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We all know the story of the 1991 Washington Redskins, one of the best football teams in NFL history. The team had an SRS of 16.6, the second highest since 1990 (to the ’07 Patriots), and that’s with the team losing a meaningless week 17 game.

So it always takes me a second when I look at the 1992 draft and see that Washington had the #4 pick in the draft. How did that happen?? Well, on Draft Day 1991, Washington was sitting with the 47th overall pick, the 20th selection of the second round, when the team found a taker. San Diego, desperate for … a guard … wanted to trade up to Michigan State’s Eric Moten. The Chargers had already picked George Thornton with the 36th pick and Eric Bieniemy with the 39th, but I guess the team was really, really in love with all three players. That’s because San Diego was willing to trade its 1992 first round pick in exchange for the 47th in the ’91 draft and a fifth rounder in the ’92 draft.

That trade, as it turned out, was really bad. San Diego, 6-10 in 1990, slipped to 4-12 in 1991. Four teams finished with fewer than four wins that year, and the tiebreakers landed San Diego in the middle of the three teams that finished 4-12. That meant the 6th overall selection was headed to D.C.

But Washington really coveted Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner. And, ironically enough given what Howard is mostly remembered for during his pro career, the biggest threat to dressing Howard in burgundy and gold was Green Bay, holders of the fifth pick. So Washington traded its 6th and 28th picks to Cincinnati to move up to 4th overall, while also getting to jump from 84 to 58 in the third round. Not a great trade according to my calculator (Washington was getting about 80 cents on the dollar for its picks), and the team only received about 87 cents on the dollar according to the traditional draft chart. But hey, how often can a defending Super Bowl champion add a top-five draft pick with a Heisman Trophy on his bookshelf?

That anecdote made me wonder: what other cases are there of really good teams holding high picks in the draft? Some would be by trade on draft day, of course, which probably doesn’t mean all that much. But many, presumably, would be a result of strategic planning earlier that worked out beautifully after a trading partner had a down year. And where does “Washington getting Howard” rank on this list?

There are countless methodologies one could use here, and I won’t pretend mine is (even close to) perfect. But rather than bore you with the details, here’s the quick gist.

1) First, one needs to convert draft picks to draft values (I did so based on my chart), since the draft values associated with each pick are not linear.

2) Next, we need to come up with what draft value a team “should have” for its top draft pick. Here’s one result from a regression I ran: A team’s highest pick should be valued at approximately 18.77 points, minus 0.6 points for every point of SRS a team had the prior year. So a team with an SRS of +10 should be expected to have its highest pick hold a value of 12.77 (equal to about the 31st pick), while a team with an SRS of -10 should have its top draft selection have a value of about 24.77, which is about the 4th or 5th overall pick.

3) Washington had an SRS of 16.6 in ’91; therefore, its top pick should have had a value of 8.8 points. In reality, the team’s top pick had a value of 25.8 points, or 17 points above expectation. As it turns out, that’s the largest differential since 1990 (which is how far back I ran this study).

The second best value? The 1990 Cowboys (finished 7-9 with an SRS of -3.7) wound up owning the 1st overall pick in 1991. You can read more about that situation here.

The third best value? The 1997 Colts ending up with the first pick in the draft. Indianapolis won just 3 games, but had a points differential of a team with 5.7 wins. Plus, the ’97 Colts had an easy schedule. In fact, among all 3-win teams since 1990, the ’97 Colts had the best SRS (and the ’98 Colts had the second best SRS). Indianapolis was not only lucky to win just 3 games in a year in which that earned them the first overall pick, the Colts were lucky to undershoot their pythagorean expectation in a year where a team only needed to lose 13 games to get the first pick. And there was probably another lucky aspect of the Colts getting the first pick in 1998, too.

Fourth on the list: the ’07 Patriots holding the 10th pick in the ’08 draft. New England actually held the 7th pick in this draft, as detailed here (although the trade worked out just fine for San Francisco). But on draft day 2008, the Patriots traded down from 7 to 10 and still ended up with Jerod Mayo.

And the fifth largest differential brings us back to D.C. In 1999, Washington traded the 5th overall pick and the right to select Ricky Williams to New Orleans for well, everything. That included the Saints 2000 first round pick, which turned out to be the second overall selection when New Orleans finished 3-13. In ’99, Washington was quite good, going 10-6 and posting an SRS of +2.9. In fact, since 1990, this was the only time that a team without a losing record, much less double digit wins, held a top-two pick.

