During this weekend’s NFL draft, the Saints traded their third and fourth round picks to move back into the second round and select Ohio State safety Vonn Bell. Later, they traded their 2016 fifth round pick and 2017 fifth round pick to the Washington Redskins to move back into the fourth round to select University of Manitoba defensive tackle David Onyemata.
The Saints did not have a sixth round pick this year because in 2015 they traded it, coincidentally also to Washington, to move back into the fifth round last year and select Georgia cornerback Damian Swann. Last week, I made a case for trading back somewhere in the draft to acquire more picks, but the Saints brass continued in their usual modus operandi.
The Saints have made 19 draft day trades since Mickey Loomis became general manager in 2002. Eleven times, the Saints traded current picks to move up and draft players they coveted. Five times, the Saints traded future picks to move up. Only three times in the last 14 years have the Saints traded back to acquire more picks.
In a pre-draft press conference, when asked whether his penchant for trading up is due to the drafting situation or a philosophical approach, Mickey Loomis said, "It’s not about not believing in trading back. There are times we have tried to do that. I do think, though, that if you look at the history of trades there’s more success trading up than trading back. I’m not opposed to it. It just hasn’t worked out."
After the Saints traded up again this year, two different times, mortgaging this year’s third, fourth, fifth, and next year’s fifth round picks; I had to wonder, how have Loomis’ draft day moves panned out? Lucky for me, other fans have wondered the same and, just last year, Chris Bouton wrote an amazing analysis of the Saints draft day trading history under Loomis. He uses a combination of Chase Stuart’s draft pick calculator and Pro Football Reference’s approximate pick value to show the difference in value traded away versus value acquired in said trade.
Between 2003 and 2014, the Saints used current draft picks to trade up in the same draft 8 different times. The Average Value (AV) of picks traded away totaled 114.4, while the AV of picks received totaled 100.4, giving the Saints a -14.0 in AV for all that shuffling around. Between 2005 and 2011, the Saints traded future picks in order to move up in the draft five different times. The AV of future picks traded away totaled 55.2, while the AV of picks received totaled 36.3, which again left the Saints with a -18.9 in AV.
Only three times under Loomis have the Saints traded back to acquire more picks. In 2004 and 2007 Loomis broke away from his usual draft day approach and traded back several times. The AV of picks traded away totaled 27.9, while the AV of picks received totaled 37.5, giving the Saints a +9.6 in AV. So to summarize, whenever Loomis traded up, we got less than we gave up, and when Loomis traded back, we got more than we gave up.
Statistics can be used in any manner of ways to prove a point, but if you are timid to trust these algorithms, maybe this can help you see my point. Outside of the Saints 2015 draft class, which was heavily influenced by Jeff Ireland, six drafted players remain on the team from the 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 draft classes combined. Six contributing players in four years does not rebuild a program. That stat alone should be enough of an indictment on our drafting philosophies.
After heavily mortgaging future draft picks and consistently trading up for sought after talent, the Saints have overspent again and again therefore placing unrealistic expectations on the players they have given up so much for. In a salary cap-strapped league with a friendly collective bargaining agreement for rookie salary structures, it is paramount for franchises to utilize the draft in unearthing cheap labor. Because the Saints have whiffed on draft picks so many times, especially between 2011-2014, they have instead been forced to fill those holes with over-priced, middle-aged veterans.
In addition to over-paying free agent veterans, Loomis has often structured their contracts with low cap hits on the front end but huge cap hits on the back end. This proverbial kicking the can down the road approach has cash strapped the Saints since 2010. In my opinion, it’s also bad business, as reasonably intelligent veterans like Keenan Lewis can see the writing on the wall as their contracts get more expensive therefore making them more likely to be cut or asked for a restructuring of their contract. This promotes bad blood between the front office and players, and we should take note from the Cincinnati Bengals front office as they structure their contracts in a way that facilitates the players actually playing through the entirety of their contract. What a concept?!
Another negative outcome from the Saints inability to draft and develop their own talent has been their lack of compensatory draft picks. These are received when a team loses a player to free agency following the completion of their rookie contract. Teams that understand the need for cheap labor continue to draft, develop, then let their free agents walk when they become too expensive and use the compensatory pick to draft a future replacement at cheaper cost. During Loomis’ tenure, we have only received THREE compensatory picks (2011, 2006, 2004), but one of those became Marques Colston, so clearly we could have used more.
In fact, since 2008, the Saints have drafted the least amount of players in the entire league (38). As demonstrated in the research by Cade Massey of the Wharton Business School and Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, teams are prone to overestimating their ability to draft and evaluate talent over that of other teams. Success, they find, is actually more closely correlated with overall number of picks rather than talent. Therefore the draft is most like a lottery, and the best chance of winning is increasing your odds by purchasing more tickets, or in this case, more picks.
By stockpiling picks, a franchise can increase its chances of hitting on a prospect. With more picks in its possession, a franchise can also be more aggressive and take greater chances on prospects who may fall in a higher risk category. With more picks in their pocket, a franchise doesn’t have to worry as much about missing on a prospect as they have many more chances to redeem themselves with other picks.
In the past five years, the Saints have done pretty well drafting in the first round, but beyond that, they haven’t distinguished themselves as excellent evaluators of pro potential. They have missed many times in the middle rounds where having more picks could help spread the margin of error over a wider array of prospects.
In 2014, the Saints traded up to select Brandin Cooks. I love Cooks, but they easily could have drafted Kelvin Benjamin in their original draft spot. Saints brass seem overly obsessed with drafting players at specific points in the draft rather than drafting the best player available when they are on the clock in their original drafting spot. It also hurts that the pick the Saints sent to Arizona in exchange for Cooks was used in the third round on wide receiver John Brown, who has been even more productive than first rounder Cooks.
But, I guess that’s just my trader’s remorse talking. I just don’t think Mickey Loomis is listening.