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The enduring value of the NFL draft’s most famous and misunderstood chart

More than three decades ago, Mike McCoy sought to quantify the value of draft picks. He created a trade value chart that has endured and is still used by NFL teams today. (Washington Post illustration; iStock, photo courtesy of McCoy family) (The Washington Post)
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In the spring of 1991, in Dallas Cowboys headquarters, a petroleum engineer named Mike McCoy sat down at his desk to devise one of the most influential innovations in the past three decades of the NFL. He plotted on logarithmic paper every trade involving a draft pick over the previous four years. He wanted to quantify the value of each pick.

Over the previous two years, the franchise’s brash leaders, owner Jerry Jones and Coach Jimmy Johnson, had built a war chest for the draft. They had shipped star running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a massive haul, including eight picks, and quarterback Steve Walsh to New Orleans for three more. Now, Jones’s oil-and-gas business partner was trying to figure out how much the picks were worth.

In his office, McCoy created a graph, assigned the No. 1 pick a random value (3,000) and used a regression formula to calculate the rest. The result — the famous but misunderstood and misattributed “Jimmy Johnson draft-pick value chart” — revolutionized the NFL draft.

For the first 30 years of the NFL, trading picks was “arbitrary,” said Gil Brandt, a Cowboys executive from 1960 to 1988. Brandt remembered the NFL as more of a family business than a corporation, and he offered trades based on relationships. “George Allen didn’t give a crap about draft choices,” he said, laughing. “You could always ask for more with him.”

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Jones and Johnson, oil wildcatter and maverick coach, exploited the status quo. From 1991 to 1993, they made a dizzying number of trades and drafted 42 players. Fred Gaudelli, the longtime football TV producer, once said the pair helped create the modern draft spectacle by transforming the event from “a sleepy little meeting into a live poker game.”

In the three decades since — despite the league’s tremendous structural changes, despite a growing number of critics poking holes in the chart, despite many teams developing their own charts, despite McCoy’s own admission that he created a history textbook instead of a price list — the chart has endured, more or less controlling the trade market of draft picks.

“We still use it as a baseline,” said Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, echoing the sentiment of many fellow GMs. “We do use other [charts], but we still reference it as a starting point.”

But some team executives and analysts believe teams are slowly beginning to shift away from McCoy’s chart. They see it as part of the NFL’s larger analytics movement, which has manifested on the field in passing rates and fourth-down aggression and in front offices with the building out of data departments.

The analytics movement, a microcosm of the broader societal shift from gut to data, conflicts with McCoy’s chart. Critics of the chart have long pointed to the precipitous decline from the first pick (3,000) to the 32nd (590) and argued the importance of picking early, while high, is overstated. The chart — basically codified gut — is seen as a symptom of a general illness plaguing front offices: overconfidence.

“More specifically, unearned faith that they are smarter than the other 31 decision-makers,” Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, an early draft-chart innovator, explained in an email.

The question at the root of every chart, “What is the value of a draft pick?” has no definitive answer — roster-building is highly contextual, quarterbacks are the exception to every rule, etc. — but a growing number of NFL teams seem to be embracing data-driven principles when it comes to valuing draft picks. They’re increasingly trading down, targeting mid-round picks that have been traditionally undervalued by McCoy’s chart.

On Thursday night, after one of the most aggressive offseason stretches of all time, this year’s draft will begin with only 24 of 32 teams slated to pick in the first round. McCoy’s chart will still be the language teams use to build deals, but after the draft ends, analysts believe, the data could signal at least a slight shift.

“It’s always going to be slow, and certain [franchises] are going to be more aggressive in doing so, but [this year] is just another example of the league slowly but surely moving toward a different philosophy,” said Brad Spielberger, a Pro Football Focus analyst and draft-chart innovator.

‘A little bit of a cluster’

In the weeks before the draft, calls fly between NFL facilities as teams attempt to appraise how one another will value this year’s picks. One general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his staff outlines trade proposals from other teams on index cards, which he stacks up and refers to throughout the draft.

