The 2015 NFL Draft and the Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

Despite great anticipation, no blockbuster trade ups to grab a top 5 pick in the 2105 NFL draft were ever announced.

There was clear desire on the part of the Philadelphia Eagles (and likely others) to move up and snag one of the two players widely considered the top two QB prospects in the nation  – Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.  But it appears neither the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, picking at No.1 and ultimately taking Winston, nor the Tennessee Titans, picking No. 2 and ultimately taking Mariota, seemed willing to trade away their picks.

Consider this interesting interview with Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly shows the strong interest he had in trading up to the No. 2 spot to grab Mariota, and his belief- even though some speculation as to what was offered by the Eagles went over the top – that Tennessee wasn’t even close to accepting what was offered or suggested.

Kelly also said he felt the Titans wouldn’t have traded the pick regardless, and at least “said” he agreed with this view if so.

But if so, he and the Titans are both likely mistaken. Valuable as the position of quarterback is, football is a team game built through many players. The draft provides most of the opportunity to meaningfully do so.

Multiple high picks, plus key veterans (i.e., the neighborhood of what the Eagles were tinkering with offering), spreads out a lot of value through multiple components, particularly through the hidden value of each additional draft pick opportunity. And getting additional high draft picks represents considerable value over other teams. (While on the flip side, losing multiple high to mid or high draft picks on its own represents considerable loss, while the “gain” of just one pick, given the variance and unpredictability of NFL performance, can easily be over estimated.)

While a rare quarterback talent can also take a team a long way, to be that good is unusual. And before ever playing a down in the NFL, it is also somewhat unpredictable: Implicitly viewing Marcus Mariota as if he is likely destined to quickly become a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or even a pro bowler, underestimates this reality.

In addition, the value of non top five or top ten but still high to mid high draft pick opportunities is often heavily undervalued in terms of the upside potential such a draft pick offers: particularly in return for the low salary that the player will be locked into, which on the flip side can even itself also be dumped if the player doesn’t work out. This piece (which also looked at how Adrian Peterson may have made a trade between the Vikings and Cowboys make sense for both teams if he had really wanted to), delves heavily into the large hidden value in most draft choices – particularly high to mid range picks.

In addition is the fact again of sheer variance – there is at least some variance with every pick. That means that while the pick itself is valuable, and a good player who seems like they will fit the NFL is more likely to be good, the evaluation of a player is to some extent subjective; and how that player will ultimately work out, again, uncertain.

Some of that subjectivity is, invariably, often wrong, in all directions. While it often tends to be lower with the highest picks (and with some positions a little more than others, with wide receiver being a position where pre draft evaluation is notoriously given too much certainty), this is the case even with high picks. Particularly, again, with wide receivers, which went like proverbial “hot cakes” in this year’s draft – with a remarkable 9 of the first 41 picks consisting of the wide receiver position.

A lot of QBs projected to be good in fact turn out to be very good. (All from the same remarkable 2012 draft, which also saw a generally under rated Ryan Tannehill also go in the top 10, Andrew Luck is a great example, Robert Griffin might or might not be, and Russell Wilson – foolishly projected originally to be “poor” merely because he was an inch and a quarter shorter than Drew Brees – was a notorious example in both directions, as his college career indicated quarterbacking brilliance.) Yet this variance still does exist with respect to quarterbacks as well, as some high picks do under perform. And of course, most famously with Brady (who was a 6th rounder, while Manning was a No 1 pick in a year in which the No. 2 pick, Ryan Leaf, was a bust), some vastly over perform.

But what often happens when a player is targeted, and particularly when targeted high, is that when evaluating the possibility of trading for the pick, the assessment that the player is “x” good is somewhat implicitly treated as if it is more of an objective valuation, and not just part of a heavily upside weighted but wide spread of ultimate possibility – aka – that player’s range of possible ultimate NFL performance.

On the other hand, giving away draft picks (and to a lesser extent, already established NFL players) is not a subjective evaluation: Although the player ultimately chosen at that selection number might turn out great or not so great, the value of the pick itself, is objective.

Thus, by confusing subjective evaluations or upside evaluations of a player’s pro potential with their true value – rather than part of their value which then has to be at least implicitly multiplied by various chances of less successful NFL performances – it’s easy to undervalue what’s being given up in terms of losing net picks – plural – in contrast with what’s actually being gained.

Examples of even just quarterbacks who didn’t turn out as expected, abound. And since there’s only 1 QB starter (and 3, sometimes 2, on the team total) of the 22 starters, they aren’t picked quite as much overall – at least somewhat in the earlier part of the draft – and high expectations usually come with high picks, which cuts down the total number further.

