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The Trade-Up Trap- Why Smart GMs Stay Put on Draft Day
Photo: Jul 27, 2022; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) throws the ball during Training Camp at the SAP Performance Facility near Levi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Trade-Up Trap- Why Smart GMs Stay Put on Draft Day

As the summer heat bakes the practice fields and NFL training camps loom on the horizon, front offices across the league are in a rare moment of calm. But make no mistake, in the quiet offices of GMs and scouts, the wheels are already turning for next year's draft. The echoes of last April's war room frenzy may have faded, but the lessons – both triumphant and painful – remain fresh.

It's July 2nd, and while most fans are focused on the upcoming season, NFL strategists are already plotting their moves for next spring. The draft boards might be tucked away, but the memories of tense phone calls, last-minute decisions, and the irresistible temptation to trade up for that can't-miss prospect still linger. But here's the cold, hard truth that teams should be grappling with during this offseason: more often than not, trading up in the NFL Draft is a fool's errand.

Let's cut through the highlight reels of draft day heroics and the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight. It's time to face facts: trading up is the NFL equivalent of thinking you can beat the house in Vegas. Sure, you might hit the jackpot once in a blue moon, but in the long run, the house always wins. And in the NFL, the house is the team trading down.

The Siren Song of the Trade-Up

We've all seen it. A team falls in love with a prospect, convincing themselves that this one player is the missing piece to their Super Bowl puzzle. They make the call, mortgage their future, and move up the board. The fan base goes wild. Hope springs eternal.

But hope, as they say, is not a strategy.

Let's look at some numbers that should make every GM think twice before picking up that phone:

- According to a comprehensive study by Football Perspective, teams trading up in the first round lost value on their investment about 61% of the time.
- The average trade-up resulted in a loss of about 9% in terms of draft capital value.
- A separate analysis by the National Football Post found that from 1970 to 2011, teams trading up in the first round underperformed compared to teams staying put or trading down.

These aren't coin flips, folks. These are loaded dice, and they're loaded against the team moving up.

The Cautionary Tales

For every success story trotted out to justify a trade-up, there's a graveyard of failed moves that GMs would rather you forget. Let's remind ourselves of a few:

1. The RG3 Disaster: In 2012, Washington mortgaged their future to move up and select Robert Griffin III. They gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder. The result? One exciting season, followed by injuries, drama, and years of quarterback purgatory. Meanwhile, the Rams used those picks to build the foundation of a team that would eventually reach the Super Bowl.

2. The Trubisky Tragedy: In 2017, the Bears traded four picks to move up one spot - yes, one spot - to draft Mitchell Trubisky. They passed on both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the process. While Mahomes was winning MVPs and a Super Bowl in Kansas City, Trubisky was benched and eventually allowed to leave in free agency. Bears fans are still in therapy.

3. The Ricky Williams Debacle: In 1999, the Saints traded their entire draft (plus the next year's first-rounder) to get Ricky Williams. It set the franchise back years. Williams had some good seasons, but never lived up to the enormous cost paid to acquire him.

4. The Julio Jones Gamble: While Jones turned out to be a phenomenal player, the Falcons gave up five picks (including two first-rounders) to move up and get him in 2011. Despite Jones' individual brilliance, the Falcons made the playoffs only four times in his ten seasons with the team.

5. The Sammy Watkins Whiff: In 2014, the Bills traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots and select Watkins. He showed flashes but struggled with injuries and was traded after just three seasons. The pick the Bills traded away? It turned into Todd Gurley.

"But what about the successes?" I hear you cry. Yes, there's Patrick Mahomes and Julio Jones. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. They're the jackpots that keep the suckers coming back to the table, convinced they can beat the odds.

The Hidden Costs

When a team trades up, they're not just risking that one pick doesn't work out. They're risking that their one pick isn't as valuable as multiple picks. It's a high bar to clear, and most players, even good ones, can't clear it.

