Trading Away Future Picks Rarely Works Out


Two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning is the exception, not the rule to trading future first-round picks

I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

It’s a statement that is often used in reference to the possession of a firearm, but I also believe should apply to the possession of draft picks, particularly the more valuable ones at the top of the draft.

I’ve written multiple times over the course of this offseason about whether or not the Atlanta Falcons should trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. And in light of recent reports it does seem that possibility is beginning to gain steam as we inch closer to May 8, the first night of the 2014 NFL Draft.

It has been hinted that the Falcons may need to part ways with a first-round pick in order to secure the rights for Clowney at the top of the draft, which is something that probably won’t work out in their favor if history is the judge.

This belief on the value of draft picks is based largely on past observations of when teams move up in the draft, particularly when it comes to parting ways with future first-round selections. I’ve outlined several trades over the past decade in which teams gave up a future first-round pick. There were of course multiple picks involved in these trades, but I want to remain focused on the first round:

In 2004, the Buffalo Bills traded back into the first round in order to select quarterback J.P. Losman. They gave up their 2005 first-round pick to Dallas Cowboys, who selected defensive Marcus Spears.

  • Losman started 33 games over five seasons in Buffalo, posting a 10-23 record as a starter with 33 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.
  • Spears played eight seasons with the Cowboys, serving as a regular starter for six of them. He collected 10 sacks in that span.

In 2004, the New York Giants gave up their 2005 first-round pick to the San Diego Chargers as part of their package to trade for the rights of quarterback Eli Manning. The Chargers would take outside linebacker Shawne Merriman in 2005.

  • Manning has started 151 games over ten years with the Giants, posting an 85-66 record as a starter and a career passer rating of 81.2. He has earned three Pro Bowl berths and won two Super Bowls as a Giant.
  • Merriman began his career with three Pro Bowl seasons in which he combined for 39.5 sacks, but injuries sapped him and he was cut midway through his sixth year in San Diego. In his final five NFL seasons, he appeared in just 33 games and had five sacks.

In 2005, the Washington Redskins traded into the first round to select quarterback Jason Campbell, giving up their first-round pick in 2006 to the Denver Broncos. The Broncos traded back in 2005 with the San Francisco 49ers, who took outside linebacker Manny Lawson at that pick. The Broncos would eventually wind up dealing for wide receiver Javon Walker with the picks they acquired.

  • Campbell played five seasons in Washington before being traded away for a fourth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders. He started 52 games in Washington, posting a 20-32 record with an 82.3 passer rating.
  • Lawson played five middling seasons with the 49ers, starting 56 games and tallying 14.5 sacks.
  • In his first season in Denver, Walker led the team in receptions (69), yards (1,084) and touchdowns (8). However was embroiled in an incident that led to the shooting death of cornerback Darrent Williams after the season. He played one more injury-riddled before being released by the Broncos.

In 2007, the 49ers traded back into the first round to get offensive tackle Joe Staley, giving up their 2008 first-round pick to the New England Patriots. That selection would eventually become New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis as the Patriots would use that pick to move back and select linebacker Jerod Mayo.

  • Staley played four lackluster and injury-riddled seasons for the 49ers before the timely arrival of Jim Harbaugh in 2011. Over the three most recent seasons he has earned Pro Bowl berths.
  • Ellis started for five mediocre seasons for the Saints, tallying 17.5 sacks.
  • Mayo has started 79 games over six years with the Patriots, played in two Pro Bowls and tallied 465 career tackles.

In 2007, the Cleveland Browns traded back into the first round to select quarterback Brady Quinn. They gave up their 2008 first-round pick to the Cowboys, who selected running back Felix Jones.

  • Quinn started 12 games over three seasons in Cleveland, posting a 3-9 record as a starter with a 66.8 passer rating. He was traded to the Broncos in exchange for running back Peyton Hillis in 2010.
  • Jones was primarily a change of pace runner with the Cowboys, rushing for 2,728 yards and 11 touchdowns with 23 starts over five seasons. He also had 1,066 receiving yards in that span.

In 2007, the Indianapolis Colts moved up in the second round to select offensive tackle Tony Ugoh, giving up their first-round pick in 2008 to the 49ers, who took defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer.

  • Ugoh had two lackluster starting seasons with the Colts, before being benched in his third and eventually cut in his fourth year.
  • Balmer had no sacks in two seasons as a backup with the 49ers before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange of a sixth-round pick.
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The Seahawks landed Earl Thomas thanks to a bad trade with the Broncos

In 2008, the Carolina Panthers traded back into the first round to take offensive tackle Jeff Otah, giving up their 2009 first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles traded that pick to the Bills in exchange for tackle Jason Peters, and the Bills selected center Eric Wood.

  • Otah had two productive years as a starting right tackle in Carolina before injuries eventually forced his exit from the league in 2012.
  • Over the past five years, Peters has started 45 games for the Eagles and made the Pro Bowl four times.
  • Wood has started 63 games at guard and center for the Bills over the past five seasons.

In 2009, the Broncos traded up in the second round to take cornerback Alphonso Smith, dealing away their first-round pick in 2010 to the Seattle Seahawks, who selected safety Earl Thomas.

