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When a general manager trades away a future first round pick, it’s worth wondering if the transaction was the effect of the principal-agent problem. A general manager is supposed to act in the best interest of the franchise, but he may instead choose to act in his own self-interest. If he’s on the hot seat, trading a future first round pick for something right now may be a pretty attractive option, as he may not be around when the bill comes due.

Does that happen in practice? The most obvious example I can think of involved the Raiders in 2011.  On October 8th, Al Davis passed away. Eight days later, starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down for the season with a collarbone injury. With the owner and general manager positions unsettled, head coach Hue Jackson became the de facto head of football operations. And he traded first and second round picks to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer. Had the move worked out and the 4-2 Raiders gone on to make the playoffs, Jackson would have been very happy. When the move failed, the Raiders missed the playoffs and Jackson was fired. As a result, it was Reggie McKenzie sitting at the table when the bill arrived.

Today, I look at all instances over the last ten years when a team traded away a future first round pick.  In Part II, I’ll look at the reverse, when a team trades for a future first round pick.1

1) Indianapolis trades its 2014 first round pick for Trent Richardson (Sept. 2013)

When Ahmad Bradshaw went down for the season, Grigson decided to double down on bad news. Thinking the Colts were (1) in win-now mode, (2) needed a star running back to win, and (3) thinking Richardson was the star, he traded away this year’s first round pick for Richardson. The move did not work out well. Still, this wasn’t an example of the principal-agent problem, but just an illustration of Grigson failing at his job.

2) Washington trades its 2013 and 2014 first round picks to St. Louis to move up in the 2012 draft to select Robert Griffin III (March 2012).

If Griffin turned out to be a bust, Allen and Shanahan probably knew they wouldn’t be around in 2014. As it turned out, Griffin doesn’t appear to be a bust, but a terrible year in Washington led to Shanahan being fired, anyway. The bounty for Griffin was always going to be enormous, but I don’t think too many Washington fans regretted this trade when it was made — and especially not one year later. Today, though, you’d probably get a much more divided response.

3) Oakland trades its 2012 first round pick to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer (October 2011)

As discussed at the top of the article, this trade looked bad when it was made and only looks worse with the passage of time.

4) Atlanta trades its 2012 first round pick to Cleveland move up in the 2011 draft to select Julio Jones (April 2011)

After a 13-3 season in 2010, Dimitroff had no reason to be concerned that he would be fired by 2012, so he knew he would be the one footing this bill. He paid a steep price to get Jones, but the former Alabama receiver has not disappointed in the NFL.

5) New Orleans trades its 2012 first round pick to New England move up in the 2011 draft to select Mark Ingram (April 2011)

As with Dimitroff, Loomey/Payton had no job security concerns. Ingram had slid far down the draft board, the Saints perceived a need for a power running back, and the Saints perceived that Ingram was going to be a successful power running back. If nothing else, we have learned that teams really like trading future first round picks for Crimson Tide stars.

6) Oakland trades its 2011 first round pick to New England for Richard Seymour (Sept. 2009)

Davis may have known that the end was near for him in a more important sense than job security, and this was a trade that looked odd from the moment it was announced. Seymour was about to turn 30, yet that didn’t stop Oakland from mortgaging the future to get him (to the Raiders credit, they didn’t give up a 2010 first round pick for him). Seymour made a couple of Pro Bowls in Oakland, so the trade doesn’t seem as bad now as it did then.

7) Chicago trades its 2009 and 2010 first round picks to Denver for Jay Cutler (April 2009)

Angelo was entering his 9th season as GM in Chicago when he traded for Cutler. He had overseen an NFC Championship squad under Rex Grossman, and decided to go “all-in” by mortgaging the future to fix the quarterback position. In 2008, Chicago went only 9-7 with a defense that ranked 9th in ANY/A allowed and 3rd in YPC allowed. No principal agent problem here, and the trade nearly worked out for Angelo when the Bears reached the NFC title game in 2010. But that was the high point of the Angelo-Cutler era, and the general manager was fired after the 2010 season.

8) Denver trades its 2010 first round pick to move up in the 2009 draft to select Alphonso Smith (April 2009)

These next two trades were disasters of the same vein. In both cases, the organization saw a player on whom they had placed a first round grade fall to the second round. Desperate to get the player, the team traded its 2010 first round pick to acquire this “first round talent” in the 2009 draft.