Consider the opportunity cost. Those extra picks traded away aren't just numbers on a draft board. They're potential starters, depth pieces, and special teams contributors. In a salary-cap league, having multiple contributors on rookie contracts is gold. Trading up turns that gold into fool's gold.

Let's look at a concrete example. In 2011, the Falcons traded five picks to move up for Julio Jones. Jones became a star, no doubt. But look at what the Browns got with those picks:

- Phil Taylor (1st round, 2011): Solid starter for four years
- Greg Little (2nd round, 2011): 155 receptions over three years
- Owen Marecic (4th round, 2011): Special teams contributor
- Brandon Weeden (1st round, 2012): Started 20 games over two years
- Trent Richardson (1st round, 2012, via another trade): 950 rushing yards as a rookie

While none of these players became stars, collectively they provided more value to the Browns than Jones alone could have. This is the power of multiple picks - they give you more chances to find contributors and build depth.

The Quarterback Conundrum

"But quarterbacks are different!" I hear the trade-up apologists argue. Yes, the potential reward for landing a franchise QB is enormous. But the risk is equally massive. Miss on that pick, and you're not just losing a player – you're losing multiple players, mortgaging your future, and potentially setting your franchise back half a decade.

For every Patrick Mahomes, there's a Josh Rosen, a Paxton Lynch, a Johnny Manziel. The quarterback position might offer the highest reward, but it also carries the highest risk.

Let's look at some high-profile QB trade-ups:

- Jared Goff (2016): The Rams gave up six picks, including two first-rounders. Goff led them to a Super Bowl but was traded away after five seasons.
- Carson Wentz (2016): The Eagles gave up five picks, including two first-rounders. Wentz had an MVP-caliber season in 2017 but was traded after five years.
- Trey Lance (2021): The 49ers gave up three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up to No. 3 overall. Lance started just four games for the 49ers before being traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a mere 4th round pick in 2024. This trade is now considered one of the worst in NFL history, with the 49ers missing out on potential impact players like Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater, or Christian Darrisaw, who could have been available at their original No. 12 pick.

Even when these trades work out to some degree, the cost is often so high that it hampers the team's ability to build a complete roster around the quarterback.

The Smart Money Stays Put

So, what do the smart teams do? They stay put. They trade down. They accumulate picks. They play the odds.

Look at the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. They've made an art form of trading down and maximizing value. From 2000 to 2019, the Patriots made 82 draft-day trades. Of those, 61 were trades down to acquire more picks. This strategy helped them build one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.

The Baltimore Ravens, under Ozzie Newsome and now Eric DeCosta, have built consistent contenders by accumulating picks and rarely trading up. Their 2018 draft is a masterclass in this approach. They traded back twice in the first round, still got Lamar Jackson, and used the extra picks to select Orlando Brown Jr. and Mark Andrews.

These teams understand a fundamental truth: the draft is a numbers game. It's about maximizing your chances of finding contributors and stars. Trading up reduces those chances. It's a flashy move that excites fans and makes headlines, but more often than not, it's fool's gold.

The Psychological Trap

So why do teams keep falling into this trap? It's simple: human psychology.

GMs feel pressure to make bold moves, to show they're doing everything they can to improve the team. Trading up is a very visible way to do that. It's easy to fall in love with a player and convince yourself he's worth any price.

Dr. Jonathan Fader, a prominent sports psychologist, explains: "There's an inherent bias towards action in high-pressure situations. GMs might feel that standing pat is equivalent to doing nothing, even when it's often the smarter move."

This psychological trap is compounded by the nature of the draft itself. As coveted players come off the board, the fear of missing out (FOMO) can drive normally rational decision-makers to make irrational choices.

Former NFL executive Joe Banner puts it bluntly: "Too many GMs draft with their heart instead of their head. They fall in love with a player and convince themselves he's worth any price. That's when costly mistakes happen."

