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Analyzing the last ten years of trading for future first round picks

by Chase Stuart on April 28, 2014

in Draft, Strategy

Last Wednesday, I looked at every time a team traded away a future first round draft pick in the last ten years. Today, the reverse: the times a team traded for a future first round pick.  I’ll again be focusing on the general manager or other person responsible for making the trade: that’s because future first round picks are generally discounted, and I’m curious to see how often patience is rewarded.  As we’ll see in our first example, hurting the team in the short term — even if the move looks brilliant in retrospect and is a win in the long term — does not necessarily mean much for the man making the deal.

1) Cleveland trades Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first round pick (Sept. 2013)

As a reminder, it was Tom Heckert who drafted Richardson with the third overall pick, so Lombardi doesn’t deserve any blame for the poor decision there.  In theory, Lombardi should have been rewarded for managing to still get a first round pick for Richardson, but instead, he just stacked the 2014 draft for Farmer.  For the franchise, it’s hard to view this trade as a great deal, because it’s connected to Richardson the draft pick (the Browns turned the 3rd pick in 2012 into the 26th pick in 2014). But as an isolated move, this one looks pretty strong for Cleveland and definitely for Lombardi, especially after how poorly Richardson performed in Indianapolis in 2013.

2) St. Louis trades 2012 first round pick (#2; Robert Griffin III) to Washington for 2012 first round pick (#6; Morris Claiborne), 2012 second round pick (#39; Janoris Jenkins), and 2013 first round pick (#22; Desmond Trufant) and 2014 first round pick (#2 overall) (March 2012)

A year ago, this trade arguably would define the Snead/Fisher era — in a bad way. Now, the Rams have managed to use one very valuable asset to restock the roster. Along with other trades, St. Louis wound up with four top 50 picks in 2012, two first round picks in 2013, and two more this year, including the second overall selection.  That hasn’t translated into much success on the field yet for Snead and Fisher, but it’s important to remember how bare the cupboard was when the duo arrived in 2012. Right now, this trade looks like a lopsided deal, but if RG3 can replicated his rookie season in 2014 — and Sam Bradford had another mediocre year — and the pendulum could swing again.

It’s worth noting that few decision makers would have been tempted to pull off this move. Fisher came to St. Louis in 2012 and was handed significant control.  That’s vital when a major part of the compensation involved a two year wait; that wasn’t a concern for Fisher, but I suspect it would be for most.

3) Cincinnati trades Carson Palmer to Oakland for 2012 first round pick (#17; Dre Kirkpatrick), 2013 second round pick (#37; Giovani Bernard) (October 2011)

Bernard and Kirkpatrick both look to be long-term starters in Cincinnati, while Palmer may have retired if the Bengals hadn’t traded him. This was an all-time great trade for Cincinnati and Lewis. The cherry on top is that Hue Jackson, who orchestrated the trade for Oakland, was Bernard’s position coach last year and will be the Bengals offensive coordinator in 2014. While the compensation wasn’t quite as generous, that’s as if Mike Lynn, the Vikings old general manager, moved on to the Dallas front office after the Herschel Walker trade.

4) Cleveland trades 2011 first round pick (#6; Julio Jones) to Atlanta for 2011 first round pick (#26; Jonathan Baldwin), 2011 second round pick (#59; Greg Little), 2011 fourth round pick (#124; Owen Marecic), 2012 first round pick (#22; Brandon Weeden), 2012 fourth round pick (#118-Jarius Wright) (April 2011)

From a pick value standpoint, Heckert fleeced the Falcons. But the picks haven’t worked out too well for Browns, and it worked out even less for Heckert. Cleveland traded back up from 26 to 21 to grab Phil Taylor, and in typical Browns fashion, the pick Cleveland threw in to that deal — a third rounder — turned into Chiefs star linebacker Justin Houston. The Weeden selection turned into a disaster, and Little has regressed after showing promise as a rookie. Heckert did get a chance to see this trade through by making those 2012 draft choices, but he was fired after the 2012 season. Heckert won the trade, but lost the war.

5) New England trades 2011 first round pick (#28; Mark Ingram) to New Orleans for 2011 second round pick (#56; Shane Vereen) and 2012 first round pick (#27-Kevin Zeitler) (April 2011)

Entering the big day, many draftniks viewed Ingram as a top 15 pick. When the Alabama star kept sliding on draft day, the view was that the Patriots would be ecstatic if he slipped to them. When Ingram made it to 28, the Patriots traded the pick after receiving an offer they couldn’t refuse. Later in the draft, Belichick added Vereen (using the Saints second round pick) and Stevan Ridley to address the team’s running back concerns. A year later, the Patriots used a third round pick in the draft to move up from 27 to 21 to draft Chandler Jones. This move had worked out splendidly for Belichick and the Patriots, and Ingram’s failure to deliver on his pre-draft promise only adds to the tale.

