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Spielberger: Is trading first-round picks for a "sure thing" actually good team-building strategy?

After the Los Angeles Rams made yet another trade involving first-round picks — meaning they will not have a first-round selection from 2017 to 2023 — some takes came out of the woodworks about how it was a good strategy because veteran players are sure things and draft picks are not. Simply put, a “sure thing” doesn't exist in this sport, especially not in any facet of player acquisition.

In the Rams' defense, a team with arguably the greatest defensive player of all-time in Aaron Donald, perhaps the best cornerback in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey and all of its offensive weapons already under contract shouldn’t be complacent at quarterback. Attacking “windows” is generally a poor strategy, but this is a genuine window with a pretty high floor for Los Angeles if players stay healthy. The rules also sometimes go out the window when it comes to quarterbacks, and a realistic scenario involves them making a few NFC Championship runs in the NFL’s weaker conference.

Nevertheless, we decided to go back and look at all trades involving a player being acquired for a first-round pick, starting in 2009 with the Broncos sending Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears for two firsts, a third and Kyle Orton. While this wasn’t intentional, it’s quite fitting that this will be our first trade. The compensation package is almost the exact same as Matthew Stafford for two firsts (albeit future firsts), a third and Jared Goff.

A key note about the Cutler trade: The draft picks occurred prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, which was the first draft with the rookie wage scale. The argument that first-round picks were a gamble would certainly have had more legs back then, with less control over contractual situations.

For reference, quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, had a rookie deal for six years and $76 million, with $50 million in guarantees. Quarterback Cam Newton, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick, had a rookie deal for four years and $22 million. Bradford’s $12.667 million average per year on his rookie deal may not be matched until around the 2030 NFL Draft at this point. 

We’ll run through the actual examples while also using PFF’s WAR-based draft value chart to illustrate the median expectation of the draft picks. We will not follow the breadcrumbs of subsequent trades that occur with the acquired draft picks, as we’re just analyzing the exact trade that occurred. There are 17 total trades to examine — 10 of which have reached their full conclusion. 

Finally, because this is a discussion of first-round draft picks, wins-above-replacement data for the remaining picks in the package won’t be discussed. But to use the first example below to further illustrate the value in these blockbusters, wide receiver Mike Wallace was drafted in the third round in 2009 with pick No. 84, and he ranked seventh in wins above replacement among all wide receivers in just his second season.

2009

QB Jay Cutler, 2009 5th (140) → Chicago Bears for a 2009 1st (18), 2009 3rd (84), 2010 1st (11), and QB Kyle Orton

Player Y1 WAR (Pos. rank) Y2 WAR (Pos. rank) Y3 WAR (Pos. rank) Y4 WAR (Pos. rank) Tot. WAR 4-Year Cap $
QB Jay Cutler 1.319 (19) 0.752 (26) 1.091 (18) 1.229 (19) 4.391 $39.5M
ED Robert Ayers 0.055 (32) .039 (44) .003 (73) .026 (56) 0.123 $10.7M
Avg. Pick No. 18* .6326
T Anthony Davis -.005 (72) .07 (33) .268 (3) .144 (24) .477 $12.6M
Avg. Pick No. 11 .7766

*Median expected rookie-contract WAR of all positions, including QB

Trade Result

Bears: $39.5 million in four-year cap expenditure for a quarterback who never finished in the top half of the league in wins above replacement from 2009 to 2012. Chicago made the playoffs one time in Cutler’s eight seasons.

Draft picks: Both first-rounders produced at a starter level (32 teams x 2 starters at ED and T) in three out of four rookie-contract years. Over the same eight years when Cutler was on the Bears, the Broncos went to two Super Bowls and won one.

Cutler produced one win above replacement for every $9 million in cap dollars. On average (encompassing all positions), these two first-rounders would’ve produced one win above replacement for every $16.5 million cap dollars.

We could just use our WAR draft pick expectations for quarterbacks because the trade involved a quarterback, which would result in the draft picks having a better output per dollar, but we don’t know what position will be selected and don’t want to make that assumption. From a WAR per dollar perspective, you could chalk this one up as a win given the value of quarterback play, but it clearly isn’t one.

EDGE/DI Richard SeymourOakland Raiders for a 2011 1st (17)

Player Y1 WAR (Pos. rank) Y2 WAR (Pos. rank) Y3 WAR (Pos. rank) Y4 WAR (Pos. rank) Tot. WAR 4-Year Cap $
DI Richard Seymour .102 (16) .109 (8) .121 (5) .059 (31) .391 $32.9M
T Nate Solder .103 (24) .226 (4) .226 (5) .106 (27) .661 $8.5M
Avg. Pick No. 17* .6463

*Median expected rookie-contract WAR of all positions, including QB

Trade Result

Raiders: The Raiders gave out $32.9 million in cap dollars over four years for a very good defensive lineman in Richard Seymour. However, Oakland (now Las Vegas) did not have a winning record in the four seasons Seymour was on the team.

Draft pick: Nate Solder became a top offensive tackle in the NFL almost immediately and produced nearly twice the wins above replacement as Seymour for roughly one-quarter the cost. Because Tom Brady has now led an extremely talented Buccaneers roster to the Super Bowl, some fans seem to think the Patriots' success was all because of him. In reality, it was because of shrewd moves like this one that New England was able to sustain its dynasty for so long.

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