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Answer Man on the Case: Draft Trades

Posted Mar 15, 2010

Finishing up a conversation started last week, and before that in his mailbag, the Buccaneers' Answer Man studies the results of trades among the draft's top five picks over the last 20 years

The Rams certainly never regretted trading up to get T Orlando Pace


So, everybody wants to know who the Buccaneers are going to draft with the third overall pick.

(And I do mean everyone. Roughly half of my e-mailbag is filled with that question, or some variation of it, despite the fact that I have mentioned on more than a few occasions that it's not really the type of query I am in position to answer. Hey, I don't blame you. That is THE question right now, isn't it? Oh, and if you don't know who I am, check out my most recent column of questions and answers from last week.)

So, one more time for posterity, there are two main reasons I won't be tackling that admittedly central question: 1. Despite my superheroic finding-stuff-out powers, I am not and will not be part of the very small group here at team headquarters that actually knows the real answer to that question, and; 2. Hypothetically, if I was sand-bagging you and I actually am in the know, that would pretty much be the one piece of information I couldn't put in my column. You know, seeing as I really like this gig and don't have a huge urge to be fired. Now, you could say you're only asking me who I think we should draft, but I don't see the point in that exercise, either. If the reality is #1 above, then it's just another guy's opinion on a topic that is covered pretty thoroughly. If the reality is #2, then whatever I gave you would likely not be the real answer.

But, as I said, there are variations on the main question that perhaps we can approach from another angle. The most common variations are, Should the Bucs trade up from the third overall spot? Should they trade down? Or should they stay put and take the best available player at #3?

And to those questions, my answer is, "Yes!"

I'm not trying to be a jerk (it just comes naturally). It's just that you could build a solid hypothetical argument for any of those options, and that's assuming that the Bucs could find a trade partner to make options one or two happen.

If you think there is one particular player that can really make the difference for you, then it makes sense to go get him, if the cost isn't prohibitive. You saw the Buccaneers do that just last year, when they traded up from 19th overall to 17th to make sure they didn't miss out on Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. Would they have landed Freeman had they stayed put at 19? We'll never know, but clearly there was enough worry about him going away that the Bucs didn't want to take that chance.

The benefits of trading down are obvious. If your draft board is crowded with players you feel would make a difference on your team, and you can still get one after trading down 10 or 12 spots, then you can increase your overall haul by several picks, and that's obviously a good thing. The Bucs did this famously in 1995 when they drafted Warren Sapp, then used some of the assets they had acquired in trading down to trade back up into the bottom of the first round and take Derrick Brooks.

And if you've played out all the scenarios and every indication points to you getting the player you want by staying put, then it makes sense to let the draft come to you. Think Aqib Talib in 2008 or Davin Joseph in 2006.

The question is, this year, which option if all three were available would be the best for the Buccaneers? Again, that's not my type of question because to answer it correctly requires me to know which player (or small number of players) the team's brain trust is targeting in the first round.

But as I said, we can approach that issue from another angle, a cold, analytical angle, which is much more in my wheelhouse. Let's take a look at previous trades involving the top three picks in the draft...actually, let's make it the top five just to have a little more gristle to chew...over the past 20 years. Maybe we can get an idea if teams have ultimately enjoyed the experience of trading up or down from or to those prime spots.

The first thing the Answer Man notices is that these picks don't change hands nearly as often as you might think, especially in recent years. In fact, when the Jets traded up to #5 last year in order to land quarterback Mark Sanchez, that was the first top five pick to change hands since 2003 (the 2004 trade between the Chargers and Giants didn't actually take place until the first and fourth picks had been used by their original owners on Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, respectively).

In the 20 drafts I studied (1990-2009), I found a total of 23 top-five picks that were used by teams other than their original owners. In some cases, such as the San Diego-Arizona trade in 1998 (when the Chargers moved up one spot to make sure they got, gulp, Ryan Leaf), two such picks were involved in the same deal.

