Winning cures all criticisms. The NFL is no exception. When you’re a head coach who has gone a combined 163-61 (72.8%) in your 14 seasons with a team, you must be doing something right.
The NFL draft has become one of the most hotly debated events in all of sports, likely because there is no “right” way to go about it. Usually, you can’t be proven right or wrong for years, by which time no one cares.
There was one storyline in the draft that superceded all other from the early-to-mid 2000s and on; Bill Belichick will trade down and it will be the smartest decision of the day.
Belichick has been in control of the New England Patriots since before the 2000 season, when he took over control of not only the on-field product, but the personnel department. While heading up the Patriots’ war room, Belichick has, in fact, traded down 31 times while trading up 18 times. That doesn’t account for Belichick trading players away for picks1 or trading picks away for players.2 This is just draft day, draft pick trades.
As is customary, view my research here.
The furthest cells to the right of the spreadsheet are really where we get to the less anecdotal information. These are based off of the draft pick value chart that was supposedly developed by Jimmy Johnson in the ’90s. It is reported most years that general managers still use this very same chart, I’m a bit skeptical of that, but I’m sure a derivation is still used today.
The draft value chart gives a number value to every draft pick that accurately represents the value of a pick. This chart weighs heavily toward top picks and evens out toward the end, with 400 points between one and two; and just 0.3 between 224 and 223. An example, two seventh overall picks are supposed to equal one number one overall pick. That would be a bargain in today’s NFL, but this chart still offers us a good base point to compare what was given up and what was received by the Patriots via draft pick trades.
It’s important to recognize the flaws and holes in a cursory study like this. While the value chart is a good baseline, it doesn’t take into account the relative quality of one draft to another, something that most GMs would likely consider. A draft with Andrew Luck at number one is worth more than 3000 points while a draft with Eric Fisher at the top is likely worth right around, or less than, 3000 points.
You may have noticed this chart also doesn’t include every single draft pick slot, however, this is a minor concern as the difference in value becomes so marginal toward the end. Differences of 0.5 aren’t particularly significant here.
Finally, we are giving numbers to exact slot positions to compare the “success” of each trade. But, these picks are often traded one or two years down the road. This makes it impossible to know what type of value you’ll be getting in return other than a 32 pick range of what round the pick will be in.
When you look at the return in draft points that Belichick has gotten from trading down, it seems clear that his technique is an intelligent decision and that it has been successful. Since 2000, Belichick has gotten 3351.1 net points when trading down in the draft as opposed to just 227.3 when trading up. This is to be expected, of course, because there is a price to move up in the draft beyond just the expected value of the picks, you are convincing another person to pick lower than they are entitled to pick. When taken individually, there were both positive and negative deals when trading up or down.
Let’s not forget that when trading down, Belichick left a rather good offensive lineman on the board in Joe Staley and once traded up for the privilege of drafting a man Anttaj Hawthorne.
The anecdotal and draft value chart analysis of trading down seems very favorable, but while the picks may be valued a certain way, what about the upside that you can’t recover when taking a lower draft slot. Something that is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify is the amount of “upside” that players have near the top of the draft versus the same upside later picks have. Without that upside, the Patriots may have been getting higher-floor, lower-ceiling players, which help, but don’t provide a significant boost to a team.
I’m more inclined to take risks as a bad team. Looking to find an impact talent if at all possible should be a high priority when in dire straits. But, when you’re already a playoff caliber team, it becomes more viable to take players that you know can contribute in different ways.
The Patriots may be in a position to go a different tact than I suggested. With Tom Brady’s older age and declining skill-set, it may be time to take risks on high-reward offensive and defensive talent to make Brady appear better or to allow him to flourish once more. If the picks don’t pan out, then you’re still in the same boat as you would be currently once Brady retires.
I was surprised to see a net positive in the column for trading up, it seems counter-intuitive and shows that Belichick knows how to squeeze more picks and more value from draft day trades. If I were him, I’d keep trading down, it has worked like a charm so far.