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Trading up or trading back? How NFL GMs decide to make draft day trades


In the 2018 NFL draft there were 36 trades executed with 27 different NFL clubs jockeying to move up or down the board. The year before there were 38 trade agreements during the draft.

Over the last two years, the Bills have made moves in both directions in round one. In 2017 they traded down and in 2018 made a pair of moves up the board. The considerations however, that must be made for those two kinds of trades stand in stark contrast from one another.

Bills GM Brandon Beane, who orchestrated the team's two trades up in the first round last spring to land QB Josh Allen and LB Tremaine Edmunds, knows all too well how different the factors are when trying to move up the board as opposed to sliding back.

"Let's first talk about going down," Beane said. "If you're sitting at a position and you've got one guy sitting on the board when you're getting close to being on the clock and you really like him and value how he fits where you are, first round, second round. If you trade down now you're basically saying… you may as well trade down another round because if you trade four or five spots back the odds of that one guy being down there are not very good.

"If you have five to seven guys and somebody wants you to move back five to six spots, although it's close, you still have a shot to get one of those guys you like. It really goes back to following your board."

In 2017, before Beane was hired, the Bills obviously felt they could afford to make a big move, moving back 17 spots where they still got a player they coveted in Tre'Davious White at pick 27.

Beane, like most GMs subscribes to the approach that your draft board is your information guide for the multitude of decisions a personnel executive has to make on draft weekend.

"That's why it's so important," he said. "Draft day, if you get your board right, should be a lot simpler."

Moving up the board, on the surface, appears to be the more pre-calculated maneuver. The Bills knew last year, for example, that they had to land a quarterback in the draft. Sitting at 12 and 22 in round one, Beane realized neither pick would land them one of the top quarterbacks in the class.

So they started well in advance of the draft to make calls and ascertain what it would take to make a move up the board into the top 10.

"Let's just say you were at pick 25 and you have a guy in the top tier of your draft board. You think he's top 10 (talent)," Beane said. "If you have a guy in the top tier by himself and you think he's a rare impact player at his position, that might be the time to make a move up."

But you can't sell the farm to do it like the Saints did in 1999 when they gave away their entire draft pick holdings that year, as well as a first and a third in the 2000 draft to move up seven spots to select Ricky Williams.

"You have to consider what the cost would be," said Beane. "First, is there a team willing to do it? And then what is the cost? Is the cost too much where it jeopardizes the rest of your draft or potentially future drafts?"

Buffalo was able to move up five picks from 12 to seven in a trade with Tampa Bay to draft Josh Allen last year, and they were able to do it for their first-round pick at 12 and two second-round picks (Nos. 53 and 56), but they did not have to part with any draft capital in 2019.

But that trade with Tampa Bay didn't happen until their pre-calculated trade with Denver fell through at pick five. Beane said even the best laid plans can be altered by how the board falls, and there are always surprises.

"That's what happened to us with Denver last year," said Beane. "We agreed with Denver on what it would take for us to get up to five. (Broncos GM) John (Elway) wanted to know I wasn't bluffing, so we established what it would take. And he said the only thing he had to do was wait to see what was on the board when he was on the clock because if a certain guy fell to them at five he was going to stay there. And that's what happened. They were in love with (Bradley) Chubb and you can understand why. He called me and said, 'Hey, our guy is there that we want so I can't do the deal.'"

So there are instances where a GM has to be very fluid and seek out the next possible trade partner whether they're trying to move up or down.

"What will happen sometimes is we'll get some calls as the draft gets closer where some teams down lower call and say, 'We're not sure, but there may be a guy there up where you are. Would you guys consider moving back at all?' And you'll have that conversation," said Beane. "Then as it gets closer to the draft starting you may get a call back and they'll say, 'We think there's a good shot the guy we want is going to be there. Will you move?' The smartest thing to say is, 'We'll consider it. Let's go ahead and talk through what it would take.' That way both parties know what it would require."

That often provides peace of mind to both clubs knowing the parameters of a deal are in place even if time is short. But at times a tentative agreement can't be reached.

"What can happen sometimes is you may tell them it'll take this much to move up to where you are and they don't want to give you that much," said Beane. "And you just tell them, 'That's fine. If it changes let me know.' And then we're on the clock and they're twisting because their guy is still there. You're really a victim on both sides."

Such was the case when the Bills were trying to find a trade partner for their move up from 22 to try to land Tremaine Edmunds after he was still on the board after the Bucs pick at 12.

"We didn't expect Tremaine (Edmunds) to fall that far," said Beane. "He was a guy sticking out up there and at a position of need too. I know I say draft best player available and I truly mean that, but if there's a guy who is best player available and at a position of need, the board is doubly telling you what you should do. So when he was falling we were calling the Packers at 14, the Raiders at 15."

Both clubs weren't interested in moving out. Fortunately, Buffalo finally found a willing trade partner in Baltimore at 16.

The Bills could find themselves on the other end of such a first-round trade proposal next week. With perceived quarterback needy teams like Denver at 10, Cincinnati at 11, Miami at 13 and Washington at 15, Buffalo could be on the receiving end of an offer to move back depending on how the board falls early.

"I have the three quarterbacks already going off the board (before pick 15)," said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay of one of his recent mock drafts. "It's a possibility. It's going to be interesting to see which teams move around to go get a quarterback."

Whether a GM is faced with a potential move up or down the board, the critical thing to determine is weighing what's left on the board against what's being offered. And that isn't always easy.

"There are so many variables," said Beane. "Maybe we've got 15 players with first-round grades and you're at nine. Well then it probably wouldn't be smart to go to 25. There's almost no chance of any of them being there. So that's what you have to factor in, but what if guys that aren't on our board in the first round because of medical or some other reason go in round one? Maybe some of our first-round grade guys go later than we thought.

"The bottom line is as long we've done our due diligence with our board it will tell us when it's time to make a move up or down."

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