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Yes, the Steelers could trade into the Top 10. Consider the Jets and Lions

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Steeler fans write off the big move up because the trade chart says it is too expensive. But there is more than one chart to consider!

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

BBig trades happen in the NFL draft. But how is that possible if everyone uses the same chart to measure value and simple arithmetic says someone lost out on the deal? The answer is simple. They don’t use the same chart. Teams with many needs to fill, or needs they can fill just as well later in the draft, will put a very different value on very high picks than a team in search of a particular star or a shot at a franchise QB. The well known Jimmy Johnson NFL Draft Trade Value Chart looks at transactions from the star-oriented point of view. To see the other side you need to look at the somewhat more obscure Harvard NFL Draft Career Value Chart.

This article tries to explain how those different charts make a Steelers trade into the Top 10 a lot more viable than most people think, and why a Top 10 team might be eager to oblige. I will examine two scenarios to show how this works. The first is a hypothetical (and somewhat far-fetched) mega-trade in which the New York Jets swap their entire draft in exchange for the Steelers’. I want to say up front that I doubt this one is realistic without a great deal of tweaking, but the mock draft that comes out of it could not illustrate the issue any better. The Jets get killed on the Johnson Chart, earn a clear win on the Harvard Chart, and - sure enough - walk away with a draft class far better than what the team would get from standing pat. If nothing else the exercise proves that the Harvard approach makes a lot of sense and that Jets fans should value potential trades from that angle.

The second, more limited trade is an exchange where the Detroit Lions hand over the single pick at 1:08 in exchange for the Steelers’ picks at 1:20, 3:19, and 5:02. Again, the resulting mock gives both teams more of what they want than standing pat would do.

The bottom line is this: Both trades make sense because both teams win; the Steelers from a Johnson Chart angle and the Jets and Lions from a Harvard Chart POV. Pittsburgh gets that missing Grade A defensive superstar in either case; New York would get to fill the core of its roster with starting talent in at least half a dozen essential spots; and Detroit would get an almost-as-good pass rusher at 1:20 while adding two key picks in the rich, Round 2-5 hunting grounds where its other targets reside.

I honestly believe this discussion will duplicate a lot of what GM’s in all three organizations are doing right now as they enter into not-so-tentative negotiations in anticipation of the upcoming draft. Read on and then let us know your thoughts in the Comments.

NOTE. I have done my best to represent each team’s perspective as accurately as possible. This is not some idle, Steelers-oriented fantasy trip. I grew up in the 1970’s as a devoted follower of Jets’ heroes like Emerson Boozer and later Joe Klecko, and I have nothing whatsoever against the Lions. Team needs were obtained by consulting our peers at Gang Green Nation and Pride of Detroit.

The Jimmy Johnson NFL Draft Trade Value Chart

Jimmy Johnson was a very good football coach and systematic thinker about the game. He doesn’t get off that easy - he did, after all, sell his soul services to one of the NFL devils [I’ll tell you ‘bout dem damned Cowboys...] - but he does deserve due credit for building the first table I know of that tries to ballpark the value for particular draft picks. Legend says he built the chart as a quick reference to rein in his instincts when offered a tempting draft day trade, but it’s since grown into a monster he never intended. At least in the hands of amateur draftniks like yours truly who have used it as a measuring stick for who “won” a particular trade. Here is a version I have color coded to show the particular draft picks at issue for the Steelers, Jets and Lions respectively:

Step back and think about that. Johnson put the value of the #1 overall pick (1:01) at three thousand (3,000) points and the value of the final draft pick (7:32) at just one (1) point. Really? The good folks in the Harvard economics department didn’t think so. They looked at the Johnson Chart and said something like this:

That can’t be right! For every Peyton Manning there is a Jamarcus Russell. Do you really think you could sift out the ten best careers of thirty thousand late-7th picks and they would average out to be worse than the corresponding careers of ten random 1:01 guys? No way! I could do better with UDFA’s alone!

