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Why trading out of the first round doesn’t happen as often as you’d think

There’s a lot of talk about Kansas City trading back in the NFL Draft — but it’s not very likely to happen.

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Since the Kansas City Chiefs are picking near the end of the NFL Draft’s first round every season, the team is always out of position to acquire each draft’s top-end prospects.

This is not to say good players can’t be found in that range. But most NFL teams have players tiered in similar ways; after you get past the first 20 picks, there’s not a big difference between late first-round picks and most second-round picks. From a team’s point of view, there’s not a lot of value at the end of the first round.

For this reason, you’ll often hear suggestions that the right move is to trade out of the first round in exchange for more picks — particularly those from Day 2. In this way, contending teams picking late in the first round can get more surplus value.

Besides... the more picks that are available, the likelihood of getting quality players increases.

Trading out of the first round

But NFL history suggests that most teams don’t really operate this way. It’s actually fairly uncommon for teams to trade away their first-round picks.

Since the 2011 NFL Draft, there have been 15 such trades — just 5.3% of 283 total first-round picks — and only 1.25 trades each year.

Teams Picks Given Acquired
to Saints
2011 2nd (56),
2012 1st (27)
RB Mark Ingram
to Vikings
2012 2nd (35),
2012 4th (98)
S Harrison Smith
to Buccaneers
2012 2nd (36),
2012 4th (101)
RB Doug Martin,
2012 4th (126)
to Vikings
2013 2nd (52),
2013 3rd (83),
2013 4th (102),
2013 7th (229)
WR Cordarelle Patterson
to Vikings
2014 2nd (40),
2014 4th (108)
QB Teddy Bridgewater
to 49ers
2016 2nd (37),
2016 4th (105),
2016 6th (178)
G Joshua Garnett,
2016 7th (249)
to Browns
2017 2nd (33),
2017 4th (108)
TE David Nkoju
to 49ers
2017 2nd (34),
2017 4th (111)
LB Reuben Foster
to Ravens
2018 2nd (52),
2018 4th (125),
2019 2nd (54)
QB Lamar Jackson,
2018 4th (132)
to Commanders
2019 2nd (46),
2020 2nd (34)
DE Montez Sweat
to Giants
2019 2nd (37),
2019 4th (132),
2019 4th (142)
CB Deandre Baker
to Falcons
2019 2nd (45),
2019 3rd (79)
T Kaleb McGary,
2019 6th (203)
to Chargers
2020 2nd (37),
2020 3rd (71)
LB Kenneth Murray
to Jets
2022 2nd (35),
2022 3rd (69),
2022 4th (153)
DE Jermaine Johnson III,
2022 3rd (101)
to Jaguars
2022 2nd (33),
2022 4th (106),
2022 6th (180)
LB Devin Lloyd

We see here that one of the common conceptions about these trades — that teams will trade back into the first round to acquire quarterbacks for which they will have a fifth-year contract option — doesn’t really happen that often; it’s happened only twice in the last 12 years.

Since running backs are considered to have shorter shelf lives, is that a position where it might make sense for teams to get the fifth-year option? This would allow teams to keep a player for one more inexpensive year on a rookie contract. Yet the last time this happened was in 2012, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up for running back Doug Martin.

During these 12 seasons, there’s really not much of a pattern. There have been three trade-ups for linebackers, but there have been only one (or two) trade-ups for any other position. It looks like teams make these decisions on a case-by-case basis — rather than go after fifth-year options for particular positions.

In fact, it appears that teams don’t value fifth-year options as much as is typically believed.

Fifth-year options, 2011-2018

Year Picks New Deal Fifth Year Released
2011 32 16 3 13
2012 32 9 9 14
2013 32 11 7 14
2014 32 9 11 12
2015 32 5 14 13
2016 31 11 4 16
2017 32 11 6 15
2018 32 11 11 10
TOTAL 255 83 65 107
PCT 100% 32.5% 25.5% 42.0%

During the eight-year period ending in 2018, only 65 of 255 first-round players — just one in four — actually played the fifth year on their rookie contracts.

About one in three got entirely new deals before their fifth season began (Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was such a player from the 2017 class).

But more than two in five first-round picks never made it as far as their fifth season. Some never had their fifth-year options exercised. Some (such as New York Giants cornerback Deandre Baker) were released even before then. Baker got another chance in Kansas City, but other players like him never played again. It’s another reminder that even first-round picks are not sure things in the NFL.

If you look only at the picks from 21st to 32nd overall, the differences are even more stark.

Fifth-year options (21-32), 2011-2018

Year Picks New Deal Fifth Year Released
2011 12 4 1 7
2012 12 4 4 4
2013 12 6 1 5
2014 12 0 7 5
2015 12 1 4 7
2016 11 1 2 8
2017 12 3 3 6
2018 12 1 3 8
TOTAL 95 20 25 50
PCT 100% 21.1% 26.3% 52.6%

Out of 95 first-round selections in that range, roughly the same proportion — about one in four — played on their fifth-year options. But even fewer — just one in five — got new contracts, while more than half didn’t make it to their fifth seasons.

This landscape will be changing. It used to be that teams could exercise a fifth-year option and still be able to cut a player following their fourth season — but starting with 2020’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, fifth-year options became fully guaranteed when exercised. So now, teams must be pretty sure about a player before picking up that option.

Still, the history of fifth-year options isn’t great. Most players — especially those picked at the end of the first round — don’t pan out. While the option has some value, most teams prefer to simply give good players new contracts — with which short-term cap hits can be better controlled.

The bottom line

With the world champion Chiefs once again picking at the end of the first round, there’s going to be a lot of talk about trading back. When Kansas City picked running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire after its 2020 Super Bowl win, general manager Brett Veach revealed the team was interested in accumulating more picks, but no team had sought to trade up.

The Chiefs will be in a similar position following their most-recent championship run. Veach would probably love to accumulate more early-round picks, but history suggests that these trades don’t happen all that often — and when they do, it’s generally not because teams want a fifth-year option on a draft prospect they’re targeting.

A trade back would be nice — but it’s more likely the Chiefs will select a player with the 31st pick.

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