This is a old article I recently stumbled across but it is incredibly accurate (at least I think so).
In the NFL, the overvalued player is the expensive, highly sought-after free agent, and the undervalued player is the draft pick. Well, it’s not necessarily the pick or a first-year player as much as a player under his initial contract. As I wrote about last season, a 2005 study of hundreds of players found that drafted players in their initial contracts outperform veterans signed for the same price. In other words, to get the same level of performance, a team would have to pay a veteran much more. This is an essential consideration under the rules of a hard salary cap. The most surplus value of drafted players comes at the bottom of the first round and top of the second round. The new collective bargaining agreement greatly enhanced the surplus value of drafted players by drastically cutting initial contract salaries. For example, this year’s top pick, Cam Newton, will earn half of what last year’s top pick, Sam Bradford, will earn on a per-year basis.
Playing Moneyball in the NFL is about jettisoning expensive and under-producing veterans, rejecting the big-splash free agent, and stockpiling draft picks. There are two ways of generating those picks. First, you can trade away soon-to-be free agents to other teams in return for picks or allow restricted free agents to sign elsewhere in return for compensatory picks. For too long, the Redskins have been on the wrong end of those transactions.
The second way is to trade picks for more picks. Overconfidence and urgency run rife in personnel departments around the league, and smart teams can take advantage of this. There are always teams willing to overpay for a pick that they are so certain will immediately turn their team into a Super Bowl winner. A team can sell its first-round pick for a second-round pick this year, plus a first-round pick next year. In the next draft, that team will have an additional first-round pick that could be sold for another second-rounder, plus another future first rounder. Presuming there are enough buyers, a team could generate an additional second-round pick in perpetuity by foregoing its first-round pick in only one year.
The rule of thumb of trading picks is that one round equals one year. If you want my third-round pick this year, it will cost you your second-round pick next year. It’s like saving money in a bank, but with an insanely high interest rate. The miracle of compound interest allows patient teams with long-term perspectives to generate many extra draft picks, the most undervalued resources in professional football. This strategy requires only patience.
There’s one model NFL team that’s in continuous Moneyball rebuilding mode. It releases or trades expensive veterans on what seem like irrational whims. It trades away picks for more and more future picks. In fact, at one point this team had two picks in each of the top four rounds of the 2011 draft. Since 2001, this team has averaged more than 12 wins per year, and has missed the playoffs only twice. By now, I’m sure you know I’m talking about the New England Patriots.
If the Bills are serious about modernizing their front office (using analytics, etc) we all need to understand that this is not an instant turn around. Signing expensive free agents and re-signing old (and more expensive) talent is wasteful. We have to let restricted free agents walk in exchange for draft picks. Trade draft picks to acquire more draft picks. The end goal should be going in to the draft with multiple picks in the 1st-4th rounds. We also need to have people who really know how to scout talent, because we have way too many busts as of late.
That is how the Patriots do it. It appears that teams like Seattle are doing it as well now. I don't know exactly how it is done, but the Bills need to figure it out and start operating much more intelligently.