description is prior to the NFL draft, there is still a laundry list of unknown’s that include fit with team, scheme, coaches, other players, new city to live in, and attitude.  Each factor has a contribution, or detraction, to make towards that players likelihood to succeed in this NFL.

UPDATE: May 4, 2014 –  In an interview with John Clayton of ESPN, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr indicated that as many as five NFL teams have expressed interest in trading back into the 20’s to select Carr as their quarterback for 2014.   With the Cleveland Browns sitting at 26 and likely to give strong consideration to Carr at that spot, teams wishing to sign Carr will likely be looking at the Packers selection at 21, or the Eagles selection at 22, in order to do so.   Trading back into the Eagle’s first round from early in the second round would likely yield the Birds an exchange for their trading partner’s second third and fourth round picks.

UPDATE MAY 5 2014:   Today’s rumors include the suggestion that Kansas City will be shopping for a quarterback at 23 as contract talks with Alex Smith to extend his final year are not going well.   With teams expressing interest in a late first round quarterback, the Eagles appear to be the spot multiple teams are currently targetting.   The value of 22 goes up with each team entering the bidding wars. 

So when the Eagles sit down to the 2014 NFL draft bingo with six cards, I will be happy if they trade for more cards.   There will always be random circumstances in the NFL Draft.  And to beat the odds, sometimes it simply comes down to volume.  Trading back exchanges high value earlier picks for multiple lower value picks.    But with a goal of finding starting calibre NFL talent, the more you pick the more likely you find a starter.  For a team with only six picks, this may be the best draft strategy of all.