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Re-thinking the “logic” of tanking, part III: The Trade Down Scenario

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Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

First read Part I and Part II. It’s required only in that the concerns, comments, and questions you have may have already been addressed. I’ve written about number one QBs and top-three non-QBs already. Today, I’m looking at the prospect of trading down for prospects and why the success of the 2018 Colts might not be as noteworthy as some teams that didn’t have to suck to get better.

There’s already been a lot of talk about how it doesn’t matter as much to ask “What top prospects could the Seahawks get by tanking?” because John Schneider and Pete Carroll trade down every year and that the real reward for sucking is a bounty of draft picks. Now half of what I’ll say about that is addressed in Part IV in which I explain why sucking, no matter the reason, is a terrible symptom of a larger disease that is not often cured.

Today I’ll focus on the recent trade downs in the post-2011 era because it’s already been brought up that after that CBA, contracts for top picks were lowered considerably and the risk was “lessened” because of this. One study brought to my attention by John Gilbert focuses on the value of high first round picks compared to later in the draft.

Here’s a link to a 2005 academic study by Cade Massey (professor at Wharton) and Richard Thaler (professor at Univ of Chicago) on the downside to picking at the top of the first round in the draft. They looked at the question again in 2012 in the wake of the rookie wage scale being put into place and found that the same findings held.

Basically, what they found was that the hit rate for draft picks at the top of the first is not sufficiently better to justify paying the higher salaries required for picks 1-5 or so. And that, at least theoretically, it’s better to trade down into the later part of the first round or the early part of the second round. Specifically, they argue that the top of the second round is where the most value can be found in the draft because the hit rate is slightly lower than in the early first, while salaries are ~75% lower.

As John notes, it sounds as though it is better to have three high second round picks than it does to have one high first round pick and that’s exactly what the Indianapolis Colts acquired — while keeping a high first round pick — in 2018.

There are not many cases of teams trading down from one and still not that many when looking at the top-three. But it does happen.

Last year, the Colts traded down from three to six and acquired three second round picks from the Jets. It sure looks like a banger for Indianapolis, who netted Quenton Nelson in the first round (an elite prospect who fell outside of the top five) and then Braden Smith in round two, a subsequent trade down, and Rock Ya-Sin this year. (The original holder of the pick they used to trade down for Kemoko Turay? Seattle sent it to New York for Sheldon Richardson.)

The Colts 2018 trade will probably now be held as the gold standard and premier example of why you should tank, if that’s the thing you’ve been arguing for this whole time.

Indianapolis was 3-6 and having a go at a season without Andrew Luck, basically mirroring 2011 all over again. If 2011 helped the Colts transition from Peyton Manning to Luck, then maybe 2017 could help them get Luck better protection or a number two receiver or some defense. Or all three.

Chuck Pagano, to the benefit of Frank Reich, played this season out masterfully if this is what we call tanking. Or maybe all the credit is due to first-year GM Chris Ballard playing the keys like an old town saloon pianist and all while a drunk named “Irsay” screamed requests of “Play Firework!” in his ear.

The 2017 Colts played through much uncertainty onto the near and long-term future of Luck, losing 46-9 in Week 1 with Jacoby Brissett at the helm to an LA Rams team that themselves was 4-12 a season earlier. That was far from their last blowout of the season (46-18 to the Seahawks a few weeks later, for example) but Indy could have done a hell of a lot better than 4-12. They lost 16-13 to the Cardinals in Week 2 and 24-23 to the Bengals in Week 8, a loss that dropped them to 2-6. A 20-14 win over the Texans brought them to that 3-6 record and two more losses (20-17 and 20-16, in both cases blowing double-digit second half leads) dropped Indy to the previously hypothetical 3-8.

So now with five games to go ... win or lose?

The Colts lost the next game 30-10 to the Jaguars, a result that many convinced was an exclamation point on the idea that Jacksonville was the new king of the South — which of course in hindsight is actually a reminder that teams in the South have had severe consistency issues. They next lost in OT to the Bills, a snow game that was less than two minutes from a tie, then had somewhat competitive losses to the Broncos and Ravens.

Against Baltimore, the Ravens seemed sure to win but a blocked punt with 2:45 left gave them the ball at Baltimore’s 27 while down by a touchdown. At this point, surely most fans were rooting for the Colts to make the comeback but certainly a contingent was able to put their guts to the side and root for a loss.

(Despite the number of votes for “Tank” in my polls, those results would be a lot different when the actual games are on and “your team” blocks a punt in the final minutes to setup for a potential tie.)

Brissett helped Indianapolis get one first down but they eventually went four-and-out and that was the game.

The only potential “misstep” in their tank is that the Colts won in Week 17, beating a Houston team that also finished 4-12, when a loss would have given Ballard the number two pick instead of number three. If at any point the Colts wanted to lose on purpose all they had to do was “shutdown” Brissett and go back to Scott Tolzien, but that never happened.

