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Mailbag: The Failure Of Retrospectively Analyzing Draft Trades

From an email I received today:

Dear Pick 256,

Doesn’t it drive you crazy when the national media harp on draft pick trades years after the fact? Imagine playing a hand of Blackjack, getting dealt a 14, hitting, drawing a face card (busting) and then sitting there and saying “I should have stayed pat!”. Of course you shouldn’t have stayed pat! You didn’t know the next card would bust you, it was a GOOD decision with a BAD result. Much like many maligned draft day deals. What do you think?


This is exactly right. As in blackjack (or poker), sometimes good decisions have good results, sometimes they have bad results. Sometimes bad decisions can have good results and sometimes they have bad results. Evaluating a draft day trade after the players’ careers are known is useless. Draft pick trades, as in betting in card games, are decisions made on incomplete information. The only way to evaluate a trade is by looking at the value (i.e. picks) that traded hands. To use an extreme example, let’s say Team X trades the 1st overall pick to Team Y for the 199th overall pick. Team Y selects DE Courtney Brown 1st overall. Team X selects QB Tom Brady 199th overall. Retrospectively, that trade looks like a disaster. A top 5 all-time QB for a injury-plagued DE?  However, no one in their right mind would call that a “bad trade” because more often than not the 1st overall pick is a better player than the 199th. Unfortunately, as the trade scenario becomes less extreme, the tendency to incorrectly analyze it goes up.

To show this, let’s take a real trade that happened.

Team X  trades pick #16 & #75 to Team Y for #28, #56, #84.

You make the call. Good trade? Bad trade? Team X drops 12 spots and picks up a valuable late 2nd round pick for their troubles. Here is how that trade would look over the last 26 years:

As you can see, some years Team Y “wins” (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001) but slightly more often Team X “wins” (1986, 1989, 1996, 1997, 2005) and some years both win (2003) or both lose (1993).  In general, more draft picks is usually a good thing – especially in the late 1st-early 3rd part of the draft.

Of course, as I mentioned, this was a real trade. And one which significantly impacted NFL history. It happened in 1985 – Team X was the New England Patriots, who selected OL Trevor Matich (28), DL Ben Thomas (56) and DB Audrey McMillian (84). Team Y was the San Francisco 49ers who selected WR Jerry Rice (16) and FB Ricky Moore (75).

That one didn’t work out at all for the Patriots. Matich was a total flop as an OL (stuck around as a long snapper for awhile). Thomas only spent 1.5 years with the Patriots before moving on to 4 different teams in 4 years and washing out of the league. McMillian never suited up for the Pats, though he ended up being the best of the trio – making the Pro Bowl starting at CB for the Vikings in his last 2 seasons in the league.

Of course, we all know what Jerry Rice went on to accomplish. But his success doesn’t make this trade a bad one for the Patriots. The information they had was that Rice was regarded as a pretty good prospect (generally not as highly regarded as the 2 WR’s who went before him Al Toon and Eddie Brown), the Pats had spent the 1st overall pick  the year before on a WR (Irving Fryar) and had a steady #2 option in Stanley Morgan (who made the Pro Bowl in 1986 and 1987), and they needed OL help badly. To say they “passed on Rice” to trade down would be poor logic – there is nothing which suggests they would have taken Rice had they stayed put. The picks they received in the trade were pretty solid and, as we can see from the ensuing 26 drafts, would have  been a slight win in terms of value in the long run.

Hopefully, this illustrates the problem with evaluating a draft pick trade based on one data point once the unknown becomes known.

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