Robert Griffin III, along with Andrew Luck, were reasonably considered the two best QB prospects to come along in a decade. Griffin, taken No. 2 (and only because of the rarity that Luck came along in the same year, or Griffin would have been No. 1) was a near once in a generation phenom – and could still be – though he seems to have (temporarily?) regressed; and for a while, if likely overdone, wasn’t even considered starter quality by some. (And isn’t by a few still; while his upside, if probably still large, is now unclear after 3 seasons.)

Alex Smith, though at the time not considered quite as good as Winston or Mariota (but perhaps with less overall variability, although it’s hard to say since he was solid but mainly played out of the shotgun and didn’t seem to have quite their upside), was a No. 1 pick who for many years languished badly. Mark Sanchez, perhaps now underrated, perhaps not, was ultimately demoted as a starter, and now sits as a backup with Chip Kelly’s own team, the Eagles. He was a No. 4.

Josh Freeman? No team would even sign him last year. And the Dolphins just signed him for one, at essentially the league minimum. Yet he was a first round pick a few years ago. Christian Ponder also went No. 12 overall a few years ago, and is considered a backup at best, and certainly hasn’t performed as a starter. Jake Locker went No. 8 the same year. And although Locker seemed to play all-right (and may have been underrated because his team was lagging and he got hurt a lot) he’s now out of football, to, incredibly “work on his house.” (Slang for “I don’t want to play football,” one hopes – since he has a lifetime, as well as off days, offseasons, evenings, etc., to “work on [his] house.”)

There’s another key aspect here. Sure, some quarterbacks do help “make” the team. Peyton Manning, frankly, is probably the single most telling candidate for this (even if he hasn’t been as sensational in the playoffs or later last season), that ever played the modern game. Tom Brady is fantastic, and in part “makes the Patriots.” But the Patriots also help make him a little bit. And so it goes.

These, and a few others, are sensational quarterbacks, no doubt. But they are rare, and some of their ability is at least helped in part by the team (and coaches) who surround them. (In Manning’s case the latter seems to be even less than usual for great quarterbacks, since he’s like an instant information processing machine out on the field, and a “live” coach at the line of scrimmage during play.)

It’s hard to say what in terms of draft picks is worth giving up for a quarterback such as those rare few. (And even harder in terms of giving up veterans under contract, because while in some instance those veterans may not be completely replaceable, or at at least replaceable at cost, in most instance, unless it’s an over-performing early year player still under a highly undervalued rookie contract – their value is usually at least somewhat worked into their salary already.)

While getting a great quarterback is hard, for the right price getting a good quarterback is not, and value in this salary cap league, as Stephen Jones, Dallas Cowboys COO so aptly put it recently, comes from the draft. Particularly the first few rounds, where good players – many of whom will turn out to be worth many times their initial 4-5 year contract cost in comparison with later veteran salaries and free agent competition – abound.

Winston or Mariota could – and are probably likely to – be capable to excellent starters and thus ahead of much of the above group of faltering high pick quarterbacks, but nowhere near sensational superstars that otherwise warrant giving up that much for them in advance (in terms of opportunities that were either offered or might have been created); and of course, though the chances are lower, either could also ultimately not perform well either.

The numbers being rumored to have been offered to move up to take Mariota, for instance – a couple of high draft picks, even two first rounders and another high pick, plus several competent veterans – even if they seem to have been overstated, are way too high.

But it’s likely the Eagles went too high, or – had the Titans been willing to engage (see again the above interview where Kelly seems sincere in saying the Titans didn’t appear to even be very willing to listen to, let alone encourage, offers), may have been willing to.

Although at least from listening to Kelly (see link above) he feels he has a specific bead on Mariota. Again, reasonable from one perspective, but also problematic from another when multiple picks are then offered for such a player in advance, since it feels like our assessment of a player is good, and sometimes the role of variance can be underestimated, even by someone as savvy as Kelly.)

But it’s hard to say the Eagles made a mistake without knowing exactly what they offered. And at any rate Kelly has at least suggested that whatever the Titans wanted, if they even would have taken anything at all, was flat out too high.

Yet by the large interest Kelly showed, the possible, if just one year, acquisition of Sam Bradford from the Rams at a high price (the loss of Nick Foles who had another year at a remarkably cheap salary for his performance, and the loss of a full 2nd round pick and some later round positioning, plus Bradford’s one year $13.5 million salary), Kelly’s possibly well warranted enthusiasm for Mariota – a wild card here, and a view shared by several other good football minds – it’s likely the Titans may have been gotten good value from the Eagles for the pick. (Note, Kelly also likely picked up Bradford because he thinks Bradford, a former No. 1 pick himself 5 years ago who has played with a sub-par offense and has gotten injured too much, may still be an extremely good quarterback – and he may be right; and having Bradford on the roster this year not only gives them Bradford now, it gives them the best shot at keeping him if it can be worked out.)

