Going into the draft, you want to achieve two things with your picks. Obviously, the first is to select players that project to be successful at the next level. The next thing – which is much more complicated — is to maximize the value of your picks, including finding players that fit into your overall team-building philosophy. Before selecting a player, it is smart to assess the true value of the player you are picking and how he projects into your system. There are general managers in this league that are good at picking players, but the really good GMs are good at both picking players and understanding how to build a team.
How did this play out in the 2021 draft?
This year, the first major movement in the first round occurred when Miami moved back to 12 from 3 and then subsequently back up to 6 to eventually select WR Jaylen Waddle. In order to move back up from 12, they sent Philadelphia two first-round picks along with a mid-round pick swap. Just think about the value of some of the recent wide receiver trades. Odell Beckham Jr. netted the Giants a first, a third and a player. Buffalo was able to get Stefon Diggs for a late first. DeAndre Hopkins really only netted a second for Houston. Those are three of the best players at their position. The Dolphins gave up more value than those deals to select an unproven, undersized receiver who is coming off a major injury. There are very few established players that I would consider parting with two firsts for, let alone a totally unproven receiver who was limping around the field the last time we saw him.
As great as some of these draft prospects project to be, I think teams forget that all these players are still unproven. There are all sorts of reasons why a “sure thing” prospect might not turn out to be successful, whether that’s due to character issues, a poor work ethic or injury issues. Even in the top 10, you are talking about an historical success rate (player received a second contract with the original team) that is only around 50%. When you start giving up multiple firsts for a player that has never seen NFL competition, even if it is for a top 10 player, it is a risk. Everything in the NFL, from the speed, to the size, to the number of games played is different than what it is at the collegiate level. This is why even the smartest teams are only hitting on about 50% of draft picks. Every team in the first round is picking players they really like, so you cannot be ignorant to the idea that your player will not be a successful player.
The Justin Fields Trade
That brings us to the scenario that played out between picks 8 and 12. At No. 8, Carolina had the option to select cornerback Jaycee Horn or trade down with Chicago for the 20th pick, along with a first-round pick next year that could be a top 10 pick, an extra four and an extra five. All the history would suggest that you would rather have the two firsts along with the two extra late-round picks, unless you are selecting a quarterback. The only position on the field that makes such a huge difference if you hit on it is the quarterback. Even the best receivers in football cannot be maximized unless you are stable at the quarterback position.
After Carolina selected Horn, Chicago made the same offer to Denver at 9 — but the Broncos also elected to pick a corner, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. This played out for two more picks as the Eagles traded up to select DeVonta Smith at 10 and the Cowboys took linebacker Micah Parsons at 12.
Once Philadelphia swapped picks with Dallas, Chicago was able to find a trade partner with the Giants, who collected the two firsts, allowing the Bears to take their future franchise quarterback, Justin Fields. Since quarterback is the one position on the field that can make such a massive difference in your success, I think Chicago took a reasonable chance to move up for Fields. I also think the Giants made a wise move to collect the extra capital, since they decided they were comfortable with Daniel Jones leading them forward.
Overall, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Horn, Surtain, Smith and Parsons all turn out to be successful players, but when you are looking at the value that these teams could have commanded, you are talking about the price paid for the likes of Jalen Ramsey and Laremy Tunsil. These guys are the absolute best in the league, outside of the quarterback position. These teams declined this type of compensation from Chicago for players that are completely speculative. I do not think this was a wise use of capital for Carolina, Denver, Philadelphia and Dallas, and it allowed the Giants to capitalize on a trade that could yield them a top 10 pick from Chicago in 2022.