The NFL trade deadline is red-hot and it’s not even here yet. Last week, the Rams made three trades in one day. This week, the Patriots made a trade less than eight hours after beating the Jets 33-0, then made another one two days later. The 49ers, the league’s other undefeated team, followed New England’s deal on Tuesday with one of their own.
There have been 17 trades since the season began Sept. 5, and the consensus opinion in front offices across the league is that there are plenty more to come ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline.
How did this happen? The NFL trade deadline used to be a perennial dud — nothing like its MLB, NBA or NHL counterparts for activity. General managers used to hoard draft picks and believe the juice of a midseason acquisition wouldn’t be worth the squeeze, so difficult is it to school players in new offensive and defensive schemes on the fly.
But now it’s more trades for higher prices and ideas that would have been laughed off half a decade ago. Two first-round picks from the Rams to the Jaguars for Jalen Ramsey? A second-round pick from the Patriots to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu? A first-rounder this time last year from Dallas to Oakland for Amari Cooper?
This is the new way of the NFL trade-deadline world, and it’s actually pretty cool. Keeps things interesting. Gives fans a fresh way of staying engaged. We’re here for it.
As for why it’s happening, based on conversations with front-office executives around the league, there are a few reasons:
A fresh perspective on the concept of trading
As a new, younger generation of general managers has pervaded the league, front offices just look at trading from an entirely different point of view than their predecessors. They see how players move around in the NBA, they see how short NFL players’ careers are, they realize they’re not going to have these players forever and they’re more willing to think outside the box in terms of ways to improve their teams for the immediate future.
“Somewhere along the line, people started asking different questions,” one personnel director said. “It’s like, ‘We’d sign a free agent off the street because he could help us right now, what’s the difference between that and bringing in someone from another organization?’ So once you start turning over old ways of looking at things, a lot of new stuff comes into play.”
Trey Wingo says Mohamed Sanu being traded to the Patriots adds to the reasons New England will be playing in the Super Bowl.
Trading offers other advantages over free agency as a player-acquisition method. In some cases, it offers cost certainty. The Patriots have Sanu for this year and next, if they want him, and they know he’s scheduled to make $6.5 million. If he plays well and they want to keep him, that’s a better solution than going out on the market next March and having to outbid another team for a similar player who might get $8 million or $9 million a year. Still another advantage is that trading for a player doesn’t cost teams anything in the compensatory draft pick formula, whereas signing a free agent does.
“A lot of these deals,” Rams GM Les Snead said in a phone interview a few days after acquiring Ramsey, “are done with the long term in mind. That’s an important thing to remember.”
Improved salary-cap management
The fact that trades became more prevalent in the latter years of the current collective bargaining agreement should not be a surprise. As teams grew more and more familiar with the rules of the league’s economic system, some of them began to structure contracts in ways that allowed for more flexibility. In many cases, you’re seeing teams putting more of the contract money — even the guarantees — into base salary and roster bonuses as opposed to signing bonuses, which can make trading players more difficult.
Example: If a player signs a five-year, $20 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus, that signing bonus is prorated over the life of the deal for salary-cap accounting purposes — $2 million per year against the cap. If a team wants to trade that player after, say, Year 2, the cap hit is the same as it would be if it released him at that time. All of the remaining signing bonus proration — in this case, $6 million — accelerates onto the current year’s cap, whereas the salary — even if guaranteed — becomes the responsibility of the acquiring team.
To use Sanu as a real-word example: The five-year, $32.5 million contract he signed with the Falcons in 2016 included a $7 million signing bonus. So when they traded him, only one-fifth of that ($1.4 million) accelerated onto the Falcons’ salary cap for this year. The Patriots will have to pay the $3.53 million of his remaining salary, so Atlanta actually saved cap room by trading him. Had Sanu’s signing bonus been $14 million, the hit for Atlanta would have been twice as large and would have made it more difficult to move him.
Increased emphasis on analytics in addition to traditional scouting
Giants GM Jerry Reese used to say he viewed the draft as the “Super Bowl for the scouts.” This reflected an old-school GM view that the best way to draft was to rely on your scouting evaluations, take the “best player available” and build your team based on your scouts’ best guesses as to which 20-year-olds would have the best professional careers. This, time and research have proved, is not the best way to maximize success in this endeavor.
But as teams have more deeply incorporated analytical studies of asset allocation, the view of the draft has changed in many front offices. Draft picks aren’t viewed as untouchable treasures, but instead as assets to be evaluated the same way others are. Which is how the Cowboys ended up, a year ago, deciding Cooper was worth a first-round pick. They figured they’d be drafting somewhere in the second half of the first round. They looked at the receivers that would be available in that part of the round. They decided they liked Cooper — who at the time was still just 24 — better than any of those college players, so they made the deal. When the 2019 draft came around, Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones joked that they’d be watching Cooper highlights when it came time for the Raiders to use the pick they sent them (No. 27).
And you’re seeing this happen in a lot of places. The Bears decided last September that Khalil Mack was a better use of their 2019 and 2020 first-rounders than whatever college players they’d have drafted with those picks would have been. The Rams decided the same thing about Ramsey vis-à-vis their 2020 and 2021 first-rounders. The Steelers decided the same thing about Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. their 2020 first-rounder.
“You see a guy who’s still young, who you have under control for two, three, four more years, and who’s already shown he can have success in the league,” an AFC general manager said. “It’s not crazy to say that’s a better use of your draft capital than a pick that could come late in the first or second round.”
Can it backfire? Of course. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the pick the Steelers sent to the Dolphins for Fitzpatrick to be the No. 16, and it could get a lot better if Pittsburgh has a rough second half without its starting quarterback. But the way the Steelers see it, Fitzpatrick is 22 years old and under contract for three more years after this one (assuming they pick up his 2022 option). Could they have drafted a better player in next year’s first round? Maybe. But they see Fitzpatrick as better than a “maybe.”
John Dorsey was fired as GM of the Chiefs in June 2017, six months after the team finished a 12-4 season and less than two months after he drafted Patrick Mahomes. A month later, the Panthers fired GM Dave Gettleman 17 months after they played in the Super Bowl. Just this past offseason, the Texans fired GM Brian Gaine after one year on the job — a year in which they won the AFC South title.
The message? You might not have this job for very long, so you need to go for it when and where you can. GM jobs used to carry more job security than coaches’ jobs did, but the gap is narrowing. Very few teams and fan bases can stomach long rebuilding projects. Five or six new teams make the playoffs every year. It’s a league where your fortunes can turn quickly, and because of that team executives feel as if they have to grab their chances to win when they can.
Add the stuff we already mentioned about fresh perspectives on ways to improve your team to an increased level of urgency among those making the decisions, and what do you get? Trades, ladies and gentlemen. Let the trading begin. Oh, wait. It already began. Let the trading rage on!