Ryan Pace has traded up six times in the draft during his five-year tenure as GM of the Bears. Modern NFL analytic thinking, however, tends to favor the view that trading up is usually counterproductive. Pace has said “If you have a guy or a group of guys, be aggressive and make it happen. I never want to be passive in these situations and not get the guy you want.” I analyzed his draft pick trades to see if he is right to feel this way.
Many members of the NFL analytics community believe that trading down is a better move than trading up. There are plenty of explanations why. To summarize, the expected value of a draft pick does go down as you go later in the draft, but to a lesser extent than most teams think. So trade-ups tend to give up more value than they receive in return.
In addition, all NFL teams make mistakes all the time with their picks. Any pick has a good chance of busting. Trading down to acquire more picks is a good way to diversify risk, so that if one of the picks does bust, then there are still more that could turn out.
Of course, most teams trade up because they have a specific player they are targeting who they believe is more valuable than what they are giving up. Usually, the numbers do not bear this out. There are no teams that are consistently able to identify players that are better than what is projected from their draft slot.
One recent example of a trade up not working out is the Patriots’ trade for Duke Dawson Jr. in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Patriots traded their second round pick, number 63, and a fourth rounder in exchange for the Bucs’s second round pick, at 56th overall. The Patriots are commonly regarded as one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, and have used their draft picks to dominate the AFC over the last decade. But the Patriots were wrong about Dawson, who was traded recently for a seventh round pick before he had ever played in the regular season.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective developed a pretty good model of the expected value of a draft pick. He used Pro Football Reference ‘s Approximate Value (AV) to estimate how much a player taken with each spot in the draft would be worth over the first five years of their career. He chose this length because this is the length of a first rounder’s rookie contract. Beyond this length, many picks will be laying for new teams, or will at least be signed to more expensive contracts.
I used Stuart’s model to evaluate Pace’s draft trade-ups. This gave a value based purely on the picks involved. Then I used the AV of the actual players Pace took to see if he was right to target these players. But the AV in Stuart’s model is calculated for the first five years of a player’s career, and no one that Pace has drafted has been in the league for five year. So I projected the remaining seasons for each player to get to five seasons of value.
To get the projections, I took the mean AV of each player’s previous seasons, and projected them out to fill out their first five years. There are some obvious issues with this approach, namely that it does not account for players improving or declining from where they are now. But I could not find detailed player AV projections anywhere and it should serve to give a rough idea of what each player will accomplish through five years.
This was the first example of Pace identifying a target and moving on him. Leonard Floyd was the consensus top pass rusher in his class, and Pace moved up two spots to get him. Floyd has been decent in his career, though the Bears are probably a little disappointed in his sack numbers.
Still, through 3 years, Floyd has outperformed his draft slot. If he has a couple decent years to finish out his rookie contract, he will give the Bears more AV than the expected AV from the slots they gave up. Even though Floyd has not been a star, the trade-up for him was probably worth it.
This trade up looked pretty even on the draft chart. Kwiatkoski has been a useful backup linebacker and special teams player in his career. He has outperformed his draft slot. This is a win for Pace, though on a small scale.
The signature trade-up of Pace’s tenure has been his move to get Trubisky. He identified Trubisky as the quarterback of the future for the Bears, and paid handsomely to move up one spot to get him. Trubisky has been alright in two seasons with the team, but the jury is still out on him.
But quarterbacks are so valuable that this is probably still a win for the Bears in terms of the value they gave up and received. They gave up about 47.5 AV in draft capital to get Trubisky, who has provided 20 AV in his career. If he keeps providing 10 AV every year, he will surpass the draft value the Bears gave up to get him over the five year duration of his rookie contract.
An interesting part of this trade is that one of the picks the Bears gave up eventually made its way to the Saints and became Alvin Kamara, who has been the best player in the trade. This is an example of why analysts like accumulating picks through trades down, since you get more shots at acquiring stars. But it is unwise to ding the Bears for giving up the pick that became Kamara, since we do not know if the Bears would have taken him anyway if they kept the pick. It is more useful to compare the players the Bears gave up to the expected value of the pick.
This deal looks a little worse when you consider that the other quarterbacks in this draft class included Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Both of them have provided more AV than Trubisky so far in their careers. But still, it is probably a small win for Pace based on the value.
This is the deal that looks the best now for Pace. He gave up a little bit of extra value to move up and get Eddie Jackson, who fell in the draft after a leg injury. Jackson has been one of the best safeties in football over his young career. In just 2 years, Jackson has provided 20 AV, when the Bears gave up 5.3 AV to get him. He has been one of the best picks in the 2017 Draft, and Pace was right to target him.
The jury is still out on this one. The Bears gave up extra value to move up and draft Miller, who had a decent rookie year, though not an amazing one. We will have to wait to see if Miller is productive enough to justify the trade.
Pace traded up again this year. He identified David Montgomery as someone the Bears had to have, and traded about the equivalent of an extra 4th round pick to move up and get him. “[Montgomery] was a player we identified on the board where that [grade-evaluation] ‘magnet’ kind of sticking out where we valued him. And so we kind of operate with a ‘no regrets’ mindset, so let’s go ahead and move up and acquire this player at that point,” said Pace. Pace’s track record in identifying talent does look good so far, and Montgomery has looked good in preseason.
Pace has also traded down three times. I wanted to compare his trade-downs to his trade-ups, to see if he was as successful. I evaluated his trade-downs using the same method.
2016 (Two trades combined)
In the same draft as Floyd, Pace traded down twice in the second round, eventually ending up with Cody Whitehair. Whitehair has started for the team at center and guard, and has been a productive lineman throughout his career. The Bears gained value from the draft charts here, and Whitehair has also outperformed the value of the draft picks they gave up. These deals, taken together, looked like a win at the time, and look like even more of one now.
Pace traded down in the second round after taking Trubisky to recoup some value. He ended up with the picks that became Adam Shaheen, Tarik Cohen, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, and another pick that was later used to trade up for Eddie Jackson. Cohen has been immensely productive, and wins this deal for the Bears alone. This is a huge win for Pace, and looked like it at the time he made it too.
This deal is a good example of why analysts love trade-downs. The best player taken with the picks from this trade was with the third best pick. The Bears themselves took Shaheen before Cohen. The draft can be a crapshoot sometimes. It is helpful to get as many picks as possible since you get more opportunities to hit on one.
All in all, Ryan Pace comes out looking great in this analysis. Players he has drafted have consistently outperformed their draft spot. The biggest over-performer is Eddie Jackson, who drives a lot of the gains the Bears have seen. But Nick Kwiatkoski has also outperformed his draft spots to a lesser extent after Pace traded up for him.
Other players that Pace has traded up for are on pace to surpass the value he gave up for them, though they have not yet. Leonard Floyd is very close, and Mitchell Trubisky and may also get there if he continues on his current trajectory. It is way too early to tell for Anthony Miller and David Montgomery.
On the other hand, Pace’s trades down also look very good. It makes sense to argue that if he is so good at drafting, it makes sense to trade down more to get him as many picks as possible. This would lead to him have more chances to pick great players.
Still, Pace has significantly improved the Bears’ roster in his time as general manager. It is hard to argue with his draft results. So far, his strategy of aggressively trading up for players has worked.
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Originally published at https://www.windycitygridiron.com on September 2, 2019.