Monday, March 7, 2011

The Myth of the Patriots Trade-Down

We football fans love to talk about the draft and about our team's options during the offseason, and one of the most popular options is "trade down". Whenever somebody mentions the possibility of their team trading down to grab extra draft picks, people get excited. If you asked the typical fan whether he'd approve of dropping down a few spots in the first round to nab an extra fourth- or fifth-rounder, most would go, "Sign me up! That's what the Patriots do, isn't it?"

Somewhere in the ether, this belief has popped up that the New England Patriots are a successful franchise because of a draft strategy of quantity over quality - or perhaps more fairly, quality via quantity. They trade down repeatedly to pick up as many picks as possible, including mid- to late-round picks, then turn them into starters, then trade those starters after a few years for more picks. Thus New England ends up with better players just by virtue of selling high and having more players to develop.

In other words, the media's gushing about "the rich getting richer" has folks thinking that the Patriots are running around winning with a bunch of 4th-round Pro Bowlers and overachieving 7th-round depth - the ultimate poster boys for "build through the draft".

But consider this recent tweet from NFL Draft Bible:
Between 2005-2008 the Patriots had 26 draft picks & failed on every selection except 3 (Meriweather/Mayo/D.Thomas) Terrible. Check 4urself.
And it sent me on yet another weekend-consuming research project. Check 4urself...

Just this last draft, New England pulled the trigger on some trade-downs of just the variety that gets people buzzing. Starting with the #22 pick, they traded with Denver and dropped two spots to #24, picking up an extra fourth-rounder. Then they traded from #24 back to #27 with Dallas to pick up an extra third. The fourth-rounder turned into TE Aaron Hernandez, a terrific value pick who put up John Carlson rookie stats.

The third-rounder, however, turned into WR Taylor Price, who had 3 catches for 41 yards this year. That's a disappointing return even for a rookie third-rounder, especially on a team whose quarterback can make any receiver look good.

Meanwhile, Dallas took the #24 pick that Belichick gave up for Price and picked a better receiver, the promising Dez Bryant. Also lost to the Patriots was Dan Williams, a 3-4 nose tackle who might well have been on the Patriots' board but went to Arizona at #26.

Some would say, "Who cares? The Patriots still grabbed a great fourth-round starter at the cost of only two spots AND still grabbed a great first-rounder in CB Devin McCourty. That's more than most boring teams would accomplish by staying put. Classic Belichick victory!"

Fine and good - except that Aaron Hernandez pretty much represents the ceiling of this kind of move for the Patriots. Take a look at their current roster and see how many mid- to late-rounders are starting.

1st Rounders505
2nd Rounders538
3rd Rounders022
4th Rounders123
5th Rounders213
6th Rounders112
7th Rounders123
Free Agents from Other Teams8*1018
Undrafted Free Agents358
* - Includes kicker and long snapper

I personally was surprised to find out that the Patriots' roster has more free agents signed from other teams than they do 3rd-7th rounders. I'm not sure how this compares league-wide - the Packers have 36 draft picks to the Patriots' 26, though the Patriots have had much better success with undrafted free agents.

But it certainly doesn't support the notion that the Pats have built through the draft more than other teams, much less with lower-round picks. It makes it look like the Patriots are winning with premiere talent - first rounders, second rounders, and free agents compose most of the starting roster.

I decided to break down the Patriots' last seven drafts player by player and see how each round of the draft has served Belichick. Contrary to popular belief, his record in the mid- to late-rounds has actually been rather dismal.