After receiving a bounty of picks for Cutler, Xanders and McDaniels may have decided that their own future first round pick was no longer as valuable. In between the Shanahan and Elway regimes, the power structure in Denver was never quite clear. But both Xanders and McDaniels were newly appointed, so I don’t think this horrible trade was as much a principal-agent problem as a “I don’t know what I’m doing” one.

9) Carolina trades its 2010 first round pick to move up in the 2009 draft to select Everette Brown (April 2009)

In 2008, the Panthers earned a first round bye, so Hurney had excellent job security as of April 2009. Carolina was without a first round pick because of the Jeff Otah trade (#11), and thought a pass-rusher was the missing ingredient to a championship team. Right idea, wrong execution, and terrible results.

10) Dallas trades its 2009 first round pick to Detroit for Roy Williams (October 2008)

The one positive to the owner-as-GM-model: no potential principal-agent problem. Of course, Jones still needs people to save him from himself.

11) Carolina trades its 2009 first round pick to Philadelphia for the Eagles 2008 first round pick to draft Jeff Otah (April 2008)

This was an interesting deal in a few ways. For starters, it set up the Everette Brown deal, as Carolina was without a first round pick in 2009. This deal also may have been a reaction to a 7-9 season and constant rumors about Bill Cowher coming to Carolina if the Panthers struggled in 2008. As such, Hurney may have been motivated in part by self-preservation to execute this trade. Whereas a year from now Hurney would trade a future first for a current second, here he traded a current second and a future first for a current first (similar to the Ingram/Patriots deal).

Carolina had a 12-4 season, saving Hurney’s job, and Otah was a pretty good player until injuries ended his career. But this was a pretty steep price to pay for a right tackle.

12) San Francisco trades its 2008 first round pick to New England to draft Joe Staley (April 2007)

This is the rarest of draft day birds: a bad team trades a future first round pick (which is likely to be a top ten selection) for an end-of-round 1 pick. And it worked out, as the 49ers exited the first round with Patrick Willis and Staley.

McCloughan’s story is an under-reported one. In 2004, the 49ers were the worst team in the NFL. McCloughan, who had been Seattle’s college scouting director, was hired (after the team hired Mike Nolan) as the Vice President of Player Personnel. San Francisco was probably the least-talented team in the NFL at the time, and in 2005, the 49ers were outscored by 189 points, the largest differential in the league.

McCloughan stayed as VP of Player Personnel (there was no GM) until through 2007; then he was promoted to general manager beginning in 2008. He was then forced out in March of 2010, and has been with the Seahawks ever since. And while the 49ers were not successful during his time, many of McCoughan’s picks have formed the foundation for the current 49ers team. And, of course, Seattle’s doing pretty well these days, too.

13) Indianapolis trades its 2008 first round pick to San Francisco to draft Tony Ugoh (April 2007)

In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl. After the season, long-time left tackle Tarik Glenn retired, which left an unacceptable hole to protect Peyton Manning’s blind spot. While the Colts kept on winning, it had little to do with Ugoh, who struggled in the pros and started just 28 games. This move seems more reactionary and a victim of poor scouting than anything else.

14) Cleveland trades its 2008 first round pick to Dallas to draft Brady Quinn (April 2007)

When Savage came to the Browns, the team had won 9 games the prior two years. Then in 2005 and 2006, Cleveland won… ten games. Savage surely felt his seat getting hotter, and investing in a first round quarterback is usually a good way to buy yourself some time (although this seems less likely to work in Cleveland, as Tom Heckert can attest).

At the time, this “seemed” like a good deal for the Browns only because Quinn was rumored as a top-five pick. Once he “fell” all the way to 22, trading a future first didn’t seem so bad. As we learned, there was a reason Quinn fell in the draft.  Savage was still around for the 2008 draft, when he was without a first round pick. That was his last year in Cleveland.

15) Seattle trades its 2007 first round pick to New England for Deion Branch (Sept. 2006)

Seattle saw a study that showed 50% of first round picks are busts. Therefore, it makes sense to trade for a veteran, when you know you’re getting a sure thing. At the time, the Seahawks were coming off a Super Bowl appearance but desired an extra playmaker at wide receiver. Ruskell wasn’t on any sort of hot seat, so this move had nothing to do with the principal-agent problem and everything to do with somehow thinking Deion Branch was worth a first round pick.

