Here is the abstract of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler’s academic article regarding the value of NFL Draft picks:
A question of increasing interest to researchers in a variety of fields is whether the biases found in judgment and decision making research remain present in contexts in which experienced participants face strong economic incentives. To investigate this question, we analyze the decision making of National Football League teams during their annual player draft. This is a domain in which monetary stakes are exceedingly high and the opportunities for learning are rich. It is also a domain in which multiple psychological factors suggest teams may overvalue the chance to pick early in the draft.. Using archival data on draft-day trades, player performance and compensation, we compare the market value of draft picks with the surplus value to teams provided by the drafted players. We find that top draft picks are overvalued in a manner that is inconsistent with rational expectations and efficient markets and consistent with psychological research.
Massey and Thaler conclude that the most valuable picks in the Draft are second round picks because the players taken with those picks are closer to first rounder than one would think in terms of quality and they are significantly cheaper. (Note: changes to the salary scale for rookies might alter the analysis. Always in motion is the future.)
Massey and Thaler’s conclusion is consistent with what our own senses can tell us about the most and least successful teams in the league. Which teams are the best run teams in the NFL? The Patriots and Steelers immediately come to mind. Do those teams trade up into the top ten? No. The Steelers generally stay put and take players in the late first round spots that they invariably occupy; the Patriots actively try to trade down, as they did last night. Conversely, the Redskins are probably the worst run team in the NFL and what is their usual strategy? Mortgaging a quantity of picks for a few stars. How does that work out for them?
With that context in mind, I have a simple question for Thomas Dimitroff: what the f*** are you doing? You just traded two first round picks, one second round pick, and two fourth round picks for one player? It’s painfully clear that the Falcons’ brass went down to the dealership, fell in love with one particular car, and let the salesman jack them for it.
This approach would make sense if the Falcons were truly one player away from being a Super Bowl team, but their brass are letting a lucky season cloud their judgment. The Birds were outgained on a per-play basis. At best, they were a ten-win team masquerading as the #1 seed in the NFC and they were ruthlessly exposed as a pretender by the Packers. There are needs all over the roster, starting with the fact that they have only one defensive end who can generate pressure and he is about to turn 33 years old. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Falcons would have batted 50% on the fourth round picks, the Falcons just traded four players for one. In the modern NFL, this is a smaller scale equivalent of the Herschel Walker trade or Mike Ditka giving up the Saints’ entire Draft for Ricky Williams.
And the worst part is that Dimitroff is a good evaluator of talent. I wouldn’t care about the Hawks giving up draft picks because they are going to waste those shots anyway. Dimitroff knows how to grade players. Unfortunately, it also appears that he didn’t learn everything about pick value from his former employer.
Look, I’m the same guy who thought that the Falcons were making a huge mistake when they drafted Matt Ryan, that Arthur Blank was overreacting to Vickkampf by rolling the dice on a great white hope because Ryan made good eye contact in his interview. Three winning seasons later, it’s safe to say that that assessment was wrong. However, I’m also the person who didn’t jump on the bandwagon when the team was winning in November and December. I think I have a good handle of where the Falcons are as a team and they are not at the stage where they can sacrifice five picks for one player.