Here’s a list of the all cases where the differential (as defined above) between expected value of top pick and actual value of top pick was at least +5.0. The methodology is not perfect — a lot of the top differentials come from not terrible teams who wound up naturally getting top-3 picks — but I’d rather be overinclusive than underinclusive here, and you are free to dismiss those as you run down the list. Enjoy!

RkTmDraft YrN-1 RecordN-1 SRSExp Dr ValFirst PickFirst Pick ValDiffPlayer
1WAS199214-216.68.8425.817Desmond Howard
2DAL19917-9-3.721134.613.6Russell Maryland
3IND19983-13-4.321.4134.613.2Peyton Manning
4NWE200816-020.16.71019.913.2Jerod Mayo
5WAS200010-62.917230.213.2LaVar Arrington
6OAK19977-92.417.3230.212.9Darrell Russell
7STL20147-92.217.4230.212.8Greg Robinson
8STL19976-10-6.322.6134.612Orlando Pace
9SDG20044-12-6.822.9134.611.7Eli Manning
10CIN19953-13-6.922.9134.611.7Ki-Jana Carter
11HOU20142-14-7.623.3134.611.3Jadeveon Clowney
12MIA20081-15-8.423.8134.610.8Jake Long
13CIN19943-13-8.423.8134.610.8Dan Wilkinson
14ATL20014-12-8.623.9134.610.7Michael Vick
15MIA20054-12-2.220.1230.210.1Ronnie Brown
16OAK20072-14-9.624.6134.610JaMarcus Russell
17HOU20062-14-1024.8134.69.8Mario Williams
18CIN20032-14-10.525.1134.69.5Carson Palmer
19MIN199915-114.99.81119.39.5Daunte Culpepper
20SFO199410-69.713722.29.2Bryant Young
21NWE19932-14-1125.4134.69.2Drew Bledsoe
22NYJ19963-13-11.225.5134.69.1Keyshawn Johnson
23IND20122-14-11.325.6134.69Andrew Luck
24WAS20125-11-4.121.3230.28.9Robert Griffin
25NYJ20039-73.216.9425.88.9Dewayne Robertson
26OAK20044-12-5.522.1230.28.1Robert Gallery
27SFO199513-311.611.81019.98.1J.J. Stokes
28ATL201113-36.115.1623.28.1Julio Jones
29DET20090-16-13.126.7134.67.9Matthew Stafford
30CAR20112-14-13.226.7134.67.9Cam Newton
31SEA19977-9-1.719.8327.67.8Shawn Springs
32SFO20052-14-13.627134.67.6Alex Smith
33DET20073-13-6.422.6230.27.6Calvin Johnson
34ATL19915-11-2.120327.67.6Bruce Pickens
35KAN20132-14-1427.2134.67.4Eric Fisher
36CLE20002-14-14.127.2134.67.4Courtney Brown
37NOR199312-47.814.1821.47.3Willie Roaf
38MIA20137-9-2.620.3327.67.3Dion Jordan
39NWE201114-215.49.51716.67.1Nate Solder
40DEN200613-310.812.31119.37Jay Cutler
41PHO19934-12-3.120.6327.67Garrison Hearst
42CLE20054-12-3.420.8327.66.8Braylon Edwards
43JAX200811-56.814.7821.46.7Derrick Harvey
44JAX19964-12-8.123.6230.26.6Kevin Hardy
45DEN19915-11-0.819.3425.86.5Mike Croel
46CIN20114-12-1.419.6425.86.2A.J. Green
47BAL20008-80.918.2524.36.1Jamal Lewis
48DEN20114-12-8.924.1230.26.1Von Miller
49SDG19984-12-8.924.1230.26.1Ryan Leaf
50BUF20114-12-4.621.5327.66.1Marcell Dareus
51CAR20021-15-8.924.2230.26Julius Peppers
52PHI199110-65.615.4821.46Antone Davis
53DET20033-13-9.224.3230.25.9Charles Rogers
54NOR20039-72.417.3623.25.9Johnathan Sullivan
55NYJ20099-70.218.6524.35.7Mark Sanchez
56NOR19996-100.118.7524.35.6Ricky Williams
57CLE20124-12-5.422327.65.6Trent Richardson
58SDG200512-49.113.31218.85.5Shawne Merriman
59IND19921-15-17.329.2134.65.4Steve Emtman
60TAM20103-13-5.622.2327.65.4Gerald McCoy
61SEA19932-14-1024.8230.25.4Rick Mirer
62DAL20128-81.617.8623.25.4Morris Claiborne
63SDG20025-11-0.318.9524.35.4Quentin Jammer
64STL20101-15-17.429.3134.65.3Sam Bradford
65CLE20074-12-5.822.3327.65.3Joe Thomas
66BAL19974-12-2.920.5425.85.3Peter Boulware
67RAM19923-13-622.4327.65.2Sean Gilbert
68JAX199811-55.515.5920.65.1Fred Taylor
69BUF20146-10-3.220.7425.85.1Sammy Watkins
70ARI19984-12-6.422.6327.65Andre Wadsworth
  • Michael

