By: Steve Picciano: (Twitter: @RandomGrenades)
Updated: 4/25/2017

Why focus on trading draft picks?

I recently replied to a Twitter Poll in which an owner asked what they should do with their draft picks and, as you can imagine, the choices listed were; keep the picks, use the picks to trade up in the draft, or trade the picks for players. That’s ok if the person asking the question is focusing on the current draft, but what if it was a more general question of draft strategy in any given year? At that point, it becomes a more dangerous question, and taking any one of those responses as gospel could lead you down the wrong path.

In short, any of those responses could be the best possible choice in one year, and disastrous the next. It’s also important to note that there are more than just these three choices when it comes to using your draft picks and one cannot approach their draft decisions with blinders on.

What’s a Rookie worth anyway?
Potentially, more than the most productive player in the league. Why do I say that? Touching back on my article, Operating in a Salary Capped League, value could be measured by the expected production and what you’re paying that player over their life on your roster (contract salary & length). In these types of leagues it’s important to remember that the player who is already producing is likely to have a more expensive contract with fewer years remaining on it vs. a Rookie in their first year.

This is one of the reasons why NFL franchises seemingly trade top players for picks that we consider to be well below their value. For example, Brandon Marshall was traded to the Dolphins for two 2nd-round picks, and then to the Bears for two 3rd-round picks. Hardly seems fitting for a player who was one of, if not the top WR in the league at the time and still in his prime. It really came down to the size of his contract and the expected production of the Rookies that could be taken with those picks.

Obviously, if you’re in a league that doesn’t utilize a salary cap or contracts, then this has far less of an impact to your decision making process, but for those of us who are, it can’t be overlooked.

Know Thy Team:

The first thing you must consider is the strength and status of your own team. Are you in a rebuild mode, a position of power or somewhere in-between? It’s important to note that, depending on your league structure, simply making the playoffs does not necessarily mean that your team is in a position of power. Let’s take a closer look at each of these levels and how they might influence your draft strategy:

Rebuild Mode: This could mean that you’re either missing several components needed to be a competitive team, or it could mean that the majority of your key players, while still productive, are clearly past their prime and will have diminishing returns in the not too distant future.

If either of these definitions apply to you, you should consider using your draft picks, especially if you’re holding Prime Picks (discussed later), and also especially if you’re playing in a salary capped league. This will give you the best opportunity to lock-up players with higher expected production at lower prices for longer (i.e. traditional team building).

Position of Power: This would be a team that is almost perennially in the mix to finish in the money. Ideally, depending on your league’s playoff structure, this would mean a team that wins its division and/or appears in the title game on a regular basis. It’s important to note that occasionally making the playoffs with vastly different rosters does not equate to being in a position of power as it is not indicative of having built a dynasty, even if it reaches the title game. You will want to grade the success of your dynasty on multi-year intervals and consecutive years of winning the division.

If you’re team is in a position of power, you have options:

1. Use the picks in order to refresh the bottom part of your roster with Rookies that have high expected production. I have seen this to be a very effective strategy in my league going back to 2008 with two owners very seldom making trades and having 18 playoff appearances, 8 division titles, 24 playoff wins, 2 runner-up and 2 championship finishes between them. Neither team has ever been in our Toilet Bowl contest in 9 years. Although “Buy Low & Sell High” is a popular mantra among FF owners, it’s clear that the Benjamin Graham teaching of Buy & Hold Forever also works quite well.

2. Trade the picks to acquire a “missing piece” player. This could be to upgrade a specific position such as QB, or it could be to target a Stud player who has a higher expected production range and for whom match-up is not a major factor (i.e. the quintessential “plug-n-play”).

3. A combination of the two (if holding multiple picks). Ideally, you would want to use and Prime Picks that you may have, and trade later picks to acquire players that could strengthen your roster. These probably wouldn’t be Stud players, but rather role players, bye-week fillers and depth guys that you may need to overcome gaps and injuries as the season wears on. Do not overlook these types of players, and having them on your roster from the beginning is preferable to having to outbid (and possibly overpay) other owners in the free agent auctions, especially late in the year when most owners are desperate.

Somewhere In-Between: This is when your team is essentially in limbo. Limping into the playoffs year after year (or every other year), having a small core of productive players, but not really the strength to set a line-up and forget it and/or lacking the depth to overcome bye-week challenges or in-season injures. This might be the most difficult type of team to repair because the false security of reaching the playoffs may delude the owner into thinking that their team is successful.

If you find yourself running one of these teams, it’s important to evaluate all positions and identify ways to improve across the board or you may be stuck in limbo for some time (I’d suggest reading the Trader’s Manifesto by Jerry Sinclair to get some ideas on what to do with your players). It’s also important to evaluate your picks.