And if not from Kelly, from someone else. (And perhaps the Buccaneers could have created the possibility for substantial offers as well, for their number 1 spot.)

But what appears to be the case is that the Titans stayed fairly bent on simply getting Mariota.

That may seem “focused,” but it’s not. The job is to build the best team possible. And in all candor, the Titans have not, even making a switch prior to the 2014 season to a coach that simply didn’t really offer any improvement over their still somewhat new, and thus likely growing, first time head coach; and they responded with an unbelievably bad year, going 2-14, and, worse, getting trounced by 14 or more points a remarkable 9 separate times last year.

I somewhat like the Titans pick of the all over the board wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham at No. 40 (upside wise, though with small hands and some other issues, he could flame out), and the fact they grabbed a decent extra pick from the Giants to move back from the No. 33 to that No. 40 spot, and still got a guy who has some serious possible upside.

And they’re very helped by the fact that they did happen to have the Number 2 pick overall; the fact that top five salaries, relative to several years ago, are not quite as outrageous now so they benefit the high picking teams more (with not as much of the potential value “already built in” to the agreed upon advance salary structure); and the fact that a solid QB – a very serious position of need of them – and a guy with a lot of upside and a shot at being a franchise quarterback, was sitting there.

None of that was the Titans doing. It was luck. (Well, okay, part of it was their doing, namely in being so bad in 2014 to get that pick. But that’s not really positive, it just works out that way for this draft.) Giving up the pick for almost nothing of course wouldn’t make sense. But not trying to give it up for more value at this moment, as appealing as it sounds because “quarterback is so valuable,” and (more subjectively) “Mariota is so good,” ultimately doesn’t either.

That is, not “more value” measured relative to Mariota being the Next Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning, but value relative to Mariota’s full range of potential; which on the upside could be like those guys, is more likely to be good to really good but not as good as the very top of the league and nowhere near worth giving up several high value picks for, all the way – though the chances are lower – of being a non starter or a sub-par starter in the league.

It could also be that Kelly and a few others are feeding us all a complete line of garden horse fertilizer. But if there is even some truth in what Kelly says, it seems the Titans got locked in on their fortunate quarterback target – like an otherwise good quarterback who locks in on a receiver too early and doesn’t scan the field for better reads or a slyly encroaching DB. And in doing so, they made a mistake in overall value.

Maybe Kelly was also puffing a bit, and didn’t offer all that much for Mariota despite indications to the contrary (and again, what’s conventionally considered “a good price” for a high pick and what this piece suggests, are not necessarily in line with each other), and the Titans at least didn’t make a monumentally poor decision in terms of foregone opportunity – the maximizing of which is what good football (both on and off the field) is all about.

But we also don’t know how discouraged other teams were, if there is any truth to Kelly’s suggestion that the Titans seemed unwilling to deal the pick for anything even remotely “reasonable.” And it seems by not at least trying to engage Philadelphia, and some other teams (and this may or may not go for the Buccaneers as well), and get the maximum offer out of them that they could, or at least something in the vicinity of it, the Titans simply shut the door on the possibly easy throw to the wide open receiver with serious RAC room in front of him, in favor of staying locked in on that blazing target down the left sidelines with a large step, but not two and not an easy throw to hit him in stride, and in bounds.

Without knowing the full details it’s difficult to conclusively say; and otherwise still clearly involves some complex matters of judgement and integrated analysis. But it seems Tennessee made a mistake. And may or may not have saved the Eagles from one – depending on whether the Eagles, despite already having a good quarterback, if only for a year, would have been the one to trade.

And even if Mariota does turn out to be the next superstar quarterback, the Titans would have still made a mistake, since the decision has to be assessed on the facts that existed at the time it was made. (Although if Mariota is, they and Kelly both at least get some credit for the important, if partially luck partially skill read, on his potential and its translation to the NFL game.)

But until someone ponies up what was exactly offered and how the Titans (and possibly Buccaneers) handled their entire response and either refusal to hear more, all the way to encouragement of a larger bounty, it’s hard to know exactly.

