From adding that missing playoff piece to securing a few extra draft picks, NFL trades are a fundamental part of team-building. There's so much personnel turnover in this era, both on the player roster and among the coaching staffs, that teams must often maneuver to address challenges that arise before or during the season. Player injuries require replacements that may not be on the roster. New coaches often want to bring in players that suit their offensive and defensive schemes. Often, the only way to address these issues is by making a trade with another team.
Trades can really help turn a team's fortunes around, and players can benefit from them as well. You'll often hear that a struggling player “just needs a change of scenery” to reach his full potential, and this sort of thing happens all the time. Perhaps the team's offensive or defensive scheme doesn't suit his talents, or he's being asked to do things outside of his skill set. He may have a personality clash with the team's coaches, or maybe his family is unhappy in that specific city and an unsettled home life is affecting his play. Being traded to a new team sometimes allows a player to press the reset button.
As the ultimate string-pullers, general managers and other talent-related personnel for NFL teams have to consider many factors before executing a trade. Here, we'll break down the thought and strategy that go into NFL trades, including various objectives they are meant to accomplish and how they get done.
What Is the Purpose of NFL Trades?
Whether an NFL team is in first or last place, the head office and coaching staff are constantly searching for ways to improve. This is a 24/7 obsession for many, and it only intensifies during the offseason. Improvement can be achieved by hiring new coaches or adopting new strategic schemes, but it's most notably addressed by upgrading the overall talent on the roster. Teams can trade with other teams for a specific player, or they can trade to move up or down in the offseason draft to improve the young talent on their squads.
To illustrate, let's consider a scenario in which a team is trying to fill a specific position or roster spot. It's often said that there are only so many great quarterbacks in the world, and that goes for every other position on the field, too.
Limited Options for Improving an NFL Roster
If your team doesn't currently have the player it wants at a given position, there are only three ways to fill that position with the quality you are targeting. You can wait until the offseason and draft a top college-level player, try to sign a proven free agent when he hits the market, or call the team that currently has a specific player at that position and propose a trade. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks.
As far as the draft of college talent, you first have to confirm that a suitable option exists in the upcoming draft class. Every year features a different mix of talent, and there may not be an ideal player at your position of need. Further, he may not be available when your turn to pick comes around. Assuming that player does exist, you have to compete with 31 other NFL teams that are also looking to upgrade their rosters, and good players are in high demand.
If you opt to sign a free agent, there are similar challenges. First, difference-making, star-level players only rarely come onto the market, and when they do, it's likely they have already established solid value with their prior team. This means whichever team wants to sign him will end up paying a stiff price, and with salary cap considerations always in the mix, it means you'll have less money to allocate to other important positions.
This brings us to the NFL trade option. Trades are useful for teams that have already identified a player or several players they want, but the biggest challenge is negotiating a price with the team that already has what you are admitting you need to be more competitive. In many cases, making a trade is less difficult and offers more certainty than the draft or free agent options, though.
Is There Really a Need For NFL Trades?
The above scenario illustrates the need for NFL trades when a team is trying to upgrade its roster by trading with another team for a player it wants. There are many other situations that further demonstrate why trades are such an important part of the team-building process.
Let's go back to our anecdote about quarterbacks for a moment: the fact that there are never enough good ones to go around. There is universal agreement that it is virtually impossible to win the Super Bowl without a first-rate quarterback. Now, consider a team that is mired in mediocrity, consistently finishing in the middle of the pack. They have a solid coaching staff and play great defense, but are missing the field general who can drive their offense down the field and consistently put points on the board. Almost every season, it seems there is at least one team like this that is “just a quarterback away” from contending.
Great quarterbacks almost never hit the free agent market, nor are they typically available via a direct NFL trade. This leaves the draft as the best option for this team to find their quarterback. The trouble is, being just good enough to finish in the middle of the pack, teams in need of a front-line QB typically pick too late in the draft to have a shot at the top quarterbacks. Most draft classes feature one-to-four premium quarterbacks at most, and these are certain to be selected within the first few picks. This leads to a whole different type of trade, but one that can be just as essential for team-building
For many teams, making a trade to move up in the draft has solved this dilemma. The team that needs a quarterback can offer a package of multiple draft picks and/or players to another team that holds a higher draft pick: one in the top 5, for example. This will put our QB-questing squad in a position to draft the potentially elite quarterback it desperately needs.
A Beginner's Guide to NFL Trades
To make a trade, NFL teams can offer any combination of players, draft picks and even cash to another team. Teams have even traded coaches! It's fairly straightforward, but there are a few complexities to sort out. Let's point out a few of these for a more complete understanding of what goes into an NFL trade.
Awareness of the Trade Deadline
Each season, NFL trades can be made until the deadline, which occurs on the Tuesday after Week 8. This gives teams enough time to evaluate their roster needs and identify the players on other teams they wish to pursue. Once teams begin trade discussions, they have to agree to all terms and submit all required paperwork to the league office before the trade deadline. After that, they must wait until after the season to make more trades.
Swapping Draft Picks
Teams can trade players, but they can also trade draft picks. Every offseason, the multi-round NFL draft allows teams to stock up on new young talent. Teams select in an order based on their win-loss record from the prior season; that is, the team with the worst record selects first in each round, and the team that won the Super Bowl selects last. Teams can trade these picks with other teams to move up and down the draft order, and can even trade the rights to picks in future draft years. Draft day has become the single busiest time of the year for NFL trades.
Salary Cap Issues
To help ensure a competitive balance, there's a limit to how much each NFL team can spend on player salaries. This prevents teams with wealthier (or simply looser-spending) owners from outspending other teams and essentially trying to "buy championships." The salary cap can make or break NFL trades as teams must factor in a player's salary before they can even make an offer.
Player Contracts and Trade Clauses
When trading for a player, you're also taking on the contract that player signed with his previous team, unless you renegotiate. In general, the player is entitled to receive the entire salary he is due for that year as dictated by his contract, and teams sometimes negotiate who will pay for how much of the contract. Further, some players have specific clauses written into their contracts that can dramatically affect trade discussions. For instance, a player may have the right to veto any trade or limit the teams to which he can be traded.
Every year, it seems there are key NFL trades that determine which teams are successful. In 2016, the Philadelphia Eagles traded up in the draft to select quarterback Carson Wentz in the first round, and he helped take them to the top of the NFC East division. In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys made a mid-season trade for receiver Amari Cooper, and he immediately helped get their sputtering offense in gear. As a result, the Cowboys are leading the chase for the NFC East crown as we wrap up this brief guide to NFL trades.
Whether by acquiring players or draft picks, NFL teams must constantly look for ways to improve the talent on their rosters. Sometimes an offense or defense is just one good player away from performing the way it's supposed to, and that player, unfortunately, is not on the roster. Trades are thus a key tool in team building and roster maintenance, along with the draft and free agency.