The Value Of A (First-Half) First Round Pick

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: A view of the draft boards during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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"If I were a GM, I’d be willing to trade away my [2nd round pick, 3rd round pick, 4th round pick, 5th round pick, 6th round pick and 7th round pick] every year for a top 10 pick"

--Me, In the comments of the Mika Zibanejad article.

In discussing my hypothetical trade with various friends, acquaintances and colleagues, I was struck by how intelligent hockey fans undervalue high draft picks and overvalue lower draft picks. I posed the following hypothetical trade to 25 SB Nation hockey writers:

I am the GM of the Winnnex Coyotets and hold the 7th, 37th, 67th, 97th, 127th, 157th and 187th picks.

You are the GM of the Winneta Thrashets and hold the 16th, 46th, 76th, 106th, 136th, 166th, and 196th picks.

I am offering you the 7th overall pick for your pick numbers 46, 76, 106, 136, 166 and 196. All else being equal, do you accept my offer?

9 respondents said yes, 16 respondents said no. The overriding reason for declining my trade offer was something along the lines of "the odds of getting a good player in those six picks are just too high to trade them all away". While we can't predict the future, nor the specific odds of finding Lee Stempniak or Joe Pavelski late in the draft, we can look at historical draft and development records to give us some understanding of the value of the draft picks in our hypothetical trade.

Scott did a study on the success rate of players drafted from 1997-2005 grouped by their draft slots. He defined success in a draft pick by whether the player drafted became a "top player":

So what constitutes a "top" forward in the NHL in terms of drafting? In my view, it's those forwards that are expensive and the most expensive players tend to be those players that produce consistent offence. Any forward with the "checker" label likely isn't going to be making much money and the type is frequently available for a song in free agency. It's obviously better to draft a Dominic Moore than a total bust but he's not the kind of player that should be particularly difficult to replace via free agency. We know that because he see him sign on the cheap almost every year. As such, I've set the criteria for a "successful pick" in these drafts as any player who has played a minimum of 200 NHL games and has scored a minimum of 0.5 points per game.

Defenders are a bit more complicated. The elite defensive defenders make a lot of scratch so it doesn't seem like points is the best measure of ability especially since the power-play specialist type (think Marc-Andre Bergeron) will rack up points but isn't all that expensive to replace. That said, I think a minimum points requirement is necessary; a player with no offence is surely somewhat detrimental. Thus, a 0.15 points per game minimum standard will be used to accompany the 200 GP threshold. In addition, I've decided to use a TOI minimum of 18:30 per game which should eliminate the guys who are just power play specialists.

Combining Scott's study on forwards and defensemen, NHL teams had the following hit rates from each draft slot grouping:

Draft Number Total Top Players Percentage
1 7 6 0.857
2-3 17 15 0.882
4-7 32 16 0.500
8-13 51 21 0.412
14-25 99 29 0.293
26-50 202 30 0.149
51-100 405 30 0.074
101-200 771 30 0.039
201+ 572 18 0.031

Applying Scott's criteria over the last five years generates an average of 170 forwards per year, or about five and a half per team. The defensive criteria generates an average of 94 defenseman per year, or a shade over three per team. Scott's criteria essentially draw a line between top five forwards and top three defenseman and the rest of the roster, whether he intended this or not. As you read through the rest of the article, consider the "Top Players" to be top five forwards and top three defenseman.

For the purposes of our hypothetical, we can safely assume our colleagues aren't going to trade away a top-three pick for our offer. However, we might be able to find a general manager who possesses a top ten pick and is willing to deal. From the above table, the historical odds of drafting a top player from slots 4-13 are 44.5%. Even if we were only able to trade for a player in the 8-13 grouping, the historical odds are 41.2%

Using the chart above, the odds of drafting a top player with the six picks being offered in our hypothetical trade, 46, 76, 106, 136, 166, and 196, are 32.7% - well below the odds offered to us by a player in the 4-13 grouping, or even the 8-13 grouping. In fact, the value of those six picks is actually closer to a player drafted from 14-25, not 8-13. Those players in the 14-25 grouping are more valuable than a package consisting of picks 46, 76, 106, 136, which again shows just how valuable top picks are in the NHL.