1DT Vince Wilfork3-time Pro Bowler
1TE Benjamin WatsonProductive TE, casualty of Pats' "unsentimental" free agency
2DE Marquise HillNo starts or sacks in three years before tragic death in '07 offseason
3S Guss Scott2 starts in two seasons with Pats, bounced between 4 teams in '06
4S Dexter ReidReleased after one season
4RB Cedric CobbsPlayed in only three games, 22 rushes for 50 yards
5WR P.K. SamInjured and suspended his way off the roster
7CB Christian MortonMr. Irrelevant 2004, released before season
1G Logan Mankins6-year starter
3CB Ellis HobbsOverachieving KR guy, never solid in coverage - basically Josh Wilson with injury problems
3T Nick Kaczur5-year starter
4S James Sanders6-year starter, 207 tackles and 8 INTs
5LB Ryan ClaridgeOut of NFL after 1 season
7QB Matt CasselStarting QB for Kansas City
7TE Andy StokesMr. Irrelevant 2005, out of NFL after 1 preseason
1RB Laurence MaroneyUnderwhelming, injury-riddled - now with Denver
2WR Chad JacksonBust
3TE David Thomas21 catches in 3 seasons, now backup with Saints
4TE Garrett MillsCut after 1 season
4K Stephen Gostkowski5-year starter
5OT Ryan O'CallaghanBackup, cut after two seasons
6DE Jeremy MinceyCut after preseason, now modest backup in Jacksonville
6G Dan StevensonPractice squader, out of football after one season
6DT Le Kevin SmithReserve guy for three seasons, now out of football
7CB Willie AndrewsBackup, cut for legal problems after two seasons
1S Brandon MeriweatherFour-year starter, two-time Pro Bowler
4DT Kareem BrownCut after preseason, out of football after two seasons with Jets
5OT: Clint OldenburgCut during camp, backup for Jets and Redskins, now out of football
6LB Justin RogersCut after camp, two seasons as Dallas special-teamer
6CB Mike RichardsonReserve CB for one season
6RB Justise HairstonOut of football after 10 days on Pats roster
6OT Corey HilliardCut after camp
7LB Oscar LuaCut after IR'ing it for rookie season
7G Mike ElginCut after camp
1LB Jerod MayoThree-year starter, Pro Bowler, 2008 DROY
2CB Terrence WheatleyBust
3LB Shawn CrableInjury bust
3QB Kevin O'ConnellOut of football after two seasons
4CB Jonathan WilhiteThree-year reserve
5WR Matt SlaterGunner with a little return duty
6LB Bo RuudIR'ed for rookie season, bounced between two other teams, now out of football
2S Patrick ChungSolid sophomore player
2DT Ron BraceSeven starts in two seasons
2CB Darius ButlerUndersized, struggles to tackle, eight starts in two seasons
2OT Sebastian VollmerWon starting right tackle job
3WR Brandon Tate432 yards in 2010, still waiting to break out
3LB Tyrone MackenzieIR'ed for rookie season, now practice-squader for Bucs
4G Rich OhrnbergerBackup LG, no starts
5T George BusseyInjury bust
6LS Jake IngramWaived after season and a half
6DT Myron PryorSituational backup, 32 tackles in two seasons
7WR Julian Edelman#4 receiver and punt returner, 445 receiving yards in 10 starts
7DT Darryl RichardPS in 2009, IR in 2010, never played
1CB Devin McCourtyStellar rookie season
2TE Rob GronkowskiTop TE among 2010 class with 546 yards and 10 TD's
2DE Jermaine CunninghamInconsistent pass rusher, solid run stopper
2LB Brandon SpikesGood value pick, four-game suspension in rookie season
3WR Taylor PriceBottom of WR roster
4TE Aaron HernandezTerrific value TE
5P Zoltan MeskoStarted all 16 games, but a fifth-round punter?
6C Ted LarsenWaived during final cuts
7T Thomas WelchWaived during final cuts
7DT Brandon Deaderick2-sack backup - solid for 7th rounder
7DT Kade WestonIR'ed for rookie season
7QB Zac RobinsonProject QB released in September

For seven years, vast swaths of mid- to late-rounders never even made this roster as depth. Tim Ruskell was just as good as Belichick in the 7th round. The 3rd and 4th round have been the very definition of hit-or-miss. Aaron Hernandez and backup safety James Sanders are the most the Patriots can brag about in that draft range, and they're the outlier.

There doesn't seem to be any magic going on here - no mining of unappreciated gold from a glut of extra mid- to late-round picks, no secret coaching tricks making starters out of draft leftovers and fringe talent where other coaches would fail. Belichick is missing on draft selections the same as everyone else. His roster is underpinned by talent from the first two rounds, same as everyone else. His entire 2006-2008 drafts are indeed massive busts, except for a couple first-rounders. His 2009 and 2010 drafts, despite being two of the largest classes known to man, are looking very uncertain after the 2nd round.

Did I mention the Patriots' defense isn't even really that good? It's quietly declined in the years since their mid-decade dynasty, ranking 21st, 16th, and 19th in DVOA the last three years. Anyone paying attention to the Pats knows that their effort to rebuild their defense after the expiration of the Tedy Bruschi era has been one of the ongoing storylines, but those 2006-2008 drafts have badly delayed the effort, and a lot of Patriots fans are still worried about insufficient pass rush. Truckloads of late-round picks haven't helped. (The struggles of the defense also kinda contradict the idea that late-round picks aren't getting a foothold because the team is already deep.)

Here's the twist - none of this is an indictment on the Patriots or their ability to evaluate talent. It's simply the reality of the draft. Many fans way, way, way overestimate the value of a mid-round pick. Starters come from the first three rounds, depth and camp fodder come from the latter three rounds, and the fourth round is borderline - that's the generally accepted methodology for the draft. New England's draft record isn't an epic fail - it's the perfect reflection of how the draft tends to fall.

