It’s become something like conventional wisdom that if the Green Bay Packers are trading Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets, April 27th is an important date, as the trade will likely include draft picks and that is the day that the 2023 NFL Draft begins. However, for a few reasons, I’m really not sure that’s the case.
It’s true, at a macro level, that future draft picks are not as valuable as draft picks in the current year, for the simple reason that current draft picks can help you win now. They bring immediate value, as well as predictability. You know what a current first rounder is worth, but you have almost no idea where any given team will be drafting next year. There is, essentially, inflation with draft pick value, and like the concept of the future value of money, it’s better to have an asset sooner than later. Except…
Value in football is rarely linear, and every attempt at quantifying the value of draft picks by round, by year, and by position has to deal with one giant hairy elephant in the middle of the room: the relative value of quarterbacks. Quarterbacks are insanely valuable compared to any other position. When the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft, they didn’t just get an all-time great quarterback. They also got 10-15 years of consistently competitive play almost regardless of any other moves they make. They got stability, their GM and coach got unprecedented job security, and they got championships.
The Mahomes selection will always stick with me, partially because of the Chicago Bears trading up to #2 to draft Mitchell Trubisky, but also because the Chiefs went up and got Mahomes. They made it happen, which isn’t easy coming off of a 12-4 season, as they were. KC traded a few picks (including both their 2017 and 2018 first rounders) to Buffalo (who moved down to take corner Tre’Davious White) to move from 27th into the top 10 to grab their franchise quarterback. Buffalo would, the very next year, jump in front of the Bears to grab quarterback Josh Allen by sending Tampa their first round pick and a few second round picks (Tampa would draft Vita Vea, M.J. Stewart, and Carlton Davis). The Mahomes pick (later used on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, now of the Bears) wasn’t used directly to get Allen, but it helped provide the draft pick depth necessary to make such a move, as it gave the Bills an arsenal of picks to bargain with.
The Packers did something similar in 2020 for Jordan Love (albeit moving up to a significantly later pick at #26), and we’ll see how it works out in the grand scheme of things, but the point here is not that trading up is good in and of itself. The point is that getting a first round pick may be valuable now, but it’s even more valuable for when you believe you may attempt to pick a quarterback highly in the draft — and for the Packers, that may come in 2024. The Packers may have their quarterback of the future already in Love, but he was hardly a perfect prospect, and if he struggles in 2023 after three years of bench development time, the Packers will likely need to go back to the QB well once again.
It’s not impossible that they could do so in the 2023 NFL Draft. Getting the Jets’ pick (#13) to pair with their own (#15) might make such a thing possible, but it will be logistically difficult given how many quarterback-needy teams are already positioned to select quarterbacks. Carolina, Houston, and Indianapolis are unlikely to budge from the top four, and Detroit is lurking at six with the Raiders right behind them. One of the best quarterback prospects in this draft, Florida’s Anthony Richardson, is also a developmental project along the lines of Josh Allen, and will likely take some time. The team also likely wants an unencumbered look at Love, and unless a phenomenal prospect falls into their lap, I doubt they’ll go out of their way to create additional drama.
However, the 2024 draft is likely to have a much higher ceiling for quarterback talent than this one, led by USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. It is also likely to have fewer teams in desperate need of a new signal caller. If the Packers do need one, it will mean that they were bad in 2023. Maybe they’ll be bad enough to land a new quarterback all on their own, but if they’re not, having an extra first-round pick will become immensely valuable to help position them. “Quarterback draft richness” is a huge factor in calculating whether a current pick will be more valuable than a future pick; although the current draft does have a good number of solid prospects in Richardson, CJ Stroud, and Bryce Young (and Will Levis, depending on your evaluation of him), both Williams and Maye would likely be ranked more highly than any of them if they were eligible this year. Instead, they will go back to college for another season, which helps to increase the value of a high pick or the ability to move into a high pick in 2024.
While not a completely analogous example, think about a hypothetical team going into the 2019 NFL Draft. Say that this team can trade for draft capital in 2019, a draft class that featured Kyler Murray (who went first overall) before a huge drop-off value-wise to Daniel Jones; alternately, this team could trade for draft capital in 2020, which had a large group of blue-chip prospects in Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, and Jalen Hurts all as options. While it was hard to predict that all of those names would be draft worthy — Joe Burrow was a late riser and Jordan Love’s future is still uncertain, for example — it was pretty clear even in 2019 that the next season would be a deeper class and would allow much more flexibility to move into an advantageous position. It’s just easier to trade into the top 6 than it is to trade into the #1 spot exclusively. To get a useful quarterback in 2019 (if Murray can even be considered useful at this point) would have required expending an incredible amount of capital to reach #1, and it likely wouldn’t have been possible at all.
In short, present picks may be worth more than future picks, but not if you know (or strongly suspect) you will be spending a future pick on the quarterback position. Given the desire to evaluate Love as a starter while filling in holes on a cap-strapped team, I doubt the Packers have any desire to go to the QB well this year. Given that fact, and the need to deal with the outcome of whatever 2023 brings in 2024, a future first-round pick from the Jets is likely more valuable than a current one.
Add in the fact that 2023 is perceived to be a weak class overall, especially in immediate positions of need for the Packers like receiver and safety, combined with the salary cap benefit of trading Rodgers post-June 1st, and I think it becomes clear that the draft is not the serious deadline that most people believe it to be.