What we at least do get to find out, and some of the allure of the draft and the NFL, is how Mariota does. It’s very hard to be a good head coach in the NFL – they’re for the most part an elite group of team leaders, managers, teachers and motivators – and Whisenhunt was no improvement on Munchak at the time the Titans coaching switch decision was made prior to the 2014 season. And Munchak, since he took over a somewhat floundering team from an otherwise good long time head coach – Jeff Fisher, now with the Rams – may have still had upside that we don’t know about.

But while three big hearted on field superstars (Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald) helped drive that Whisenhunt coached Arizona Cardinals team to the playoffs and another year to a James Harrison caused 14 pt swing away from a likely Super Bowl victory, despite an overall losing record of 6 seasons Whisenhunt wasn’t a bad coach; the Titans team hit rock bottom last year; and they had a nice haul in this year’s draft, and even a seemingly solid one, at least from spring 2014’s perspective, last year.

They should be better; maybe a lot better. If Mariota is good, they may even compete and surprise a little, or do so in year three of Whisenhunt’s reign.

But getting 3 points early in the third quarter – simply because it’s a good thing – doesn’t make it a good move to forfeit a 4th down conversion try on your 4th and 1 from an opponent’s 5 yard line, which in almost every modern NFL game has a much higher value expectation (total point value expectation plus small benefit from leaving your opponent around the 5 if you fail), and is a big mistake in most instances to give up there. It makes it a bad move, since the decision was the one that hurt the team’s overall chances relative to the one that improved them.

Giving up a shot at several high draft picks to add to their original pre draft tally, just to lock in on that still unproven potential of just one quarterback, is similar if a potentially bigger one – since the draft is mainly how you build football teams – in terms of lost opportunity. Either way, the Titans were a little blessed to have the number two overall pick come their way as it is, and have a nice QB, a position of need and the most critical on the team, sitting there for them; and should be well ahead of the game in relation to last year.

The Eagles, on the other hand, under Kelly’s absolutely wild offseason maneuvering – picking up Bradford, losing while still under contract yet his 2013 Pro Bowl quarterback and star running back, picking up the Cowboys star running back, and a wildly talented 3rd year linebacker at a near microscopic salary in the process, and a few other pros and cons – are harder to fathom. They are truly, a wild card.  Without running back LeSean Jackson’s versatility, and particularly if his replacement Demarco Murray benefited more from a very strong offensive line than the free agent market (and the Eagles) presumed, the Eagles may have lost a little. But they pick up a lot in terms of need at linebacker with Kiko Alonso (if he stays healthy, having missed his entire second season last year), who they got for a song in the loss of an otherwise expensive Jackson. And with Bradford – if he also stays healthy – they may be a formidable team yet.

_______

End note: Kelly seems pretty savvy. And part of the Titans stiff “no trade” front could also have been a negotiation tactic – in negotiations start as far as you can without appearing unreasonable – to try and see just how “willing” the Eagles were.

And of course, if so such a hard line negotiation stance was likely made easier by the Titans’ love of having Mariota otherwise fall to them. That is, it’s easy to negotiate and draw a firm line when you feel you have nothing to lose, and hard when you feel you have a lot; which is what tends to happen sometimes in other instances when teams simply “have to have” a certain player, and trade up to get that player.

Probably the most remarkable example of that in recent memory was when the Browns, picking at the No. 4 spot in 2012, traded away a 4th, a 5th, and a 7th round pick in order to move up one single spot, and ensure that the Vikings, who needed a left tackle (and took one, Matt Kalil) and already had the likely best running back in the game, didn’t somehow trade that No. 3 pick to someone else, just so the Browns could “be certain” of getting running back Trent Richardson: as if, in the worse case scenario of the Vikings trading elsewhere, otherwise having the number 4 overall pick in the draft and 3 extra later round picks wasn’t of equal or greater worth than what was still an NFL unproven commodity, no matter how much talent the Browns thought Richardson showed, and let alone in the consummate team game.

Kelly at least – though it’s hard to see if the Titans were even willing to give him or anybody else the opportunity – apparently wasn’t going to get Mariota at any cost. But when they need to build that team long term, and not just “ensure” they get a quarterback who may or may not be great – the Titans did themselves a disservice to not try and find out, from the Eagles or anybody else, and seemingly all but shut the door in the Eagles face when it came to trade talks.

_____

Part II of this piece, and again in much briefer fashion, will look at all of the trades that did occur during the course of the 2015 NFL draft. Though none were blockbuster, many were very interesting. And they, as well as the big trade that was not, helped shape this draft into what it was, and will ultimately play a role in helping to shape the involved teams, into what they will be.

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One thought on “The 2015 NFL Draft and the Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

  1. Pingback: Why Both Parties Should Settle DeflateGate, and how Both Can Win | NFL Football Strategy

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