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Trade up? Trade down? Rifle or Shotgun Method? Pick your poison.

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In the build up to the draft debate rages non-stop regarding trading up to select a stud or trading down to accumulate more picks. Let's look at some theoretical numbers regarding the issue.

Third Round Receiver, Steve Smith
Third Round Receiver, Steve Smith
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend Danny posted another great article, Smart NFL teams find receivers after the 1st round, and of course significant debate ensued regarding the value of NFL receivers selected in the first round versus receivers selected in later rounds. References were brought up to the prior Field Gulls article The Myth of the Stud Receiver, and debate when back and forth regarding whether it is better to take a receiver earlier or later in the draft.  This is obviously of special interest to Seahawks fans, who have not seen their team use a first round pick since the 2012 draft, as John Schneider and Pete Carroll have either traded back or used the pick to trade for a known quantity.

This article might also be interesting reading for teams like the Rams or the Eagles, who have recently surrendered boatloads of picks in order to move into the top two spots in next week's draft, but I'll let them do their own research on the outcomes for trading into the top five to select a QB.

The purpose of this article is to further the debate by injecting some numbers into the discussion in order to dig into the actual probabilities behind whether it is better off to draft a receiver in the first round, or trade down to acquire more picks and select multiple receivers later on. This is a theoretical analysis, so of course assumptions will be made, and the most basic assumption that is made is regarding the value of a first round pick in terms of its trade value to accumulate later picks. Obviously there is a huge difference between the value of the first pick in the first round versus the last pick in the first round.

If a team held the last pick in the first round and made trades which exactly corresponded to even value under the JJ trade value chart, it wouldn’t even be able to acquire the last five picks of the third round in total. In contrast, under the JJ trade value chart, a team holding the top pick overall could, at least in theory, trade down and receive the entire second half of the third round. Thus, for the sake of simplicity, the average value of draft picks for each round was used. The average point value of a first round pick is 1158 and the average value of a third round pick is 188. These average values mean that the average first round pick is worth just over six times the average value of a third round pick. Thus, the data pulled looked at whether it is better to take a single receiver in the first round or take six receivers in the third round.

In order to look at this, I looked at four decades of drafts, from 1973 through 2012. Obviously the league has moved heavier into being a passing league of late, in particular in the last decade, but I’m not about to take the time to evaluate the trending of passing for the league in order to normalize the data. This is a theoretical evaluation that simply looks at the yardage produced by the receiver during their career and compares the yardage production of first round picks against third round picks.

The data for the first round looks like this:

Career Yards Number (of 129) Percentage Cumulative
Less than 1,000 20 15.50%
1,000-2,000 16 12.40%
2,001-4,000 24 18.60%
4,001-6,000 24 18.60% 53.49%
6,001-8,000 16 12.40% 34.88%
8,001-10,000 10 7.75% 22.48%
10,000+ 19 14.73% 14.73%

In looking at these results, they outcomes are fairly smoothly distributed, and in adding the probabilities in the bottom three rows together, we can see that there is almost a 35% chance of a receiver drafted in the first round accumulating at least 6,000 yards in their career.  In the football world of today, 6,000 yards is not a difference maker and will never enter the discussion of being Hall of Fame worthy, but that's a solid contributor along the lines of Carl Pickens, Deion Branch or Al Toon.  Further, there is a nearly 15% chance that the player will amass over 10,000 yards in their career, joining a group that stands at only 45 members.

However, on the other side of the table, the numbers are surprisingly ugly.  There is a better chance that a receiver drafted in the first round will record fewer than 1,000 yards during their career than that they will accumulate 10,000 yards.  On top of that, there is a nearly 28% chance that the receiver will not surpass 2,000 yards in their career.  First round picks are not spent on receivers in order to get someone who will end their career with fewer than 2,000 yards, but the numbers show that there is better than a one in four chance that will be the case.