I believe a few factors contribute to the inflated valuation of lower-round picks:

Comments

Excellent article. Given that the kind of hypothetical trade you propose hasn’t happened (or I can’t recall anything similar) do you imagine that this is because no one dare offer it or no-one is willing to accept it?
I think there’s one aspect you didn’t mention, which would help explain this. Lets call it the ‘eggs in one basket’ scenario that will frighten GMs. While it might be statistically sound to put all your eggs in one basket, a GM doesn’t want to be associated with doing this because of the potentially irrevocable damage to their reputation and career should they pick a bust. To pull this move and fail will mean always being associated as “the GM who traded all our picks for a bust”. For a GM, therefore, the trade you suggest may be a career-defining gamble. From the perspective of self-preservation, it surely would seem more sound to spread the risk over many picks, so as to avoid the reputational catastrophe of blowing an entire draft.

Excellent article.

Thank you, sir.

Given that the kind of hypothetical trade you propose hasn’t happened (or I can’t recall anything similar) do you imagine that this is because no one dare offer it or no-one is willing to accept it?

Probably both. Upon first glance, it seems Milbury crazy.

I think there’s one aspect you didn’t mention, which would help explain this. Lets call it the ‘eggs in one basket’ scenario that will frighten GMs. While it might be statistically sound to put all your eggs in one basket, a GM doesn’t want to be associated with doing this because of the potentially irrevocable damage to their reputation and career should they pick a bust.

I suspect this has something to do with it, and I think it ties into bullet points one and three.

To pull this move and fail will mean always being associated as "the GM who traded all our picks for a bust". For a GM, therefore, the trade you suggest may be a career-defining gamble. From the perspective of self-preservation, it surely would seem more sound to spread the risk over many picks, so as to avoid the reputational catastrophe of blowing an entire draft.

But the hypothetical GM in our scenario still holds the 16th overall pick.

But the hypothetical GM in our scenario still holds the 16th overall pick.

True. It would still be one hell of a reputational gamble, despite it being the statistically sound thing to do. I know that you would do it, but that’s because you have balls of steel.

That reminds me: one thing you don’t mention in your analysis is the effect of this trade on the blogosphere. I mean, imagine the impact upon Lowetide of just having two prospects to talk about for the draft that year. Lordy! The cuts would bite closer to home as well: the lack of low end picks would eat into Ben’s ‘bottom of the barrel’ piece on the top 25 under 25. By pulling this kind of trade, you might make Ben’s existence on earth entirely redundant (rather than mostly redundant).

See what happened to Mike Ditka in New Orleans after he traded all his draft picks for the chance to move up and select Ricky Williams as the perfect example of the “eggs in one basket” scenario blowing up in someone’s face.

Sorry, didn’t realize someone had mentioned this below.

Ditka’s trade is nothing like this one for one simple reason – my hypothetical GM retains his 16th overall pick.

I don’t think that would have really affected the backlash that Ditka got for the trade. But I think the lesson is more in how one polarizing decision can essentially seal your fate, if unsuccesful, in today’s media climate. And this would be such a lightning rod move, it could easily break your career, and so any risk-averse GM (pretty much all of them) is going to avoid it.

And another thought just came to mind. The other factor that would dissuade GMs is if players they teams have internally ranked in the teens or more often twenties are available in the 2nd or 3rd round, which if you watch a lot of draft previews will happen not uncommonly. In that scenario, they might not view the bump from that player to a top ten player worth the price.

The problem I have with that is that all of these teams are often wrong in their assessments, and they know that they’re often wrong. Your point about backlash is a strong one though. The manager would need to carefully explain the strategy and not make the pick being acquired seem like a sure thing.

Really? I think you are forgetting what the whole trade was…

The Saints also traded away their 1st and 3rd round picks the following year.

