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Does “draft capital” actually matter?

Not the Rams it doesn’t ... and they may be proven right

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It has become cliché at this point to believe that finding success in the NFL is as easy as looking at a page with numbers on it. The rise in popularity is likely connected to the possibility that statistics and analytics and organizational rebuilding plans based on tangentially-related Moneyball-adjacent philosophies are a shortcut towards answers that don’t even require watching football.

One such number is the popular idea of “draft capital,” a concept that attempts to add up every team’s pick in a given year based on draft position and number of selections, then assign a value to each and rank them. People love to associate something like the NFL Draft with the stock market — or even more relevant to today, cryptocurrency — because it is yet another reason to argue about which teams have it so-called better and which have it so-called worse.

What this information does give us is an idea of who might be able to do the most and least in a given draft — “do” being anything from making a pick or making a trade — but what it doesn’t tell us is which team is going to have the best odds of winning a Super Bowl in the next one to five years.

If you want to win “The Draft” then draft capital is your answer.

If you want to win “The Super Bowl” then draft capital is merely another three days out of 365. And I even like that ratio — “draft capital” could be as good as one-percent of the process but because fans absolutely love the excitement of adding new players, it probably gets more than “one percent of the credit” for a team’s inevitable success and failure.

Except that draft capital immediately dings — harshly — almost any team that has had recent success.

In part because of that reason and in part because of trades, the LA Rams have not had a lot of draft capital in the last five years. That continues in 2021 without a first round pick, as only the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans are listed as having less to work with in this month’s draft:

120 fake points for Seattle, 145 fake point for Houston, and 200 fake points for Los Angeles rounds out the bottom three of fake points for 2021. Comparatively, the Jacksonville Jaguars lead the field with 1,696 fake points, a large chunk of which is directly attributed to Jacksonville’s 1-15 record in 2020. Unsurprisingly, they are followed in the order by the New York Jets (2-14, also owns rights to the Rams’ first rounder), the Miami Dolphins (acquired the third overall pick from the Texans, traded down, but remain sixth with two first rounders), the Atlanta Falcons (fourth in draft order), and the Cincinnati Bengals (fifth).

The draft value chart looks like fancy numbers, but it really isn’t anything more than the draft order with bonuses going to teams that have additional first or second round picks, and penalties for teams that don’t have a first rounder.

For all important intents and purposes, that is all that a draft capital chart is: “Draft Order+.”

Because of this reason, the Rams have ranked 32nd, 31st, 28th, 20th, and 30th in draft capital over the last five years. And in the ensuing seasons after those drafts, the Rams have gone 11-5, 13-3, 9-7, and 10-6, with three playoff wins and one trip to the Super Bowl. That’s the part that I want to emphasize before we reminisce over LA’s lack of draft resources over the last four years.

The Rams are not banking on the draft to make themselves a good team and nearly to plan, they’ve consistently been a good team under Sean McVay.

This — success — has “cost” them draft capital, but it also ignores the fact that LA has less fake points in 2021 because they have Jalen Ramsey. They’ll have less fake points in 2022 and 2023 because they traded for Matthew Stafford. The draft doesn’t work in a vacuum where the only value extracted is on the three days of the event.

The following four charts will show that the Rams have had the least amount of draft capital since McVay was hired in 2017, but unless you are reading it correctly, it won’t show that the Rams have won 43 games in the last four years, a mark that only the Saints (49), Chiefs (48) and Ravens (44) have topped in that time.

So forgive the fact that LA is “last” in these categories and instead lets focus on which teams have actually turned capital picks into capital Ws.

2017 — NFL draft capital rankings from Bill Barnwell:

In McVay’s first season, the Rams lacked a first round pick (fifth overall) because of the Jared Goff trade in 2016, and that chunk of points removed placed the team at 32nd in draft capital. Whether or not this is an actual loss for Los Angeles depends on if they would have picked a receiver (Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross) or someone else (Jamal Adams, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Marshon Lattimore) and that’s not something we will ever know.

Les Snead went to work on day two, trading down from 37 to 44 and getting a pick swap with the Bills that jumped them from 149 to 91 later in the day; Snead used that pick for John Johnson, who will now return a 2022 compensatory pick to the Rams after signing with the Browns this offseason. He then traded down in the fourth to add an extra sixth, which he used to move up in the fourth for Samson Ebukam.

Ranking dead last in “draft capital,” the Rams selected John Johnson, Gerald Everett, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds, Samson Ebukam, Tanzel Smart, Sam Rogers, and Ejuan Price. That is a better 2017 draft class than most teams. Johnson, Everett, Reynolds, and Ebukam would’ve all returned comp picks to the Rams if not for the fact that there is a limit of four per team. Kupp is Kupp. mart remains in the league, playing in three games for the Jets in 2020, which is good for a sixth rounder.