16) Washington trades its 2006 first round pick to Denver to draft Jason Campbell (April 2005)

The nuance here is that this trade occurred the week of, but not during, the NFL draft. Still, even before the draft, it was speculated that the purpose of the trade was to select Campbell with the 25th pick. Gibbs and Cerrato were not on any hot seat: the assumption here is they really liked Campbell and thought it was worth it to pay a bounty to acquire him. Add in the Palmer trade, and Campbell is the rare player who was at the center of two deals for future first round picks.

17) New York trades its 2005 first round pick (and much more) to acquire Eli Manning (April 2004)

Ten years later, this trade is still tough to grade. Accorsi fell in love with Manning and simply had to have him, being content to overpay for that right to choose. And it’s pretty easy to make the case that Accorsi chose incorrectly, and that Philip Rivers turned out to be the better quarterback. But thanks to a pair of unlikely playoff runs, Accorsi’s legacy is untarnished, and he’s fondly remembered as the man who traded for Manning. That’s better than being remembered as the man who traded away John Elway.

18) Buffalo trades its 2005 first round pick to move up in the 2004 draft to select J.P. Losman (April 2004)

File this in the Campbell/Quinn bin. After three mediocre seasons with the Bills, Donahoe went all-in on the 2004 draft. After selecting Lee Evans, he traded back into the first to get Losman. At their best, Losman and Evans did have some success, as Losman’s powerful arm (and mobility), combined with Evans’ great speed, led to some fun bombs in Buffalo, especially when the play broke down. But Losman never developed, and turned out to be Donahoe’s last first round pick. The Bills went 9-7 in 2004, but Donahoe was fired after a 5-11 season in 2005.

Conclusion

One thing is clear: in general, trading future first round picks is a poor decision. But most of the time, the impetus for the trade is less a principal-agent problem and more one of overconfidence. General managers see players slipping and believe that they know more than the rest of the NFL. General managers see a “proven veteran” and think that’s worth more than an unproven rookie. Teams want a franchise quarterback, so they see one in the back half of the first round. Teams see a shrinking championship window, and desire to mortgage the future.

On average, these picks don’t tend to work out. In fact, only one of the 18 teams on this list have won a Super Bowl since that trade (although to be fair, only one of the counter-teams that traded for a future first won a title, too). If a general manager wants to trade a future first round pick for a player, he must ask himself why that player is still available this late in the draft. Chances are, the GM isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

  1. Note that this category excludes trades of current (i.e., the most immediate) first round picks. So the many times where teams traded a late first round pick for an early second round pick — essentially a trade down of a dozen spots — are not included.  Neither are the trades for Darrelle Revis and Percy Harvin in 2013 since they occurred after the season had ended and it was clear that the GM making the trade would be the one without the pick. For the same reasons, Philadelphia’s trade for Jason Peters in 2009,  Minnesota’s trade for Jared Allen in 2008, Atlanta’s trade for John Abraham in 2006, and Oakland’s trade for Randy Moss in 2005 are all excluded. []
{ 25 comments }
  • dryheat44 April 23, 2014, 7:59 am

    Interesting analysis. Or at least entertaining. You might consider it splitting hairs, but the Giants did not move up in the draft to select Eli Manning. Manning was drafted by the Chargers. At minimum, it’s deserving of a footnote.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart April 23, 2014, 8:53 am

      Fair point – I made a slight modification to the post, thanks.

      Reply
    • MadMike April 23, 2014, 6:53 pm

      It should also be noted that Eli told the Chargers he wouldn’t play for them. Probably a more important note for part 2 of the article but still it’s something odd.

      Reply
  • newt rockne April 23, 2014, 9:21 am

    Re #3, much as Raider fans may wish Oakland had traded their top pick in 2012 to Oakland, they actually traded their top two picks to Cincinnati for Palmer, as you stated earlier. At the time Palmer was on the reserve/did not report list, having announced his retirement after Cincinnati refused his request to be traded, so Jackson not only gave up two top picks for a player who was retired, he made him the starting QB in midseason. If he felt that strongly about Oakland’s backup QB Kyle Boller, perhaps someone else should have been in that niche. Jackson’s firing after making this bargain is understandable, but someone appreciated him. He was then hired as an assistant – by Cincinnati.

