Should the Cleveland Browns Trade Down in This Year's NFL Draft?

What does research say about the Browns' intention to potentially trade down in the NFL draft?

Owner Jimmy Haslam took over the Browns in 2012 and has taken his fair share of knocks since. In Haslam's short ownership, the team has gone through three coaches, and all of the team's seven first-round draft picks have underwhelmed. Most famously, the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel in the late first round of 2014 NFL draft, despite the fact that a $100,000 study commissioned by the team itself recommended drafting Teddy Bridgewater.

Despite these questionable decisions, many believers in analysis by the numbers -- myself included -- were excited by recent moves the Cleveland Browns have made to emphasize "analytics" at the top of the organization. Haslam promoted under-40 lawyer and non-football-guy Sashi Brown to Executive VP of Football Operations -- giving him ultimate control over personnel -- and then hired "Moneyball" star Paul DePodesta from the baseball world to be the team's newly created Chief Strategy Officer.

These moves signaled the organizations willingness to embrace numbers-based analysis, and perhaps move to forefront of analytical thinking in the NFL. But will that willingness translate into real change?

It was largely unnoticed, but a recent statement by Sashi Brown on the team's willingness to trade up in the NFL draft was very important.

"Go up? That would be shocking,'' Brown, who has final say over the roster, told Tuesday. "I think we're happy where we are at the No. 2 pick. If anything, we'd probably move back.''

Why is it important that the Browns aren't going to trade up, and would rather trade down? It's because that's what the numbers say teams should do, even though top picks still have insanely high value.

Professors Cade Massey and Richard Thaler studied the value and trade dynamics of the NFL draft in great detail in their seminal study, "The Loser's Curse". What they found was that surplus value -- or monetary savings the drafted player provides in relation to an equivalent free agent -- increases through the first round of the NFL, before peaking around pick 30. Of course, players at the top of the draft tend to be better than those found later, but they also come at a higher price in terms of salary.

Surplus vs. Trade Value

Once you think of draft picks in terms of surplus value, the benefit of trading back from the top draft picks is enormous. In addition, the worst NFL teams -- those consistently drafting at the top of the first round -- are getting the lowest surplus value picks, and the best teams -- like the Patriots -- get the highest surplus picks at the end of the first round. 

Massey and Thaler:

Our findings are strikingly strong. Rather than a treasure, the right to pick first appears to be a curse. If picks are valued by the surplus they produce, then the first pick in the first round is the worst pick in the round, not the best. In paying a steep price to trade up, teams are paying a lot to acquire a pick that is worth less than the ones they are giving up.

For those who are hopeful the Browns can bring success to the organization with an analytical focus -- and perhaps influence the entire NFL -- it's encouraging that the team is looking to make the analytically sound decision and trade back in the NFL draft.