So the trade ended up being:

1999 #5

for

1999 #12, 71, 107, 144, 179, 281
2000 #2, 64

Only 2 picks amounted to anything in that return. #179 was Desmond Clark and the 2nd OV pick in 2000 was La’Var Arrington.

Now if you look back on that trade and apply Zona’s line of thinking it works out to:

Ricky Williams for D’Wayne Bates, Nate Stimson, Khari Samuel, Desmond Clark and Billy Miller.

Most of the backlash comes from the fact that the Saints gave up their first round pick in 99 as well as their first round pick in 2000 (which ended up being 2nd overall).

I’ll disagree. The 1st round picks obviously made the trade much much worse, but even without it, the main talking point I remember was Ditka trading a “whole draft” for a dissapointing rookie Williams. Ernie Accorsi got criticized, but didn’t get nearly as much heat and was in no danger of losing his job after giving up 2 1st round picks for Eli Manning, who was horrendous as a rookie. I think the notoriety of Ditka’s move really gave him no margin for error.

The Saints have always been my #2 team behind the Bears, and the thing that ticked me off was the Saints giving up the picks in 2000 when it was pretty certain that they’d be drafting in the top 10 again.

If the trade was Rds 2-6 for Ricky Williams, there’d be very little outrage. The problem was it was Rds 1-6 and 1,3 the following year. The difference is 3 picks, 2 of which are 1st rounders.

If the trade was Rds 2-6 for Ricky Williams, there’d be very little outrage. The problem was it was Rds 1-6 and 1,3 the following year. The difference is 3 picks, 2 of which are 1st rounders.

even the trade you are proposing is horrendous. running backs do not have this kind of value. think of goalies.

I’m not sure I get your line of thinking here… how are RB and goalies at all equal in terms of drafting? For that matter, how are RB any different than QB in terms of drafting?

For that matter, how are RB any different than QB in terms of drafting?

RBs are replaceable, QBs are not. I don’t want to get this further off course, but that’s one of the tenets of any sort of ‘advanced’ thinking on football – you can often acquire an average running back for nothing, whereas acquiring an average QB is difficult. just think of all the low picks/undrafteds that have been successful RBs. trading a whole draft for ricky williams is silly, especially when you have to pay him a ton in a capped NFL.

RBs are replaceable, QBs are not. I don’t want to get this further off course, but that’s one of the tenets of any sort of ‘advanced’ thinking on football – you can often acquire an average running back for nothing, whereas acquiring an average QB is difficult. just think of all the low picks/undrafteds that have been successful RBs.

But that’s not reflected in the actual draft results.

RB: http://www.draftmetrics.com/files/HISTORICALDRAFTRBS.pdf
QB: http://www.draftmetrics.com/files/HISTORICALREVIEWQBS.pdf

When you pick in the top 13 for RB you are looking at about a success rate of around 62.5% in terms of drafting a 5 year starter, 50% of drafting a pro bowler and 37.5% of drafting an all pro.

When you pick in the top 13 for QB you are looking at about a success rate of around 68.5% in terms of drafting a 5 year starter, 50% pro bowler and 4.5% all pro.

QB, on the whole, are routinely over valued at draft time because so few end up being selected.

(By the way, http://www.draftmetrics.com/ is a great site for football fans)

trading a whole draft for ricky williams is silly, especially when you have to pay him a ton in a capped NFL.

I’m not disagreeing that it’s silly, but that wasn’t the trade. The trade was that + and it was a horrible trade (I’m not saying anything different).

The reason I got into it in the first place was because Double D compared Zona’s idea (trading rounds 2-7 for a top 10 pick) to the Ditka trade (rouinds 1-6 + 1&3 the next year), and that it was an example of what happens when you make a decision like that. The problem is that it isn’t comparable to what Zona is suggesting.

While Williams for rounds 2-6 is probably a bad trade (it is in hindsight), the problem was that it included 2 additional 1st round picks and an additional 3rd.

