The Infinite Branching Scenarios of the Draft, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Chaos

Who knows what evil lies in the heart of Rick Spielman? The Holmgren ponders.

We're getting down to the wire, folks, and the smoke and speculation lies thick on the ground. Every team's fan base wants a trade down and swears that if their franchise trades up (unless it's for the second coming of Jesus or Walter Peyton), they will personally tar and feather their GM. People are getting into fifty-reply comment threads over a difference of a half point on a draft board. Hysteria and hyperbole rule the day.

God I love this time of year.

What I have for you today is an analysis of the branching possibilities we face at the fifth overall pick. The draft is an exercise in applied game theory: every choice has reverberations the entire way down the chart and, even if you can identify strong probabilities, one unanticipated choice can throw the entire exercise into chaos. Every participant is seeking to maximize their own choices but each possesses different needs and, complicating it even further, different assessments of the players in the common pool they're all drawing upon. Now consider that there are 32 different players and each has the capacity to shift their position as long as they have a willing partner. Each of the players has hundreds of choices with each pick, though you can usually limit their realistic choices to a dozen or so with three or four seeming most probable. But even if you have a few apparent constants (i.e. the Steelers will take Hightower if he's available), that one unforeseen choice (i.e., the Jaguars select who???) can throw a long shadow as it causes reevaluations and altered scenarios one after another. This is why mock drafts are a fool's game (sayeth the local biggest fool of them all). Fun and distracting and a great way to educate yourself as to prospects and other teams' needs- but an exercise in futility nonetheless.

With the fifth overall pick (and the top two picks already publicly declared), we're in an interesting situation. We're still subject to an enormous number of branching possibilities through those two picks, but the numbers aren't so staggering that we can't get a sense of what they are. I'm going to through each pick and sketch out the various scenarios and my own assessment of the probabilities of each occurring. There will be a poll at the end- and I'm interested in which scenario you think is likeliest, not what you hope will happen.

3. Minnesota Vikings

It's obvious to everyone that the Vikings (who have essentially been on the clock for weeks) want to trade down badly. It's also patently obvious that the Bucs were their number one target for a trade down- and that they appear to have missed the mark. If Mark Dominik was set on either Morris Claiborne or Trent Richardson and felt the need to give up another draft pick to insure that either Minnesota wouldn't take Claiborne or Cleveland wouldn't take Richardson, he could end up taking the bait and trading up. But there's been no indication that this is the case.

Who else could the Vikings get to play the trading game? Miami is frequently mentioned, as a bulwark against the Browns taking Ryan Tannehill at #4. But it's unclear that Cleveland will draft Tannehill while it's abundantly clear that Jeff Ireland will face enough scrutiny by devoting the #8 pick alone to Tannehill, let alone giving up extra picks to acquire him. Cleveland likes Tannehill too, but not even certainly enough to use the #4 pick on him, let alone sacrifice an extra pick to move up one slot.

St. Louis could potentially be interested in trading up again to take Kalil- while the #2 spot was theirs, he was the most common choice as they truly need to replace Jason Smith. However, it wouldn't be a very economical trade on their part and it appears they're content to wait and let the BPA drop to them. Buffalo is said to be keenly interested in drafting Matt Kalil, but most indications from their front office have leaned towards trading down and not up. Add into this comments from Buddy Nix that they see this draft class as deep at left tackle. Smokescreen? Possibly. The other obvious candidate for a trade up to gain Kalil is the Arizona Cardinals, but with no second round pick this year thanks to the Kevin Kolb trade the Cards would likely have to give up next year's first round pick to broker a trade.

What about a trade up for Claiborne? Aside from Tampa, who we've already addressed, the teams who need the most secondary help are Jacksonville, Carolina, Dallas, Cincinnati, New England, and Detroit. But Jacksonville seems to want to trade down, not up (though trying to predict what Gene Smith will do on draft day is a good way to give yourself an ulcer), and Carolina has shown no inclination to go upwards either. The Bengals and Patriots have multiple first round picks and could probably put together an attractive offer- but both seem content to sit and wait. Dallas might be crazy enough to do it, but indications are that they love Mark Barron and want to take him instead. Detroit has far too little to offer in a trade to make it happen.

