The draft-and-develop philosophy was the long-held belief that was embraced by all but only the most reckless of franchises for decades, with teams such as the Washington Redskins held up as the model of what not to do — build teams through big-money free agents and trading of draft capital for established players.
And that seemed to make sense.
The recent trend has almost belied that concept completely, at least the way a handful of teams are doing business lately. The Los Angeles Rams made the latest — and most expensive — of their trades on Tuesday night, sending three picks (including two first-rounders) for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
This means that the Rams could go five straight years without a first-round pick, these past three years plus the next two.
They traded their 2017 first-rounder the year prior in the Jared Goff deal. They dealt their 2018 first-rounder in the Brandin Cooks deal. Last year’s first-round selection was sent to the Atlanta Falcons in a draft-pick swap.
And the Ramsey deal will ship out the 2020 and 2021 first-rounders. Let’s not judge the Rams’ deal for Ramsey in a vacuum. Instead, let’s explore the widespread wisdom of shipping out future picks for known quantities.
Is this a crippling, short-sighted and desperate grasp for a team that just lost the Super Bowl? Or is it a savvy approach to team building that could become a league standard?
The results might surprise you.
First, let’s look at a little history
You have to go all the way back to the 1970s — when free agency didn’t exist — to find a team that had a streak that long without picking in the first round of the NFL draft. The Redskins once went a stunning 11 years without a first-round pick from 1969 to 1979. (You can read more about the fascinating approach by the Redskins’ George Allen and how the team managed to stay competitive in that era by the great Mike Tanier.)
In the modern NFL, this approach, consistently punting every year out of Round 1, hasn’t been seen often. Five other franchises went four or more years without a first-rounder, but only two of those instances happened in the past 40 years — the San Diego Chargers (four straight years from 1994-97) and Minnesota Vikings (four, 1989-92).
In more recent years, we’ve seen a few franchises with multiple-year spans that didn’t include first-round selections. In addition to the Rams’ current three-year stretch, the Seattle Seahawks also went three straight years from 2013 to 2015 without one. What both of those teams have in common, of course, is making a Super Bowl in that span; heck, the Seahawks made two and won one of them.
There are other notable recent examples of successful franchises not valuing first-rounders. The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t have one in three out of four years — 2016, 2018 and 2019. In the one year of that span they did have a first-rounder, they picked Patrick Mahomes, who sat for a year before taking over. The Chiefs dealt multiple first-round picks to get him, and the move clearly has paid off.
The New England Patriots went two straight years without one, 2016 and 2017, and they went to the Super Bowl both years, winning one. It’s hard to argue with their team-building strategy, even with a fine record of seldom missing on those first-round picks when they opt to keep them.
Then there’s the Chicago Bears. General manager Ryan Pace’s move to draft Mitchell Trubisky over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson will be criticized for years to come, so that aspect of the Bears’ aggression in trading future picks is questionable. Of course, no one is questioning whether the Chiefs made the right call in shipping two firsts for Mahomes.
And sending two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Khalil Mack has paid off in spades for the Bears, as Mack was viewed as the missing ingredient that has helped turn Chicago’s defense into a world-class outfit. After being the only team in the NFL with four straight 10-loss seasons heading into 2018, the Bears won the division and went 12-4. They’re once more over .500 this season despite Trubisky missing time.
And it wouldn’t be foolish to suggest that several more of these deals could be coming between now and the start of next season. For the right assets, a franchise’s aggression can really pay off.
How much are first-round picks worth?
Over the past 10 draft cycles, 17 teams have had nine or fewer first-round picks — with the Seahawks (six), plus the Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts (seven apiece) bringing up the rear. Those 17 teams have had collective win percentage since 2010 of .547 and have made the playoffs more than 49 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, the list of teams with 10 or more first-round selections used since 2010 is led by the Browns (15), Vikings and 49ers (12 each). That group of 15 teams has a collective win percentage of .446 — a full tenth of a point lower — and made the playoffs in that time range only 24.4 percent of the time.
Teams who end up with fewer first-rounders tend to win more over the long haul. But what’s the correlation?
So could it be that first-round picks are … overrated?
Perhaps that’s the wrong word.
“I wouldn’t say overrated,” one former GM (who requested anonymity because he’s consulting to a team currently) told us when we presented this info. “But I would say that teams just sitting back hoping to land a great player every year in the first round have probably been disappointed in the results.”
So what is the right word?
“Maybe overvalued, but I would say incorrectly valued is a better way of putting it,” the former GM said.
The idea is this: First-round picks traditionally have been about a 50-50 shot of working out for the team that drafts the players. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb that has held up historically, with ebbs and flows depending on the year.
