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How well have NFL draft trade-ups worked in the last few years?

Statistics aside, the results of any particular trade depend on how well teams have evaluated the players they covet

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By now everyone probably knows that the long-term statistics of NFL draft trades favor the team trading down over the team trading up. The original Jimmy Johnson trade value chart, which was based on his own view of the value of different draft slots, greatly favored higher, and especially early Round 1, draft picks over lower picks. More recent studies suggest a much flatter draft value curve, based on things like the historical monetary value of second contracts given by the NFL to players drafted at different positions in the draft.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen’s analytics department has surely made him aware of those statistics if he wasn’t already, and indeed in last year’s draft he engineered two trade-downs. This year, though, he reversed course, trading up twice. Was that a good or a bad idea?

Two competing theories of team building

The trade-down school of thought is based on the oft-stated idea that the NFL Draft is a crapshoot, and the fact that only 12 first-round draftees from the 2020 class had their fifth-year option exercised or their contract extended bears this out. College player evaluation is just an inexact science, and combined with the fact that some GMs are better at it than others, this leads to a distressingly large number of inadvisable draft picks. Throw in luck too, and it’s easy to see why the idea of getting as many “bites at the apple” as possible to hedge one’s bets against this uncertainty carries considerable weight in the NFL.

Yet by definition, 50% of NFL GMs disagree with this at any moment, because you need two to tango to make a trade (except when NFL players are traded for picks). Every trade involving only picks requires one team to trade up and the other to trade down. How do any draft trades get done? Are half the GMs unaware of the statistics or are they just incompetent? Well, unless Joe Schoen started taking stupid pills between 2022 and 2023, there must be some other reason.

That leads to the other theory of team building. A team bereft of talent can probably improve most quickly by accumulating as many picks as possible, not just because the statistics favor it but because the talent the picks replace is low enough that even a midlevel player is an improvement. But if you want to get to the Super Bowl, you need difference-makers, as many as possible. And draft value is not completely flat - there are indeed more top players the higher up one goes in the draft order. In other words, teams do have some skill in identifying the best prospects.

So when teams see an opportunity to move up and get a player they think has a chance to be special, particularly at a position of need and within the system their offense or defense runs, they are often willing to take that one chance and surrender two or more less likely chances.

Statistics and theory are all well and good, but how have actual draft trades worked out in recent years?

Below is a list of the trades that occurred in the first three rounds of the three previous drafts, for which we have at least one season of play upon which to form opinions about the individual players. For simplicity, I include only those trades of picks for other picks in the same draft (i.e., picks for players or for future picks are excluded). Teams often flip picks they have just obtained, and the pick may travel more than once; those picks are indicated by asterisks rather than player names, because things get complicated in a hurry. (Think for example about the 2021 No. 20 pick - traded by Chicago along with multiple picks in multiple years to the Giants, who traded the player drafted at No. 20 to Kansas City for two future picks, one of which was traded to Las Vegas for Darren Waller.)

2020 draft trades

Data from NFL

Tampa Bay’s exchange of adjacent picks with San Francisco to get offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs was the headliner of that draft. Suffice to say, that trade-up worked out well for the Buccaneers even though they gave up a third round pick. Wirfs has been the best OT from that class over his four-year career, even though Andrew Thomas has caught up, and the Bucs won a Super Bowl in Wirfs’ first season protecting Brady. The 49ers, on the other hand, drafted defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who has been a disappointment, at No. 14. That’s not the end of the 49ers’ story, though. Read on.

Other trade-ups that were winners that year included:

  • The 49ers atoning for their choice of Kinlaw by trading up with the Vikings and drafting wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (even though the collective wAV of the players Minnesota got is slightly higher). The No. 117 pick San Francisco got from Tampa Bay in the Wirfs trade was part of what was used to make that trade-up.
  • The Colts getting one of the NFL’s best running backs, Jonathan Taylor, in a trade-up with the Browns. Cleveland took safety Grant Delpit, who looked like one of the best in that draft, but he missed a year with injury and hasn’t lived up to his pedigree; the other player they got, center Nick Harris, is a backup.

In stark contrast, the Los Angeles Chargers once again Chargered. They moved up 14 slots in a trade with New England and gave up a high third-round pick to not only draft an off-ball linebacker in Round 1, itself a bad choice since inside linebacker is of low positional value, but made it worse by choosing Kenneth Murray, who has been terrible and whose fifth-year option was declined this week. The Patriots took Kyle Dugger at No. 37, a great choice for them, and with the extra No. 71 pick, traded up with Baltimore and selected Josh Uche at No. 60, another great move. In fairness, Murray was highly regarded coming out of college, but highly drafted ILBs seem to have a tendency to disappoint in the NFL in recent years. Perhaps it is the complexity of the position in today’s NFL, combining run support, coverage, and pass rushing.