I am not sure how much it would have changed to be honest because I don’t see Ballard being anything like Dave Gettleman when it comes to Saquon Barkley and other archaic decisions. I also don’t know that Barkley was a player a team trades up for, so I think that the best speculation I can do there is that the Jets would have still moved up for Sam Darnold. It doesn’t really matter though, Indy did their thing and we have what we have.

In 2017, the Colts found out that they have a backup quarterback who they like, though I’m not sure Brissett didn’t do just as good of a job proving he’s not capable of winning games at key moments. This is totally off-topic, but I can’t believe that anyone would write a comment like this after the career that Brissett has had and his current situation:

Brissett was not at all good in 2017 and I’m sure he wasn’t a part of some pre-planned “tank strategy.” He was trying his best and the Colts finished 30th in passing DVOA and lost 12 games. Assuming he doesn’t play in 2019, I don’t imagine that any team is signing Brissett to be a starter when he becomes a free agent in 2020. But hey, the good news is that Indianapolis went through a backup QB season without an injury, he lost 12 games, he didn’t throw a ton of picks, and your team was competitive half of the time.

Ideally their rookie class would have done better.

First round safety Malik Hooker missed 10 games, second round corner Quincy Wilson missed nine and played poorly, third round linebacker Tarell Basham barely played at all. For as much credit as Ballard got in 2018, his first draft has more to prove.

Before what I said about it being masterful, the tank could have tunk a little deeper. Not that Ballard’s situation was awful for a team with the number three pick. The Colts finished 4-12, not 3-13 or worse. And they sat at three with a highly-regarded quarterback prospect almost certain to fall to them. Baker Mayfield was spoken for and Gettleman insisted on Gettlemanning so Indianapolis was doing as well as he they were trading down from one.

On March 17, well before the draft, the Colts sent pick three to the New York Jets for picks 6, 37, 49, and a second rounder in 2019. The move was possible based on a number of variables:

  • You needed to have an elite QB prospect certain to be available at your draft spot
  • You need to have a team within a few picks of you that has a need at QB
  • You need multiple elite prospects to choose from when you’re back on the clock
  • That teams has to have multiple picks at their disposal already to use to move up and/or a willingness to move picks in next year’s draft

The Jets had the number six pick, a need at QB, and they had Seattle’s second rounder. But the move down also had value to the Colts because Quenton Nelson, Denzel Ward, and Bradley Chubb all existed. Another reason that Indy’s move has worked out so well so far is that there were a higher-than-usual number of elite non-QB prospects in 2018. Ballard traded down and was still able to select Nelson at pick six, the Andrew Luck of guard prospects.

The Colts used pick 37 on offensive lineman Braden Smith and 49 was used to trade down, where they selected linebacker Kemoko Turay. The fifth rounder they picked up in that deal was used on running back Jordan Wilkins. So let’s breakdown what the trade has given Indy so far:

  • Nelson doesn’t count because Nelson was available at three. They traded down because they wanted Nelson, Chubb, or someone else that could have been reasonably selected where they original were. So Indy’s bad season did help them land a guard who was an All-Pro as a rookie but the trade didn’t really matter when it comes to Nelson.
  • Smith, a promising right tackle.
  • Turay had some good pass rushing numbers in limited snaps but lost playing time as the season went on because coaches didn’t think he was practicing hard enough.
  • Wilkins averaged 5.6 yards per carry but also lost time as the season went on as the team prefers how Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines play.
  • Rookie corner Rock-Ya Sin, who literally had nothing to do with 2018. Well, not for the Colts. In general he was a part of the year 2018.

If we’re using the 2018 Colts as a reason to justify the 2017 Colts, the statement might be that 3-13 is better than 8-8 if it gets you a great guard and an improved right tackle. We have three other prospects to consider but I’m just looking at Indy going from 4-12 to 10-6 because that’s the reason people would point to the Colts as a reason for “tanking.”

But the Colts aren’t the only team that improved from 2017 to 2018.

The Chicago Bears were 3-9 but won half of their final four games and picked eighth instead of second, which is where they could have been if they had tanked. The Bears selected Roquan Smith, who ended up leading them in tackles (121) with five sacks, and traded two future first round picks for Khalil Mack. Without a top-five pick and without the safety net of two future first rounders, Chicago was better than Indianapolis in 2018: they went 12-4, had the number one defense, and ranked fifth in DVOA compared to eighth for the Colts.

The Bears were slightly better than the Colts in 2017, then against slightly better in 2018, and they didn’t need to lose more games to stay ahead of them.

Or the Baltimore Ravens, who went 9-7 in 2017, missed the playoffs and got pick 16. They traded down to 22 and added a third rounder, then traded to 25 and added a fourth rounder. The Ravens selected tight end Hayden Hurst at 25, then used their second rounder (remember it: it eventually became Turay), the fourth rounder they added, and a future second rounder to trade back up for quarterback Lamar Jackson. Unconventional as they may be, Baltimore finished 10-6 with a higher DVOA than the Colts and the number one defense by total yards.

A team like the Ravens can do this because a team like the Ravens opts to be competitive every season instead of hoping a single player can more than make up for a 3-13 record. Moving into 2019, I would actually have to say that I like the Colts, Bears, and Ravens about equally, and while the latter two might have worse situations at QB — and this is a QB league — they are also far superior on defense.