6) New England trades Richard Seymour to Oakland for 2011 first round pick (#17; Nate Solder) (Sept. 2009)

Not many teams can afford to wait two seasons before getting to see the payoff from a trade of a Pro Bowl defensive player. New England is (was?) one of those teams. Belichick had no reservations about sending an unhappy Seymour to Oakland even if it meant waiting until the 2011 season before he’d get any return on that investment. Solder has turned into a promising left tackle, and the Patriots exercised the club’s fifth year option on him this week to make sure he’s around for at least the next two seasons.

7) Denver trades Jay Cutler, 2009 fifth round pick (#140; Johnny Knox) to Chicago for Kyle Orton, 2009 first round pick (#18; Robert Ayers), 2009 third round pick (#84; Mike Wallace), 2010 first round pick (#11; Anthony Davis) (April 2009)

Xanders and McDaniels became the face of the organization in 2009, and were immediately confronted with a quarterback conundrum. Rather than placate their star passer, the new regime decided to trade an unhappy Cutler for Orton and multiple picks. The move didn’t work out too well for the coach or the GM: McDaniels was fired after the 2010 season, and Xanders had his powers diminished once John Elway came on board.

The immediate first rounder was used on Ayers, who was mostly a disappointment and is now a Giant. The Broncos made an ugly trade later in that draft, sending the pick that would eventually be used on Wallace to trade up for blocking tight end Richard Quinn at the end of the second round. The Broncos made several trades involving their two first round picks in 2010 (the 49ers used the pick on Davis) but wound up with Demaryius Thomas and Tim Tebow. One out of two ain’t bad, I suppose.

This trade is a tough one to analyze for Denver because of all the moving parts: identifying exactly what Denver received for Cutler is no easy task, and that ignores the complexity in trying to figure out just how valuable Cutler really is. But while the trade didn’t work out for Xanders or McDaniels, there’s one clear positive about the Cutler trade: it paved the way for Peyton Manning to come to Denver.

8) Seattle trades 2009 second round pick (#37; Alphonso Smith) to Denver for 2010 first round pick (#14; Earl Thomas) (April 2009)

Then again, maybe Xanders and McDaniels got the last laugh, as this trade helped stack the team that defeated the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Of course, today’s post looks at the trading for team, and it’s the Seattle side that provides both a cautionary tale for general managers and an explanation of current tactics.

Ruskell made a brilliant move trading a second round pick for a future first; unfortunately for him, he never got to reap the benefits of that deal. How many executives on the hot seat off a 4-12 season would trade a high second round pick for a future first? Ruskell was forced to resign in December 2009 as the Seahawks were 4-7. His parting gift for the Schneider/Carroll era was an extra first round pick, which the duo used to select the best safety in the NFL.

9) San Francisco trades 2009 second round pick (#43; Everette Brown) and 2009 fourth round pick (#111; Mike Goodson) to Carolina for 2010 first round pick (#17; Mike Iupati) (April 2009)

At the same time, the men in charge of the Seahawks’ soon-to-be-biggest rival made the same type of move. In a vacuum, McCloughan made a very smart decision, sending a 2009 second round pick for a 2010 first. But it didn’t help him keep his job; as it turns out, McCoughan and Singletary just helped set the table for Baalke and Jim Harbaugh. I’m not advocating that an executive or coach should get an extension just because they make a wise trade, of course; instead, this just serves as evidence for why teams are so focused on short-term results.

What’s the point of making a great deal that helps your team in year three if you’re going to be fired in year two? This is the principal-agent problem in the context of opportunity cost: who knows how many more GMs would make these sorts of trades if they thought they had Belichick-like job security. If you’re the general manager of a bad team picking early in the second round, do you want to trade that pick for a future first round pick? Or do you want to win now? Just as coaches seem to eschew the correct tactical decision (i.e., punting or kicking on certain fourth downs) as a method of job preservation, so may NFL GMs when it comes to trading for future picks.

10) Detroit trades Roy Williams, 2009 seventh round pick (#210; Vance Walker) to Dallas for 2009 first round pick (#20; Brandon Pettigrew), 2009 third round pick (#82; Derrick Williams), 2009 sixth round pick (#192-Aaron Brown) (October 2008)

Mayhew inherited the roster left by Matt Millen, which of course went go 0-16 in Mayhew’s first year. In October, sensing a lost season and wanting to get some value out of Williams, Mayhew sent his receiver for a first round pick and more. There wasn’t much risk from Mayhew’s side that he wasn’t going to still be the general manager by April (this is Detroit, not Cleveland), and he was able to convince the Cowboys to overpay for the former Texas receiver.