Because we're talking about "moving up" or "moving down," in the round, we can eliminate those picks that changed hands in pick-for-player deals before the draft order was set. An example was the Bucs' own trade of a 1992 first-round pick to Indianapolis in 1990 in order to get quarterback Chris Chandler; eventually, that pick proved to be the #2 overall selection in '92.

That also applies to Washington's #2 overall pick of LaVar Arrington in 2000 (a leftover of the 1999 Ricky Williams trade); and Baltimore's #5 overall pick in 2000, which they acquired the year before from Atlanta for a second-round pick in 1999 that the Falcons used on TE Reggie Kelly.

That leaves us with 20 top five picks involved in 16 trades to consider. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:

1. In 2009, the Jets moved from #17 to #5 in order to take Sanchez, who stepped immediately into the starting role for a team that would reach the AFC Championship Game. The Browns traded down several more times, eventually took center Alex Mack, bagged an extra second-rounder (LB David Veikune) and two more sixths plus a handful of Jets veterans well-known to new Head Coach Eric Mangini (Kenyon Coleman, Brett Ratliff and Abram Elam).

2. The #4 pick in 2003 went from the Bears to the Jets, who were eager to land massive defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson. Robertson would be one of four highly-drafted DT prospects that year, and it didn't turn out to be a good year for the position. Robertson, Johnathan Sullivan and Jimmy Kennedy all proved to be disappointments of a certain level for their original teams, though Minnesota definitely hit it big with Kevin Williams. Chicago, meanwhile, moved down to #14, then moved down one more spot and took DE Michael Haynes, who proved to be a bust. The Patriots used the #13 pick on Ty Warren, definitely not a bust. Chicago netted the #22 pick in that deal and used it on quarterback Rex Grossman, whose Bears career included a Super Bowl start but is best described as star-crossed. An extra fourth-round pick also brought Chicago competent DE Ian Scott.

3. The 2001 draft started off with a trade-induced bang, as the Falcons moved up to the #1 spot in order to take quarterback Michael Vick. San Diego slid down to #5 in the deal and picked future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson (then used its second-round pick on a quarterback, Drew Brees). The Chargers also got WR/KR Tim Dwight, who had three fairly decent seasons in San Diego, mostly as a return man, a second-round pick in 2002 that was used on WR Reche Caldwell and a third-rounder in '01 that was used on CB Tay Cody, who played only three seasons. Clearly, the deal worked for the Chargers. Atlanta probably felt good about it, too, with Vick leading them to multiple playoff berths, until Vick's legal problems brought his stay with the Falcons to an abrupt end.

4. Washington was the mover in the 2000 draft, moving up from #16 to #3 in order to take tackle Chris Samuels, who became a fixture at left tackle for a decade. A neck condition has now forced Samuels into retirement, but the Redskins clearly made the right choice, nabbing a six-time Pro Bowler at a premier position, and never regretted packaging that #16 with #24 in the first round and a pair of later picks that the Niners subsequently traded. San Francisco hit big with the first of those two picks, taking eventual Pro Bowl LB Julian Peterson. At #24, the Niners took CB Ahmed Plummer, who started for four seasons and had 12 interceptions from 2001-03, but faded quickly after that.

5. The 1999 draft included one of the most famous NFL trades of all time, when Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints gave up their entire draft (and a little more) to get in position to take RB Ricky Williams. The Saints made their intentions clear to all of the teams near the top of the draft, but it was the Redskins who bit at #5, a move up of seven spots for the Saints, who were slotted 12th. New Orleans sent all six of their 1999 picks (which also included third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh-rounders) as well as a one and a three in 2000 to Washington to make that move. It didn't get any less weird after that, as Williams signed a contract so incentive-laden that it heavily favored the Saints, donned a wedding dress for a magazine cover shoot and took to wearing his helmet during locker-room interviews. He also took to the road after three years, eventually seeing his best seasons in Miami. It's hard to claim that the Saints got good value for those 12 picks, but on the other hand their original choices didn't amount to a whole lot, either. Washington eventually traded five of those eight picks, and they produced QB Cade McNown, WR D'Wayne Bates, LB Nate Stimson, LB Khari Samuel, TE Desmond Clark, WR Billy Miller, Arrington and DB Lloyd Harrison. Considering that Washington landed Arrington and, after another trade with Chicago, CB Champ Bailey, however, one has to consider the series of moves a win for the Redskins.