The overall wAV of the trade-up teams for simple single exchanges of picks (91) greatly exceeds that of the trade-down teams (70), but as the highlights above indicate, things can go either way in dramatic fashion in individual trades.

2021 draft trades

Data from NFL

Overall 2021 was a very different story, with the trade-down teams in single trades collectively getting much greater wAV (91) than the trade-up teams (60). But the trades this year were mostly fair, with neither team obviously “winning” the trade after two seasons of play. A few trades do stand out, though, for other reasons:

  • The blockbuster (sorry, Giants fans) was the Philadelphia-Dallas trade that got the Eagles wide receiver Devonta Smith and the Cowboys Micah Parsons. Dallas also got a backup defensive lineman, Chauncey Golston, as their price for trading down, but he’s been a minor piece of that trade. The two headliners have been the story. Smith, after pairing with A.J. Brown last year, has become a star who helped get the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and Parsons, after moving from off-ball to the edge, has become a dominant pass rusher. I doubt that either team regrets that trade.
  • The Jets-Vikings first round trade is another interesting one. The trade-up was widely panned by the analytics community at the time because significant assets were given up to get a guard in the first round. But look at the results several years later. Again, the extra assets acquired by the trade-down team have been incidental despite the players being highly touted before the draft: A quarterback (Kellen Mond) who hasn’t shown he can play and was waived after one season, and a not-pro-ready offensive lineman (Wyatt Davis) who was also waived and is now a Giants backup or practice squad candidate. It’s all about the principals. To date tackle Christian Darrisaw has probably slightly out-performed Alijah Vera-Tucker, but much of that is due to injuries AVT has had. AVT has provided tremendous versatility, playing both tackle positions as well as guard, a real asset on a Jets’ line that has been beset by injury. Again, I doubt either team regrets making that trade.
  • The Patriots gave up three picks to move up for defensive tackle Christian Barmore. Barmore has shown surprising pass rush talent but has been weak against the run. None of the picks the Bengals received in return have distinguished themselves.
  • Jeremiaj Owusu-Koramoah was a revelation as a rookie, but has been hurt much of the time. Terrace Marshall Jr., the other principal in the Browns’ trade with the Panthers, has been a big disappointment, but we’ll see whether the presence of Bryce Young changes that.
  • The Giants’ trade-up in Round 3 is an interesting one. Using a fifth round pick acquired in their big trade-down from No. 11, they moved up from No. 76 to No. 71 in a trade with Denver to get cornerback Aaron Robinson. To date ARob has shown coverage skill but has been injured too much to have an impact. Denver flipped that No. 76 pick to New Orleans, getting low third and high fourth round picks in a trade-down. No. 76 turned into cornerback Paulson Adebo, who has been adequate but nothing more, while the two picks Denver acquired became Quinn Meinerz, who has settled in at guard and played well, and edge defender Baron Browning, who has had flashes but has been inconsistent. As things stand, this is the poster child for trading down, with Denver getting two starters from the deals. But if Robinson becomes the Giants’ starting slot cornerback and stays healthy that could change.

2022 draft trades

Data from NFL

The 2022 draft was chock full of trades. To date the results have strongly favored the trade-down team (39 wAV vs. 16 for the trade-up team). But it’s only been one season, and many of the trades are in the eye of the beholder:

  • Would you rather have wide receiver Chris Olave (Saints) or wide receiver Jahan Dotson + running back Brian Robinson Jr. (Commanders)?
  • A potentially great but probably only two-down defensive lineman (Jordan Davis, Eagles) or a potentially great guard (Kenyon Green, Texans) plus three other players?
  • A starting cornerback (Trent McDuffie, Chiefs) or a starting guard and cornerback (Cole Strange and Jack Jones, Patriots)?
  • A starter at a high-value position like cornerback who had an up-and-down rookie year (Kaiir Elam, Bills) or a highly-regarded player at a less premium position (center) who had a good rookie year (Tyler Linderbaum, Ravens) plus a punter (Jordan Stout)?

The one position for which moving up in the draft is never questioned is quarterback... unless you’re the Tennessee Titans. In 2022, the Titans moved up from No. 90 to No. 86 in the third round to grab Malik Willis. Only one year later, Tennessee seems to have given up on Willis. The Titans moved up again in 2023, from No. 41 to No. 33, to select Will Levis, perhaps the biggest question mark among the top four quarterbacks in this year’s draft. In 2022, some analysts thought Willis might come off the board in Round 1, and in 2023, Levis was certainly expected to go in Round 1, maybe even in the top 10. Arizona used that No. 41 pick from the Titans to draft promising edge defender B.J. Ojulari, so the stakes are high for Tennessee to eventually hit on one of these two quarterbacks.