Of course John Schneider would love to find hidden gems in the 5th round, but so would everyone else - that's the problem. Multiple teams grabbing at the table means that you're simply not going to have a lot of talent left after the first three rounds, and not even Bill Belichick has much control over that. And if lower-round picks aren't worth a whole lot, then they still won't be worth a whole lot when drafted en masse; it'll just mean more cuts to make. Zero times a million is still zero.

So this begs the question - what are the Patriots doing right? How are they winning? What is their real strategy? I will get to this in a later post. For now, I just wanted to talk about how the Patriots aren't succeeding, because I'm scared silly by the oft-repeated idea of Seattle trading out of the first round and sacrificing half its draft board for the sake of an extra fourth-round pick that might not even make the roster. Do you rebuild with the best possible talent or the most possible picks? Should Seattle's multiple talent holes be repaired with extra picks? It's an engaging question. But from glancing at their recent draft history, the New England Patriots aren't giving the answer you might think.


  1. awesome writeup, thanks for doing the research on this.
    "Starters come from the first three rounds, depth and camp fodder come from the latter three rounds, and the fourth round is borderline - that's the generally accepted methodology for the draft."
    That's a great summation.

  2. Thanks Dan! Nice blog, by the way - I check it regularly.

  3. Good read (Other than the "There doesn't seem to be any *no* magic going on here." double negative.)

    I've never liked trading a marquee player/position for multiple picks. It probably stems from when the Hawks traded away the rights to draft Tony Dorsett. If a player is a headache, and you can get multiple high draft picks for him (Joey Galloway, 2-1st round picks), then I am for it. But for the most part, it is the team that gets the rights to the marquee player that sees the benefits.

    For every Dallas trade of a Herschel Walker, where multiple picks catapult a franchise into championship form, there are ten that set the franchise further back than before.

    The one thing that I think that New England does better than anyone else is with their blocking. It's not so much their scheme, but their attitude. You never see an offensive lineman standing around. Each lineman hits somebody on EVERY play. Even if a lineman has his assigned player taken care of, it's demoralizing, and fatiguing to get hit by another lineman. I've always viewed this philosophy as just wearing your opponent down. Not only does it keep the defensive linemen on their guard, but it allows the offensive linemen to always keep their heads in the game, and give them better conditioning because they never take a play off.

    Jim Kelly

  4. I do think that New England might regret trading Richard Seymour, even if it was for a first-round pick.

  5. Great writeup. If you're ever looking for another project, I would be interested to see a similar writeup on the Packers (since Schneider comes from there and their goal is to build through the draft).

  6. Now that you mention it, that does sound pretty important.

  7. Yeah I was going to suggest that actually as well. I was just looking at the Packers' last few years of the draft, but it would be great to see it broken out like you did above. Could give you an idea as to what types of players Schneider and company looked at and the success rate he's had with those picks.
    Ps, I'm glad you like the blog, and thanks for linking to it on your page!

  8. Nice breakdown. I do think the tradedown strategy can still be justified, with caution. Second round picks, and occasionally third round picks, in quantity can trump a first rounder, especially when a team has a lot of holes and the team isn't drafting in a franchise-changing position of the top ten or fifteen. Your analysis proves that, to an extent. If second-round picks hit at more than 50% rate, then trading two 2s for a 1 should work, as long as you are not passing on a 1 that is a pro-bowler.

    I'd accompany that with another strategy that nobody seems to talk about, which is trading up in rounds 2 and 3. It costs less than trading up in round 1, but can yield big results. I'd rather have a draft with 3 2nd rounders and 4 3rd rounders than a conventional spread--that's an impossible hypothetical, I realize, but there is a lot of value in 2 and 3.

    All of this still requires a smart scouting team and wise management. I suppose that trumps any strategy.

  9. Now THAT, Kyle, is exactly what the Patriots do. I'm writing the companion piece on that right now!

  10. The reason the Patriots always seem to be successful in the draft is because they have a quarterback named Tom Brady. That guy makes the entire offense amazing with mediocre players (i.e. Deion Branch). He single handedly makes up for their horrible defense by keeping them in every game. This is the reason the QB position is the most important. It's why the Hawks should explore every possibility to find a great QB. A great QB will keep us competitive for 10-15 years. Hopefully the new collective bargaining agreement will have a slotted rookie salary cap and allow teams to quickly dispose of crappy players.

  11. Great writeup! I'd add the caveat that the Patriots' ability to actually draft players of decent caliber at those extra draft picks is not indicative of their ability to acquire the picks. If they actually had someone who could pick quality players with those picks they obtained the way they do, they'd be something like 9-1 in championships this past decade.

  12. Agreed. The Pats had some decent hits in the fourth round, including some typical depth, but other than that, not much to write home about.