6. Everyone remembers that San Diego followed Indy's pick of QB Peyton Manning at #1 with the selection of QB Ryan Leaf at #2 in 1998, but some might have forgotten that the Chargers actually traded up to do so. San Diego was due to draft #3 and Arizona, picking second, had taken QB Jake Plummer the year before. Still, to keep another team from trading with the Cardinals into that #2 spot, the Chargers sent a first-round pick in 1999 and a second-round choice in 1998 to Arizona along with KR Eric Metcalf (Arizona also got LB Patrick Sapp) for that bump up of one position. The Cardinals whiffed at #3 in '98 with DE Andre Wadsworth but used the additional picks gained in the trade on WR David Boston and CB Corey Chavous. Boston peaked very high but very briefly and Chavous saw by far the best part of his career in Minnesota, but the deal was much worse for the Chargers. As Leaf is considered one of the biggest busts in draft history, a detailed analysis of his career is probably not necessary.

7. Like the Redskins in 2000, the Rams traded up in 1997 to the #1 spot to draft the player they considered the top offensive tackle, and were right on the money. Ohio State's Orlando Pace was the consensus top pick in the draft in '97, and he proved worthy of that designation, going to seven Pro Bowls for the Rams, earning first-team AP All-Pro honors three times and helping to form the nucleus of St. Louis' Super Bowl squads. The Jets traded down from the top spot, then traded down again with the Buccaneers, who then flipped that pick again in their maneuvers to land Warrick Dunn and Reidel Anthony 12th and 16th. The Jets eventually ended up with the eighth pick and took accomplished linebacker James Farrior. The sixth pick was finally executed by Seattle, which took another franchise left tackle in Walter Jones. This is a series of deals that seemingly worked out for everybody involved.

8. The #2 pick in the 1997 draft also changed hands, as New Orleans sent it to Oakland, which had its eyes on DT Darrell Russell. The Saints slid back to the #10 spot and took guard Chris Naeole, who had a fine NFL career. The extra picks earned in the deal were used on a pair of quickly-forgotten defensive ends, second-rounder Jared Tomich and fourth-rounder Pratt Lyons. Russell, meanwhile, was clearly a talented player, as evidenced by his 19.5 combined sacks in the '98 and '99 seasons, but he was derailed by off-the-field issues and later killed in a car crash in 2005.

9. And more from the 1997 first round, as the #3 pick was traded, too. Atlanta was due to pick there but moved down eight spots to swap with Seattle, which jumped on cornerback Shawn Springs. That pick, like the one of Jones three spots later, worked out for Seattle but may not have been worth it for the Falcons. Atlanta took cornerback Michael Booker, who only started 10 games in his five-year NFL career, then used the second, third and fourth-round picks it gained on RB Byron Hanspard, TE O.J. Santiago and LB Henri Crockett, respectively. Crockett stuck around the longest, but none of the three had a particularly memorable impact in Atlanta.

10. In 1995, the Bengals made a move to position themselves to take Penn State RB Ki-Jana Carter, moving up four spots to #1 in a trade with the expansion Carolina Panthers. Carter is considered another of the NFL's most memorable busts, though in his case injuries definitely played a major role. Meanwhile at #5, the Panthers tried to snare a franchise quarterback in another Nittany Lion, Kerry Collins, and partially succeeded. Off-field issues drove Collins out of Carolina after just three seasons, but not before he had taken the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in just their second year of existence. Collins later became a long-term starter with the Giants and later emerged again in Tennessee. The second-round pick the Panthers got in the deal was used on DE Shawn King, who started only two games in three seasons in Carolina and finished a four-year NFL career with just 8.5 sacks.