On draft night, as other GMs, coaches, executives and scouts conspire in war rooms across the country, this GM evaluates real-time offers by having an analytics staffer plug them into a model on his computer. He said he considers the charts as gauges, not gospel, because he must weigh so many factors, including schemes, medical histories, interviews and dozens of opinions. The GM said his most valuable resource is the team’s draft board, effectively its internal draft curve.

“[The board] is so much more important than the minutiae of the points,” he said. “The chart’s just there to facilitate a trade, to be able to create a fairer transaction without [spending] too much time.”

Because of the NFL’s culture of secrecy, it’s difficult to know when teams began tweaking McCoy’s chart. New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick once suggested teams started arguing over different charts in the mid-2000s, which happens to be when economists first scrutinized the way GMs valued picks.

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In 2005, Cade Massey of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Nobel Prize winner Richard H. Thaler of the University of Chicago published “The Loser’s Curse,” a seminal study that concluded NFL teams were overconfident in their ability to discern between good and great players. Based on years of data, they recommended teams trade down to get “more bites at the apple,” as many draftniks now like to say.

Not long after, the data community began to develop new charts. One by Chase Stuart addressed the lack of performance data in McCoy’s chart, and another by Rich Hill, a writer for SB Nation, updated McCoy’s premise by tracking pick trades under the rookie wage scale. In 2020, Spielberger of Pro Football Focus and Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap introduced one of the latest charts, which compared the value of a pick’s second contract with those of the top five players at his position.

Not only was each chart more sophisticated than McCoy’s, they all argued the same case: McCoy’s chart declined too quickly and undervalued the middle rounds. Yet none gained his chart’s traction or universal acceptance.

In the past decade or so, a few GMs have tried to get other teams to use updated charts. But they struggled, in part because none of the charts were based on widely accepted input variables, as baseball has with Wins Above Replacement.

Thomas Dimitroff, the Atlanta Falcons’ general manager from 2008 to 2020, said even forward-thinking GMs reverted to McCoy’s chart because trying to use an alternative “became a little bit of a cluster.”

“I’m like, ‘Hey, look, I want to do a deal for this second-round pick,’ and [another GM’s] like, ‘Well, I think it should be 300 points.’ I say, ‘My chart says 740 points,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t really give a flip about that.’ Then it gets kind of contentious even though most of the guys are your buddies when you’re in this role,” Dimitroff said. “It’s just, like, forget it.”

Finding an edge

The longevity of the trade value chart surprised even McCoy. In media interviews over the years, he acknowledged its flaws — lack of performance data, limited sample size — and in 2007 he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “To me, it wasn’t that special. But it became so to others.”

McCoy’s chart created a currency for a league that needed one, even though quantifying draft picks is hardly an exact science.

“If you are trading down from the 10th pick, you are likely trading it to the team that will pay the most for it compared to all other teams,” Football Perspective’s Stuart wrote in an email. “So maybe one team really wants the 10th pick and 30 teams do not; the ‘price’ we see for the 10th pick is not reflective of how the league values the pick, but how the team that wants it the most values that pick.”

Even with the proliferation of McCoy’s chart, savvy teams found ways to get an edge. Some began trading down to recoup value with volume, and others swapped late-round picks for proven veterans. Belichick tweaked his defensive scheme to counter league trends so that, no matter where he picked, more players who fit it would be available.

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While newer charts endorse collecting more picks, they also say the chance of hitting on a pick from the late fifth round through the seventh is basically a coin flip. By comparison, the value of a veteran wide receiver who can reliably post 500 yards per year is high.

In 2019, Belichick told reporters the squabbling over charts had subsided and that “everybody probably uses about the same value chart.”

But Spielberger, the PFF analyst, suspected analytically advanced teams were finding ways to outwit slow adapters. If Team A wanted to trade up from No. 20 to No. 10 and Team B asked for two third-rounders, Team A could counter-offer a second- and a fifth-round pick. The offers are almost equal on McCoy’s chart, and the second-rounder might catch Team B’s eye, but new charts show the two third-round picks are more valuable.

