The Comprehensive Guide to 10 years of first round trades

As the draft draws closer, the anticipation level for draft day trades begins to rise. These trades help make the draft event the most important occasion of the NFL offseason. To help get ready for this aspect of the draft event we reviewed all trades involving first round choices 2005 through draft day 2014 to see what could be learned. Except in extreme cases there will be no commentary on the winners and losers of the trades. Judging a trade involves consideration of two elements. The first is to determine whether a team receives at least fair value in the exchange. Second, a team has to make a wise decision among the available alternatives. A team may make a great trade to get the first pick of the draft but if the player flops all is for naught. Luck overhangs the second element of the process. There is no question that there is luck involved, whether it be the avoidance of injury and off-field issues when drafting a player or good fortune in deciding among the multiple prospects available to a team. Rather than focusing on either element or the luck aspect, the purpose of this article is to review recent draft history, identify any trends and summarize the outcome of each trade. By my count there were 73 trades involving 123 first round selections during the 10-year study period. This counts some choices twice, such as when a team trades for a selection and then trades it away. Let us start with some of the demographic information. What playing positions are the most frequent motivators for a trade? For each of the 73 trades, the transaction was reviewed to determine the playing position selected with the highest acquired first round choice, which indicates the purpose of the trade. For example, the offensive line would receive credit if a team trades from #15 to #10 and selects an offensive lineman with the #10 choice. There were two instances in the 10 years where a team acquired the highest draft choice in a trade and then traded it away. In that case, no playing position is designated as the motivator. The percentages by playing position for the other 71 trades are as follows: I am a little surprised that wide receivers are ranked ahead of offensive linemen, but otherwise it is pretty much what would be expected. The next thing we looked at is the location of the draft choices. That is, is the 15th pick traded more often than the 25th or vice versa? We considered all 123 selections for this analysis and broke the first round into groups of five selections. Here is what was found for the 10-year study period: This table shows that later first round selections are traded much more often than earlier first round selections. This is apparently due to teams being more prone to hanging onto their early selections, which certainly seems logical. Finally, are any teams more likely or more willing than others to be involved in a deal? Here is a summary of the number of trades by team with 147 as the total (72 trades at two teams per trade and one trade involving three teams.) This is different than the previously cited total of 123 trades affecting first round choices because it also includes the side of a trade that may not include a first round choice. For example, a team may trade its first round choice for a second round and a fourth round pick. Three teams participated in over 25% of the first round trades with the Broncos leading the way. The Titans were the only team not to participate in any first round trades. The individual trades are listed and described in the remainder of this article. For ease of reading, the trades have been grouped into several categories including:
  • Players Traded for First Round Choices
  • Trades involving Future Year First Round Selections
  • Trades involving the Cleveland Browns
  • Finding Flacco
  • The Road to Dez Bryant
  • Trade Up and Let Down
  • Too Soon to Tell
  • Three-Way Trades
  • Other Trades
Players Traded for First Round Choices There were 10 occasions where players were exchanged straight up for first round choices. These are: Trades Involving Future Year First Round Selections  It is sometimes easier for a management team to surrender a pick next year than it is to deal away a pick that affects the current team. This may be due to selfish reasons (will I even have this job next year?) or the perception that next year’s pick is less valuable than this year’s. This is a gamble on both sides of the transaction as a trade is made with a rather significant unknown included. It is one thing to have a future draft choice be a “kicker” in the trade, but quite another having it as a major part of the transaction. Still, teams are willing to make such a trade and take a gamble on their trading partner’s next season. Here are the trades made during the study period. The Browns  For whatever reason, the Browns seem to be in the middle of every controversial first round trade, whether on the positive side or the negative side. They are behind only the Broncos in first round trades, with 12. Here are the trades. Finding Flacco  Not to be Captain Obvious, but Joe Flacco has been a key element in the Ravens’ success since they drafted him. These two transactions demonstrate how they maneuvered their #8 pick into taking Flacco and having picks left over. So, the Ravens ended up with Joe Flacco, Tavares Gooden and Fabian Washington for their #8 pick. The Road to Dez Bryant  The selection used to take Dez Bryant passed through the hands of a number of teams before it ended with the Cowboys. Here is the trail of relevant draft transactions. Trade Up and Let Down  There are a handful of trades that just worked out horribly for the team that traded up. Here are the three that jump out. Too Soon To Tell  There are a few trades that do not fit into any category as they are relatively recent. Here they are: Three-Way Trade  There was one three-way trade involving first round choices during the study period. The Rest of the Trades  Here are the rest of the trades involving first round picks that were made during the study period. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics

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New England +2.5 -110

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