11. The first four teams stayed put in 1994 but the Rams were willing to move down two spots from #5 and switch with Indianapolis, which was hot after LB Trev Alberts. Missing out on Alberts probably didn't bother the Rams in the long run, but by then moving the #7 pick to San Francisco, they allowed the Niners to take DT Bryant Young. Young played 14 seasons in San Fran and became one of the finest defensive tackles of his generation, with 89.5 career sacks. The Rams got a third-round pick from the Colts and, for sliding down eight more spots, got a second and another third from San Francisco. Those three picks produced, in order RB James Bostic (never played for the Rams), LB Brad Ottis (one season with the Rams) and DT Ernest Jones (never played for the Rams). With the 15th overall pick, the Rams took T Wayne Gandy, who had a long and successful career in the NFL, including five starting seasons for the Rams. That pick worked out, but the Rams didn't gain much extra by moving down out of the top five.

12. The 1993 draft included another instance of a team trading up one spot in the top five, ostensibly to protect itself from another trade-happy team beating them to the punch. The Cardinals may have learned the value of such a deal on the other side in this draft, as they would later make the #2-3 Leaf switch with San Diego. In this case, it was the Cards who moved up one spot to #3, switching with the Jets, to take Georgia RB Garrison Hearst. What did it cost the Cardinals? RB Johnny Johnson, who over the next two seasons in New York would rush for 1,751 yards and six touchdowns and also catch 109 passes for 944 yards and three more scores. Meanwhile, Hearst's first two seasons in Arizona, marred by injuries, produced just 433 rushing yards, 67 catches and two total TDs. Hearst did cross the 1,000-yard mark in his third and final season in the desert, but didn't put it all together until he joined the Niners in 1997. The Jets were perfectly happy with the player they got at #4: LB Marvin Jones.

13. The Washington Redskins were after Heisman Trophy-winning WR Desmond Howard when they traded up from #6 to #4 in the 1992 draft, and they got their man. Washington also got a third-round pick in the deal, which they used on a defensive back, Clayton Holmes, who never played for the Skins. Howard was considered something of a disappointment in Washington, particularly as a receiver, but he went on to an 11-year NFL career that peaked when he became the first special teams player to win Super Bowl MVP honors. At #6, the Bengals took QB David Klingler, who famously didn't pan out. The trade also gave the Bengals the 28th overall pick in the first round, which they used quite well to snag S Darryl Williams, an eventual Pro Bowler who finished with 31 career interceptions. The third-round pick gained in the deal produced another DB, cornerback Leonard Wheeler, who played in more of a reserve role for four seasons for the Bengals. Considering Cincy probably wanted Klingler at #4 anyway, the trade, if not that pick, looks like a success in the long run.

14. The still-rebuilding Cowboys of the 1991 offseason had their sights set on Miami DT Russell Maryland, and they gave up a package of players and picks to the New England Patriots in order to get pick #1 and take him. Maryland did start for the better part of five seasons in Dallas and was on three Super Bowl championship teams, so the pick can't be faulted even if the player wasn't quite the superstar some had envisioned he would be. New England moved down 10 spots and took an offensive tackle in Pat Harlow, who started 64 straight games in four seasons with the Patriots before moving on to the Raiders in 1996, coincidentally the same year Maryland arrived in Oakland. The Patriots got a second-round pick to move down and picked S Jerome Henderson, who was somewhat nomadic during a nine-year career, though he did have five picks in his first two seasons in New England. The rest of the deal brought New England CB Ron Francis (didn't stick with the Patriots), LB David Howard (two seasons, two sacks for the Patriots) and LB Eugene Lockhart (two seasons, 21 starts in New England).

