There were eight trades in the first day involving the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Most of them involved small shifts in the primary pick, with third day picks added as additional compensation. The one outlying trade was that of the St Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, which involved a substantial shift in the #1 pick (from 6 to 14) and the secondary compensation was substantial. This high secondary compensation has led to criticism of the trade, most notably by Dan Graziano, whose argument, boiled to its essence, is that Dallas paid a 2 pick price for Morris Claiborne.
Counting picks is a lousy method to judge trades. After all, Dallas paid a 4 pick price for Tony Dorsett. Was that trade twice as bad a trade as the Morris Claiborne trade? The Fletcher Cox trade saw Philadelphia give up 3 picks for Fletcher Cox. Was that trade 50% worse than the Morris Claiborne trade?
In order to deal with the issues raised above, I will introduce a new analytic metric for analyzing trade risk, the risk ratio, which is the sum of the AV values of the picks given, divided by the sum of the AV values of the picks received. For trades with a ratio of 1.0 or less, there is no risk at all. For trades with ratios approaching 2 or so, there is substantial risk. We are now aided in this kind of analysis by Pro Football Reference’s new average AV per draft pick chart. This is a superior tool to their old logarithmic fit, because while the data may be noisy, they avoid systematically overestimating the value of first round picks.
The first thing to note about the 8 trades is that the risk ratio of 6 of them is approximately the same. There really is no difference, practically speaking, in the relative risk of the Trent Richardson trade, or the Morris Claiborne trade, or the Fletcher Cox trade. Of the two remaining trades, the Justin Blackmon trade was relatively risk free. Jacksonville assumed an extra value burden of 10% for moving up to draft the wide receiver. The other outlier, Harrison Smith, can be explained largely by the noisy data set and an unexpectedly high value of AV for draft pick 98. If you compensate by using 13 instead of 23 for pick #98, you get a risk ratio of approximately 1.48, more in line with the rest of the data sets.
Armed with this information, and picking on Morris Claiborne, how good does he have to be for this trade to be break even? Well, if his career nets 54 AV, then the trade breaks even. If he has a HOF career (AV > 100), then Dallas wins big. The same applies to Trent Richardson. For the trade to break even, Trent has to net at least 64 AV throughout his career. Figuring out how much AV Doug Martin has to average is a little more complicated, since there were multiple picks on both sides, but Doug would carry his own weight if he gets 21*1.34 ≈ 28 AV.
By historic measures, none of the 2012 first round trades were particularly risky. Looking at some trades that have played out in the past, and one that is still playing out, the diagram above shows the picks traded for Julio Jones, for Michael Vick, for Tony Dorsett, and also for Earl Campbell.
The Julio Jones trade has yet to play out, but Atlanta, more or less, assumed as much risk (93 AV) as they did for Michael Vick (94 AV), except for a #4 pick and a wide receiver. And although Michael is over 90 AV now, counting AV earned in Atlanta and Philadelphia, he didn’t earn the 90+ AV necessary to balance out the trade while in Atlanta.
Tony Dorsett, with his HOF career, paid off the 96 AV burden created by trading a 1st and three 2nd round choices for the #2 pick. Once again, the risk was high, the burden was considerable, but it gave value to Dallas in the end.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison is the assessment of the Earl Campbell trade. Just by the numbers, it was a bust. Jimmie Giles, the tight end that was part of the trade, had a long and respectable career with Tampa Bay. That, along with the draft picks, set a bar so high that only the Ray Lewis’s of the world could possibly reach. And while Campbell was a top performer, his period of peak performance was short, perhaps 4 years. That said, I still wonder if Houston would still make the trade, if somehow someone could go back in to the past, with the understanding of what would happen into the relative future. Campbell’s peak was pretty phenomenal, and not entirely encompassed by a mere AV score.