Moving on to the data for the third round we have:

Career Yards Number (of 152) Percentage
Less than 1,000 74 48.68%
1,000-2,000 28 18.42%
2,001-4,000 23 15.13%
4,001-6,000 11 7.24%
6,001-8,000 10 6.58%
8,001-10,000 3 1.97%
10,000+ 3 1.97%

It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a neurosurgeon to see that the results for third round receivers are significantly worse than those of first round receivers.  There is no need to even run a test to see if these group are materially different, it is readily visible.  Nearly one half of all third round receivers drafted since 1973 have finished their career with less than 1,000 yards receiving, and more than two thirds of third round receivers have accumulated less than 2,000 receiving yards in their career.

However, this third round data only takes into consideration one third round receiver, and luckily we traded down and accumulated six third round picks.  What happens when we look at the third round data in terms of having selected six receivers?

Career Yards Number (of 152) Percentage At Least 1
Less than 1,000 74 48.68%
1,000-2,000 28 18.42%
2,001-4,000 23 15.13%
4,001-6,000 11 7.24% 69.07%
6,001-8,000 10 6.58% 48.69%
8,001-10,000 3 1.97% 21.47%
10,000+ 3 1.97% 11.13%

These numbers are much more closely aligned with those of the first round picks, though selecting an elite receiver remains less likely than with a first round choice, the odds of drafting that solid contributor who can accumulate between 6,000 and 8,000 yards during their career is higher.

In addition, that chart only looks at the probability of selecting at least one receiver who performs at those levels.  Obviously the benefit of trading down is that there is the possibility to select multiple players, each of whom has the ability to perform at a given level.  Thus, the next step is to look at the probability of selecting multiple receivers who perform within the given categories.

This chart for first round draft picks is simple, since there was obviously only one receiver drafted there is no possibility of selecting multiple receivers that fall within a given category.

Career Yards Number (of 129) Percentage Cumulative Probability of 1 Probability of 2 Probability of 3
Less than 1,000 20 15.50%
1,000-2,000 16 12.40%
2,001-4,000 24 18.60%
4,001-6,000 24 18.60% 53.49% 18.60% 0.00% 0.00%
6,001-8,000 16 12.40% 34.88% 12.40% 0.00% 0.00%
8,001-10,000 10 7.75% 22.48% 7.75% 0.00% 0.00%
10,000+ 19 14.73% 14.73% 14.73% 0.00% 0.00%

And now we can contrast this with the chart for the six third round selections.  For proper comparison, in the third round chart, the At Least 1 column corresponds to the cumulative column for the first rounders.

Career Yards Number (of 152) Percentage Per Cumulative At Least 1 Probability of 2 Probability of 3
Less than 1,000 74 48.68%
1,000-2,000 28 18.42%
2,001-4,000 23 15.13%
4,001-6,000 11 7.24% 17.76% 69.07% 47.27% 11.14%
6,001-8,000 10 6.58% 10.52% 48.69% 16.60% 2.33%
8,001-10,000 3 1.97% 3.94% 21.47% 1.98% 0.11%
10,000+ 3 1.97% 1.97% 11.13% 0.54% 0.01%

And therein lies the value of trading down, as there exists the chance to hit on multiple players who are able to contribute.  However, it is not without risk and work, because for every Steve Smith, Terrell Owens or Hines Ward, there is a lot of work to weed through the likes of Karsten Bailey, David Daniels and Danny Greene.  However, there is at least a decent shot of finding a Darrell Jackson or Nate Burleson.

Obviously this analysis is very fundamental, and does nothing to take into account several factors, including the shift of the league to becoming more passing friendly, the fact that some active players may still accumulate receiving yards and move into different categories as well as changes to the value of draft picks in the decades since the JJ trade value chart was developed.  That said, this is simply a ballpark idea to discuss rough approximations of the value of trading down versus standing pat in the first round.

In addition, a special thanks goes to FG user afanofthehobbit for his assistance in finalizing a good portion of the math for this article.