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Fact Check: Does the chance to pick a QB command a premium in the NFL draft?

If and when Ryan Poles trades out of the #1 overall pick, is he likely to command a premium price because top quarterbacks are at stake?

Denver Broncos v Chicago Bears Photo by Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images

If one spends even a few moments online, especially with a draft simulator, it’s easy to get the impression that there are massive trade offers available for any NFL GM who wants to move down in the draft so another team can come up to take their desired quarterback prospect. There is even a persistent belief that as soon as a team is after a quarterback, all draft tables are out the window. Conventional wisdom declares that it’s a seller’s market.

One recent example of this comes from Chicago’s own Ryan Poles. He earned a massive haul trading down so the Carolina Panthers could come up for Bryce Young. However, that haul was actually fairly on-point in terms of book value. The Panthers gave Chicago current and future picks worth 71% (2132 points) of traditional value the #1 pick per the Jimmy Johnson Chart. For those who prefer the Rich Hill chart, they gave 62% of the value (or 619 points) in picks. They then also traded DJ Moore, making the trade unusual. Ryan Poles reportedly considered DJ Moore the equivalent of a first-round selection, and that matches the missing value in those trade packages (which is roughly that of the 20th pick in the draft on the Johnson chart or the 9th pick in the draft on the Hill chart). Other than that one exception, though, the trade was fairly standard and is mostly remarkable for how badly Carolina has struggled since making the trade.

If Ryan Poles trades out of the #1 pick again, as he almost certainly should do, what sort of haul might he be able to claim this time?

Observation 1: Teams don’t usually pay a premium for QBs

Since 2011, there have been 20 in-draft trades that involved selecting a quarterback. Two of those can be discounted immediately. The drafting of Brandon Weeden and EJ Manuel were both cases of the team selecting the quarterback trading down into the spot in question. A third trade was the Carolina trade itself, which can be set aside for future discussion. Of the remaining 17, only five or six involved a team receiving more than 5% extra value than would be suggested by chart values (Jimmy Johnson and Rich Hill respectively). Roughly as many such trades–four or five–were more than 5% under the expected values.

Likewise, in terms of total selections given up, the only teams to offer more than four individual draft selections also received picks in exchange. When the Rams traded for Goff, for example, they offered six picks–but they received two lower-valued picks back in addition to the first overall selection. The Eagles did not give up five picks for Carson Wentz, they gave up five picks for Carson Wentz and a future fifth-rounder.

Observation 2: “First” doesn’t seem to matter

Interestingly, none of the large overpays involve teams trading to pick the first quarterback off the board or a one of the top two overall picks. The Rams paid less than book value to reach for Goff (86% or 79% depending on the chart) and the Chicago Bears paid book value or a little less for Trubisky (100% or 90%). If the range is expanded to one of the top two picks, the value gained was below book value three of the four times, because the Eagles paid only 84-90% the value needed to move up for Carson Wentz. The one outlier was when Robert Griffin III was selected by Washington, and they gave up 105% to 108% of book value to select him.

In other words, contrary to popular wisdom, there is no unusual premium paid by a team coming up to #1 or #2 to take the first quarterback off the board. Instead, the first pick is so valuable by conventional wisdom that its book value is quite high on its own–and this probably represents a barrier to the maximum a team is willing or able to pay, anyway. All but one of these trades involved a future first-round pick, and that is the actual value of a quarterback in these situations–teams are willing to give up future opportunities at a truly discounted rate in order to “get their guy.”

At the Top

Pick Traded Price Paid Value Seller Buyer Player
Pick Traded Price Paid Value Seller Buyer Player
#01+#113+#177 15+43+45+76+Future 1st+Future 3rd 86% Titans Rams QB1 - Goff (2016)
#02 6+39+Future 1st+Future (2-year) 1st 105% Rams Commanders QB2 - Griffin (2012)
#02 3+67+111+Future 3rd 100% 49ers Bears QB1 - Trubisky (2017)
#02+Future 5th 8+77+100+Future 1st+Future (2-year) 2nd 84% Browns Eagles QB2 - Wentz (2016)

Observation 3: Quarterback price is relatively stable

The trades for Robert Griffin III (2720), Jared Goff (2670), Mitchell Trubisky (2597), and Sam Darnold (2730) were all functionally the same, even though they were drafted with picks ranging from #1 to #3 and only two of the four were the top quarterback off the board.

