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Robert Griffin III Pre-Draft Value and Game Theory

“I promise you he’ll be the second pick. Could even be first. I can’t promise you that, but Luck and Griffin are going 1-2 in some combination.”

–Mike Lombardi on the B.S. report, transciption via B/R

The NFL draft is more or less a strategic game.  It’s an important one, and the winner of it isn’t always rewarded with the best draft, because there are a lot of post-draft factors that determine the success of a class.  And winning this game is relative anyway.  Some battles are already won and lost on the day the players declare.

There are essentially just six players in the Robert Griffin game.  There are the potential sellers: the Rams and Vikings, there are the potential buyers: the Redskins, Seahawks, and Dolphins, and you have the most important player, the Cleveland Browns, the only team in position to both buy and sell.  The game could theoretically be expanded to include the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Washington Redskins as sellers, but then we’re getting into situations that have less than a 10% chance of occurring.  I will stick to the most likely six players in this discussion, and treat the Redskins as either a buyer or a non-player.

Michael Lombardi is typically wired into the inner-workings of teams’ thinking with regard to the NFL draft, but I believe I can use game theory and a couple of reasonable assumptions to prove that he’s not accurate in the above quote, and then I will be proven right as things break down.  I don’t think it is likely that Robert Griffin goes second overall after Andrew Luck goes first, but I think the Washington Redskins ultimately determine how able the Rams are to trade their pick.  And the story on the Redskins is that they want Griffin and are looking to name their price, but aren’t going to overpay for the Heisman trophy winner.

And even though Mike Shanahan has a tendency to go-it-alone on football decisions, I think his evaluation of Griffin as clearly the second best QB in the draft, but in a normal year, should be available at the 6th pick, is a lot closer — I think — than Lombardi’s assertion that he’s only not going to go no. 1 because Luck is going to force him to go no. 2.

This is relevant to the St. Louis Rams.  It makes sense for the Rams to begin with the assumption that everyone is going to trade up for RG3.  There are four potential buyers who are more likely to want RG3 than the Rams (or Colts): Cleveland, Washington, Miami, and Seattle.  Here’s the problem: Cleveland and Washington don’t really want to consider a trade up for RG3.  They certainly have the ammo to pull it off, but they talk, and Washington and Cleveland are not going to compete with each other for RG3.  Seattle remains an RG3 longshot because if you’re the Rams, you don’t really want to take a year where you “earned” the second overall pick, and end up not picking in the top ten.  The Rams are going to fall in love with a player they want, and even though they could pick up mulitple first round picks to move out of the top ten, the value of the 2012 first rounder declines so much with that move it is almost not worth doing.

If Miami wins the coin toss and picks 8th overall, things get really interesting.  I could see the Rams being willing to drop down six spots — thinking the draft might be deep enough to offer an elite talent at no. 8 (some are, most aren’t) — and pick up Miami’s first round pick next year plus multiple additional 2012 picks to do so, headlined by a third rounder.  There are multiple problems with the Miami scenario: Miami is going to be very active in the FA market as well as the trade market in the weeks leading up to the draft, and if they make a splashy move such as signing Peyton Manning, they will need their first round picks the next two years a lot more than they need RG3.

To recap: for Miami to be a serious player for the second overall pick, a couple of things need to happen.  Miami must fail to acquire a veteran who they feel would be a significant upgrade over Matt Moore in 2012.  St. Louis must feel that the draft is so deep with elite talent, that picking at no. 8 (or 9) would be preferable to reaching for someone they like at no. 2.  There is no doubt that St. Louis would much rather pick at no. 4 or no. 6.  I do think it is likely that if Miami doesn’t end up getting into the RG3 mix, someone else like Seattle or a mystery team (Denver? Kansas City? Philadelphia? New Orleans?) would be interested.  Let’s say Miami makes no acquisitions and that the end up being the third player in this game.