    Reply
    • SJGMoney April 23, 2014, 1:01 pm

      Has to be the worst one on here just from a levarge/negotiating standpoint. Cincy had no leverage, no power at all yet extracted a king’s ransom. When Oakland made that offer, how long do you think it took Cincy to say yes, 1 milisecond or two?

      Reply
  • Mark S April 23, 2014, 9:29 am

    Good article. I think the main reason it does not work out is because the teams just pick the wrong guy (i.e., a you said – bad scouting).
    The Indy trade for Richardson is still to be determined and is too early to judge. It is not often a player goes to a new team two weeks into the season and then is able to pick up that offense and contribute. This year Richardson needs to show he was worth the move.

    If a team has good scouts and can get a good player then it would definitely be worth the pick. Imagine the teams that would have wanted to try and trade their 2014 1st round pick to the Patriots last year to select Cordarelle Patterson?

    I think it is a very good way to pick up another quality player as long as he is not a bust. As your article shows though, this is not as easy to do as it some would like to believe.

    Reply
    • Kibbles April 23, 2014, 12:00 pm

      The problem is that teams overvalue the right to choose, and that no team consistently outperforms the average in talent evaluation. If a pick comes up in the 2nd round, and a team feels that a player left on the board is a first round talent (despite 31 other teams apparently disagreeing), odds are fantastic that that team is going to wind up being wrong.

      Nobody is really better at drafting or identifying talent than anyone else in the NFL, so the best practice is typically to stockpile chances rather than going all-in on a single player. And to that end, trading away future firsts is counterproductive.

      Reply
    • SJGMoney April 23, 2014, 1:03 pm

      Except the RB position should be the easiest for a newcomeer to step right in, and Richardson’s problems, no speed, power or burst were alarming last year. Either he was hurt, or he’s shot. No offensive knowledge can cure the latter.

      Reply
  • James April 23, 2014, 9:33 am

    Although I wouldn’t give Jackson much credit for this, as a fan mostly indifferent to the Bengals and Raiders I’m happy Hue traded for Palmer because it means Palmer continues to play instead of following through on his threat to retire. It’s been interesting to me to watch Palmer revive his career after many thought he was done, and I’m glad Fitzgerald at least has a competent QB again.

    Although as a Cowboys fan I have to say I’m still mad at the Browns. They’ve had between 4 and 6 wins all but one year since 2003 and consequently always draft around 7th or 8th. But the one time the Cowboys hold their first round pick they win 10 games and give us the 22nd pick in the draft. Ugh. I’m not even sure who I want from that draft or who the Cowboys would have been likely to pick, but it still irritates me. Chase’s draft calculator says going from 8th to 22nd is a 30% decrease in value!!

    Reply
  • Kibbles April 23, 2014, 11:58 am

    Accorsi didn’t trade away John Elway. He was the only guy in that franchise standing up to Irsay and demanding Elway not be traded. He told Irsay that if Elway was traded, he’d quit. He only found out about the Elway trade when he saw it reported on TV.

    Reply
  • Mark April 23, 2014, 12:08 pm

    Ruskell didn’t make many fans with the Branch trade. But I’m pretty happy with the current JS/PC regime being willing to make deals. Generally with a very young team + loaded roster I think trading a first can be useful.

    Reply
  • Jeff April 23, 2014, 2:44 pm

    I’m questioning whether you’re correct to conclude that “most of the time, the impetus for the trade is less a principal-agent problem and more one of overconfidence.” As I understand the principal-agent problem, it occurs when the principal bears the cost of the decision made by the agent. I don’t think it’s correct to think of “cost” here as being incurred during the next draft. The true cost of a missing first-round pick is felt much later, isn’t it? It’s felt when the missing player isn’t producing on the field. That impact might be most severe two or three years down the road. (I’m thinking of the “it takes three years to judge a draft” adage, or PFF data that suggests that players tend to show the most improvement between their second and third years.)

    If you think about the cost being borne on that timeline, then the principal-agent problem might be much more prevalent, right?

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart April 23, 2014, 2:52 pm

      Yeah, that’s a good point. I think there is some element of that going on, too.