The Myth of the "Can't-Miss" Prospect

One of the driving forces behind trade-ups is the idea of the "can't-miss" prospect. These are the players who dominate college football, ace the combine, and have draft analysts swooning. But here's the harsh reality: there's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect.

Let's look at some recent "can't-miss" players who were the targets of trade-ups:

1. Jadeveon Clowney (2014): The Texans stayed put at #1 to draft him, but he was widely considered a generational talent. While Clowney has been a good player, he's never quite lived up to the pre-draft hype.

2. Trent Richardson (2012): The Browns traded up one spot to ensure they got Richardson. He was out of Cleveland after two years and out of the league shortly after.

3. Aaron Curry (2009): Considered the safest pick in the draft, Curry went 4th overall to Seattle. He lasted just two and a half seasons with the Seahawks before being traded.

These examples illustrate a crucial point: even the most highly-touted prospects can fail to meet expectations. When you trade up, you're not just betting on a player's talent, you're betting that your evaluation is so much better than everyone else's that it's worth sacrificing multiple picks.

The Value of Late-Round Picks

Another common justification for trading up is the idea that late-round picks aren't valuable anyway. This couldn't be further from the truth. Let's look at some late-round steals:

- Tom Brady (6th round)
- Richard Sherman (5th round)
- Antonio Brown (6th round)
- Jason Kelce (6th round)
- Marques Colston (7th round)

These players didn't just contribute – they became stars. And for every star, there are dozens of solid contributors found in the later rounds. These are the players who provide depth, play special teams, and sometimes develop into starters.

When you trade up, you're often giving away these lottery tickets. You're reducing your chances of finding these hidden gems.

Recent Trends and False Hope

In recent years, we've seen a trend towards increased trade activity in the draft, including more aggressive trade-ups. This has been driven partly by a greater understanding of positional value and the importance of rookie contract years.

But don't be fooled. This trend doesn't make trading up any smarter. If anything, it means more teams are playing a losing game.

The Los Angeles Rams' aggressive "F them picks" strategy under Les Snead, which culminated in a Super Bowl victory, has given false hope to many teams. But it's important to remember that the Rams' approach is extremely high-risk and likely unsustainable in the long term. Already, we're seeing the consequences as the Rams struggle to rebuild their depleted roster.

The Way Forward

So, what's the smart approach to the draft? Here are some principles that winning teams follow:

1. Accumulate picks: More picks mean more chances to find contributors and stars.

2. Trust your board: If a player falls to you, great. If not, there's always another good player available.

3. Understand value: Know the historical value of each draft slot and don't overpay to move up.

4. Play the long game: Building a consistent winner is about sustained success, not one flashy move.

5. Be willing to trade down: If someone offers you a king's ransom to move up, take it and laugh all the way to the bank.

Conclusion: The House Always Wins

Let's be crystal clear: trading up in the NFL draft is, more often than not, a losing proposition. It's not bold. It isn't smart. More often than not, it's a mistake.

The allure of the game-changing player is strong. But the math simply doesn't add up. GMs who consistently trade up are playing a losing game, burning draft capital, and ultimately handicapping their franchises.

The draft is, fundamentally, a numbers game. It's about maximizing your chances of finding contributors and stars. Trading up reduces those chances. It's a flashy move that excites fans and makes headlines, but in the long run, it's a fool's errand.

Smart teams – the ones that consistently compete year after year – understand this. They accumulate picks, they trade down, they play the odds. They know that in the NFL draft, quantity has a quality all its own.

So, the next time your team's GM is eyeing that trade-up, hoping to land the next superstar, remember this: The smart money stays put. The smart money trades down. The smart money understands that in the NFL draft, slow and steady wins the race – and the Super Bowls.

In the high-stakes poker game of the NFL draft, the best move is usually to fold, collect more chips, and play more hands. Leave the all-in moves to the suckers. Because in the end, just like in Vegas, the house always wins.