Vontae Davis and Valuing Draft Picks

So by now you may have heard that the Colts acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Miami Dolphins. I think it was on the news and stuff. The Colts gave Miami their second-round pick in the 2013 draft and a conditional sixth-round pick. Since the news broke there have been plenty of questions about Davis, not about his talent but his maturity and commitment, and whether the Colts coaches can straighten him out. But the biggest question seems to be about who “won” the trade and if the Colts “overpaid” for their shiny new corner.

Obviously the million-dollar questions are: How much value Davis will bring to the Colts? And how much value there is in a second-round draft pick?

Let’s address the latter question first. Kyle maintains (and I agree) that while the Colts arguably overpaid based on how teams value draft picks, that value system probably overrates picks in the first place. I’m of the opinion that a draft pick is worth whatever quality of player you can reasonably expect to get from that pick. By looking at the quality of every player ever drafted at that slot, you should get a rough idea of what the pick is worth.

That’s exactly what Pro Football Reference does every year in their draft preview. Using their widely-cited Career Approximate Value stat, PFR grades every pick from the last 40-some-odd years of drafting and averages together the values from each draft slot.

Using PFR’s 2012 Draft Preview, I put together a few AV numbers as a starting point. Davis was originally drafted by the Dolphins with the #25 pick. We don’t yet know where the Colts’ 2013 second-rounder will fall but if we guess a 2012 record somewhere between 3-13 and 7-9 that gives us a range of roughly #35 to #43. Note that the PFR data only covers about 40 years at each slot, a small sample size that makes exact values rather noisy. To smooth it out I’ve averaged in the AV numbers from three slots above and three slots below.

#25 pick: Average AV of 29.7 (in 2012)
#35 pick: Average AV of 28.3
#43 pick: Average AV of 24.4

The first thing that stands out is how little difference in value there is between a #25 pick and #35. If the Colts go 3-13 in 2012 we’re giving Miami almost a full refund on the value of their 2009 first-round pick. That feels wrong for a player who already has three productive years behind him (more on that later).

Also don’t forget the conditional sixth-rounder. Whatever that condition is, it must be something good for the Colts and the Colts are dearly hoping it gets met. Sixth-round picks are usually regarded as pocket change but they do have some value. Data here is even noisier thanks to a few jackpot finds in the sixth round, plus you have to figure in compensitory picks, etc. In the end I just averaged all the values from #165 to #173.

Colts sixth-round pick in 2013: Average AV of 6.4 (based on 2012 value)

In short, the Colts traded away AV of roughly 30.8 to 34.7 for Vontae Davis. So if Davis returns 34.7 AV for the Colts starting from today he will have yielded an average return for those draft picks and the Colts basically break even.

Now let’s tackle the tricker question of what Davis himself may be worth. There are a couple of scenarios based on how many years he stays with the Colts.

Davis has two years left on his rookie contract. In an unhappy world Davis plays out those two years and then leaves in free agency. With only two years the Colts would have to get from him at least 17 AV per year to break even on the trade. Considering that Darrelle Revis had an All Pro season in 2011 with an AV of 16, Davis posting 17 seems wildly optimistic. Let’s assume this isn’t happening.

Another more likely scenario would be that Davis plays well in 2012 and gets a new four-year deal. In a total of five years with the Colts, Davis would only have to post an AV of 7 or 8 each year to reach the mark (remember that Weighted AV is always a couple of points lower than the straight total of each season’s AV). That’s not quite Pro Bowl level – unless your name is Champ Bailey – but it’s still as good or better than any Colts CB from the Peyton Manning era. It’s also on par with what Davis put up last year in Miami over just 12 games.

Looking at Davis’s career overall, he’s already accumulated a Career AV of 16 with the Dolphins. Projecting five more years for the Colts at 8 AV per year would bring his Career AV up to 52. That’s a respectable career number, putting him ahead of almost every corner the Colts have had for a decade (except for Walt Harris who played for 13 freaking years). It’s also totally reasonable to expect from a guy of Davis’ reputed talent level.

The big question mark of course is Davis’ maturity and commitment. Some troubled guys respond to the shock of being traded and the change of scenery helps them straighten out. I hope so because shit like showing up for practice drunk is NOT going to fly in the Hoosier State. But there we just have to pray that Grigson and Pagano know what they’re doing.

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic about this trade. On one hand I’m not crazy about paying sticker price for a guy with three seasons already punched off his clock. On the other, we already know he can play at an NFL level. The last piece of the puzzle seems to be if the Colts coaches can reach him and help him be a good Indy citizen. It’s very alluring to think that the Colts could end up with a young Champ Bailey or Assante Samuel. And of course in the short term it should help get fans excited and sell a few more tickets.

In Grigson We Trust,