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The Package of Picks Is Only Half the Battle in Trades

New York Jets Introduce General Manager Mike Maccagnan and Head Coach Todd Bowles Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

Trades in the NFL are interesting. Unlike other sports you rarely see players traded directly for players. When a player is traded it is generally for a Draft pick or a series of Draft picks. There are also many instances during the Draft when a pick is swapped for a series of picks. There are numerous reasons for this dealing with the mechanics of the way the league functions. We won’t go into them. What this does is build a degree of uncertainty into the evaluation of each trade. You almost have to judge a trade using two separate components.

If you play card games, you know sometimes you are dealt a good hand, and sometimes you are dealt a bad hand. A good hand increases your chances of winning. A bad hand decreases your chances of winning. The hand you are dealt doesn’t always determine the winner, though. Depending on the card game, an expert player can win by playing a bad hand well. A novice player can lose by playing a good hand poorly.

I like to view player for pick trades in this context. In an NFL trade, the cards aren’t randomly shuffled. Teams agree to a trade package before the deal is made.

You have to judge the value of the player or the pick you are trading. Is the package you are receiving worth more, less, or equal value to the player? When you look at how much other teams got in return for recent trades involving similar players or picks, how does the package you are getting in return compare?

This is the hand you are dealing yourself. If you got a good package of picks in return relative to what you give up, it is a good hand. If not, it is a bad hand.

What really matters is what you do with the picks. A better package of picks increases your odds of hitting, but it doesn’t guarantee you will come out ahead.

Back in 2012 the then St. Louis Rams pulled off a blockbuster trade. They moved down from 2 to 6 in the first round. Washington moved up to draft Robert Griffin III. Washington also gave up two additional first round picks and a second round pick.

Getting four premium picks for one seemed like a coup, and many people praised the Rams. They only moved down 4 slots, retained a top 6 selection in that Draft and added multiple first rounders. That is dealing yourself a good hand.

The picks are only as good as the players you draft with them, though. The Rams made subsequent trades involving some of the picks. Ultimately there were 8 players they got by either using the picks acquired by Washington or trading those picks for other picks. They were Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Rokevious Williams, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy, and Greg Robinson.

There were some decent players in that group. Stacy gave them a good rookie season. Brockers, Jenkins, and Ogletree had their moments. Ultimately, though, this 8 for 1 trade has netted them no Pro Bowls and a single Second Team All Pro, Ogletree’s in 2016. Jenkins has also registered a single Pro Bowl and Second Team All Pro, but those were with the Giants.

Could it have been worse? Sure, but when you acquire this many early picks you’re hoping to find a foundation of players to set your team up to contend for a long time. The Rams have been treading water for years. This was an example of a great hand played poorly.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes a team can get what seems to be a scant return on a good player, and yet that pick can turn to gold.

Back in 2014, the Patriots sent Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for Tim Wright and a fourth round pick. Mankins was a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the best guards in football. Wright was just a guy, and the odds were stacked against a fourth round pick ever providing anything resembling the type of value Mankins gave the team.

The Pats used that pick on Trey Flowers, who has become part of the core of New England’s defense. There are a lot of moving parts when we evaluate how much the Pats gained from the trade comparing Mankins and Flowers when we consider quality of play, the difference in positions, age, and salary. What we can say is the Pats took a bad hand and played it very well. Mankins for a fourth rounder in a vacuum isn’t a very impressive deal. Mankins for Flowers is something worth discussing.

Each pick is a chance to get a good player. The earlier the pick, the better your chances. The more picks you get, the better your chances. These are only odds, though. Sometimes you beat the odds in negative or positive ways.

This is something to remember when you hear about Draft picks traded. You might think a team got a great group of picks or an underwhelming group after it makes a trade. What you do with the picks ultimately matter more than anything.

Did the Jets pull a good trade in 2013 for Darrelle Revis? If we are talking purely in terms of value, heavens no. At the time Revis might have been the most valuable defensive player in the league not named J.J. Watt. It would have been tough to think of a more underwhelming return than a first round pick and a conditional third/fourth rounder. You leave a small margin of error. Using one of those picks on Sheldon Richardson made the deal a lot more palatable.

The great coach Jimmy Johnson said it best. Early in his tenure running the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson engineered one of the most famous trades in NFL history. The Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker. Eighteen players and picks were ultimately swapped in the complex deal. Eight Draft picks went to Dallas, many of which were used on players who helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in the 1990’s.

In an ESPN video from a few years back remembering the trade, Johnson let everybody in on the key to the trade’s success, “We picked the right players.”