There are many good reasons for trading down, both practical and scholarly.
The 86th NFL draft is scheduled to be held April 29-May 1, 2021, in Cleveland.
Bill Belichick, the ultimate pragmatist, helped build a dynasty with all the additional draft capital he picked up by trading down. In looking at Belichick’s record in just the period between 2010-2019, the New England Sports Network totaled 28 instances of trading down. And he traded out of the first round last year. They currently hold seven picks in the upcoming draft, with the likelihood of three more mid-round compensatory picks. The Falcons have six at the moment.
On the big brain front, there is the now 15-year-old research paper with a Nobel Prize-winning economist as one of the co-authors that termed the overvaluing of a high NFL draft pick, “The Loser’s Curse.”
The study comes with all kinds of charts and graphs to back up their assertions, intellectual water far too deep for me. The conclusion is that there is great value to be had in later picks and great risk in putting too much hope into a single top choice.
Some of it is a pure numbers game, more picks equal more shots at getting it right. The researchers tried to prove that the highest picks were overpaid for what they would eventually produce compared to second- and third-rounders who were a better value. The economics of the draft has changed, as the contracts of top picks have been reigned in since the paper came out. But not the fundamental belief that acquiring additional picks can be a very good thing.
The study argued that the first player taken at a position was only slightly more likely become a better pro than the next player taken at that position. And he would be only slightly better than the third taken. And so forth. So why not increase your chances of finding serviceable pros by adding picks?
And it’s just plain hubris for any NFL personnel man to believe he can identify the one sure thing on the draft board to the exclusion of all other options. To fixate on, say, a Justin Fields, could be foolhardy. As one of the study’s authors, Cade Massey, told the New York Times last year: “Even the smartest guys in the world, the guys who spend hours with game film, can’t predict this with much success. There’s no crime in that. The crime is thinking you can predict it.”
Opined the same Times piece: “NFL teams continue to treat the very top picks as far more valuable than picks slightly further down. They’re often willing to trade multiple picks later in a draft for a single pick near the top. It’s irrational, and predictably so, but the NFL teams can’t help themselves.”
Say there’s a team in the 2021 draft that’s up against it in the salary cap, in need of the kind of affordable talent the draft can provide. And say that team has more needs than a newborn, stretched along both lines, in the secondary and in the backfield.
A team like that — a team like the Falcons — just might benefit from finding someone willing to give up a Whitman’s Sampler of picks in exchange for their No. 4.