Is Trading Down in the First Round of the Draft a Smart Move?

The Goal of Trading Down
Every organization’s goal in the NFL Draft is to find high level talent, but the teams with the most drafting success are able to do so for great value. Trading up and trading down have been frequently used drafting tactics which reflect very different mindsets. Teams that trade up usually have their eyes set on a specific prospect, and are confident that the player will be worth the assets that they are trading. On the other hand, teams that trade down typically highlight a short range of draft positions where they feel the talent is very strong for the value. The primary difference between these two strategies is that the outcome of trading up is very well-known whereas there are a multitude of possibilities for teams that trade down. A team that trades up has full control of their fate while a team that trades down has to hope the board falls in their favor. So why do teams risk trading down, and has it actually paid off?

These are questions many Minnesota Vikings fans have been hoping to answer following the 2022 NFL Draft. Under newly hired General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, the Vikings’ front office demonstrated their desire to shuffle through the draft order and try to find the best value picks at various points in the draft. The Vikings totaled six trades, highlighted by an unprecedented trade down in the first round with the division rival Detroit Lions. Minnesota moved down twenty spots in the first round from Pick 12 to Pick 32, where they selected Georgia safety Lewis Cine, allowing themselves to gather draft capital which would be utilized in trades later in the draft. Although it is currently impossible to tell whether or not this high risk move was beneficial, it could foreshadow a new approach taken by the Vikings’ front office in the draft. Every draft class is different, but the first-year general manager Adofo-Mensah was not hesitant to strike deals with other general managers. Trading down to acquire more picks and select players for better value could very well be the blueprint for success for this new regime. But until the rookies take the field, it will be impossible to tell if this method will truly be successful.

A Look At Recent Trade Downs
  Recent history can give a better sense of the likelihood of success of significant trade downs in the draft. With the Vikings trading down twenty spots in 2022, it is important to focus on trade downs of several draft positions because they involve a higher element of risk. The following chart highlights the 25 draft day trade downs in the 2010s in which the team trading down moved at least five spots lower and still held a first round pick. Instead of evaluating which team won each trade, the success of a trade down is better shown through the player who the team traded down for. Any first round trade down has the end goal of selecting a franchise player even after trading down. Other components of trade downs, such as which player was selected by the team trading up, which players were selected between the trade up pick and the trade down pick, and which players were selected with the picks given to the team trading down, can also have some impact on the success of such a gutsy move. Considering these factors, each of these trade downs was given a rating from 1 to 5. Here is a breakdown of the rating system:

  1 – A very bad trade down which the team received no benefit from

2 – A bad trade down which the team received only little benefit from

3 – A decent trade down which the team received meaningful benefit from

4 – A good trade down which the team received strong benefit from

5 – A very good trade down which the team received extreme benefit from

  * – another trade used to acquire pick ^ – player already in the league

This data demonstrates how large the variability is in terms of the success of recent trade downs. While some teams have reaped the rewards of trading down, others have left their fans in disappointment. The mean rating of these 25 trade downs is 3.12, barely over what is considered to be a decent trade. Although this average cannot answer whether or not trading down is beneficial, some trends show up in this data which could give some hints. Out of the three trade downs which were given a rating of 1, two of them came from the Cleveland Browns, whose constant dysfunction in the 2010s resulted in some of the most miserable seasons in NFL history. Since the repeated struggles of the Browns was highly unusual, and unlikely to take place in Minnesota, their removal from this dataset is warranted. With these two inexplicable trade downs removed, the mean rating jumps to 3.30, which indicates that trade downs have been slightly more favorable in the last decade. Another noteworthy aspect of this data is that there are surprisingly equally as many Pro Bowlers selected with the trade down picks as there are selected with the trade up picks. Even when a team moves down in the first round, they have been just as likely to land a Pro Bowl caliber player in recent years. Not only do these chances remain even, teams that trade down allow themselves another chance, although lower later in the draft, to find a meaningful contributor and maybe even a special player with the draft capital they obtain in the trade.

  These trends signal that in general, trading down is beneficial. But one component of the data causes some uncertainty. As shown in the table, it is extremely common for a superstar player to be selected between the trade up and trade down picks. In many of these cases, one or more of those players are potential Hall of Famers. While this is a concern for any team trading down, it is less significant than it seems in retrospect. Elite players are selected throughout the draft, and it is nearly impossible to tell who will pan out and who will not on the night of the draft. It can also be noticed that some teams who initially trade down attempt to trade back up in order to select the player they want for the best value. If a team has their eye on a particular player, they can always try to work their way into position to select him. Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings took this approach in the second round of the 2022 Draft, as they traded back initially and then traded up eight picks later to select Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth Jr.. Not only did they secure the prospect they desired, they were also able to acquire picks later in the draft. 

A Deeper Look Into the Data
  It must be recognized that the Vikings trade down in 2022 was highly abnormal. Moving twenty picks down in the first round is nearly unheard of. As the magnitude of the trade down increases, so does the level of risk. The table above highlights all trade downs of five picks or more. But how have trade downs fared when there is an even higher level or risk? The data can be filtered to focus on trade downs in which the team originally moves down more than ten picks. Here are the five trade downs where this has been the case:

  * – another trade used to acquire pick

Although it has an extremely small sample size, this data indicates that most big first round trade downs have worked out exceptionally. Once again, the Browns shine light on the challenges of trading, but the other four teams were able to come away with All-Pro caliber players due to the trade down. Both the Browns and Packers first traded down and then traded back up to select a player for great value. While these two picks panned out very differently, they show that large trade downs often encourage teams to move back up depending on how the board falls. From the minimized dataset, some of the teams that traded up also received major benefits through elite players like Julio Jones and Patrick Mahomes. However, that should have little to no impact on how a trade down is viewed. When looking back, it can be painful to notice who was selected with the pick your team originally had. But what comes out of your own picks is far more critical in defining a good or bad trade down. For example, the Bills and Chiefs trade allowed the Chiefs to acquire a sensational prospect in Mahomes, but the Bills were still able to secure Tre”Davious White, one of the league’s best cornerbacks, and select Tremaine Edmunds, a two-time Pro Bowler, the following year. This trade worked out brilliantly for both sides, which is why it is not necessary to declare winner and loser in all trades. 

  Given the recent history of draft day trade downs, Vikings fans should be encouraged by the possibilities. If 2022 set precedent for what is to come, the Vikings could be one of the gutsiest teams come draft season. While there have been some cases in which trade downs have backfired, there have been just as many if not more in which the rewards have been spectacular. When the element of risk seems to be at its highest, teams have been able to come away with remarkable results. If this trend continues, the Vikings 2022 rookie class could be special. And if positive results are noticeable early on, future trade downs for the Vikings will be inevitable.

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