We can all agree with that, but how to test it? And what would be a more accurate approach?

The Harvard NFL Career Value Chart

The math types began by building a complicated (but pretty sound) metric they called “Average Career Value,” which looks at completed careers, assigns value to various achievements and failures, and then mashes it all together into a single number. With that in hand they plotted the ACV of every player ever drafted against his draft position, and then built a competing table based on that approach. And sure enough they were right! The average ACV of a 1:01 pick is, as expected, much higher than the ACV of a late 7th. But the #1 prospects are only sixteen times as productive as the Mr. Irrelevants, not three thousand. Here is a color coded copy of the Harvard Chart (normalized on a linear basis to include compensatory picks and smooth out an unexplained bump toward the end):

So who is right? It depends on your point of view

Let’s stop here for a moment to translate all this from Statistics back into English. Both tables are “right” because they measure different things.

Football is the ultimate team game and every player matters. That’s a platitude no one would challenge. We also know that some matter players more than others. RB1’s deserve - and get - more money than CB3’s, just as starting QB’s get more money than RB1’s. But that does not change the trite but true reality that all of them matter, and it takes at least 30-40 Grade B and C players to fill out a roster. The Harvard chart gives appropriate - and proper - value to all those contributors. The Jimmy Johnson chart does not.

At the same time, the Harvard chart fails to recognize that a roster with 20 C’s, 20 B’s, and 13 A’s is going to win many more Super Bowls than a roster with 53 B+’s. You can only play eleven men at any one time. Thus special playmakers really do deserve - and get - much more money than mere contributors. As this fascinating article pithily summarizes the bottom line:

As it turns out, a lot of the best teams play a pretty dangerous game: the more you spend on your top 10 salaries, the better your team is going to be ... right up until you’ve spent too much. [The magic number turns out to be around 60% FWIW]

Jimmy Johnson was trying to put a number on the extra value an A+ player gives over the multiple B’s already on your roster. The Harvard folks were describing how to build a team for the future. And that difference is why big trades work for both sides of the equation.

The Mega Trade - NY Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers Swap Their Drafts

The Jets have a roster with quite a few Grade A players supported by a vast bulk of Grade C talent. New York needs a raft of B’s and B+’s far more than one more potential star. Heck, without exaggerating the issue I will say the team of my childhood could easily absorb 10 solid starters in place of its fringier talent, and maybe another 5-10 for solid depth. Finding those men is the #1 target of the New York draft, not some player who’ll be waiting at 1:03! But how to do it with only six (6) picks? Ater 1:03 the Jets have nothing but a pair of 3rds, a 4th, a 6th, and a 7th. By contrast the Steelers have a total of ten (10) picks: 1:20, 2:20, 3:02 and 3:19, 4:20, 5:02, three in Round 6, and a 7th. Those add up to the following amounts on the Johnson and Harvard value charts:

It’s simple enough. Anyone who wants a transcendent star should prefer the Jets draft, but anyone with a team to build should opt for the Steelers’ instead. The Steelers are the first and the Jets the second, so why not swap positions? And you know what? This mega-trade actually works out well for both sides! Here is a pair of mock I’ve put together to illustrate the point:

N.Y. JETS (Team Needs = two C/G’s, 4-3 EDGE, OT, CB, WR, TE, RB2, and DT)