Analogs to the Giants’ 2023 trade-ups

The Deonte Banks pick

Tampa Bay’s first-round trade with San Francisco to draft Tristan Wirfs in 2020 has much in common with the Giants’ 2023 trade with Jacksonville to draft Deonte Banks. The Buccaneers’ trade involved a swap of adjacent picks that were higher than those involved in the Giants’ trade, but the reason for the two trades was similar. Tampa Bay, having signed Tom Brady, needed a right tackle, but at No. 14 they watched as three of the big four tackles in that year’s draft went off the board by No. 11 (Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton). With Miami, also needing a tackle, lurking at No. 18, the Bucs jumped one position to guarantee that they could get the remaining OT that they wanted. Miami was left with Austin Jackson, who has been subpar through his career to date.

Like Tampa Bay in 2020, the Giants feared losing Deonte Banks to another team with Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez, and Emmanuel Forbes already off the board. For whatever reason they saw a big enough difference between Banks and Joey Porter Jr. to make the move to ensure they got Banks. It’s not as clear-cut as Tampa Bay’s move up for Wirfs, since Austin Jackson was clearly a tier lower, but the reasoning was the same.

As mentioned earlier, San Francisco botched the first round pick they got in the trade-down but made up for it with a subsequent trade of the other pick they got to grab Brandon Aiyuk. Jacksonville followed their trade-down from No. 24 to 25 with another trade-down, with Buffalo, from No. 25 to No. 27, a trade the Giants were offered but declined because they wanted Banks. The final score for the Jaguars after two trade-downs was No. 24 for No. 27 (offensive tackle Anton Harrison), No. 130 (defensive end Tyler Lacy), No. 160 (safety Antonio Johnson), and No. 240 (fullback Derek Parish).

Will Deonte Banks be the lockdown press man corner that completes Wink Martindale’s defense, or will his tendency to draw holding penalties make him a liability at the NFL level? Will Jacksonville have solidified the lines on both sides of the ball in a single trade or gotten journeymen who don’t move the needle? Check back in a couple of years. If we’re watching a Giants-Jags Super Bowl, maybe we’ll conclude that both sides did well.

The Jalin Hyatt pick

The best analog for the Giants’ trade-up from No. 89 to No. 73 to select Jalin Hyatt is Houston’s 2022 trade-up with Cleveland from No. 68 to No. 44 to select wide receiver John Metchie. Metchie is a very different type of receiver (great route runner, average speed) from Hyatt (great speed, underdeveloped route runner). But again the circumstances were similar. There had been a run on receivers in the first round (five were chosen from picks No. 10-18) and two more were already taken in the second round. Metchie had dropped some because of a previous ACL tear but was considered good quality in the mid-second round pending a complete recovery. Houston decided to move to get him. The jury is out on whether it was a wise choice, because Metchie was subsequently diagnosed with leukemia and missed his entire first season.

The Browns drafted a good cornerback, Martin Emerson, a defensive tackle who had a quiet first season on the field, Perrion Winfrey (off the field he was arrested and faces an assault charge), and a placekicker who missed quite a few key field goal attempts, Cade York, with the picks obtained from Houston. So at the moment, a slight advantage to Cleveland, but the long-term verdict depends on whether Metchie becomes a premier NFL receiver.

The Los Angeles Rams used the No. 89 pick they received from the Giants to draft defensive end Kobie Turner from Wake Forest. Of potentially more interest is their use of the additional No. 128 pick to select quarterback Stetson Bennett. Bennett went earlier than most draft analysts had expected, but if he succeeds Matthew Stafford as the Rams’ starting quarterback in a couple of years they will consider him to have been quite a bargain. Sean McVay has shown that he can get the most out of limited quarterbacks. If on the other hand Bennett lives up to the seventh round talent most analysts thought he had despite his national championship pedigree, the trade will have been wasted.

On the other side, Hyatt seemed to be a real bargain at No. 73. But two big obstacles lie in his way - his inexperience against press man coverage and his limited route tree in college. Can he overcome those in the NFL? There may be no landing place better suited to maximizing him than the Brian Daboll - Mike Kafka offense, which managed to get much less talented receivers open in 2022.

With luck, in a couple of years Daboll and McVay will be texting back and forth about whether Jones-to-Hyatt or Bennett-to-Kupp is going to prevail in the NFC Championship Game.