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Trading Down from the Top Five in the NFL Draft Is Almost Always Worth It

NFL: Scouting Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There is not a lot of buzz about a potential trade down for the Jets in tomorrow night’s first round of the NFL Draft. The team has a pair of top ten picks. To the extent there is such trade talk, it seems more focused on the tenth pick, rather than the fourth pick.

It isn’t difficult to see the logic behind it. This is a roster in desperate need of elite level talent. Where better to get it than with a top five pick?

Well the recent results of the Draft might tell a different story. Using the Stathead database, I took a look at every time a team recently traded a top five pick on or before the NFL Draft to allow another team to move up. I went back to 2012, which was the first year the current rookie wage scale was known. (The 2011 Draft actually took place during a lockout where the rules were not known at the time of the picks although the wage scale applied to those players.) These are the general financial rules that helped set the way teams currently value picks so that is why I chose the timeframe.

To get an idea of the opportunity cost both for the teams that traded up and traded down, I’m listing the players who were actually selected with these picks. Some of these picks were traded again, but I’m trying to display the value of the selections that were part of top five deals.

Let’s get started.

2012

Washington trades up with St. Louis

Washington gets:

2nd overall pick: Robert Griffin III

St. Louis gets:

6th overall pick (subsequently traded): Morris Claiborne

39th overall pick: Janoris Jenkins

2013 first round pick (22nd overall) (subsequently traded): Desmond Trufant

2014 first round pick (2nd overall): Greg Robinson

At the time this trade drew comparisons to the infamous Herschel Walker trade of 1989 where the Cowboys traded their star running back to Minnesota for an enormous return of picks. Those selections helped Dallas build their dynasty in the 1990s. The Rams did not take advantage to anywhere near the same degree. Still, the value of the picks is clearly superior to what Washington got from RG3. Yes, Griffin’s career might have gone differently had he not suffered that knee injury at the end of his rookie season, but that’s one of the risks when you give up this much Draft capital for one player. Ironically, from these picks the best were the two that were not in the top ten as Jenkins and Trufant both had successful careers as cornerbacks. Robinson was a complete bust, while Claiborne was a disappointment relative to the lofty expectations he entered the league with.

Cleveland trades up with Minnesota

Cleveland gets:

3rd overall pick: Trent Richardson

Minnesota gets:

4th overall pick: Matt Kalil

118th overall pick: Jarius Wright

139th overall pick: Robert Blanton

211th overall pick (subsequently traded): Scott Solomon

The Browns moved up one slot to obtain star Alabama running back Trent Richardson. They probably wish they didn’t. Richardson is remembered as one of the biggest busts of the decade. After a year and change, the Browns at least were able to recoup a first round pick by sending him to the Colts. In exchange, they gave up four picks. Kalil made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Although, he peaked early, he gave the Vikings several solid seasons at the premium position of left tackle. Wright was a solid depth receiver who went over 400 yards three times as a Viking, and Blanton put together an excellent season in 2014 when he was one of the top run stopping safeties in football. Neither team got a superstar, but Minnesota got a lot more value from this deal.

Jacksonville trades up with Tampa Bay

Jacksonville gets:

5th overall pick: Justin Blackmon

Tampa Bay gets:

7th overall pick: Mark Barron

101st overall pick: Omar Bolden

Trading up for Blackmon was the headliner in a catastrophic Draft for the Jaguars which also saw them pick a punter in the third round over Russell Wilson. Barron was a disappointment for Tampa Bay before reinventing himself as a linebacker for the Rams. Still, Blackmon was such a flop that the Bucs clearly came out ahead here.

2013

Miami trades up with Oakland

Miami gets:

3rd overall pick: Dion Jordan

Oakland gets:

12th overall pick: DJ Hayden

42nd overall pick: Menelik Watson

This was a deal that worked out for neither side. None of these players amounted to anything. We can call it a wash.

2014

Buffalo trades up with Cleveland

Buffalo gets:

4th overall pick: Sammy Watkins

Cleveland gets:

9th overall pick (subsquently traded): Anthony Barr

115th overall pick: Ibraheim Campbell

2015 first round pick (19th overall): Cameron Erving

This one has to hurt if you are a Bills fan. They could have just stayed put and picked Odell Beckham, Jr. Watkins wasn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he did not justify being the first receiver off the board in the historic 2014 class at the position. Barr ended up going to multiple Pro Bowls as a member of the Vikings, clearly a better value. Unfortunately for the Browns, they sent the ninth pick to Minnesota to move up one slot and took Justin Gilbert at eight. This was in the same Draft they took Johnny Manziel. Still, the picks they got from the trade down produced a lot more value.