  • 1:20 - Edge Rusher Clelin Ferrell or DL/Edge Rashan Gary. The Jets hired Gregg Williams as the new Defensive Coordinator. Steeler Nation knows him well from his time in Cleveland. 4-3 Edge Rushers are one of his top priorities, ideally guys who are big and long. Both Ferrell and Gary players are perfect fits, and one of the two should be available at 1:20. ALTERNATIVE PICK: Edge Brian Burns, Edge Montez Sweat, or C/G Garrett Bradbury (who I’d go with if Edge Rushers were more available later on).
  • 2:20 - OT Yodny Cajuste, or OT Greg Little, or C/G Elgton Jenkins. FALLBACK EDGE PROSPECTS: Edge Charles Omenihu or Edge Jachai Polite. HUGELY LUCKY ALTERNATIVES: C/G Garrett Bradbury, C/G Erik McCoy, C/G Chris Lindstrom, or OT/G/C Dalton Risner (none would fall past the early 2nd in a fair and just world but, well, you know the rest).
  • 3:02 - Best Option at CB. Gregg Williams’ pressure oriented defense demands versatile Corners but also has the flexibility to deal with moderate limitations. The early-2nd to mid-3rd is the [only] sweet spot in this class for fulfilling that order. My choices for New York would include: Julian Love (smaller than ideal but a complete player); Amani Oruwariye (unlikely to be there); one of the big Corners with only okay C.O.D. like Justin Layne, Trayvon Mullen (unlikely to be there), or Rock Ya Sin; or a slightly undersized, in-your-face, press specialist like David Long.
  • 3:19 - WR Emanuel Hall or an Equivalent. Emanuel Hall is a tremendous deep threat who’d give Sam Darnold whole new type of weapon while freeing up Quincy Enunwa. ALTERNATIVE PICKS: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Riley Ridley, Antoine Wesley, or Mecole Hardman. Don’t get hung up on the specific names. This year’s WR class is incredibly deep in Rounds 3-6 and you should feel free to pick your favorite. There’s bound to be one. SECOND ALTERNATIVE: If the Jets don’t get a Tackle in Round 2, try this year’s small school wunderkind OT Tytus Howard.
  • 4:20 - G/C Connor McGovern or G Nate Davis. ALTERNATIVE PICKS: This obviously assumes the primary picks above. WR’s, RB’s and TE’s are thick on the ground if the pattern works out differently.
  • 5:03 - TE Josh Oliver or TE Dax Raymond or TE Alize Mack or TE Foster Moreau or any of the other studly TE’s who ought to be available.
  • 6:02 - OT/G Max Scharping or G/OT Bobby Evans or OT Isaiah Prince. Problem. Bleeping. Solved. All three of these are solid, Grade B/C prospects who should grow into more than mere depth. I would expect them to go in Round 4 of an average class, but this year is different because the O-Line has so many good prospects for Day 1 and Day 2. Triple-dipping on the OL makes sense for the Jets for three good reasons: security, depth, and because they now have the extra picks to take the BPA steal.ALTERNATIVE PICKS: The RB cluster will be far from exhausted, so maybe RB Rodney Anderson (injured star) if he falls? There may also be a depth piece steal at DT and will probably be one at WR if you think a double dip is called for.
  • 6:19 - RB Devine Ozigbo. “Lev Bell Lite”. There are many, many other names you could plug in. The class has few RB1’s to offer but is loaded beyond bearing with RB2’s and RB3’s.
  • 6:34 - Boom or Bust #1
  • 7:05 - Boom or Bust #2

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

  • 1:03 - Edge/Buck ILB Josh Allen or Mack ILB Devin White. Drop. The. Hammer. Either one would push the Steelers defense over the top.
  • 3:04 - BPA at Outside CB or Cover-Capable FS. Pittsburgh needs one of the two but the second is much more of a want. The Steelers will target either a Corner that slips past the Jets at 3:02 or one of the Safeties like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Darnell Savage, Deionte Thompson, or Amani Hooker. ALTERNATIVE PICK: FS Will Harris or an offensive weapon.
  • 3:29 - WR/TE or TE/WR. ALTERNATIVE PICKS: If the team went with Josh Allen at 1:03 I would get the Mack ILB here: Ben Burr-Kirven, Blake Cashman, Terrill Hanks, David Long, Bobby Okereke, Germaine Pratt, or Cameron Smith.
  • 4:03 - TE/WR or WR/TE.
  • 6:23 - RB3
  • 7:03 - Edge Malik Reed. Because.