“And [Team B] is none the wiser,” he said.

Stephen Jones, Jerry’s son and the Cowboys’ director of player personnel, had a theory on why some teams tout their proprietary charts to the media instead of calling them tweaked versions of McCoy’s.

“It’s all just a matter of wanting to think you might have a little edge by doing your own,” he said. “You’ve got your own individual, organizational thinking, and no one wants to say, ‘We’re using some general chart.’ We want everyone to think we’re figuring a little bit longer, a little bit harder and a little bit better than 31 others.”

‘In reality, you don’t know’

In February, at the Super Bowl parade, Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead celebrated his team’s strategy of trading late first-rounders for proven players by wearing a shirt that read, “[Expletive] Them Picks.” It was a bold boast that underscored how the Rams were able to sacrifice draft picks and still win the sport’s top prize.

“Probably risk in the NFL was too low for a while, and now it’s recalibrating higher,” Rams Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff recently told the Athletic. “Whether that’s because of what we’ve done, or it had already changed and we were among the first to see a change, we’ll never know.”

Another general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned the sustainability of the Rams’ approach but acknowledged its appeal. Over the years, despite significant gains in player-tracking data and despite his strong belief in his personnel staff, his team’s hit rate in the draft has remained relatively the same.

“Sometimes you feel like you know more than you did before, and you’re like: ‘Hey, I know this cluster of three [players]. I know this guy’s one, this guy’s two and this guy’s three,’ ” he said. “But in reality, you don’t know. You really don’t.”

Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for NFL Network, suggested that the values of picks aren’t changing and that GMs are just becoming more realistic about — and more aggressive with — the position of their teams. The aggressive teams must thread a needle, acquiring players at premium positions, relying on compensatory picks to maintain a level of draft capital and hitting on non-premium positions in the middle rounds. For example, even with all the Rams’ bravado about “[Expletive] Them Picks,” the team has had 45 picks in the past five drafts, fifth most in the league.

“It’s easy to find safeties, linebackers, guards,” Jeremiah said. “You can find those guys in the third, fourth round, and you can plug them in, and you can be fine. But if you’re … a pass rusher short or you’re a corner short [or] you’re a left tackle short, it’s awful hard to find those impact players in the middle rounds at those spots.”

This complexity is not lost on Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of football data and analytics. In an email, he stressed football’s unique factors may always make judging pick trades in the NFL more difficult than in other sports — and he implied the data community must guard itself against the same overconfidence it finds so frustrating in GMs.

“While on aggregate we can make draft curves, reality is less static,” he wrote.

Dimitroff, the former Falcons GM, believes the league’s valuing of draft picks will advance with the analytics movement over the next 10 to 15 years. Some in the data community are skeptical this draft will represent a notable break from McCoy’s chart, but Dimitroff believes the tectonic shift is already underway. He has seen it and heard about it in meetings with owners and their data-savvier children.

“Back in ’08, when I first took the job in Atlanta, you could literally look across the table from an owner and say: ‘There’s something I like about this kid. … I’m just feeling it in my gut,’ ” he said. “You can’t pull that off in today’s world. Over the last five or six years, there’s no way you could. There has to be a complete discussion and explanation.”

Jeff McCoy, the eldest son of Mike, thinks his dad would’ve liked this development. A few years ago, Mike was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that quickly erodes a person’s control over his body and mind. The man who had run numbers for a living told his family he had just been unlucky. In October, on a hot Sunday in Dallas, he died at 73.

Jeff, 54, still remembers when his dad invented the chart. He had been in the war room and saw the Cowboys use the chart to vet trade offers. He remembers his dad as someone who loved information, who celebrated the advancements of computers, and when he heard the NFL may be moving away from his dad’s chart in favor of new data, he thought it was fitting.

“He would’ve done the same thing,” Jeff said.

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