Last year we dipped our toes into the conversation about draft pick value. Stephen Polacheck took two-year Total Points as the measure of performance and computed a curve that represents what you can expect from a selection throughout the draft.
This year we’ll take that work and extend it to two particular lines of inquiry: the potential value over a full contract, and the value teams are ascribing to future picks.
Production over a full rookie deal
Our previous iteration looked only at the Total Points accumulated in a player’s first two years. This is in line with how our scouting process works, as our grades project a player through his second NFL season. But there are enough players who jump up or fall off in the final years of their rookie deals that we wanted to look at a longer time horizon as well.
Here are the draft curves that we generate after each year in the first four.
The biggest thing I notice when looking at these plots is that, in general, the differences between the curves are pretty consistent year-over-year. That basically means that we’re not seeing some kind of dramatic change in production of players in their third season, or something like that.
We can see a production advantage for early first round picks that persists throughout the player’s first contract. A player taken at the top of the first round essentially doubles the productivity of a player taken at the end of the first round at each step. That suggests top picks are overvalued by the rookie wage scale, which gives top draft picks roughly three times the contract value of a player selected at the end of the first.
You should notice the little hitch in the curve at around the end of the second round. That’s in part because these curves are actually made by blending a steeper first round curve with a more gradual full-draft curve, which results in a curve that doesn’t have a single smooth trajectory. But it’s also a kind of quirky peak of productivity over the past several years that is hard to fully smooth out. Just picks 62 to 64 from 2016 to 2021 have produced Carlton Davis, Kevin Byard, James Bradberry, Creed Humphrey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and DK Metcalf.
Applying the value curve to previous trades
At this point we’re pretty familiar with the notion that the relatively flat curve of draft pick value past the top of the first round suggests that trading back is generally a pretty valuable proposition.
For example, all of the seven pick-for-pick trades in the first round of the 2022 draft yielded more total expected production for the team moving down than the team moving up. How much value that is depends on which of the above curves you use, but the general trend is the same.
What I’ve found more interesting of late is the trading of future picks. Just in the first round of the 2021 draft, three pick-for-pick trades involved a future first round pick changing hands:
- The 49ers moving up 9 slots to take Trey Lance
- The Dolphins moving up 6 slots to take Jaylen Waddle
- The Bears moving up 9 slots to take Justin Fields
It’s tough to build a model that prescriptively assigns value to a future draft pick, because teams should place different value on future assets based on their franchise trajectory. But trades that have already been made can tell us something about how much temporal discounting teams are building in.
Let’s run these three trades through our model, comparing the projected four-year Total Points for the picks going each direction. We can assume that the difference between these values should be roughly the value teams are ascribing to the future picks included in those deals.
Projected Four-Year Total Points of Picks Traded in 2021
|2021 pick value given up||2021 pick value received||Suggested Value
Rest of Trade
|49ers -> Lance||88||119||31*|
|Dolphins -> Waddle||107||119||12|
|Bears -> Fields||83||101||19*|
* Multiple future picks were traded
For a little bit of context, that “rest of trade” value can be compared to the value of a single pick in the current draft. The 31 projected Total Points that make up the remainder in the Lance deal—and therefore roughly what we think the future picks are worth—is comparable to the 87th pick in the current draft. The future picks in the Waddle deal compare to the 153rd pick in the current draft, and for Fields it’s the 121st pick.
So, if those trades were to be fair—which we actually shouldn’t expect them to be, because the team trading up is almost always going to pay a bit of a premium—the future picks would be valued at somewhere between a third rounder and a fifth rounder in total. Compared to a conventional-wisdom heuristic that a pick next year is worth one round less than a pick this year, we’re seeing some pretty heavy devaluing of future first round picks.
We can also think of this through the lens of the implied discounting rate for a pick year-over-year. The Waddle example suggests that a future first round pick—which we can assume is the 16th pick in the next draft, for simplicity—is getting discounted by about 85% within one year (from 79 projected Total Points to 12). The Fields deal has a similar implied discounting rate.
Virtually all people employed by NFL teams are living in a world where you can’t guarantee your employment for very long, so it’s not unreasonable for teams to heavily devalue future draft picks. After all, even a draft pick this year might not bear fruit for two more seasons. But if teams are so willing to make trades to move up a few spots in the first round, it seems odd that they would value creating a first round pick from nothing, even if it’s deferred a year, would be more valuable than it seems to be.
With each year that we accumulate data, we also gather more firepower to build frameworks to evaluate the long-term value of players (and draft picks). Integrating draft pick value with long-term player projections will allow player-for-pick trades to be analyzed more usefully, and of course bringing in salary information (for player trades and for incoming rookies) informs teams’ decisions greatly.
Look for us to reference these draft pick values in evaluating trades during the upcoming draft season. Of course, keep in mind that these models are still a work in progress when it comes to measuring some of the “softer” factors that contribute to trade decisions. We still have some work to do to measure how much we should expect a team to overpay for the right to move up, and how much scarcity of available players at the position being acquired moves the needle.