Today is, as you all well know, Day One of the 2018 NFL Draft, with the first 32 selections scheduled to take place on Thursday evening. The Seattle Seahawks currently hold pick number 18 in the first round, and with ten minutes between picks, that would likely put the team in position to make its selection sometime around 7:00 Pacific.
And by make their selection, I of course mean trade down. In the eight prior drafts in which John Schneider and Pete Carroll have been together for the Seahawks, the team had made five selections in the first round of the draft. However, it was six years ago today that Seattle selected Bruce Irvin in round one of the 2012 draft, and in the five drafts since then the team has used just a single first round selection. That lone first round selection came with the pick of Germain Ifedi in the 2016 draft, but even that first round pick wasn’t made until after the team had traded down from 26 to 31.
While many fans have grown tired of constantly trading down out of the first round, the team has remained steadfast in its dedication to doing things its way. There are several reasons why, including the financial benefits of selecting a player in the top of the second round compared to the selecting the exact same player at the bottom of the first round.
Those financial benefits include lower caps hits and a smaller amount of guaranteed salary over the course of the contract, which are important factors when considering the bust rates of players taken even in the first and second rounds of the draft. Earlier in April I looked at the success rates for all seven rounds of the draft, and for those who missed that series, here is a table that shows the long term success of draft picks by round based on several decades worth of data.
While it is certainly better to have early picks compared to late picks, how much cap space does a team really want to fully guarantee to someone who represents, at best, a coin flip to be a long term starter in the NFL? As teams move down in the draft there is less and less guaranteed money that must be given to players, so if a team is able to slide even just a few slots, it can save the team not just in overall cap hit, but in guarantees as well.
Now, there are some observers who hold that it’s better to select a player in the first round simply because of the fact that first round picks come with fifth year options at a controlled cost. It’s certainly true that players selected in the first round come with fifth year options, but those fifth year options are not necessarily an asset. For example, let’s take a look at some of the 2015 first round picks who are entering the fourth year of their rookie contract and see if they are worth the money that the fifth year option will cost.
- Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, $20.922M (Okay, but that’s more than the cap hit for Aaron Rodgers this season.)
- Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears, $13.924M (Nope.)
- Ereck Flowers, T, New York Giants, $12.525M (No way.)
- Laken Tomlinson, G, San Francisco 49ers, $9.625M (Not a chance.)
- Nelson Agholor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles, $9.387M (Ehhh . . . probably not.)
- Marcus Peters, CB, Los Angeles Rams, $9.069M (Yes, but I wish the Los Angeles Rams would have declined it).
And so on. Basically, for certain positions and for star players the fifth year option can be valuable for teams in certain situations, but how many of you are looking forward to when the Seahawks exercise the fifth year option on Germain Ifedi next spring?
The biggest example of the fifth year option carrying value comes when there is a player who is disproportionately valuable compared to other players at their position. For example, for quarterbacks, as much as no team is aching to pay Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota just under $21M, that’s still several million dollars below what a franchise quarterback makes, so is worth exercising.
This is seen at other positions as well, such as edge rushers. Vic Beasley was an All Pro and led the NFL in sacks in 2016, and the Falcons can lock up his services for $14.2M for 2019, which is not a bad price tag for a dominant edge rusher. Perhaps the most intriguing value for the fifth year option, however, is the value created by a defensive tackle who can disrupt the pocket from the interior. Defensive tackles have long been paid less than defensive ends, and very few of them are dominant pass rushers. Thus, a tackle with the ability to rush the passer and create pressure exists in a market inefficiency where the fifth year option could be extremely valuable if the player actually performs in the nfl.
It’s definitely an interesting system where the fifth year option for a player like Aaron Donald pays him $6.892M while defensive end Marcus Smith, who was taken thirteen spots later in the draft, would have been paid $8.625M on had the Eagles exercised his option. How much value is created for a team by having a player like Aaron Donald on a contract that pays him less than $7M in 2018? I mean, Donald is a generational talent who could be half as productive as he is and still easily be worth that fifth year option. What team wouldn’t pay $7M for a defensive tackle who can do this?
Thus, if the Seahawks aren’t able to trade completely out of the first round, don’t be surprise if they use their selection on a pass rushing defensive tackle who might fall, such as Maurice Hurst. Hurst has the potential to collapse the pocket, a talent on which the team spent multiple second round picks last season on Sheldon Richardson and Malik McDowell.
That brings us back to the topic of trading down. I have done enough talking and rambling for now, and the data I want to share largely speaks for itself, so here is this.
4 of 6 teams with the highest winning percentage from 1994-2015 were in top 6 for most average number of draft picks: the Patriots, Packers, Eagles, and Steelers.
Two teams that had higher W% than Eagles at .551 were Broncos and Colts. DEN was well managed, IND had Manning. pic.twitter.com/vkroEA0ssb
— Zack Moore (@ZackMooreNFL) April 25, 2018
The most important piece of that tweet, to me anyway, is the blurb at the bottom of the table in the image.
The top 10 teams had a combined winning percentage of .534. The middle 12 had a winning percentage of .487. The bottom 10 had a winning percentage of .474. The top half had a winning percentage of .520, while the bottom half had a winning percentage of .470.
To summarize, winning in the NFL is positively correlated with how many draft picks a team averages. So, for those wondering why the team continually trades down and adds more picks – it’s because the data at both the level of the individual pick as well as at the overall team strategy level indicate that is the strategy that is in the best interest of the team in the long run.
So, while there will be misses on individual players no matter the strategy used, the greatest path to long term success is to continue to do what the team has done and trade down to add more picks. We’ll see tonight just how far down from 18 the team is able to move, and how many Day 2 picks they add in the process.