Ideally, it would behoove you to trade your picks in most drafts for players, but as we’ll discuss later it’s very important to know exactly what’s available and how the draft might flow before you commit to doing so. Trading a pick in a strong draft might net you Jarvis Landry, and trading it in a weak draft might get you Kenny Stills.

Know Thy Draft:

If you’re going to even consider using your picks in any of the above mentioned situations, it’s important to know the quality of the Rookies that will be available. Not only looking at Average Draft Position (ADP), which can be used as an overview of what others in the FF community are seeing, and in a pinch be used as a guide if you don’t have the time to dedicate to more in-depth research, but also by reading news and watching games, or at least video. I’m not talking about watching those god awful “highlight” videos that are so popular on YouTube either. All those break down to are two minutes of celebrations, having to listening to some random song, and watching clips that are usually focused on the QB instead of the WR you’re trying to evaluate.

There are full-game videos available from a number of users on YouTube. These are superior to “highlight” videos since they will show every snap for which the player was on the field, rather than just the ones where they made a catch. The angle of view is also superior and often the player is spot-shadowed so you can easily identify them. Then you can see if the WR is adept at route running, downfield blocking, moving without the ball.

Become familiar with the talent of players that will be available in future drafts. Why? If you’re considering trading future picks for current players, it’s important to have the best possible idea of what you may be passing up. Never treat future picks as though they completely lack value. If you know who the “phenom” freshman are in college football this year, then your picks for 2019 & 2020 have some quantifiable value.

At the very least, there are always players in every draft that are worth taking, so consider every pick in your allotment as having value. Try to position yourself to take advantage of using picks in high-quality and deep drafts, such as the “super-draft” of 2014, or trading picks in low-quality or thin drafts, such as in 2016.

Know Thy League:
All owners are not created equally. The individuals that make up every league have unique traits, and knowing these traits is just as important as knowing the players that are available to draft or trade. This is where ADP can sometimes lead you astray. The traits of your fellow owners will greatly impact how your league’s draft unfolds. It can help you identify which players may be available when your spot comes up and even help you maximize the value you receive if you decide to trade it.

The most obvious of these traits is the “Homer”. There are usually one or two in every league, and no matter how hard they try to stay disciplined they tend to gravitate to selecting players from their favorite team. Possibly the most extreme example I’ve seen of this was in my league’s 2010 draft when an owner who lived in Minnesota selected Toby Gerhart with the 10th overall pick. Never mind that he passed up players like Demaryius Thomas and Rob Gronkowski, the more shocking part was that he apparently didn’t care the Adrian Peterson was in his prime and still playing for his Vikings.

If you can identify the “Homer” in your league, and you know that a decent player was just drafted to their favorite team, you can put good odds that they will want to draft that player for their FF roster. If you’re drafting behind them, you can let it happen and target another player. If you’re trading your pick and they’re behind you, you may be able to maximize the value you receive.

Some owners have an affinity for players of a certain position, whether it’s because your league rewards that position with a bonus (ex: 1.5 PPR for TE), or perhaps they just feel more comfortable evaluating talent at that position. Whatever the reason, it can help you identify draft selections possibly being targeted by that owner so you can take advantage.

Lastly, some owners just go ape-shit over any draft. They become convinced that the next great player is going to be available and they just need to get into the draft, or move up from their current position. This is the classic “loose” player in poker terms. If you’re not crazy about the available Rookies, or if you need to trade picks for current players, this is a great opportunity for you to do so.

Know Thy Picks:
Earlier, we used the term, “Prime Picks”. These are picks situated in areas of any draft that would allow you to select from the best available players. Conversely, these picks should be worth the most in trade value, if that is your strategy.

Analyze past drafts: I’m fortunate enough to be in a dynasty league for which there is a complete record of every draft going back to its establishment. I recently went back to analyze the selections made between the years 2007-2013. I used these years for my league since 2007 is when we first adopted our current scoring rules (give or take a minor tweak), and 2013 is the last year in which there would be 4 years of performance data for a draft class. I wanted 4 years of performance data since our Rookie contracts are 4 years (just like the NFL), after which an owner is faced with the decision to either extend the player or let them fade into free agency.

What I found is that the Bust rates are much higher than I originally thought, and at a certain point it’s almost not worth using a pick. What surprised me the most was that this inflection point occurred not that far outside the top 10, which was much earlier than I assumed.

Note that these Bust rates will be affected by league-specific anomalies, such as someone taking Toby Gerhart at 1.10 in a 16-team, 2-round draft, but it’s important to examine things within your localized swimming pool so to speak, rather than just go back to looking at ADPs from different leagues. For example, we have a 2 PPR premium for TEs, so occasionally an owner may reach for a player of that position, and that would not be captured in ADP data from standard leagues.

Focus on your league’s historical data and cross-reference against the owner traits discussed earlier to determine “weak spots” in the draft positions. You should be able to determine if you are holding Prime Picks, which can then help you determine if you should use or trade them.