The Las Vegas Raiders are just over a year and a half removed from the “trade heard round the NFL”. So what have those picks translated into?
On September 1, 2018 the Raiders shipped Khalil Mack, their 2020 second-round pick, and a conditional fifth-round pick to the Bears for their 2019 first-round pick (24th overall, Josh Jacobs), 2019 sixth, a 2020 first-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick. The coverage over the ensuing weeks was mayhem, especially for head coach Jon Gruden specifically.
A Brief Look Back…
Every possible sports outlet was questioning whether or not the Raiders, and Gruden, made the right move, fans began to wonder the same thing. Many wondered why Mack and the Raiders couldn’t reach a new deal. Some analysts said they didn’t get enough for the potential Hall of Famer. Others even asked out loud if it was merely a power move and Gruden chose to ship him out over hurt feelings. While we can’t accurately assess who “won” and who “lost” this trade yet. I wonder what value a draft pick actually holds.
What’s the big deal with draft picks?
We often hear throughout the league that general managers can be stingy with their selections, especially their first-round picks, but why is that? Some answers are obvious in the fact the best talent the college game has to offer goes in the first three rounds. Other reasons, for the casual and non-diehard fans, are not so obvious. One of those is that some rounds can provide “cornerstones” for a franchise. Which slots in particular?
A successful NFL career
Ten years in the NFL is often considered a long and successful career and of course you want your franchise players to be on your team for roughly that length, if not longer. Jeff Daniel at Medium.com, did the leg work for me here. He took a combined 20 years of drafts, 4,612 draft selections and charted how long their careers lasted. The numbers show that first and second round draft picks had careers that lasted six to ten years, 45.2% and 44.8% of the time respectively. The drop-off after that is incredible as third rounders only had a six to ten-year careers 34.7% of the time and fourth round selections ended up with only 29% of the time.
What’s even more amazing is that only first round picks had careers that lasted 11-15 years in the double-digit percentages at 16.6%. One could essentially conclude that your best chance of finding a franchise player is going to be in the first or second round, because let’s be honest, not every late round draft pick can be a Tom Brady (who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft).
Not Every First Rounder Will Be a Hit…
However, not every first or second round selection will be a hit. This is shown in Daniels’ numbers as well. Of the 633 first round draft picks, 238 (37.6%) of them had careers in the zero to five-year range. While I personally think we overuse the term “bust”, it does apply and is accurate to some draft picks. Nobody in their right mind would say JaMarcus Russell or Ryan Leaf were “stars” in their respective days. However, a lot goes into whether or not a player succeeds or faltered at the NFL level. The coaches, the system he’s in, the environment around him, injuries and the biggest chunk of it all, the player himself. There is a certain amount of gambling that goes into selecting a draft pick after all. It’s too hard to accurately predict which players will have that drive to thrive or the one’s that will put in the extra work to get better.
If you’re a general manager in the NFL you have to rely on your pre-draft process to give you the best insight as to who will have those aforementioned traits and fit within your teams’ schemes. This is more than likely the reason draft picks are valued the way they are. You don’t get to have a sit-down interview with players you’re attempting to trade for before you acquire them. They often just pull the trigger and hope it all works out.
The risk of pulling the trigger (or not)
All draft picks are simply “potential” after all. You have no legitimate way to gauge if a player’s talent will carry over to the NFL. The college game and the pro game are drastically different from a talent and IQ standpoint, which rookies have to overcome. So, what if you could trade “project” for something a little more solid? How many of us would take the proverbial bird in our hand instead of two in the bush? You typically don’t trade for players that have had little to no success in the NFL. You usually only swap those valued picks for playmakers you’ve seen succeed at the highest level.
Hence why the Bears decided to swap two first-round draft picks for Mack. And yet, we’ve recently seen arguably the best wide receiver in the game in DeAndre Hopkins get moved for essentially a second-round draft pick. The caveat to trades though is this; just like draft picks, not every trade works out for the best. Another recent example of this (again, I’m sorry Raider Nation) is the trade for Antonio Brown, who never played a down for the Raiders after an offseason filled with drama and headaches. This is a perfect example of how sometimes you just have to pull that trigger and hope it works out. I’d like to imagine that if Mike Mayock and Gruden could’ve sat down with Brown and had a long in-depth conversation, prospect-interview style, they don’t make that trade.
What about those cornerstones?
While it’s totally conceivable a team could trade for one of those coveted cornerstones, you’re most likely not going to get the longevity you would from a draft pick. So, perhaps the main reason general managers like to hold on to those selections is they have more control over who they are bringing into their respective organizations. Perhaps it’s the possible length organizations can get out of a draft pick as opposed to trading for a player. Perhaps its something more only team executives could answer.
As fans, we know by now that when trading draft picks for a player already in the league you’re swapping a major unknown for something a little less uncertain. Both picks and trades for players have a possibility for boom-or-bust. The real question is this: Which one are you willing to go all in on? It’s easy when we’re fans sitting at home without the repercussion of losing our job hanging over our heads if it doesn’t work out. So, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate Mayock and the perceived positive direction he’s taking the Raiders in just a little bit more, because I am willing to bet, that 90% of us wouldn’t know what to really do if we we’re in his shoes.
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