Calculating the benefit of trading down in NFL draft

By examining all 2009 and 2010 draft trades, it is possible to calculate the benefit a team gets for moving back a few slots in each NFL draft round. My sources are the Wikipedia pages for 2009 draft and 2010 draft. Because trades can involve multiple teams and existing players, I have only used the straightforward trades here, and only looked at trades in the rounds 1 through 4:

Scenario: Team A moves down X spots and trades one pick for two

This scenario was common in 2009 and 2010. It happened 30 times in the first four rounds. A team was willing to move down 9 slots on average. The ‘relative value’ below is the net gain in the order of all compensatory picks. So for example, New England moved back 2 places in round 1 in 2010 and gained an additional pick that was 143 slots from the end of the draft. If a team traded 2 picks for 2 picks, then I subtracted all the relative orders to get a net ‘relative value’ for the trade:

Value
per slot moved back
Change in draft order Relative value Team moving down
72 -2 143 CHI
72 -2 143 NE
35 -3 106 NE
34 -3 103 OAK
33 -2 66 OAK
33 -4 131 PHI
33 -2 65 CLE
31 -3 94 NE
27 -7 189 OAK
19 -12 232 PHI
19 -12 224 SF
19 -4 74 MIN
18 -5 91 MIA
17 -15 262 NE
17 -12 204 CLE
15 -6 92 PHI
15 -11 167 NE
15 -11 163 HOU
13 -11 141 DET
13 -18 228 BAL
12 -9 112 HOU
11 -7 77 CAL
10 -3 29 NE
9 -15 134 PHI
8 -19 151 CHI
8 -7 55 AZ
6 -24 146 DAL
5 -12 58 CAR
4 -14 57 BAL
3 -15 48 PIT

This could be analyzed many other ways – and the raw data is here: NFL draft trade statistics 2009 2010 – but the end result is one score representing what a team gains per draft slot they move back (e.g. from 33rd overall pick to 34th overall). The average value a team gains per slot they move down (from 1st overall to about 256th overall – Mr. Irrelevant) is 21.

Meaning: for each team your favorite team is willing to let pick ahead of them (-1 slot), they get to pick ahead of 21 other teams in a later round (+21 slots).

New England (6 times), Philadelphia (4 times), and Oakland (3 times) have traded down the most in 2009 and 2010. And these have actually gotten the most value for trading down too. I wish my team (Carolina) would trade down more often, but also for more value in their compensatory picks. New England often has to trade the same picks 2 or 3 time to get this value, but it pays off. The two times Carolina trade down, they got to pick ahead of 11 and 5 other teams in a later round, respectively, and each year they’ve given away a future draft pick, whereas New England tends to retain future picks from other teams.

Is it more valuable to trade down in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd round?

The numbers don’t lie. First, second, and third/fourth round draft picks have steadily decreasing value when traded down:

First round value (per draft position traded down): 31

Second round value (per draft position traded down): 21

Third or Fourth round value (per draft position traded down): 11

What this means is that for each one team that picks ahead of you in round one, your team will get to pick ahead of 31 other teams in a later round. For each one team that picks ahead of you in round two, you pick ahead of 21 others later. And for trading down in round 3 or 4, you get to move up 11 slots in rounds 5, 6, or 7. So moving up 3 slots in the first round of the draft will usually cost you a 5th round pick (plus your 1st round pick).

When should a team trade next year’s pick for this draft?

11 trades involved a team giving up next year’s pick. The net gain for teams that acquired these 11 future picks was 25 slots. So a team should only trade away a future draft pick when there is a player on the board that should have been expected to disappear from the board 26 or more picks ago.  In reality, the true “undervalue” of a player must greater than 25 draft slots, because most teams acquired a 6th or 7th round draft pick in addition to the high value pick. Lesson: Never t trade away future picks!

Trade down calculator:

I certainly believe you should usually move down in rounds 1-4, but not more than 5 slots backwards. Smart teams will get to pick ahead of 21 other teams on average, for each draft position they move back. So you can calculate how much bargaining power a team needs to move up in Round 1. So if Minnesota (picking at 12) wants to trade with Arizona (picking 5th overall), they will likely need to trade away 7*31 = 217 points. That’s a 1st round pick (Mister irrelevant is worth 1 point, and 1st overall is worth 256 points). It could also be a 3rd + 4th round pick, plus swapping 1st round positions. It’s very expensive, and so rarely done. But even taking 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks for a 1st round is a good value – and teams like New England have built dynasties doing this.

How far back should a team trade down?

The best overall trade values came from moving back 2 or 3 slots in any round, because other teams usually overpay for these small changes in draft order. Trading down 20 slots usually favors the team that is moving up, when comparing overall draft value points.

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