According to the NFL draft chart, the value of the trade itself when made was 2804 → 1700 (it assumes a slight improvement for NO) for Washington. The actual value of the trade was 4424 → 1700 for Washington. Washington was almost guaranteed to win the deal right off the bat.

Now, if you take the draft chart and apply Zona’s methodology to it (rounds 2-6) the value is 1700 → 370 for New Orleans, which is a huge win. Even including the 1st round pick it’s still 1700-1570.

Now, when you get to 1700 – 1570 I’d question giving up the larger number of picks for a relatively small increase in draft value, but it’s almost a no brainer for rounds 2-6.

When you pick in the top 13 for RB you are looking at about a success rate of around 62.5% in terms of drafting a 5 year starter, 50% of drafting a pro bowler and 37.5% of drafting an all pro.

evaluating running back play without evaluating the offensive lines which they play behind is foolish. if you get a good line, like the broncos in the late 90s, or the giants in the late 00s, you can find guys available late in the draft or undrafted free agents and turn them into excellent running backs.

quarterbacks are much more valuable players on the whole. i am looking for research that supports this – football outsiders FAQ has some decent points about it.

i guess that’s the goal in football, to have as many pro bowlers as possible? the cowboys must be doing great with that metric

No, the goal in the draft is to pick the best player possible.

if you drafted a center 8th overall, and thought he was good enough to be taken there, he’d probably be a pro bowler too. and a 5 year starter. that wouldn’t make it a good pick, because the center is just not that valuable a contributor to the team to get the kind of salary an 8th overall pick gets.

Except that OL have pretty good success rates throughout the draft, RB and QB aren’t even close to that.

the same is true of running backs.
evaluating running back play without evaluating the offensive lines which they play behind is foolish. if you get a good line, like the broncos in the late 90s, or the giants in the late 00s, you can find guys available late in the draft or undrafted free agents and turn them into excellent running backs.

Is evaluating the QB without evaluating the OL he plays behind also not foolish? There’s a pretty impressive list of QB’s who were drafted outside of the first round as well, so it’s not unique to RB.

It’s irrelevant that the QB is more valuable than a RB. The fact of the matter is your best bet to snag an impact runningback (just like every other position) comes early on in the draft. Sure you could get a late round pick or a UDFA to come in and do it, but what’s the success rate on those? It’s singificantly smaller (historically) than drafting a RB early on.

QBs determine line play more than the line determines their play.

The fact of the matter is your best bet to snag an impact runningback (just like every other position) comes early on in the draft

This is possibly the best time to snag an impact field goal kicker as well.

How could it possibly be irrelevant that one player is a more valuable component of a team? RBs are like the 8th most important player on a football team (QB, LT, WR, DT (3-4), DE (4-3), OLB (3-4), MLB (4-3) are all positions i would consider more important, with RT, TE, CB probably in a tie), they’re injury prone, and their careers end early. It’s a shame that I’ve fallen off the wagon wrt advanced football thinking, because what you’re saying is just ludicrous.

I won’t disagree with what you thought as an educated fan. But in just perusing through news archives from back then right now (university databases are apparently useful for distracting me from my research work too), most really key in on Ditka’s “whole draft” quote and the plethora of picks to build their stories. Without that year’s first, it isn’t as tight a story, but I still think it would have created a firestorm. Regardless, I’ll bow out now as we’re just arguing about our subjective viewpoints.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a major deal, but the thinking at the time was that it should have either been the 2 first round picks or the other picks, not both.

I posted this answer in the Zibanejad thread

I would probably say no deal with a lottery pick (1-5), coin toss for picks 6 – 10 and consider it a win for 11+.

After reading and considering I would probably move off of the coin toss part of my answer and say no to a 1 – 10 and yes for 11+

Looked at in a bubble.This is fairly close.

From a big picture stand point, the kinds of players ( bottom six forwards and 3rd pair defenseman) you would expect to acquire in the lower rounds would be readily available on the FA market.

BINGO!

Scenarios like this always remind me of when Ditka drafted Ricky Williams. As you described hockey is a different game though and I’d probably trade up if I were the gm that had the chance.

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