We’ll see how it plays out, but there are a lot more teams crawling from mediocrity to the Super Bowl than there are from the gutter. Not that Chicago wasn’t in the gutter recently, going 3-13 when they moved up for Mitchell Trubisky in a deal about to be mentioned, but just like in LA when we talked about quarterbacks in Part I, few are crediting Trubisky like they’re crediting the head coach and number one pass rusher on the team.

So if you’re looking for the Seahawks to ever have a season like the 2017 Colts, you’re maybe rooting for them to lose so that they can trade down and acquire a few extra second rounders and that’s not necessarily a deal on the table very often. And you could have just as easily rooted for them to be the Ravens.

Here are a few more recent deals down from the top three.

The 49ers traded down from two to three in 2017 and acquired two thirds and a fourth. Unfortunately for them they selected Solomon Thomas and after one season of being just okay San Francisco dropped to 4-12 and picked second again in 2019. They added pick 67 (eventually used on Alvin Kamara, San Francisco basically used this pick Dante Pettis in 2018) and 111 (Tedric Thompson, it was used as a chip to move up for Reuben Foster).

In 2017, the Colts moved from 3 to 6 and added three seconds. But only a year earlier the best offer that the 49ers could get was from 2 to 3 and they added a lot less value. Was the difference simply in GM ability or is it more closely related to the luck of your draw? It’s a risky position to ask to be in on purpose.

The Titans and Browns traded down from one and two in 2016, acquiring many later and future picks. Cleveland traded all five picks they acquired, eventually landing Jabrill Peppers, Denzel Ward, Corey Coleman, Deshone Kizer, Shon Coleman, and a couple others — while some of the picks they traded away turned into Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.

Tennessee acquired Corey Davis, Jack Conklin, and Derrick Henry if we’re just looking at players of note.

So like with Nelson, if we just focus on the top prospect that these awful seasons landed these awful teams, you’ve got Ward and Davis. In terms of the net value of the trade downs, we see a safety used to trade for Odell Beckham, Jr. (which of course we should all expect our teams to do at some point), a terrible first round receiver, a terrible second round QB, a third round tackle almost out of the league, a top-10 tackle who didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up, and a running back.

Well ladi-dadi, we like to parity.

Here’s some other teams from around those seasons:

The Eagles, who traded up for Wentz, went from 7-9 in 2016 to winning the Super Bowl in 2017.

The Rams, who traded up for Goff, went from 4-12 in his first season (without a first round pick to benefit from as it was used on Davis, a not-that-great receiver at this point) to reaching the Super Bowl two years later.

The Falcons went 8-8 in 2015, drafted safety Keanu Neal in the middle of the first round, and nearly won the Super Bowl in 2016. They didn’t need Joey Bosa to do it because Atlanta was already somewhat in the hunt.

If your team is 3-8 and you’re rooting for them to be 3-13 due to a better pick, you’re also rooting for them to not be 8-8 and maybe prove to actually be a couple of players away from contending.

If you’re picking in the top-three, you need more than the player you’re drafting. If you’re 8-8 or 9-7, you might not even need another key player at all.

Even if you could trade down for a few more.

In all four cases outlined here, the teams got better. Which is what you expect teams that lose 13+ games to do. Regression. The team with the best chance to win the “most improved” tag next season is the Arizona Cardinals because they have the most room to climb. What I see in the case of the 49ers is not much at all. The Browns are finally looking like a competent team but:

  • They still have to prove it
  • If anything it’ll say more about Mayfield and Myles Garrett than the trade down in 2016
  • They sure look a lot better coming off of a 7-9 season right now than if they had gone 3-13, right?

The Titans haul is okay but it’s not what I expect most people to be dreaming of when they dream of trades that involve the word “bounty.”

And finally the case of the Colts, which I wrote way too much about.

First of all, Indianapolis is still just one year into this deal. Conklin was an All-Pro rookie and now his Tennessee career is in jeopardy, so pardon me while I wait out the career results of Braden Smith. I’m feeling very sure that Nelson won’t drop off, though Conklin was also a top-10 pick. And the rest of whatever it is they got out of the deal may be overrated because while many may think that linebacker Darius Leonard was involved in this trade down, he wasn’t. You could argue that they would have selected Smith in round two had they not had the extra picks, but that’s all it would be: an argument. We’ll never know for sure.

You couldn’t have planned to do what the Colts ended up doing.

They didn’t want to lose an entire season of their expensive franchise quarterback. They didn’t want to watch Jacoby Brissett start 15 games. They didn’t want to lose 12 games. They didn’t want to be in a position where they felt they needed a lot more help. Imagine if Indianapolis had been so good around the QB that when Luck failed to show up in 2017, they had gone 8-8. And maybe in that case they improve to 12-4 in 2018 instead of 10-6. In which case, they get a first round bye and a home game in the divisional round instead of getting blown out 31-13 in Kansas City.

I can’t see the argument for being worse to get better. In the fourth part of the series, I’ll get into why being worse is actually worse.