The trade was a good one, although it hasn’t quite worked out as well as the Lions would have hoped. Williams and Brown never materialized, and Pettigrew has been an innings eater at tight end but little more.

11) Philadelphia trades 2008 first round pick (#19; Jeff Otah) to Carolina for the Panthers 2008 second round pick (#43; Tyrell Johnson), 2008 fourth round pick (#109; Mike McGlynn), and 2009 first round pick (#28-Eric Wood) (April 2008)

Philadelphia had a down year in 2007, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs for only the second time in eight years — but also the second time in three years. In that situation, how many coaches and GMs would trade their first round pick for a future first? Not many, I presume, but Heckert and Reid were not too worried about job security.  And that’s a good thing, because while the Eagles didn’t draft Otah, they got a franchise left tackle anyway.

The trade down yielded defensive tackle Trevor Laws (after another trade down from 43 to 47); then, the Eagles traded the future first they received from Carolina for Buffalo’s Jason Peters, who remains Philadelphia’s left tackle today. That allowed the Eagles to use their own first round pick in 2009 on Jeremy Maclin.

12) New England trades 2007 first round pick (#28; Joe Staley) to San Francisco for 2007 fourth round pick (#110; John Bowie), 2008 first round pick (#7; Sedrick Ellis) (April 2007)

The Patriots are on the list again, this time trading out of the end of the first round for a fourth and a first in the following season. You don’t remember Bowie in New England for two reasons: he played just five games in the NFL, and the Patriots traded the 110th pick to Oakland for Randy Moss. The next year, New England traded down three spots from #7 to select Jerod Mayo. Staley turned into an excellent player, but this was a beautiful trade from the New England side, too.

13) San Francisco trades 2007 second round pick (#42; Tony Ugoh) to Indianapolis for 2007 fourth round pick (#126-Dashon Goldson), 2008 first round pick (#29-Kentwan Balmer) (April 2007)

The 49ers took Patrick Willis and Staley in the first round, then McCloughan decided it was time to get back that 2008 first rounder he sacrificed. Trading a second for a first is a nice move, but here the best player in the deal was Goldson, the fourth rounder the Colts threw in to sweeten the pot. The Colts were the defending Super Bowl champs, so San Francisco didn’t expect to get a high first round pick in return.  Balmer was a bust, but the deal was still a solid one.

14) Dallas trades 2007 first round pick (#22; Brady Quinn) to Cleveland for 2007 second round pick (#36; Kevin Kolb), 2008 first round pick (#22; Felix Jones) (April 2007)

A stopped clock is right twice a day. After Jones’ shrewd tactical decision, the Cowboys then moved back into the first round from 36 to 26 by trading with Philadelphia to grab Anthony Spencer, who was just resigned to a one-year deal. While technically the Cowboys traded their first round pick for a high second and a future first, you can combine the trade with the Eagles to look at it like this: to get Cleveland’s 2008 first round pick, Dallas moved down from 22 to 26 and only had to give up their 2007 third and fifth round picks.

15) New England trades Deion Branch to Seattle for 2007 first round pick (#24-Brandon Meriweather) (Sept. 2006)

In general, trading Branch for a first round pick qualifies as stealing. But there are a few reasons why Patriots fans don’t remember this deal as fondly as some of the others. For starters, the pick only turned into Meriweather, who had an inconsistent four years with the team. But more importantly, despite Branch’s limitations, he was the Patriots top receiver. And after losing David Givens in the off-season, Tom Brady was left with a pretty bare cupboard. That’s how in a shootout with Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game, Brady wound up throwing nine passes to Reche Caldwell. As a result, the Patriots passing game went under a massive makeover after the season.

16) Denver trades 2005 first round pick (#25; Jason Campbell) to Washington for 2005 third round pick (#76-Karl Paymah), 2006 first round pick (#22; Manny Lawson), 2006 fourth round pick (#119-Brandon Marshall) (April 2005)

A good move for Denver, and one that takes a slightly different form than the others. The market seems to dictate that teams get a current second and a future first when trading their own first round pick (see the Ingram deal), but here, Washington had already given away their 2005 second round pick. The consolation prize was another pick, here the following year’s fourth round pick, which turned out very well for the Broncos.

Denver later traded down from 22 with San Francisco (who selected Lawson), getting a second round pick (sent to Green Bay for Javon Walker) and a third (sent to the Rams to move up for Jay Cutler).  This is the sort of trade that only a coach with strong job security would make, and Shanahan in April 2005 certainly meets that definition.