  • After one disappointing rookie season in Denver, Smith was traded to the Detroit Lions in exchange for backup tight end Dan Gronkowski in 2010.
  • Thomas has started every game for the Seahawks the past four seasons and has earned three trips to the Pro Bowl  thanks to 15 career interceptions.

In 2009, the Panthers also moved up in the second round to take defensive end Everette Brown, dealing away their first-round pick in 2010 to the 49ers, who selected guard Mike Iupati.

  • Brown had six sacks and three starts in two years with the Panthers before being cut.
  • Iupati is a two-time Pro Bowler with 60 starts in four years with the 49ers.

In 2011, the Falcons moved up in the first round to take wide receiver Julio Jones, dealing away their first-round pick in 2012 to the Cleveland Browns, who selected quarterback Brandon Weeden.

  • Jones has started 33 games over three injury-marred seasons in Atlanta with 174 receptions, 2,737 yards and 20 touchdowns along with a Pro Bowl bid in 2012.
  • Weeden started 20 games over two seasons with the Browns, compiling a 5-15 record as a starter, 23 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and a passer rating of 71.8 before being released.

In 2011, the New Orleans Saints traded back into the first round to select running back Mark Ingram, giving up their 2012 first-rounder to New England. The Patriots then packaged that pick to swap with the Cincinnati Bengals, who selected guard Kevin Zeitler with the Saints’ original pick while the Patriots took defensive end Chandler Jones.

  • Ingram has started 12 games in three seasons as primarily a situational runner in New Orleans, rushing for a combined 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns.
  • Zeitler has had an impressive 27 starts over the past two seasons in Cincinnati.
  • Jones has 17.5 sacks over two seasons with 29 starts in New England.

In 2012, the Redskins traded away their 2013 first-round pick to the St. Louis Rams in order to move up to get quarterback Robert Griffin III a.k.a. RG3. The Rams traded that pick to the Falcons, who moved up for cornerback Desmond Trufant, while the Rams settled for linebacker Alec Ogletree at the end of the first round. The Redskins also gave up their 2014 first-round pick to the Rams, which is the second overall selection in this year’s draft.

  • After a brilliant rookie season that saw the Redskins compile a 9-6 record under him and earned him a Pro Bowl berth, Griffin suffered a knee injury in the postseason and a 3-10 record as a starter in 2013 followed. Overall, Griffin has thrown 36 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 91.5.
  • Trufant started 15 games for the Falcons as a rookie, recording two interceptions and earning unofficial defensive rookie of the year honors.
  • Ogletree started every game and led the Rams with 117 tackles as a rookie.

A dozen times in the past decade have NFL teams given up a future first-round pick in order to move up to select a player on draft day (or before in the case of RG3). We could certainly argue that acquisitions of Manning, Staley and Jones worked out for their respective teams because they got top players at their respective positions. And even if we conclude that Griffin III has already lived up to his price tag, that still is only a quarter of all the moves. It’s also noteworthy that five of the moves, nearly half, involved a team moving up for a quarterback.

We could certainly state that players like Campbell and Ugoh did more for their respective teams than the subsequent players acquired on the back ends of those trades. But what is inarguable is that neither Campbell nor Ugoh lived up to the lofty expectations. Campbell was expected to be the Redskins’ franchise quarterback and his failure to become that prompted the Redskins to deal an even greater amount to acquire the rights to draft Griffin III.

Ugoh did more in Indianapolis than Balmer did in San Francisco, but Ugoh was without a doubt a bust with the Colts. Indianapolis subsequently used their top selection in 2011 on tackle Anthony Castonzo, a year after cutting Ugoh.

Both of the failures of Campbell and Ugoh are just two illustrations of the domino effect that occurs when it comes to the draft. But that doesn’t just apply to the draft, it also applies to free agency.

In Atlanta alone we see this. The team’s “misses” on second-round pick cornerback Chris Houston and free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson in 2007 and 2010, respectively, led directly to the decision to draft Trufant in 2013. The positive for the Falcons is that Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel were able to give them production in the ensuing years between. If Trufant and 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford turn into solid pros, it will end the domino effect that arguably began when the team used it’s top selection on DeAngelo Hall in 2004 and their inability to secure his services long-term.

How a player performs in a particular game in a particular season has no effect on how he will perform in future games in future seasons. But the draft and personnel decisions are different. Teams can pay for mistakes years down the road, as well as the opposite and reap the benefits of successful moves.

But I don’t want to go too deep down that rabbit hole, instead just want to illustrate how success and failure in the draft aren’t merely isolated incidents. Now let’s look at examples when teams gave up future first-round picks for “proven” veteran players:

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings got a lot of production from Jared Allen over six years

In 2007, the Seahawks gave up their first-round pick to New England in exchange for wide receiver Deion Branch. The Patriots selected safety Brandon Meriweather.

  • Branch had four lackluster seasons in Seattle, never once leading the team in receiving. He started 42 games before being traded back to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick in 2011. Branch caught 190 passes and 15 touchdowns during his time in Seattle.
  • Meriweather started 40 games over four seasons and was coming off his second Pro Bowl season when the Patriots unexpectedly cut him before the start of the 2011 season.