    The most famous cases of this happening is the NBA. The 1986 Celtics won 67 games and was one of the all-time great champions. They somehow received the #2 pick in the following draft through genius maneuvering. Of course that pick ended up being the tragic Len Bias pick. The Lakers of that era also had some fortunate draft luck. They had the #1 pick in 1979 (Magic Johnson) despite having a record which gave them the #14 pick. A few years later in 1982, the Lakers were coming off a year where they had the 5th best record in the league and ended up with the #1 pick (James Worthy) again. They would win a title the next season. Another famous example is the 2003 Detroit Pistons who traded a player (Otis Thorpe) in 1997 for a future pick that turned out to be the #2 pick in 2003, 6 years later. The Pistons had a record good enough for the 25th pick. They ended up winning a title following that draft despite no contributions from the #2 pick.

    It’s interesting that this used to happen all the time in the NBA (though not as much these days with teams valuing picks more), but almost never happens in the NFL.

    • Thanks, Michael. Good info.

    • Richie

      NBA trades can be crazy. I don’t follow it closely, so don’t understand the salary cap system very well.

      I assume the other side is that getting the best NBA player from a draft class can turn a team from plodding to a championship contender instantly – something that is much less likely in the NFL.

      So it looks like the Pistons traded Thorpe to Vancouver in 1997, with the provision that Vancouver had to give back a first round pick sometime between 1998 and 2003. I assume the idea was that Vancouver didn’t want to give up a high draft pick, so in 1998 they kept the 2nd overall pick, and deferred to 1999. In 1999 they kept the 2nd overall pick, and deferred. In 2000 they kept the 2nd overall pick. In 2001 they kept the 6th overall pick. In 2002 they kept the 4th overall pick. Then in 2003 they were forced to give up that 2nd overall pick.

      Of all those top 4 picks they had, it turns out that the 6th overall pick ended up being the best (Shane Battier).

      For Detroit, when they drafted 2nd overall in 2003, LeBron James came off the board first. The Pistons took Darko Milicic. The next 5 picks were a mixture of HOFers, All-Stars and solid NBA players. (Carmelo, Bosh, Wade, Chris Kaman and Kirk Hinrich). Ouch! They should have kept Otis Thorpe.

  • Mart

    It happened too in hockey with the infamous Phil Kessel trade that got him to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
    Kessel was traded in 2009 and Boston received Toronto’s 1st round pick in 2010, Toronto’s 2nd round pick in 2010 and Toronto’s 1st round pick in 2011. Toronto finished 24th in 2009 and were not a player away from contention. In 2010, disaster struck in Toronto as they ended up with the second overall pick thanks to a 29th place finish. Boston were a top 12 team that year. In 2011, Boston were the seventh best team per the standings, but finished 2nd in goal differential and the won the Stanley Cup. Toronto ended up 22nd and gave the 9th overall pick to the Bruins.
    Suffice to say that the Bruins, a top 5 team in those years ended up with 2 top 10 picks while they were directly in their window.

  • sacramento gold miners

    I think the 1991 Redskins were an underrated great team, but don’t know if I could go as far to say they were among the best ever. Mark Rypien had a magical season, and Earnest Byner was the leading rusher with slightly over 1000 yards. If the 1991 Redskins played the 1993 Cowboys, I’d have to give a slight edge to Dallas.

  • Andrew Healy

    Sometimes I end up reading these posts long after the fact and, man, so often they are so good. This one is one of those. Awesome stuff.