      Reply
  • Brian Anderson April 23, 2014, 2:47 pm

    The Seahawks traded their 2013 first round pick for Percy Harvin.

    Reply
  • Andrew Healy April 23, 2014, 3:52 pm

    Neat stuff. I’m surprised there wasn’t more evidence of principal-agent here. Another place to see it could be in something like general managers’ contract years. I mean more make-or-break years by that. Take Jeff Ireland before last season, for example. It seems pretty likely that Mike Wallace contract and other moves that offseason were motivated by having his interests ahead of the franchise’s. Same thing w/ Reggie McKenzie this year, although maybe less clear since there’s less long-term salary cap commitment there than with contracts like Wallace and Ellerbe, I think (although I may have that wrong).

    Reply
  • Richie April 23, 2014, 5:06 pm

    On average, these picks don’t tend to work out. In fact, only one of the 18 teams on this list have won a Super Bowl since that trade (although to be fair, only one of the counter-teams that traded for a future first won a title, too).

    I was curious how 1/18 compares to the rest of the league.

    Those 18 trades represent 91 team-seasons since the trade. 3 Super Bowls were won in those team-seasons. Though we can probably exclude Seattle, since Deion Branch had no effect on that one. So 2 Super Bowls (both by the Giants) out of 91 is 2.2%

    Looking at all the teams that didn’t trade away a first rounder:
    From 2004 to 2013 there have been 320 team-seasons. If we subtract the 91 team-seasons above, that leaves 229 team-seasons. 8 Super Bowls have been won in those 229 team-seasons for 3.5%.

    Reply
    • Rob Harrison April 25, 2014, 8:07 pm

      Yeah, that’s actually two of the eighteen — though, as noted, the Branch trade did nothing for Seattle.

      Reply
  • David April 24, 2014, 12:09 pm

    Great Article

    Acception to the rule-Bobby Beathard

    Over Looking his last couple years in San Diego-The Great Bobby Beathard- had a penchant for trading away 1st round draft picks-He would trade back and grab a cluster of good premium prospects (More Is Better)

    Sure folks called him crazy at the time-But now looking back on Beathard’s record shows- that he had a hand in (seven teams) that reached the Super Bowl with the Dolphins, Redskins and Chargers. (Four of those teams) won Super Bowls, and he gained his reputation as “the smartest man in football.

    Note: Bobby Beathard drafted 17 quarterbacks prior to Leaf’s selection, but none in the first or second rounds-(Should have stayed true to his formula)

    • Beathard had seen Don Strock, a fifth-rounder with the Dolphins in ’72, become a vital quarterback on championship teams.

    • Even though he didn’t draft Joe Theismann with the Dolphins — Theismann was a fourth-round pick by Miami in ’71 and signed by the Redskins in ’74 out of the CFL

    • When Tampa Bay gave up on Doug Williams, a former No. 1 pick, Beathard brought him in to rescue the Redskins in 1987

    • Beathard took Mark Rypien in the sixth round in ’86; Rypien won a Super Bowl in ’91

    • Beathard also used a sixth-rounder to select Stan Humphries in ’88, his last draft with the Redskins. Humphries led the Chargers to their unlikely Super Bowl appearance against the San Francisco 49ers, albeit it a losing effort.

    • Beathard selected Indiana quarterback Trent Green in the eighth round of the ’93 draft- As a St. Louis official recently noted, it could have been Green, not Kurt Warner, who led the the Rams to their Super Bowl title had Green not suffered a major knee injury late in the ’99 preseason.

    Reply
  • Ed S April 24, 2014, 7:46 pm

    You missed Green Bay trading its 2008 1st rounder to the Jets for a 2nd (Jordy Nelson) and 4th (re-traded. The player eventually acquired suffered a career ending injury in 2009.)

    I think that Changes Richie’s Super Bowl percentages a bit, too.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart April 24, 2014, 10:24 pm

      That wasn’t a trade of a future first round pick.

      Reply
  • Mike S April 25, 2014, 12:48 pm


    The real golden nugget in here:
    “Nobody is really better at drafting or identifying talent than anyone else in the NFL, so the best practice is typically to stockpile chances rather than going all-in on a single player. And to that end, trading away future firsts is counterproductive.”

    Reply

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