What Working The Draft Board Is Really About

We have all made our opinions known about the Broncos using their first-round pick on Garett Bolles and a few wondered if the Broncos could have traded up for somebody else (say O.J. Howard) or moved down the board.

While I wasn’t a fan of the Bolles pick, I want him to succeed and wish him luck. But I do think it’s worth exploring the question about the Broncos moving up or down the board and when it makes sense.

We tend to think that moves up or down the board make sense based on the player a team is interested in, but there’s more to it than that. Whenever you move up the board, you want to minimize your risk because you can’t always guarantee that the player you move up the board for will pan out like you think he will. And when you move down, you want to ensure your maximize your return from moving down so that it’s worth it, regardless of whether or not you miss out on the player you want by moving down.

Of course, any time a team acquires additional picks, it needs to pick the right players, and the same holds true when you give up picks for a higher draft pick. But the root of what makes a trade up or down the board work is more dependent on the picks you get in return or give up (or if a veteran player is involved, who the player is).

Let’s look back at the Broncos’ two most recent moves up the board in the first round. When they moved up the board to select Shane Ray in the 2015 first round, they moved up from the No. 28 spot to the No. 23 spot and sent two fifth-round picks and guard Manuel Ramirez (a player who might have been a training camp cut had he not been traded). That was a solid move up the board and it helped that the Lions were willing to take a player the Broncos were likely to cut at some point. Had they not been able to include Ramirez, they probably would have had to send a higher pick in either 2015 or 2016 than they did.

When they traded up to select Paxton Lynch last year, they moved up from the No. 31 spot to the No. 26 spot, sending a third-round pick in return. Again, that was a good draft day move, because the pick was the rough equivalent of what they sent to the Lions the year before in the trade to select Ray. In each case, they did a solid job of minimizing the risk. With Ray, they had the depth at the time to withstand giving up a couple of fifth rounders, and with Lynch, they had another third-round pick (the compensatory pick received for Julius Thomas) so it was fine to send the pick to Seattle that they did.

But if moving up five spots in the latter part of the first round is worth a third-round pick, that tells you that moving up two spots in that part of the draft is not worth a third-round pick. And it tells you that, if you plan to trade down, you are going to want a third-round pick to move down five spots.

That brings us to this year’s draft. Let’s say you want to move up the board, ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to get O.J. Howard. We do have to keep in mind, though, that you are doing this assuming the Bucs want Howard when you make the move (in other words, no hindsight bias is allowed). If you are willing to give up a third-round pick for him, then the highest you would move up the board is to No. 15, when the Colts are picking.

But if you were willing to give up that pick to move to No. 15, are the Colts willing to move down? Therein lies the rub – you can’t move up if the other team won’t move down at your asking price. If that teams tells you “we have our guy and we’re taking him,” you’re going to have to up the offer to more than you should really pay in order to get Howard. So how much more you are willing to go, that’s the question.

If you move up to No. 16, you might justify the third-round pick, but not to No. 17 and certainly not to No. 18. For No. 17, you go to a fourth-round pick at the most, then it drops to a fifth-round pick at No. 18. All the while, you need to hope that team is willing to move down and doesn’t tell you “we have our guy and we’re taking him” because then you get into a bidding war that could very well be against yourself.

Okay, so if it doesn’t appear you can move up the board to get Howard, why not trade down and select Bolles later if that’s the player you want? Again, that’s a good idea in theory, but in practice, it has to be worth trading down. So if it’s worth giving up a third-round pick to trade five spots up the board, then you want a third-round pick to move five spots down the board.

That, of course, was when the Browns were picking (No. 25). However, the Browns didn’t seem to be interested in moving up at that point and were waiting for the board to fall to them. Oakland picked at No. 24 and, while I don’t believe you refuse to trade picks with the Raiders because they are a division rival, I suspect Reggie McKenzie would have been content to stay put, too. Thus, both teams would probably be unwilling to give up a third-round pick (or in the Browns’ case, even their own fourth-round pick) to move up.

I tend to doubt the Lions, Dolphins or Giants were itching to move up the board, so that leaves teams that draft after the Browns. The Falcons moved up in the first round, but if you make the trade with Atlanta, the asking price will be higher than what Atlanta sent to the Seahawks in the trade they actually made. The Falcons sent a third- and a seventh-round pick to Seattle to move up five spots (so they actually gave up slightly more than the Broncos did for five-spot moves), which means the Broncos are well within their rights to ask the Falcons for a second-round pick, straight up, or a pick higher than the Falcons’ seventh-round pick (I’d say a fifth-round pick) in addition to the third rounder.

Would the Falcons make that trade? Who knows, but that’s what you have to keep in mind if you consider a move down the board. If you aren’t getting good value in terms of the picks you get in return, you shouldn’t make the move.

It’s fine to point out how well teams like the Browns, the 49ers, the Bills and the Seahawks worked the draft board. But it’s not a question of who were the players they got; it’s a question of how they minimized risk in moving up and maximized value in return for moving down. I think they all did a good job getting plenty in return for moving down. In the moves up, the Browns and Niners gave up roughly the same amount, so they did reasonably well. How the players they selected will perform remains to be seen, but that will not negate how well they worked the board.

And it’s fine to question whether or not the Broncos should have selected Bolles, but trading up or down the board isn’t that simple. If you can find a team willing to deal, chances are you’ll get proper value for the move up or down. But in moving up, if teams are telling you “we have our guy and we’re taking him” – which I almost guarantee was what John Lynch was telling the Bears without tipping them off as to who the player was – you’re going to be doing what the Bears did, and that’s giving up more than you should to move up. And if everyone you want to trade down with is lukewarm to the idea, you’re better off staying put rather than getting less value in return for a move down.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.