17) San Diego trades 2004 first round pick (#1; Eli Manning) to New York Giants for 2004 first round pick (#4; Philip Rivers), 2004 third round pick (#65-Nate Kaeding), 2005 first round pick (#12-Shawne Merriman), 2005 fifth round pick (#144-Jerome Collins) (April 2004)

Smith wasn’t dealing from a position of strength, but he managed to send Manning’s rights to New York for an impressive haul. Kaeding and Merriman both became Pro Bowlers, and Rivers has been arguably a better quarterback than Manning. Smith was just entering his second season as GM, but would have masterful drafts in three straight seasons, beginning with his trade of Manning.

18) Dallas trades 2004 first round pick (#22; J.P. Losman) to Buffalo for 2004 second round pick (#43; Julius Jones), 2004 fifth round pick (#144; Sean Ryan), 2005 first round pick (#20; Marcus Spears)  (April 2004)

Jones and Parcells are not known for their patience, but this was another move that shows the benefits of a situation where the decision makers aren’t worried about their job security. The Cowboys essentially got Jones and Ryan for free by choosing to wait a year to exercise their first round pick (which was actually two slots higher).

Conclusion

Maybe I’m just wired weirdly, but I can’t help but feel bad for the executives who were fired shortly after making these trades. The principal-agent problem is concerned with individuals acting in their own best interests in lieu of their employers; here, these GMs did the opposite, improving their team’s fates while falling on the sacrificial sword.

Then again, that may be more theory than reality. Does Lombardi keep his job if he doesn’t trade Richardson? Probably not, and the same probably goes for the Heckerts and Ruskells of the world, too.  The bigger conclusion may be that it takes significant job security to pull off these moves.  Four of the trades were by Belichick and the Patriots, two more by a team run by its owner, and many of the others by a coach with unquestioned authority and security (say, Fisher or Lewis) or a new general manager at the start of his rope.

Many of the best franchises — New England, San Francisco, Denver — are repeats on this list (although then again, so is Cleveland).   Will any of the teams at the top of round two in 2014 trade for a future first?   If so, it will take a team with a decision maker convinced that he’ll still be around to reap those rewards two, three, and four years from now.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Laverneus Dinglefoot April 28, 2014 at 8:25 am

It is interesting to see the Pats leading the way here, given the media’s “Belichick saving up for later” story line. You mean to tell me that I shouldn’t trust everything ESPN and NFL.com tell me with complete faith and certainty…that I should check the facts and think for myself?

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Chase Stuart April 28, 2014 at 10:39 am

I’m not sure I follow. Don’t these results jive with the story line?

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Laverneus Dinglefoot April 28, 2014 at 11:11 am

It was more a hyperbolic statement about ESPN’s hyperbolic statements. Clearly, it backfired.

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David April 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

It’s a good thing Belichick learned how to bankroll 1st round picks because they needed one in 2008 after losing one in the Spygate scandal.

Soapbox: This post and the last draft trade post show one of the reasons why mock drafts so stupid. You can never tell who is going to trade what pick or who anyone is going to take, save for a few top 10 players. Is it more unlikely to pick the first round of a NFL draft, with trades, or the St. Louis Rams 2014 schedule? Might be a toss up.

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Kibbles April 28, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Mock drafts are stupid if you assume the goal is to accurately predict as many picks as possible. They’re demonstrably awful at achieving that particular goal.

What if the goal is to provide player evaluations, though? What if the goal is to assess team needs? What if the goal is to entertain or draw eyeballs? If we assume that these are the true goals of mock drafts, then I would say that mock drafts are pretty much the opposite of stupid. I can read a bunch of mock drafts and walk away with a pretty good sense of where Carolina’s biggest weaknesses are, which players are the best interior line prospects, and which prospects have been drawing strong recent reviews from the scouting community. Mock drafts don’t predict the future, but they do identify one possible version of the future that would make logical sense.

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David April 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm

I hear ya. Lots of people like the mock drafts for the entertainment. But to me it’s all wishful thinking. It doesn’t matter how many mock drafts have Clowney going 1st, it not going to stop Houston from taking a QB. Clowney or a QB? Who the hell really knows, just sit back and enjoy the show.

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Steve April 28, 2014 at 1:31 pm

While it falls just outside the timeframe you’re looking at, another good example happened in the 2003 draft, when Baltimore traded back up into the first round to grab Kyle Boeller. The Patriots received the Ravens 2004 first rounder, which they used on Vince Wilfork. This can be viewed both as another example of Belichick’s patience paying off and as a rare big mistake by Ozzie Newsome.

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