I’m not ruling out an aggressive move from the Seahawks, I just don’t think it’s likely.  So if the Rams are certain to trade the second pick to a team to take RG3, as Lombardi suggests, either the Dolphins are going to need to get really desperate (which is probably more likely than them not getting desperate in free agency first — this is where understanding game theory comes in), or there needs to be a Cleveland-Washington competition for RG3.

But if free agency eliminates all teams but Washington and Cleveland for Griffin (Flynn to Seattle; Manning to Miami; Alex Smith and Mark Sanchez stay), I don’t see how Lombardi’s position looks likely.

Let’s assume that Lombardi is completely correct, and Cleveland and Washington have both been hiding plans to give up an entire draft to the Rams and get RG3.  Well, now St. Louis opens the bidding at multiple first round picks plus a second and a third.  Neither franchise wants to pay that price and it’s an easy bluff to call.  Cleveland is (still hypothetically) willing to package both first round picks for RG3, and possibly throw in their third rounder.  That is both 1) a higher price than the Redskins can or will match, and 2) still significantly overpaying the market.  So Cleveland wins the bidding for Griffin.  That means the Rams get that price for Griffin, right?

Well, sure, according to Lombardi.  But unless Cleveland is wreckless, why would they overpay the market by so much?  There are no other bidders at that price.  The Rams cannot execute a trade if they don’t have any other offers.

If Cleveland holds out to not put the third rounder in, what collateral would they have that would allow them to hold the Rams hostage as the clock winds down?  Well, they have this: the Vikings pick third, and Cleveland picks fourth.  If Roger Goodell was to suddenly outlaw draft pick trading, there is a very high probability that Cleveland would be able to select Griffin at fourth overall.  That is the mock draft consensus.  And in actuality, that’s is the “true pre-draft” value, of Robert Griffin.  Competition can drive that price up, but as we’ve seen, free agency is going to limit the price of competition.

Back to the Rams.  Now let’s say Cleveland, knowing all of the above, is willing to fork over their two first rounders — no more — for RG3.  The Rams have three strategic plays: accept Cleveland’s deal, decline Cleveland’s deal and use the draft pick, or decline Cleveland’s deal and trade the pick to someone else.  Washington is probably willing to offer their first round pick next year (remember: the assumption is they really value the chance to pick RG3), but that by itself isn’t better than the price Cleveland will play.  The Redskins can probably throw in an additional 2012 pick to go over the top of Cleveland.  But ultimately, you’re looking at a couple versions of the same value for the pick, and declining Cleveland’s best offer to take someone else’s best offer is probably more spiteful than rational.

To be honest, if St. Louis can actually get both of Cleveland’s first round picks to move from second to fourth, I expect them to do it.  It would make the current talk of two first rounders and two thirds (or a second and a third) seem like hot air, but it is.  I just happen to think that two first rounders is a high water mark for what the second overall pick is worth to teams.  There won’t be fierce competition for it, and like every trade up in recent memory, the buyer is going to be able to name their price.

The biggest problem from the Rams perspective is that all of the analysis above is predicated on acceptance of Lombardi’s assertion that teams are truly willing to get the no. 2 pick and spend it on Robert Griffin.  If that’s not informed speculation, they have no actual trade offers for the second pick, and will just be using the pick on best available player.

The Minnesota Vikings are reportedly willing to trade the third overall pick, and that is incredibly problematic for the Rams.  If Cleveland was willing to trade two firsts for the second overall pick, and the Vikings are willing to give the third pick to them for just a first and a second rounder (or maybe a first and a third), then all they have to do in order to ensure getting RG3 is to make sure that they always have best offer for the no. 2 pick, and that the Rams can’t do business with someone else, in this case the Redskins.  They have a huge advantage there picking inside the top four.  The Rams, obviously, want the 4th overall pick, but can’t afford to part with the second pick without being adequately compensated for their trade down.  So the Rams want to do business with the Browns more than any other team.