In 2008, the Minnesota Vikings gave up their first-round pick to Kansas City in exchange for defensive end Jared Allen. The Chiefs used that pick to move up to get offensive tackle Branden Albert, while the Lions used the Vikings’ original pick on tackle Gosder Cherilus.

  • Over six seasons in Minnesota, Allen had 85.5 sacks, the most of any player in that six-year span. He also earned four Pro Bowl trips during his time in Minnesota.
  • Albert started 83 games over six seasons in Kansas City, earning his first Pro Bowl bid in 2013.
  • Cherilus had five decent years in Detroit, starting 71 games at right tackle.

In 2009, the Chicago Bears traded their 2009 and 2010 first-round picks to the Broncos in exchange for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Broncos selected outside linebacker Robert Ayers with their top selection in 2009. They then traded back in 2010 with the 49ers, who selected offensive tackle Anthony Davis. The Broncos would then maneuver once again in the first-round, eventually settling on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

  • In five years, Cutler has started 67 games compiling a 39-28 record as a Bears starter. He has an 83.1 passer rating and has made two postseason starts with one win. Ayers started 27 games over five seasons with the Broncos, tallying 12 sacks.
  • Davis has started every game over the past four seasons at right tackle for the 49ers.
  • Thomas’ career in Denver did not start strongly with just six starts and 54 receptions in his first two seasons. But upon the acquisition of Peyton Manning, Thomas has blossomed into a two-time Pro Bowler, catching 186 passes and 24 touchdowns while starting every game over the past two years.

In 2008, the Cowboys acquired wide receiver Roy Williams from the Lions in exchange for their first-round pick in 2009. The Lions took tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

  • Williams started 29 games over two and a half seasons in Dallas, catching a combined 94 passes and 13 touchdowns. He was cut by the Cowboys before the 2011 season.
  • Pettigrew has been decent over five years in Detroit, catching 284 passes and 16 touchdowns over 68 starts.

In 2011, Oakland sent their first-round pick to New England in exchange for defensive end Richard Seymour. The Patriots selected offensive tackle Nate Solder.

  • Seymour started 52 games over four seasons with 18.5 sacks in Oakland, earning Pro Bowl bids twice.
  • Solder has started 44 games over the past three seasons at left tackle.

In 2012, the Raiders sent their first-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals in exchange for quarterback Carson Palmer. The Bengals selected cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

  • Palmer started 24 games with an 8-16 record as a starter over two years with the Raiders. He threw 35 touchdowns, 30 interceptions and had an 83.5 passer rating before being traded to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 for a sixth-round pick.
  • Kirkpatrick has had two injury-plagued seasons with three starts and three interceptions.

In 2013, the Seahawks traded their first-round pick to the Vikings in order to acquire wide receiver Percy Harvin. The Vikings selected cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

  • Harvin played 20 snaps in one regular season game this past season, catching a single pass for 17 yards. He did have four catches for 26 yards and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in two postseason games in which he played 38 combined snaps.
  • Rhodes started six games as a rookie for the Vikings, with no interceptions but had 10 pass breakups.

There certainly seems to be a higher success rate when teams give up future first-round picks for proven veterans. At least if judging off whether the player acquired adds more value than the player ultimately given up a year later. But in terms of whether not many of these veteran player trades were successful, outside Allen and Cutler, you would be hard-pressed to say any of these acquiring teams got premium value.

In the end, it’s a pretty mixed bag of results. Some teams reaped major benefits, but most did not. There are just as many moves where a team completely whiffed on a player and wound up dumping them within three years as those where a team acquired a player like Manning, Allen or Jones.

These moves also show that teams are willing to pay a high premium for quarterbacks, and only a few times have it ever worked out in their favor.

It’s hard to judge draft trades based off who the respective teams selected. The Julio Jones trade certainly looks better because the Browns took Brandon Weeden with their acquired pick a year later. But the Falcons certainly would not have selected Weeden had they retained the pick, given Matt Ryan’s place already on the roster.

Instead, they could have drafted one of the better offensive linemen in that draft class, including Zeitler, David DeCastro or Riley Reiff, all of whom went off the board within five picks after Weeden. Based off their brief careers, all three look far superior to the team’s subsequent picks in 2012 in offensive linemen Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the second and third rounds.

But that’s the speculative aspect of examining any trade that involves future draft picks. Who knows what sort of players a team could have acquired. Perhaps instead of Zeitler, DeCastro or Reiff, the Falcons would have instead selected offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who has been a very poor NFL player.

It’s hard to say. But it goes back to my original statement, that I think it’s better to have the pick and not need it than need it and not have it. The bottom line simply is that the chances you do get a good player are much better if you have that high pick.

Sometimes you may wind up with Kentwan Balmer or Manny Lawson, but another time you may wind up Mike Iupati, as the 49ers draft history clearly shows. You never know and given the crapshoot nature of the draft, holding onto your future picks is analogous to having another roll of the dice.

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Aaron Freeman
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