Players vs Picks: Which Side Wins More in NFL Trades?
By: Akilan Arunachalam and Zayne Kratz
Jalen Ramsey, Stefon Diggs, Khalil Mack, Matthew Stafford. These are all elite players, but interestingly enough, they were all traded. Each year, the NFL experiences blockbuster trades, and often the price to acquire these top talents are draft picks. The LA Rams have taken this strategy to its limit, owning zero first round draft picks till the year 2024. This begs the question as to whether or not it is better to trade for players or for picks. To answer this question, we decided to examine all players traded for pick selections from the year 2010 to 2018. We wanted to focus on trades for high-caliber players so we restricted it to 1st to 5th round draft picks. To determine who “won” each trade, we looked at the percentage of games started for each player. If the percentage was within ten, the trades were marked as even. However, for a majority of the trades there was a clear winner and loser as shown in the graph below.
As you can see, over 57 percent of the time the team trading for the players are winning the trade while they are only losing about 25 percent of the time. Logically, this makes a lot of sense. The team trading for a player is trading for someone who has established themselves in the league and the player can come in and contribute immediately. On the other hand, you need to develop players that you draft and hope they will eventually come on the field to play. In fact, in the 55 trades evaluated, 14 times the players drafted never started a single game.
Another way to evaluate these trades is using AV, Approximate Value. Approximate Value is a single number value assigned to each season for a player. The calculation of this score uses a team’s performance during the season, and then assigns a point value for how much a player contributed to that performance. For example, if a team performs above the average offense they will receive 100 * (team offensive points per drive) / (league average offensive points per drive). Those points are then divided up by position and adjusted for player performance. If a WR is on a bad team, but is above league average, they will receive a bonus to adjust for the performance of those around him.
In a trade involving the Bills and the Vikings, the Bills received star WR Stefon Diggs while the Vikings received a multitude of picks, including a first round pick which was used to draft WR Justin Jefferson.
Using this, you can estimate the value a player adds per season. This stat is exceptionally useful in this comparison as you are trying to compare players that are playing different positions and in some cases even different sides of the field. As you can see, the player's side of the trade adds about 1.6 AV more than the picks side. This is a significant amount of value further showing the advantage of the player side of the trade. Out of the 55 trades that we evaluated, more than 65 percent of the trades had the players side of the trade produce more AV than the pick sides. Only 25 percent of the trades had the picks side add more AV than the players. Using this metric, it is very clear to see that trading for players adds more value to your team than receiving picks does.
Going even further, we can see the AV breakdown per draft round. Of the nine trades involving 1st round draft picks, the drafted players produced more AV than the players six out of the nine times. However, this number drops down heavily in the following rounds. In the other 41 trades, there are only eight instances where the drafted players produce more AV than the traded player. First round draft picks have a much smaller bust rate than every other round in the draft which explains this trend. As well, most first round picks are expected to come in and immediately start which explains why they are performing similar or even better than the players they are traded for.
In recent years, we see that NFL teams are catching on to this trend. Looking at the number of 1st through 3rd picks traded from 2010 to 2020, we see a huge uptick in these trades. From 2010 to 2015 an average of 5 high profile draft picks were traded per year. In the following 5 years, we see a huge jump to an average of 13.4 picks traded per year. Teams are more and more willing to trade their future for stars to help win now. Just in recent history, top teams like the Rams, Chiefs, Bills and Cardinals have all given up draft picks to trade for high value players like Stefon Diggs, Jalen Ramsey, Deandre Hopkins and more. Instead of simply taking what they have on their roster, teams want to aggressively attack for players that give them the best chance of winning in their superbowl window. In the year 2021, we’ve seen high value draft picks traded for players like Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, Julio Jones and others.
If these trades are as one sided as it may seem, it may be difficult to see why teams would still trade for these draft picks. One big reason is the salary cap. Every team has a maximum amount of money they can spend on their roster and obviously high profile players require high profile contracts. Examining the trades, the difference in average salary for the players side versus the picks side is a staggering 4.4 million dollars. Six million dollars accounts for almost 4 percent of a teams salary cap, which is a good amount to have invested in a singular player. Many times, a team can’t afford or are unwilling to extend a player so they trade them to get some value back instead of getting nothing by letting them hit free agency.
Another aspect to look at in these trades is the age of the players. Of course the established players are going to be much older than the incoming draft picks. On average, the players traded are 4.3 years older than the picks. The NFL is a young man's sport proven by the low average age of the players at 26 years old. Teams that are wanting to rebuild and get younger will be willing to trade these older players for draft picks. The veteran players may only have a few more seasons left in them while the draft picks, if they are successful, may become a staple in a team for the next six to ten years. On average, a traded player only stays with the team they were traded to for two to three years. It can be evaluated like a short term rental for the team.
Earlier this season, the Los Angeles Rams traded a 2nd and 3rd round pick for veteran pass rusher Von Miller.
Examining both sides of these players for pick trades, it’s difficult to see who truly “wins”. Of course, it is clear to see when it comes to purely producing talent on the field, the player side of the trade wins at a far more frequent rate. However, the reasoning for some of these trades extends past on the field issues and while it may hurt play it will help the team overall. As more of these trades are made, it will be very interesting to see in the coming years how these trades affect teams in the long run and if this strategy of win now is sustained.