But the Browns don’t want to actually trade anything of value to the Rams unless the Rams get a solid offer on the table that makes sense to them.  Right now, they don’t have such an offer.  And so the Browns, not the Rams, are in the driver’s seat on RG3.  If the Browns make a trade with the Vikings after the Rams pick Justin Blackmon, Matt Kalil, or whoever, then they are on the clock to take Griffin.  If they don’t trade, they are still the team best positioned to take Griffin.  Mike Mayock said in a conference call today that the Rams should be “thrilled” to get a package of the 4th and 27th overall picks for the second pick, which means they are unlikely to receive that.

In fact, the more digging into the situation you do, the more you realize that the entire plan for the Rams and the Vikings to trade down is predicated on two things: the Washington Redskins being interested, and competition from a desperate team somewhere else in the draft.  If one of those things doesn’t occur, then the highest Robert Griffin can go is 4th to either the Browns, or whoever the Browns select as their trading partner.  It is, actually, very safe to pencil Robert Griffin in as the 4th overall pick in the 2012 draft, because if the Browns do not take him, they will likely trade the pick to someone who will.  The Browns hold the key to who gets Robert Griffin (because the Browns hold all the cards and the first crack at him), but the Redskins are the team that determines how much the second and third picks are worth.

Lets do this exercise again with one assumption: let’s say that the Redskins have an identical grade on Robert Griffin and Ryan Tannehill, and therefore will give up nothing to go up from sixth overall, and would flip a coin to determine which to take at sixth.  In this exercise, we don’t assume the Browns will take him at fourth overall, but we know that the Browns determine who will get him.  This is just an example to show how the Redskins lack of interest would affect the value of picks 2 and 3 in this draft.

Without the Redskins, the ability to land two first round picks for pick no. 2 becomes something of a pipe dream for St. Louis.  Just like the last scenario, enough desperation from Miami could create a scenario like the one suggested by Lombardi where Griffin is definitely going to go second overall, and then it is just about weighing the value of Cleveland’s offer against Miami’s, but that desperation was always possible.  In the absence of a competitive trade offer from the Redskins, Cleveland’s pick at 4th remains the most viable landing spot for Griffin.  And Cleveland can let the board come to them, knowing that if the get overbid, they conceded the price to another suitor.

But now, without Washington trying to position itself in front of Cleveland, the Vikings and Rams are in direct competition for the right to field offers to jump Cleveland.  Without Washington involved, there is no reason for anyone but Cleveland to pay market rate to move up.  If St. Louis is being unreasonable, you can try to acquire Minnesota’s pick.  Or vice versa.  If St. Louis bows out, and takes Blackmon, Cleveland is still going to get action on RG3 at the 4th pick.  Minnesota might be able to leverage a cheap swap of picks and pick up a third or fourth rounder for their troubles, but with Washington out, it’s Cleveland’s show.  A one team show.

There’s still a good chance Robert Griffin winds up with someone else besides Cleveland.  It just means that teams that are going to jump Cleveland in order to get RG3 aren’t going to be able to do so on their own merits, because Cleveland can offer so much more.  The fact that teams are already negotiating trade up terms relative to what Cleveland can offer means that since the cost of RG3 is roughly equal to what Cleveland is willing to pay for him, it’s more cost efficient to cut out the middle man and assume that with Griffin likely to slide out of the top two or three picks, the most direct trade you can make is to compensate the Browns for not having Griffin on their team.  Essentially, the game theory suggests that whatever RG3 is worth to the Browns, teams will let the board come to them, and then any team can opt to pay the Browns THAT PRICE, and use the fourth overall pick on RG3.

The Browns hold all the cards anyway, and the Rams and Vikings have no choice but to involve the Redskins.  Griffin is likely to be the 4th overall pick in the draft.  It is anyone’s guess who will actually hand the card to Mr. Goodell with Griffin’s name on it.  But we can establish even two months out that Griffin isn’t likely to go until fourth overall, and that any team willing to trade a first rounder to jump the Browns in the 2012 draft is probably willing to give that price to the Browns as a means to the same end.

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  1. February 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm

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