“If you’re flipping a coin every year, basically you’re going to get about half hits and half misses, right?” he said. “What I think some of these teams are now doing is flipping those picks for established players and taking some of the element of chance out of it. Or just moving back in the part of the draft where the investment is lower.
“Maybe they feel they’re one player away from a Super Bowl when they make some of these trades. Or they just don’t trust their scouting staff to hit a higher percentage and want more of the sure thing. There’s some real sense to the approach, but that’s dependent on those teams managing the [salary] cap and drafting well outside of Round 1.”
Taking this approach puts more stress on the scouting department finding good talent with lower picks, as well as knowing which undrafted free agents to sign. As the former GM pointed out, it can indicate that some teams will take the bird-in-the-hand approach. But trading away higher picks also can be a sign that the team trusts its scouting staff to be able to unearth players farther down.
“Right, it can work both ways on that,” the former GM said. “If you think you have all your ducks lined up and maybe you’re projecting to be in a spot where maybe the value just won’t be there, then trade it and let your board hold up. Let your scouts do their job.
“But I agree … it requires that trust that some [GMs] might not have. Not everyone does.”
Fact: Good teams tend to trade picks more often
Back to our list of winning percentages and why there’s an inherent flaw in that data: Not all first-round picks are treated equally, and for good reason. The first overall selection carries far more value than the 32nd pick, of course.
We tend to lean on the Chase Stuart draft value chart these days (over the antiquated Jimmy Johnson chart that’s been all over the internet the past decade). Stuart gives the No. 1 pick a value of 34.6 points, while the 32nd selection is worth 12.5 points — almost one-third as much.
But check out the depreciation value in Round 2. It’s far less. The 33rd overall selection, typically the first pick in the second round, carries a Stuart value of 12.3 points. But the 64th pick, usually the final selection in Round 2, is valued by Stuart at 8.1 points.
That’s a much smaller difference.
“That’s why when fans or [media] freak out over a team trading a first-round pick, it’s sometimes them losing their minds over not that big a deal,” the ex-GM said. “A team like the Patriots is picking in the high 20s or low 30s every year because they win … you think they care if they don’t have that pick but can get back something good that’s a known quantity? Spoiler: They probably don’t.”
Year in and year out, we see first-round talents slip into the second round. It’s also common to hear that the strength of a certain draft lies in the late-first or second-round range. Every draft is different, but it’s a common annual refrain.
Take a team such as the Seahawks. GM John Schneider came aboard prior to the 2010 NFL draft, and four times in that 10-year span they’ve dealt away their first-round selection. They had two first-rounders (Russell Okung and Earl Thomas) the first year Schneider took over Seattle’s drafts but only three since 2013.
Schneider traded the team’s 2013 first for Percy Harvin the season they won the Super Bowl. In 2014, they traded down twice — from 32 to 40 and 40 to 45 — before making a pick (Paul Richardson). The following year they sent their 2015 first-rounder to the Saints (who picked Stephone Anthony) for Jimmy Graham.
After trading down five spots in Round 1 to take Germain Ifedi in 2016, Schneider engineered three small-move trades to slide down from No. 26 to No. 35 overall. They took Malik McDowell, which was one of the bigger busts the team has had in this tenure, and could have had, say, T.J. Watt or Ryan Ramczyk. But Seattle added four picks in the process, including late-round find Chris Carson.
There is no perfect, magic formula. But there appears to be some real wisdom to the Seattle model.
Rams will have to make do with the picks they have
In 2020, the Rams own their own picks in Rounds 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Their first- and fourth-rounders belong to Jacksonville in the trades for Ramsey and Dante Fowler.
The good news is that they’re currently slated to earn an additional compensatory pick in Round 3 for the free-agent loss of Rodger Saffold. They also just traded Marcus Peters to Baltimore for linebacker Kenny Young (a 2018 draft pick of the Ravens) and a 2020 fifth-rounder, so it’s likely they’ll end up with a typical allotment of seven picks next year, barring future trade action.
In 2021, the Rams will be without their first- and fourth-round picks in the Ramsey deal and a Day 3 pick to the Cleveland Browns in the Austin Corbett trade. But with an offseason coming in March, the Rams could be picky buyers in the free-agent market and could allow some of their big-ticket players (Fowler, Michael Brockers, Cory Littleton) to walk and earn more picks back.
Or, if the way they’ve done business lately is any indication, the Rams could keep wheeling and dealing and find a way to pry loose left tackle Trent Williams from the Redskins to help their ailing offensive line.
And maybe you can see why it might not be the worst approach ever.
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