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Are NFL draft pick value charts accurate?

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Let’s score some recent trades and see if they hold up.

Every year, draft obsessives look at the NFL Draft Value Chart, which gives a point value to different draft picks so that you can figure out what a (roughly) fair trade is. For example, the San Francisco 49ers second overall pick this spring is worth 2,600 points (while first overall is 3,000). Mr. Irrelevant costs you 2 points; the entire 7th round, all 32 picks combined, is only worth 256.3.

The first few picks have skyrocketing value, which is great news for Niners fans this year. Consider the tie breaker with the Raiders and the Jets; Oakland/Las Vegas’ pick (#4 overall) is worth only 1,800 points. So by winning that tie breaker, the Niners’ gained 800 points, which is the value of Seattle’s first round pick this year at #21 overall. That’s right, #2 overall is worth #4 overall plus #21 overall.

Sure, the three teams reverse their pecking order in the second round, but the difference between #34 (560 points) and San Francisco’s #36 (540) is tiny; 20 points is a bit less than pick #23 in the 6th round.

Or is it? Jimmy Johnson’s chart has been criticized for overvaluing top picks. Wouldn’t you rather have two first round picks, instead of one that’s just two slots higher? Not necessarily.

This is the genius of the chart, because elite talent is rare, and the Niners’ need for a great edge rusher is a perfect example. There are two, possibly three great sure-fire pass rushers this year. There aren’t four.

If Arizona does not take Bosa, or you don’t think Josh Allen is that much better than, say, Jachai Polite, you might gamble on a trade down to #4 for an extra first rounder. But if you need the best edge rusher possible — and a lot of people think San Francisco does — some marginal cornerback at the end of the first round will be weak compensation for not getting what you desperately need.

Some people have tried to improve on the chart. Around 2012, Football Perspective website and a group from Harvard each made their own chart, which dropped the relative value of the top spots. Johnson’s chart has #1 overall worth 1,500 times more than #224, but Football Perspective’s top pick is only 346 times as much (0.1 to 34.6), and Harvard’s increase is a mere 15.9 times (31.1 to 494.6).

But I can’t find anyone who admits to still using these charts, while Johnson’s still seems to be the starting point for NFL trades. Jerry Jones claims he has his own chart, but is he really the expert you want to follow?

Now keep in mind, the value is for the draft picks themselves. The fact that you choose a bad player with the pick you got doesn’t change the trade’s value. You just spent your pick unwisely.

According to this chart, for example, the Trent Richardson trade was a win for Cleveland. They got the #3 overall pick (2200 points), and gave up #4 overall (1800), plus a fourth, fifth and seventh round pick (worth only 58, 36.5 and 7 points respectively). That’s a 300 point score.

But: Trent Richardson was obviously a bust, and few people think any RB that high is a good idea. Plus it was a weak draft at the top; the next best players, in hindsight, might have been Luke Kuechly (#9) and Fletcher Cox (#12). There was no good reason to move up that year.

What about the Trubisky trade? The Niners got an extra 3rd (#67) and 4th (#111), plus Chicago’s 3rd rounder the following year (#70, which turned into Fred Warner) — all just to move down one spot.

On the charts, discounting Warner’s pick to a 2017 4th like you do, the Niners gave up 2600 points in the form of the second overall pick, and got (2200 + 255 + 72 + 96) = 2,623 points — a tiny bump.

But Lynch didn’t need to be a genius to know that Chicago was not moving up to get Solomon Thomas, and obviously he wasn’t sold on Trubisky, so it was pretty much free money. You’d think, though, that Bears GM Ryan Pace would know that if the Niners were even discussing a trade, they weren’t sold on Trubisky so the Bears didn’t need to trade at all.

Let’s look at some of last year’s trades and see if the chart is reflected in the swaps. Keep in mind a couple of things. A 3rd day pick next year is generally one round higher than the same pick this year. (e.g. the Patriots got a 3rd round pick in 2019 last year for their 2018 4th round pick.) Also, late rounds have so little value that the chart hardly matters. It’s almost a courtesy between GMs to swap 7th rounders, either worth an extra pick or maybe I’ll scratch your back later.

So, consider the Dante Pettis trade. The 49ers gave up a 2nd round pick (#59) and a 3rd (#74) — 310 + 220 points — to move up 15 slots in the 2nd (to #44 overall), and also got #148 in the 5th round as a sweetener (460 + 31.8). On the chart they overpaid mildly, giving up 530 points and getting 491.8 back, but it’s not a huge difference.

The Cardinals gave up #15, #79 and #152 — 1275.2 combined — for #10 overall (1300 points) to get Josh Rosen. Pretty close. But the Bills overpaid 400 points to grab QB Josh Allen: #7 overall and #255 (1501 points) in exchange for #12, #53 and #56 (1910 combined points). According to the chart, they should have been able to get him with only one of those two 2nd round picks plus their first.

One final example: the Bills swapped first round picks with the Ravens, moving up from #22 to #16, also surrendering a 3rd round pick (#65) in exchange for a 5th (#154). All told, they gave up 1,045 points in exchange for 1029.4, an almost perfectly even swap.

There are obviously a lot of complicating factors, but after more than 25 years Jimmy Johnson’s draft chart is still holding up pretty well.