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!
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