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With a Super Bowl in sight, does trading up for a top draft pick make sense for the Packers?

With a tidy free agent period, the Packers could go into April’s draft feeling like they’re the proverbial “one player away.” But the cost of moving up to snag a top prospect ultimately appears to be too much.

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ACC Championship - Clemson v Pittsburgh
Isaiah Simmons would be a stud for the Packers but is he worth the risk?
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

“Inject this into my veins.” That was the reaction from much of Cheesehead Nation last week when a mock draft over at The Draft Network pegged the Green Bay Packers moving up to 11 to draft Clemson star linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons. He’s everything Green Bay missed when they traded out of the 14th pick two years ago, passing on Derwin James. Simmons would provide speed, coverage ability, and the best playmaking linebacker the team has had since Ray Nitschke — and that’s not even hyperbole.

It would, however, be a big mistake. Or at the very least, a reckless risk, too big to justify, even (or perhaps especially) with Aaron RodgersSuper Bowl window slowly closing. The rent is just too damn high.

When the Bears beat the Packers to the proverbial punch on a Khalil Mack trade, they didn’t care that the analytics community felt the Raiders overwhelmingly won that trade. Chicago got a Defensive Player of the Year who transformed their team into an all-time great defense, catapulting them to their best season in nearly a decade. The NFL world likewise scoffed at the notion of trading a first-round pick for Amari Cooper, but the Cowboys unlocked their passing game with Cooper in tow, lifting them to playoff contention and elevating Dak Prescott.

Two years in on Mack, the Bears have as many playoff wins as I do, are paying Mack quarterback money, and don’t actually have a quarterback. Meanwhile, they’re having to cut starters to make their salary cap work. In Dallas, Jerry Jones may have to watch Byron Jones walk while also paying Prescott and Cooper top-of-market deals. Both teams got valuable players, but it hasn’t vaulted them into “NFC favorites” category. If anything, the trickle-down effects have proven costly while not providing sufficient value to winning.

Let’s assume Simmons is as impactful as these players. Say he’s Mack good. For starters, he better be, because that’s what the Packers are giving up. To get to 11 in this scenario, they had to give up 30, 62 and their 2021 first-round pick. That’s not far off from what the Bears gave the Raiders in the Mack deal, and likely what it would take to move up for a player like that. By the old school Jimmie Johnson trade value chart, this calculation is roughly correct. Depending on how teams value future firsts, at the very least 30+62 will not get a team to 11.

On the other hand, using Chase Stuart’s draft value chart that project the average value of the player picked in those spots, giving up 30 and 62 would already be too much give up for 11. Adding a future first is the spoiled cherry on top.

What’s worse is Simmons isn’t Mack, who had already been Defensive Player of the Year and was so dominant he earned All-Pro honors as a defensive end and linebacker in the same season (mostly because the voting is stupid and doesn’t have “Edge” but the point is he was unstoppable). He was already proven to be a force in the NFL. Simmons isn’t anything in the NFL yet. He’s a virtuoso prospect with favorable projection comps to players like Kam Chancellor and NaVorro Bowman, but as an NFL player, we have no evidence for his greatness.

Trading a haul of picks even approaching what Mack got for a player who is a coin flip to be even 70% as impactful would be downright reckless.

There’s more bad news: the NFL is bad at picking linebackers. According to a recent PFF data study, the NFL tends to evaluate linebackers poorly. By seeing how often teams find good players in the later rounds compared to the first, history tells us the league struggles to properly rank or order these players. In other words, it’s much riskier to draft one early because the variance is higher.

Think of this like stocks. If a sector of stocks all showed good fundamentals, but over time they demonstrated more volatility than other sectors, investment firms would be less apt to pour capital into those stocks. We can think of linebackers in the NFL the same way, though this is true, to a degree, with most positions. You don’t have to have been to Las Vegas to understand the risks of betting on something with less than a 50/50 chance.

Believing in one’s own ability to buck trends is how mistakes happen. It’s how financial firms collapse and NFL teams consistently make bad choices. If every player is a risk profile, linebackers carry more risk. Even if he’s a de facto safety, the hit rate doesn’t drastically change.

The only players worth trading that much for, play under center. Using Pro Football Focus’ WAR metric, they found even if Chase Young becomes as good as Mack, a player like Tua Tagovailoa only has to be about as good as Jared Goff or Derek Carr to offset the value a team is giving up. If that’s true of Young, a pass rusher with more upside ability to wreck games, it’s true of Simmons or anyone else at that pick. Moving up only makes sense if it’s for a quarterback and the Packers aren’t in an Alex Smith position yet where moving up for a Patrick Mahomes, then dealing the incumbent starter, makes sense.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be Simmons. It could be an offensive tackle or a receiver. The one guy the Packers need to get them over the top, that one missing piece. But to get that high, let’s say into the top 12, would cost way too much to justify the outcome. The chances of that player ever living up to that lost value are perilously low. Quarterbacks, because of their impact on the game, are the only players who can rightly justify that type of investment.

Moreover, if you’re wrong, you’ve mortgaged your present and future. The same reason to do it— Rodgers potentially aging out of his prime—is the reason not to do it. Miss, and it cost two premium assets who could have become useful players for your team. And even if you do hit, one player can’t save a team. In fact, a recent team evaluation study found holes on a defense were more costly than the benefit of having superstars on defense. Depth and reliability trump star talent.

Trading up doesn’t scare Brian Gutekunst. A modest cost helped him snag Darnell Savage last year. If a player falls into the low 20’s and all it takes is a Day 3 pick to move up and tab him there, the Packers will consider it, and that’s the prudent decision. Picks after the top ~100 or so are lottery tickets, so teams aren’t spending much in opportunity cost to trade up a few spots in the first with a Powerball ticket. Moving into the top half of the draft though still requires incredible draft capital, even if teams cling to an outmoded form of draft pick value.

Free agency offers its own potential pitfalls with big swings, with the consequences similarly dire. It’s not breaking any new ground to say spending a lot of money on a player who turns out not to be very good hurts a team. But the risk is lower because the evaluation is based on actual NFL game play. Solidifying the “win-now” window can come in free agency, while the Packers stay patient in the draft, understanding, as they always have, that it’s about bites at the apple. Trading up for the sexy prospect offers excitement, but presents far too much risk with insufficient reward for the Packers to wisely consider.