The Browns had by far the most draft capital, using the first pick on Myles Garrett, then another first rounder on Jabrill Peppers, but they got disappointing returns on first rounder David Njoku, second rounder DeShone Kizer, and fourth rounder Howard Wilson, who never appeared in an NFL game. Third round Larry Ogunjobi was a hit though.

The Titans ranked second in draft capital because they were the other team to trade down in 2016, selecting Davis, Adoree’ Jackson in the first, Taywan Taylor, Jonnu Smith in the third, Jayon Brown in the fifth, and four other players.

So who had the most impressive draft haul? The team with the second most draft capital or the team with the 32nd-most?

This theme may not continue, but 2017 is clearly an example of when draft “capital” doesn’t turn into draft “value.”

I won’t ignore the Saints, who ranked third in capital and had a historic class with Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, and Trey Hendrickson. But the Patriots only made four picks, the first of which wasn’t until Derek Rivers 83rd overall, and they still came away with Deatrich Wise, Jr. in the fourth. Wise could be a fringe first rounder in a re-draft now.

2018 — NFL draft capital rankings according to Warren Sharp:

Here we have the Rams at 31st, one spot ahead of the Eagles, the other team to trade up in 2016. But in this case, LA has traded its first rounder for Brandin Cooks and the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Philadelphia still eventually traded its first round pick, moving down 21 spots and picking Miles Sanders. The Ravens traded up for Lamar Jackson.

LA had also traded the second rounder for Sammy Watkins in 2017.

The Rams wait until 89 to make their first pick, Joseph Noteboom, but then they still have enough ammo to create 10 more picks after that. Undoubtedly this draft class is smattered with disappointments, but Noteboom, Micah Kiser, and Sebastian Joseph-Day are important to the team’s plans in 2021, and Travin Howard or Justin Lawler could be.

But the Browns had an insane amount of capital, picking Baker Mayfield first, Denzel Ward fourth, Austin Corbett 33rd, Nick Chubb 35th. Really the rest of the class hasn’t done much for them, and Corbett’s only positive work has come with the Rams, but certainly the 2017 and 2018 drafts have benefited the Browns at this point.

It helps to have back to back first overall picks after going 1-31.

The Broncos had the second-most capital, adding Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Royce Freeman, and Josey Jewell.

2019 — “Most draft capital” according to Rich Hill and Pats Pulpit:

Nothing complicated about this formula here: the Cardinals had the worst record, they had the most draft capital. Arizona traded 2018 first rounder Josh Rosen (worth a lot more capital than real NFL value) to Miami for pick 62, a move that is rarely brought up now and “preminiscent” of Carolina dealing a second rounder for Sam Darnold this year.

The Cardinals have yet to officially submit to the record if they “Like” or “Dislike” their 2019 draft class but the early results, save some exciting moments for Kyler Murray, are not good.

Byron Murphy, the first pick of round two, and Andy Isabella, the pick from the Rosen trade, have not yet won roster spots on the 2021 team and it isn’t guaranteed that they will. Arizona picked defensive tackle Zach Allen in the third, receiver Hakeem Butler in the fourth, safety Deionte Thompson in the fifth, and another receiver in KeeSean Johnson in the sixth.

Snead traded down three times from pick 31, finally selecting Taylor Rapp. The Rams added eight players in the draft, including David Edwards in the fifth.

The Bears were last in draft capital because they wanted Khalil Mack on their side and they got him. They still came away with running back David Montgomery that year.

2020 — Most draft capital according to Rene Bugner:

Despite dealing the first rounder for Ramsey, the Rams were practically oozing draft capital by ranking 20th overall thanks to compensatory picks and a deal that sent Cooks to the Texans for a second rounder. LA drafted nine players with some immediate return on second rounder Cam Akers and sixth rounder Jordan Fuller.

It’s early, but the Dolphins had three first round picks and the early returns are incomplete. I won’t even go around naming and judging these players other than to say that it is better to have good news than bad news or no news after a rookie campaign. On that note, fourth round guard Solomon Kindley had a great rookie season, as did second round defensive tackle Raekwon Davis. Miami should have a lot of optimism with the class as a whole.

The Steelers and Bills had the least amount of draft capital, but Pittsburgh and Buffalo might have both had players who were better rookies than anyone on the Dolphins. The Steelers found Chase Claypool and the Bills came away with Gabe Davis and both have a number of other promising players from last year’s draft.

So the Rams may not have a lot of draft capital as compared to some other teams, but they have Ramsey, Stafford, three day two picks, six in total (probably more on the way), and four more compensatory picks coming to them in 2022. They could still come away with plenty of draft value.