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Examining the Analytics on Broncos' Potentially Trading Up, Trading Back, or Standing Pat in NFL Draft

Is a trade-up in the NFL draft the best move for the Broncos? The analytics reveal why George Paton is likely to resist the urge to move up the draft board when April 29 rolls around.

With the Denver Broncos holding the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the predominant schools of thought include trading up for a quarterback or moving back to accumulate picks. Both scenarios carry risk and should not be executed lightly. 

Each option can be analyzed with more precision than 'flying by the seat of our pants.' This article will examine that precision.

Continuing on the NFL draft analytics series from two previous articles (read and here), we are now going to dive really deep into understanding the probability of selecting an impact player in the first three rounds of the draft and what that means for draft-day trades.

Setting the Stage

An impact player is defined as any drafted player from 2010-18 who, in those seasons, had at least one first-team All-Pro selection or one Pro Bowl nod. It is understood that these awards are received through votes and have become more of a popularity contest recently, especially the Pro Bowl accolade.

However, to receive these accolades, a player cannot have been a fringe starter. They have to have made some impact in the NFL to garner the recognition. It's possible that a player during that span was passed over for one that has swayed Pro Bowl voters due to past impact, but those are also based on someone’s opinion. 

With the level of difficulty that exists to agree on what defines an impact player, I used this criterion because there is a large enough sample size and it excludes analyst bias based on my own assumptions or values of impact.

The probability of drafting an impact player decreases with each pick in the draft. The top-5 selections are better than picks 6-10 and so on. 

Here are three scenarios that examine the probability of each selection the Broncos have or potentially could have on draft day.

Scenario 1: Stand Pat at Pick 9

George Paton

The Broncos currently hold picks No. 9, 40, and 71 in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft. These selections are independent and mutually inclusive because they can secure an impact player at any pick or a combination of all selections. 

If the Broncos were to make no trades and take players at those selections, the probability of landing one impact player in the first three rounds is .53. Those are basically coin-flip odds. 

The probability of hitting on two impact players in the first two rounds plummets to a low .07. As I've talked about in this series on draft analytics, hitting on players is a game of chance and the odds are not favorable.

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Scenario 2: Trade-Back

If the Broncos trade back, their chances do improve, but not as much as one would think. As a proxy, we will look at the Broncos-Steelers deal in 2019 when Pittsburgh moved up to pick 10 from 20. In this 2021 scenario, the Chicago Bears receive No. 9 and the Broncos receive picks 20, 52, and 83 in a draft-day trade.

The Broncos are now loaded up with five selections in the first three rounds, giving them a probability of landing at least one impact player in the first three rounds at .60 — an improvement, but not massive. The best chance of selecting two impact players in this scenario is with pick 20 and 40 but it is .05. 

Selecting three is so low it is nearly impossible. It's interesting that, in this mock trade scenario, the Bears' probability of selecting an impact player, in either case, is almost equal at .40 for the No. 9 selection and .42 for picks 20, 52, and 71. This means Chicago doesn't improve nor worsen its odds, and the trade itself is mostly equal from their perspective.

Scenario 3: Trade-Up

Trading up is a risky proposition, too. If the Broncos want to trade up to pick No. 4 from No. 9, as many rumors have circulated, they will need to give up quite a haul. The New York Jets traded up from pick 6 to 3 to select Sam Darnold in 2018 and gave up picks 6, 37, and 49 — as well as pick No. 34 in the following season’s draft. 

The Broncos don’t have enough second-round selections to replicate that trade, so to move up, they will likely have to give up picks 9, 40, and a first- and second-rounder in 2022.

For this scenario, I will project that the Broncos have a much improved 2021 season, positioning the team to select at pick 21 and 53 in the 2022 draft.

In such a case, the Broncos would have a probability of .62 to take an impact player at No. 4. What they're giving up — picks 9, 21, 40, and 52 — to the receiving team comes with a solid probability at .70 of selecting an impact player. 

If Denver's season isn’t much improved, as I project in this scenario, the receiving team will only have better odds. Moving up to pick 4 would mean giving up a significant amount to take one player.

Bottom Line

The NFL draft is full of chance and all three scenarios above have advantages and disadvantages with none of them being a slam dunk. Remember, this analysis is for selecting 'impact players' and not depth or regular starting players — as the previous two articles in this series discuss. 

Taking these probabilities as a sign that trading up is not costly, teams must remember that they cannot field a good team if it's only looking for one impact player. Teams must have solid depth and other starters that may not go on to garner accolades and awards. 

It's a fact of life in a salary cap league. Going hard for that one player will have an effect on a team, which usually lasts for two to three years after the draft. These trading decisions must not be taken lightly.

The Broncos' current roster is solid, but is missing a couple of impact players at specific position groups. The biggest uncertainty is at quarterback. 

 Is Drew Lock the answer or should the Broncos go after a signal-caller in what is a rich QB draft class? Would that one player put Denver over the top? 

Many of the players on the Broncos' roster are near the end of their respective contracts. Trading up may be a good choice for the 2021 draft, but it's a risky proposition for the two seasons following. 

Probability gives the Broncos something to think about when analyzing trade scenarios, but common sense needs to also come into play when looking over their entire roster and near future roster.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL.

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