NFL Draft Preparation & Player Personnel – Trades

I received this question via Twitter from an inquisitive fan;

Henry S. – “Mr. Sundquist can you provide any insight on how trade discussions happen between two teams?”

Simple I suppose.   I was part of an NFL front office that was one of the most active in professional football for 16 years.  Perhaps one of the most significant trades in Denver Bronco history emerged while I was General Manager.  We sent former Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in exchange for Pro Bowl defensive corner Champ Bailey and a 2nd round draft pick.  Portis retired as the 28th All-Time leading rusher in NFL history, Champ Bailey has arguably been the face of the franchise for almost a decade.

How does a club get from point A to B in devising, developing, and implementing an NFL trade?  Why aren’t there more “blockbusters” associated with professional football?  Why don’t we see more player for player exchanges within the National Football League?  All are legitimate questions connected to Henry’s Tweet.

Developing partners with other clubs

From my experience the most important factor to creating and executing trades are the relationships built in the pro football world.  That includes dealings with other decision makers at the club level, as well as with NFLPA agents.  Trusted peers are easier to construct a win-win scenario that leaves both clubs feeling they got what they needed.

Instances where a team is trying to get the “upper hand” usually hinders any chance of coming to an agreement.  Too much attention and evaluation from the media can leave a general manager with “buyer’s remorse” or shouldering the blame for what on the surface might appear to be a one-sided deal. Many GM’s are reluctant to take the risk associated with the negative scrutiny.  Status quo is easier to handle than the repercussions of brokering a poor trade.  The deal never gets done.

Developing partners with agents

Exec’s that understand and trust a trade partner through past experiences are more likely to converge on the win-win point I was speaking of.  Then there’s the player agents.  It’s important to gain the confidence from this group as well.  They’re the ones taking the terms and implications of the deal to the player or players involved.

Most trades of players in the NFL are with very little time remaining on the existing contract.  Why?  Any amortized CAP money is the responsibility of the original club (immediately), and most contracts are backend loaded in salary that isn’t CAP friendly for the new club.  That requires the ability to restructure or extend the contract for the player, and if the player & agent don’t like the ultimate destination . . . good luck getting that done.  These discussions normally commence prior to the actual trade agreement, so the player does have some leverage.

Let’s look at a couple scenarios & how clubs look to evaluate the situation to garner a “win”;

Player for player

The struggle here is defining equal value for players of different positions.  How do you determine a specific running back is fair trade value for a defensive tackle?  Primarily it comes down to actual seasons in the League and current contract obligations.  The haggling will be over the evaluation of both players and their respective talent/skill added to the roster.  But ultimately it comes down to acquiring a player of similar age & financial commitment to the one that you’re giving up (regardless of position).

Player for pick

Tough scenario as well.  Surrendering a productive veteran can be a “slippery slope” when dealing with the fan base.  Relinquishing a single member of your 53 man roster demands more opportunity of finding a player or players of similar future potential, and that can mean asking for multiple picks.  We all know the draft can be a bumpy course and every GM wants his shot at a “mulligan”.  The other major factor to consider is most player for pick trades come after a draft cycle & there’s some gamble as to where the club sending the pick might fall in the next draft selection.

Pick for pick

This is what most NFL fans have come to understand; trading up, trading down.  Collecting picks in the current draft, acquiring extra for the following season.  This scenario is frequently generated by team needs and players available.  Clubs looking for a key piece might be willing to move up in exchange for an equivalent combination of picks derived from a recognized “value chart”.  Clubs not finding talent to upgrade their roster for the cost their current selection might be willing to move back for depth picks or future “higher value” selections.

In the end it’s not so much about “winning” the negotiation as it is about finding the “willing” partner.  If you can broker a deal that works for both sides, it can lead to a long relationship of building similar scenarios in the future.  If you look to gain an “in your face” advantage, the deal is not going to get done and don’t look for any chance of “dancing” with that partner down the road.

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