Spend any time reading or listening to draft coverage in the NFL, and you will quickly encounter the idea of a draft value trade charts. Essentially, the idea is that each draft pick has a certain value attached to it, and that when two teams want to trade picks, they consult a third-party reference, a chart, to figure out the general value of each selection.
So far, this makes a lot of sense. However, talking heads, journalists, and bloggers (such as myself) frequently disagree about what chart should be used. There is the famed Jimmy Johnson chart—older than most of the players currently active in the NFL. There is also the Chase Stuart chart, which analytics fans will tell you is the “real” chart. It describes not what prices are paid for picks, but what (historically) the actual value is of each draft pick when compared to a metric called Career Average Value. Adherents of the Stuart chart point out that the Johnson chart privileges high picks far too much, that the fall-off is too steep, and that the newer chart as far more reflective of what players and picks “are really worth.”
There’s just one problem: the NFL clearly does not care, as these charts show [Link].
In the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL draft, there were twenty-three trades involving only picks (no players). Fourteen of those trades saw the higher draft pick bought or sold for within 5% of the values described by the Johnson Chart. Nineteen of the trades (83%) saw the higher pick bought or sold for 10% of the Johnson values. Every trade falls within 20%. In other words, after all these years, the Johnson chart is not bad.
How about the Chase Stuart chart? Well...exactly two trades fell within 5% of the Stuart chart’s proposed values. The Vikings gave the Lions the #81 pick in the draft for what turns out to be 97% of the Stuart chart’s values, and they also gave the Jets the #92 pick in the draft for about the same value (in this case, the moved down one spot to pick up a 7th-rounder). Add the Raiders’ trade with the Jaguars, and you have all three times the Stuart chart was within 10% of the values traded. Even with a generous margin of +/- 20%, only nine of the trades fall within Stuart’s proposed values.
Interestingly, there is only one trade where Stuart’s values were closer than Johnson’s values, and that was the Lions-Vikings trade mentioned above. Interestingly, there are teams (like the Vikings) who are clearly willing to sell picks for less than Johnson book values. Those teams end up matching the Stuart model more closely, and they probably have a reason for offering these discounts.
Every trade in the first two days of the 2019 NFL draft says that the team moving up overpaid by the Stuart model, and that’s because the Stuart model favors (heavily) delivered value. It points out that there is very little increase in actual value as teams move up the ladder, and so the Stuart model is always going to favor moving down. Up to a point, this is sound.
Bears fans “in the know” thus have a good reason to be frustrated as GM Ryan Pace consistently sheds picks and gives up value in order to make sure he gets the exact player he wants. By moving up the current, he is defying historical trends that show (decisively) that he is making a mistake. On average, statistically, his approach will fail.
However, NFL teams are not playing to win 9.7 games. They are playing to win each and every game. A player who gains 3.4 yards on a carry is a very marginal advantage over a player who gains 3.5 yards. Unless, of course, the team needs 3.45 yards to move the chains and that infamous index card comes out. There is not a lot of difference in marginal utility between a player who sacks the quarterback 54 times in a career than one who sacks the quarterback 55.5 times, unless those last 1.5 times come during a divisional game to clinch a playoff berth.
NFL teams do, consistently, pay a premium in order to move up. Chase Stuart is 100% correct in thinking that the actual value they receive is not reflective of the prices they pay.
However, NFL GMs consistently show that regardless of whether or not Stuart is correct about delivered value and its meaning, his chart is an abstraction. They don’t care. It’s probably time for fans, for pundits, and for draft gurus to accept that fact. Now the Rich Hill chart, on the other hand...
(to be continued)