The NFL has modernized in many ways, but its draft-day trades are not among the innovations. In 2020, some teams took advantage, particularly the Minnesota Vikings.
Decades after its creation, it seems that the famous Jimmy Johnson draft value chart is still the benchmark for most teams. Of all the pick-for-pick trades in the 2020 NFL draft, only one deviated from the chart by more than 50 points.
The issue is that the Johnson chart does not reflect the reality of expected production from draft picks. As others have done before, we created our own chart using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV). ESPN’s sports analytics specialist, Brian Burke, ran a regression on the actual per-year AV for each draft slot over the first four years of a player’s career to get an expected AV for each slot. The conclusion is the same as from similar analyses: Early picks are overvalued by the Johnson chart, and later picks are undervalued.
This is how teams such as the Vikings gain capital through trades generally along the lines of the Johnson chart. By recognizing the uncertainty in the draft, teams maximize their chances of success by trading early picks for more bites at the apple. The Johnson chart isn’t always off the mark — the Patriots and Ravens made a trade that was even by both the old chart and ours — but it often is.
One small change for our chart since last year: We’ve added a replacement level worth the value of the last pick of the draft. In other words, instead of comparing the value of the expected production of each pick, we’re measuring the marginal expected production of each pick over the last pick in the draft. After thinking about it, we realized that the former overvalued an accumulation of many late-round picks, which are barely worth more than undrafted free agents. The change didn’t flip the direction of the surplus value in any trades in this draft, but it did lessen the degree of the surplus value in some instances.
Let’s break down the five best pick-for-pick trades from draft weekend, along with a bonus deal that was offered but not completed. We’ll rank them by how much extra value the winning team gained, compared to how much it gave up. For the sake of this exercise, we have assumed that 2021 picks will be in the middle of the round and, somewhat arbitrarily, deemed them worth 90% of the value of a 2020 selection.