The Focused Trade - Lions Get 1:20 and the AB Consideration; Steelers Get 1:08

Rumor has it that the Lions are aggressively looking to trade down in order to fill the team’s primary needs where this year’s talent tends to cluster. The top priority is probably a pass rusher, but Matt Patricia’s scheme will accommodate either an Edge player or a penetrating DT and only requires a good talent for that job rather than a great one. 1:20 should be about right for that description (see below). After that, the Lions want help in the defensive backfield, a really good C/G, and a receiving weapon. The sweet spots for those positions? Right around where Pittsburgh picks in the Round 2/3 range. Throw in an early 5th sweetener and this trade makes a lot of sense for the Lions.

Meanwhile, Steeler Nation understood that the Pittsburgh/Buffalo trade for Antonio Brown would have been a simple swap of the picks at 1:20 and 1:09. How poetic to end up with 1:08 instead. You can’t complain about that!

But does the swap still make sense when you look at “the numbers”? Again, it depends on how you value the picks:

The Johnson Chart says, “Not quite yet Steelers...” The Harvard Chart says, “You’re getting a steal Lions...” Sounds like a classic win-win to me. Oh yes, and the mock says much the same.

DETROIT LIONS

1:20 - DT Christian Wilkins or DE Clelin Ferrell or DE/DT Rashan Gary. One of them should be there at 1:20. If the Lions would have been happy with any of the three at 1:08, dropping back and getting the extra consideration cost nothing and provides two good shots at B+ and B- prospects later on. ALTERNATIVE PICKS: CB Greedy Williams, CB Byron Murphy, or CB Deandre Baker.

2:11 [Currently owned] and 3:02 [from Oakland via Pittsburgh] - Just like the Jets, Detroit wins in this trade because the early-2nd to mid-3rd is the sweet spot for both the CB and the C/G talent of this draft, and is also the beginning of the long run of WR talent. I will say the Lions go with... C/G Garrett Bradbury, C/G Erik McCoy, C/G Chris Lindstrom, or OT/G/C Dalton Risner at 2:11 (Steal City for the big cats!), and then use the 3:02 pick one of that same list of Corners: Julian Love, Justin Layne, Trayvon Mullen, Rock Ya Sin, or David Long. ALTERNATIVE PICKS: CB Amani Oruwariye at 2:11; a WR bargain at 3:02 like Deebo Samuel or any of ten others I could list. See the BTSC Big Board if you want more names.

3:24 [Currently owned] - Best Option at WR. There should be a really good one.

4:09, 5:03 [from Oakland via Pittsburgh] and 5:08 - Rich pickings! Corners will be getting thin on the ground by now but this is the perfect spot for grabbing a B+ ILB, a TE to compete with Jesse James (good luck in Detroit young man!), another player for the O-Line, or the next tier of penetrating DL players like DT Khalen Saunders, DT Daylong Mack, or DT Trysten Hill. Maybe even DT Gerald Willis. And don’t forget the four (4!) Round 6 and 7 picks that should allow Detroit to either trade up selectively or to bring in all the players Patricia could want in order to swap out Grade C role players for Grade B potential starters.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

1:08 Mack ILB Devin White. And this is the rub! I’m not sure I’d make this trade to move up for Devin Bush, but I would for White. So this is a draft day trade and not something you’d do in advance as might be the case with the Jets/Steelers transaction.

2:20 [No need to continue]

CONCLUSION

This has been an exceedingly long article but it really comes down to one simple point with two examples. My Point: The Jimmy Johnson Trade Chart is but one of several ways to judge draft value and in many cases it tends to overstate what the earliest picks are worth. The Examples: Teams like the Jets (who need several Grade B’s more than one A+) and the Lions (a 1:20 prospect would be almost as good as 1:08 and an extra Day 2 is huge) provide examples of why. Teams in those situations are going to have more of a Harvard perspective on this class than a Johnson one.

Steelers fans have written off the Big Trade as impossibly expensive. It simply isn’t so. It’s all a matter of finding the right partner.