15. In 1990, the Colts were after strong-armed Illinois QB Jeff George but they didn't own a first-round pick, having previously traded it to Seattle for Fredd Young. So Indy got bold and sent its 1991 first-round pick to the Falcons along with two well-established upper-echelon veterans in T Chris Hinton and WR Andre Rison for the #1 overall choice in 1990. The Colts also included a fifth-round 1990 pick in the deal but got a fourth-rounder back. George certainly did have a big arm, but he never produced a passer rating of better than 76.3 in his four years in Indy and remained an enigma despite his talents through 12 years and 124 NFL starts. Two of his three best seasons, coincidentally, came during a three-year stint in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Hinton was a solid starter on Atlanta's line for four seasons and Rison averaged more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns over the same span. The Falcons used that first-rounder in 1991 to take WR Mike Pritchard 13th overall; Pritchard had a fine NFL career, with 422 catches in nine seasons, and averaged 67 grabs a year in his three Falcon campaigns. Virtually every aspect of this deal favored the Falcons in the long-run.

16. And finally, the #3 pick in the 1990 draft also changed hands, with Seattle moving up five spots to grab DT Cortez Kennedy. The Patriots slid back to #8 and took LB Chris Singleton, who split eight NFL seasons between New England and Miami. Singleton started 65 games in his career, but wasn't a full-time starter until he joined the Dolphins and finished with just two interceptions and seven sacks. Kennedy, however, is a potential Hall of Fame selection who was worth every bit of the price the Seahawks gave up, which also included the #10 overall pick. New England took another defensive tackle in Ray Agnew, who was a fine player but not in Kennedy's league in the long run. Agnew's career did last 11 seasons, five of them in New England. To make it even a little better for the 'Hawks, they also got a 1990 second-round pick back in the deal and took linebacker Terry Wooden, who started 87 games over the next seven seasons in Seattle.

What to make of that collection of deals? This isn't an exact science, but I can give you my opinion of each trade, and whether it was relatively even or had a better final result for the team that moved up (or in) or the team that moved down (or out). I numbered each of the trades above so we could refer to them quickly down here.

By my estimation, we have nine trades that worked out better for the team that moved down in or gave up a top-five spot (trades 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 15). Of those nine, I thought three were close enough that others might consider them relatively even (3, 8 and 13). I see three that worked out better for the team moving up (4, 9 and 16), though number 4 is pretty close. And three others looked too close to call, at least to me, so I judged them even (2, 7 and 14).

You may notice that I didn't judge trade #1. I'm sure the Jets are thrilled to have Sanchez, but it just seems too early to tell at this point. We don't know yet how important Mack or Veikune will be to the Browns, or how long the veterans added in the deal will stick around.

Perhaps the results seem to tip towards the teams moving down simply because every pick made in the draft, even high in the first round, has boom or bust potential. As much as some players appear to be can't-miss prospects every spring, there are sure things that prove to be anything but in every draft. The team that moves down usually ends up with the extra picks, and thus increases its chances of finding a strong, long-term contributor. The perfect example is trade #13 above, between Washington and Cincinnati. Washington took Desmond Howard at #4 and Cincy took David Klingler at #6, and it's fair to say that neither returned exactly what their first NFL partners were expecting. Howard eventually had the better career, but the best player to come out of the whole proceeding was Cincinnati safety Darryl Williams, who was taken with the extra first-round pick Washington gave the Bengals in the original deal.

There have been enough hits, however, for teams still to believe in the power of trading up into the top five. Seattle wouldn't have had Cortez Kennedy and the Rams wouldn't have had Orlando Pace to block Kurt Warner's blind side if not for such deals. And, of course, there's no guarantee that Washington would have fared better than Desmond Howard had they stayed put at #4.

And, finally, the firmest conclusion we may be able to make from looking at the last 20 drafts is that trades of picks in the top five are becoming increasingly infrequent. As mentioned, the Sanchez trade was the first such deal in six years, and that one only included the #5 pick. The last pick traded in the top three, where the Bucs stand heading into the draft, was the first overall choice in 2001 which brought Michael Vick to Atlanta.

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