Part of the difficulty that Minnesota (and, to a lesser extent, Tampa Bay) faces in trying to trade down is the parabolic nature of draft pick values. The difference between the #1 pick (3,000 points) and the #2 pick (2,600 points) is forty times the difference between the #31 and #32 picks (600 points and 590 points respectively). To put it in perspective, the difference between the value of Minnesota's #3 pick and Tampa Bay's #5 pick is 500 points, the equivalent of the #40 pick (a high second rounder). Adding to the chaos: this is the first year the rookie wage scale will be in effect, an innovation which will undoubtedly cause reevaluations of the relative worth of draft picks.

So if no trade occurs and the Vikings must pick or let the clock run out, who do they select? I don't think that Rick Spielman's comments about Claiborne are entirely smokescreen: I'm certain that he'd love to add the #1 cornerback on the board to a secondary that must face Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and Jay Cutler twice every year. At the same time, Kalil is almost universally considered a higher value pick and the Vikings really, really need a left tackle. If the Vikings use the pick, I believe that Kalil is more rational choice for the Viking needs. Oh, and the comments about Justin Blackmon? I don't buy it for a second- that's their secondary attempt to try and interest the Browns or Rams in trading up.

The probabilities* and choices:

A. Vikings select Matt Kalil. 55% probability
B. Vikings select Morris Claiborne. 25% probability
C. Vikings trade pick to Miami, who draft Ryan Tannehill. 10% probability
D. Vikings trade pick to St. Louis/Buffalo/Arizona, who draft Kalil. 5% probability
E. Vikings trade pick to Jacksonville/Carolina/Dallas/Cincinnati/New England/Detroit, who draft Claiborne. 2.5% probability
F. Vikings trade pick to Cleveland, who draft Tannehill. 0.5% probability
G. Vikings trade pick to Cleveland, who draft Justin Blackmon, 0.5% probability
H. Vikings trade pick to St. Louis, who draft Blackmon. 0.5% probability
I. Vikings trade pick to Tampa Bay, who draft Richardson. 0.5% probability
J. Vikings trade pick to Tampa Bay, who draft Claiborne. 0.5% probability

* All probabilities in this article computed via gastrointestinal precognition and/or rectal extraction.

4. Cleveland Browns (or Minnesota Vikings via Cleveland Browns)

So we can see that we already have ten discrete scenarios after one pick- and that's excluding total strokes from the blue such as the pick not being either Kalil, Claiborne, Tannehill, or Blackmon. If you chose I or J, congratulations- you can skip ahead to the comments and start debating Richardson vs. Claiborne. Now, excluding the scenarios where the Bucs have already picked, we can classify the parameters for the next pick as it impacts the Bucs pick into six sets: A & D (Kalil picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock), B & E (Claiborne picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock), C (Tannehill picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock), F (Tannehill picked at #3, Minnesota back on the clock), G (Blackmon picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock):

A & D (Kalil picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock)

This is the easiest to parse, as it's by far the most familiar to draftniks. Cleveland will almost certainly pick between Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Ryan Tannehill, and Morris Claiborne. Could they trade back? It's possible, especially if they're targeting Tannehill and there's a team that's hot to draft- but they'd be leery of trading too far back for fear of losing their target. Claiborne would almost certainly be the trading target. The only teams that would be potentially interested in trading up for Blackmon at this range are St. Louis (which can stay put and take him at #6 if Cleveland isn't targeting him) or Jacksonville (very unlikely to trade up, as discussed earlier). A team that wants Tannehill will know that they can wait until Jacksonville's pick to tradeup for less cost with no real danger he'll be take in the interim. As for a trade for Richardson, there's only one real team I see that might consider it: the Bengals, and they also appear likely to sit still. If they stay put, I believe the pick is, from likeliest to least likely: Richardson, Tannehill, Blackmon, Claiborne. Let's break this out into sets:

1. Browns draft Trent Richardson. 45% probability
2. Browns draft Ryan Tannehill. 25% probability
3. Browns draft Justin Blackmon. 20% probability
4. Browns draft Morris Claiborne. 5% probability
5. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville/Carolina/Dallas/Cincinnati/New England/Detroit, who draft Claiborne. 3% probability
6. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville, who draft Blackmon. 1% probability
7. Browns trade pick to Cincinnati, who draft Richardson. 1% probability

B & E (Claiborne picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock)

Cleveland's options for staying put remain essentially the same: Joe Thomas is a franchise left tackle, so drafting Kalil at #4 means drafting a right tackle with a top 5 pick. However, their options to trade down just widened considerably: remember that there's a 400 point difference between the #3 pick and the #4 pick, which is a signifigant reduction.

1. Browns draft Trent Richardson. 40% probability
2. Browns draft Ryan Tannehill. 20% probability
3. Browns trade pick to St. Louis/Buffalo/Arizona, who draft Kalil. 20% probability
4. Browns draft Justin Blackmon. 15% probability
5. Browns draft Matt Kalil. 3% probability
6. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville, who draft Blackmon. 1% probability
7. Browns trade pick to Cincinnati, who draft Richardson. 1% probability

C (Tannehill picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock)

If Tannehill was Cleveland's choice, there will be a great wailing. If not, they just lucked into a superb situation with their choice of the top wide receiver or running back. Alternatively, their offers to trade down just increased in magnitude as well.

1. Browns draft Trent Richardson. 44% probability
2. Browns draft Justin Blackmon. 23% probability
3. Browns trade pick to St. Louis/Buffalo/Arizona, who draft Kalil. 20% probability
4. Browns draft Morris Claiborne. 5% probability
5. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville/Carolina/Dallas/Cincinnati/New England/Detroit, who draft Claiborne. 3% probability
6. Browns draft Matt Kalil. 3% probability
7. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville, who draft Blackmon. 1% probability
8. Browns trade pick to Cincinnati, who draft Richardson. 1% probability

F (Tannehill picked at #3, Minnesota back on the clock)

If Minnesota makes this trade, they're staying put here and taking their pick of the big three. Kalil, Claiborne, Blackmon, in order of likelihood.

1. Minnesota drafts Kalil. 70% probability
2. Minnesota drafts Claiborne. 25% probability
3. Minnesota drafts Blackmon. 5% probability

G (Blackmon picked at #3, Cleveland on the clock)

Very similar to the C scenario: if Blackmon was their top choice, they're disappointed. If not, they have more options. I don't see a trade up for Tannehill though, with Tampa and St. Louis uninterested in him and Jacksonville waiting by the phone for an offer to trade down.

1. Browns draft Trent Richardson. 45% probability
2. Browns draft Ryan Tannehill. 23% probability
3. Browns trade pick to St. Louis/Buffalo/Arizona, who draft Kalil. 20% probability
4. Browns draft Morris Claiborne. 5% probability
5. Browns trade pick to Jacksonville/Carolina/Dallas/Cincinnati/New England/Detroit, who draft Claiborne. 3% probability
6. Browns draft Matt Kalil. 3% probability
7. Browns trade pick to Cincinnati, who draft Richardson. 1% probability


So what does this show us? Minnesota's 10 likeliest choices branch off into 46 likely choices for the Browns- and that's a simplified version from the Bucs' perspective at #5, as each of the individual teams potentially involved in a trade is actually a separate scenario for any team located below them on the board (and I didn't bother to parse the Browns' choices if the Bucs traded up). Now try and extrapolate that across an additional 28 picks while bearing in mind that there will be at least one out of nowhere choice and totally unexpected trade- and you'll understand why there's no such thing as a perfectly accurate mock draft.

At the end of the day....I still think that the most probable scenario on Thursday night is that the Vikings take Kalil and the Browns take Richardson (good old A1 in this parlance). But I'm also aware that I'm as vulnerable to the fallacies of conventional wisdom as the next layperson, that the people making these decisions have access to intelligence I'll never see, and that my job's not on the line if I may the wrong choice. It's going to be a chaotic circus on Thursday night- I can't wait.

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