What Stock Traders Know About NFL Draft Picks

Ahead of Thursday night’s NFL Draft, team executives are actively working the phones. Some are looking to leverage draft picks in veteran player trades, others are trying to trade picks to put them in position to select a particular player they want. The most important factor in the latter kind of trade is getting into the right spot. If a team moves up too high, it will end up taking one player earlier than necessary, which means they probably traded away too much. Move up too little, and the team risks losing the player altogether.

This year, two high-profile player-targeting trades could be in the offing: The Detroit Lions want to move up a few spots from No. 10 to take wide receiver Mike Evans, and several teams are looking to secure a first-round pick in the 20s to nab quarterback Derek Carr.

How do they know the proper chances of getting their targets? What’s the optimal draft slot to get?

To answer that question, we asked Brian Burke, an ex-Navy pilot who founded Advanced Football Analytics. He has introduced a probability-based approach to draft expectations that combines player ranking systems and mock drafts and weights them, based on their historical accuracy.

It’s the same concept behind the Bayesian modeling used by professional financial markets traders. To predict this year’s draft, Burke considers the past predictive value of the various rankings systems and how much this year’s predictions vary. That enables him to go further than an average prediction to get a range of probabilities for player availability at different points in the draft. He can also forecast the best players available when your favorite team’s pick comes up.

As an example, the system shows there is a 43 percent chance Johnny Manziel will be available by the fifth pick (Oakland). That drops to a 3 percent chance he’ll be available by the 10th pick (Detroit).

Consider our two trade examples from above. In the case of Mike Evans, the current forecasts suggests he has a 99 percent probability of being available at the fourth pick. Then it starts dropping:
96 percent at the fifth pick (Oakland)
78 percent at the sixth pick (Atlanta)
42 percent at the seventh pick (Tampa)
17 percent at the eighth pick (Minnesota)

The chance Evans will be available by the 10th pick is just 4 percent. To have a confident shot to get him, Detroit will need to move several spots up.

As for Derek Carr, there is a 99 percent chance he will be available at the 17th pick (Baltimore), and a 90 percent chance he’ll be available at the 31st pick (Denver). For teams that want to have a true shot of getting him, they’ll need to be in the 20s to make that happen—so it seems as if they have that right. And it’s impossible to predict with absolute certainty how the draft will play out: There’s a 50 percent chance Carr could be around by the 46th pick (Pittsburgh).

For those who want to check on their teams’ prospects, Burke’s full interactive is here.

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