I am not suggesting that GMs actually pull out a calculator and consult the charts, but rather that there is an upper limit to how much value a team is willing to invest in any given player, and that they will invest that value to get the player they choose regardless of his precise availability at the very top of the draft. This explains the premium paid by the Jets to move up to take Sam Darnold, then. Viewed from this lens, New York did not overpay to move up to #3–they simply paid market value for a top quarterback prospect.

Likewise, only two high-end deals are priced under this value. One comes in the form of the Eagles’ trade with the Browns to acquire Carson Wentz. This happened during the well-documented experiment by Sashi Brown to trade down as often as possible, bringing Chase Stuart and Harvard Analytics principles to the draft. In other words the Eagles were able to take advantage of a discount being offered by a motivated seller. The only other exception at the top is the move by San Francisco to trade with the Miami Dolphins to ultimately select Trey Lance. This move “only” cost three first-round picks, and hence it represented a relatively “light” package. However, it also involved three first-round picks, which obviously carried a value of its own.

Observation 4: The premiums are situational or for modest moves

The largest overpays in recent history match one of two patterns, if not both. The Buffalo Bills had two second-round picks in hand when they moved up to #7 to take Josh Allen, and they spent both to secure the move (paying 129% or 127% along the way). The New York Jets had two second-round picks in hand when they traded up to take Sam Darnold at #3, and they spent both plus a future second-rounder to make it happen (124% or 152% depending on the chart). These are clear cases of a team having “extra” draft value to spend and spending it. To a certain extent, the GMs in question had picks “burning a hole in their pockets” and they likely had planned on spending these selections anyway. Next, the Cleveland Browns overpaid to move up to take Manziel, but only because it was a short move (#26 to #22) and a single extra pick was involved (#83). The Jacksonville Jaguars did the same for Gabbert (#16 to #10, powered by just #49). Those are clearly cases where the “overpay” was for a relatively short move for readily-sacrificed value.

That leaves only Ryan Pace’s trade to take Justin Fields, wherein he paid 106% to 116% the value, as a true overpay where a GM stacked multiple picks they borrowed from the future in order to make a substantial move.

Historic Overpays

Quarterback From To Pick Traded Picks Received JJ Value Hill Value
Quarterback From To Pick Traded Picks Received JJ Value Hill Value
QB3 - Allen (2018) Buccaneers Bills #7+#255 12, 53, 56 127% 129%
QB2 - Darnold (2018) Colts Jets #3 6, 37, 49, F2 124% 152%
QB2 - Manziel (2014) Eagles Browns #22 26, 83 112% 109%
QB3 - Gabbert (2011) Commanders Jaguars #10 16, 49 108% 115%
QB4 - Fields (2021) Giants Bears #11 20, 164, F1, F4 106% 116%
QB2 - Griffin (2012) Rams Commanders #2 6, 39, F1, FF1 105% 108%

Simplified Chart

For those who do not want to hunt around the internet looking for the same information on their own, here is a link to a simplified chart with the basic information. All data is confirmed through Pro Football Reference, NFL.com, Wikipedia (sigh), Calculator Soup, and Drafttek.

Conclusions

First and foremost, while I originally liked the trade Ryan Poles made in terms of its ability to distribute risk and in terms of its potential to aid Chicago, I failed to fully understand exactly how many traditional constraints the Bears’ GM managed to circumvent in one move. Asking for an established player was an even better move than it seemed at the time.

Second, if Chicago trades down again, the value they receive will almost certainly be within the limits of the traditional chart values, and would likely include no more than four or five selections. The real value would be in trading for the future, trading with teams that have stockpiled desirable picks (such as teams with multiple first- and/or second-round selections), or trading for an established playmaker who fulfills a team need.