2016

Los Angeles trades up with Tennessee

Los Angeles gets:

1st overall pick: Jared Goff

113th overall pick (subsequently traded): Nick Kwaitkoski

177th overall pick: Temarrick Hemingway

Tennessee gets:

15th overall pick (subsequently traded): Corey Coleman

43rd overall pick: Austin Johnson

45th overall pick: Derrick Henry

76th overall pick (subsequently traded): Shon Coleman

2017 third round pick (100th overall): Jonnu Smith

Goff’s situation complicates this one a bit. He never lived up to expectations. Still he was good enough for the Rams to go to the Super Bowl in his third year and make the Playoffs two other times. He was also part of the trade package that brought Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles which produced a Super Bowl win in 2021. Still, if you have to choose between these two lists of players, I think it’s obvious you’d pick Tennessee. They got one of the most valuable players in the league in Henry along with above average role players in Davis and Smith.

Philadelphia trades up with Cleveland

Philadelphia gets:

2nd overall pick: Carson Wentz

2017 fourth round pick (139th overall) (subsequently traded): Jehu Chesson

Cleveland gets:

8th overall pick (subsequently traded): Jack Conklin

77th overall pick (subsequently traded): Daryl Worley

100th overall pick (subsequently traded): Connor Cook

2017 first round pick (12th overall) (subsequently traded): Deshaun Watson

2018 second round pick (64th overall) (subsequently traded): Tyquan Lewis

Like Goff, there is a little bit of complexity here because of team success. While Wentz was not the quarterback in Super Bowl LII, his strong play during the season helped the Eagles earn the NFC’s top seed and homefield advantage in the Playoffs, which put them in a position to win it all with their backup quarterback. Still, Wentz proven himself to not be a capable long-term solution in Philadelphia, and the opportunity cost was large. There isn’t much doubt if given the option you’d choose the Cleveland bundle. Unfortunately for the Browns, they traded away every single pick they got in this deal. Maybe they should make a rule that they don’t retrade picks they get from moving down out of the top five.

2017

Chicago trades up with San Francisco

Chicago gets:

2nd overall pick: Mitchell Trubisky

San Francisco gets:

3rd overall pick: Solomon Thomas

67th overall pick (subsequently traded): Alvin Kamara

11th pick (subsequently traded): Tedric Thompson

2018 third round pick (70th overall): Fred Warner

That scream you hear is probably from Chicago. Not only could the Bears have just stayed put and taken Patrick Mahomes, the picks they traded away turned into two stars in Kamara and Warner. Of course this might be painful for 49ers fans too. They took Thomas, who was a bust, over Mahomes and traded away the pick that turned into Kamara. Mahomes, Kamara, and Warner from a trade down could have been a grand slam for the ages. At least they did get Warner.

2018

NY Jets trade up with Indianapolis

NY Jets get:

3rd overall pick: Sam Darnold

Indianapolis gets:

6th overall pick: Quenton Nelson

37th overall pick: Braden Smith

49th overall pick (subsquently traded): Dallas Goedert

2019 second round pick (34th overall): Rock Ya-Sin

Let us never speak of this again. Darn it all.

2021

San Francisco trades up with Miami

San Francisco gets:

3rd overall pick: Trey Lance

Miami gets:

12th overall pick (subsequently traded): Micah Parsons

2022 first round pick

2022 third round pick

2023 first round pick

The jury is still out on this one, but the Niners had better hope Lance pans out. They have already given up a selection that turned into the Rookie of the Year, and there are still two first rounders to be made.

Conclusions

It’s pretty amazing to see this list. When a team trades up into the top five you frequently hear praise about their aggressiveness and how they are “going to get their guy.”

Yet going back a decade I don’t see a single case where the team that traded up clearly got the better of the deal. In fact I’m not even sure there’s a team that traded up that ended up happy with what they got.

It is also worth noting how many of these moves were for a quarterback. However, with Lance still pending, not one of them turned into a long-term solution.

I think there are a couple of factors at play here.

The first is that many teams are overconfident in their own scouting ability. Correctly targeting a great player isn’t easy. There are many unknowns and many variables at play. You might think you’re sure about a player, but you could easily be wrong.

Teams are so confident that they overpay to move into the top five afraid that they will miss out on the player of their dreams. Meanwhile they underestimate the likelihood they could find a great player by just staying put and keeping their lower picks. In most of these cases, the best player selected with the picks in the trade was not a top ten selection, and there are multiple cases where it was a player selected on day two.

Of course scouting does matter here too. If in 2014 the Raiders had been approached by Buffalo to move up, they probably wouldn’t have been better off trading down than they ended up when they selected Khalil Mack.

Still, I think this shows you the potential value of a trade down from the top five. Teams are usually willing to overpay to move to the top of the Draft, and the extra picks generally give you a better shot at finding top talent.

If a team offers Joe Douglas a big package to move up to four, he should certainly consider it. He won’t necessarily be throwing away his team’s shot at impact.