Once upon a time, the NFL trade deadline was less significant than your ex’s birthday.
It came and went with little fanfare or roster changes. And that’s just the way the league preferred it.
The truth is, NFL teams always found it a bit unseemly to shake up rosters after the regular-season race was already underway.
“For the longest time, the league wasn’t excited about seeing a lot of midseason movement,” said Joe Banner, former NFL executive and current analyst for The 33rd Team. “They felt there was an integrity-of-the-game element. People already had paid for tickets. Do we really want to put teams in a position where they’re basically making themselves worse on purpose?
But they eventually got over that and said, ‘Listen, if you’re smart about it, it could help the bad teams in the long run, if not in that particular moment.”‘
In 2012, the league moved the trade deadline back two weeks from the Tuesday after Week 6 to the Tuesday after Week 8 to encourage trades. Some people in the league, including Banner, wanted to move it back to after Week 10. But the owners were worried there would be too much roster movement if they allowed trades that late in the season.
“After the deadline was moved back, there started to be a lot more phone calls and conversations [about trades],” Banner said. “I think it gave teams more of an opportunity to determine whether they were on the right track or the wrong track. And if they were on the right track, what it might take to give them the best chance to win it all.”
It didn’t happen overnight. In three of the first four years after the trade deadline was pushed back, there was just one trade in the week leading up to the deadline.
Since 2017, however, there have been seven or more deals each year, including 11 in 2020 and eight last year, highlighted by the Rams’ acquisition of eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller. Six of those eight deals last year happened on the day of the trade deadline.
So, be patient.
Last week, with the Nov. 1 trade deadline fast approaching, the Rams’ chief nemesis in the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers, swapped a bevy of draft picks for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
On Monday, the surprising 5-2 New York Jets, who lost their top running back, rookie Breece Hall, to a season-ending knee injury in their 16-9 win over Denver last weekend, acquired running back James Robinson from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a conditional sixth-round pick. On Tuesday, the Chicago Bears shipped three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Robert Quinn to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-round pick. And on Thursday, the New York Giants traded WR Kadarius Toney to Kansas City for third- and sixth-round picks.
And we’ve still got several days to go before the deadline.
“There’s definitely a lot more trades now,” said Mike Tannenbaum, former NFL executive and current analyst for The 33rd Team. “With compensatory picks being available to trade, teams have a lot more flexibility. Clearly, that had to be one of the attractions for the 49ers who had a mass number of compensatory picks. Also, some of the people running these teams now are less traditionalists and are more willing to consider trades that are a little bit more out of the box.”
For a long time, draft picks were viewed as gold. Before the impact of the salary cap and free agency fully began to be felt in 1994, the draft was basically the one and only way to build a team.
Even after the arrival of the cap and free agency, the draft still was vitally important because it enabled teams to supplement high-paid veterans with younger, cheaper labor that helped them balance their roster and the cap.
But as the league’s revenue streams have skyrocketed, the cap has shot up, and it’s no longer an incredible challenge to manage. I’m not going to sit here and tell you if you can balance a checkbook you can manage an NFL salary cap. But it’s certainly much easier than it was in, say, 2000 or even 2010.
You rarely ever hear the term “cap casualty” anymore. That has devalued draft picks to a certain extent because teams have the flexibility to sign more veteran free agents. It’s made teams like the Rams last year and the 49ers this year more willing to part with draft picks for players they feel can immediately help them raise the Lombardi Trophy.
A fearless win-now mentality by the league’s younger GMs and coaches has replaced the old sustainability model Banner long espoused when he was the president of the Philadelphia Eagles. The aim then was to try and keep the Super Bowl window of opportunity open for as long as possible.
“There’s no question that the next generation is more open to looking for different ways to do things,” Banner said. “There’s less risk avoidance. They’re not as overcome by the fear of making a mistake.”
“It seems like now, everybody is just homed in and focused on this year,” said Rick Spielman, who was a GM with both the Vikings and the Miami Dolphins. “Head coaches always have had that mentality because they feel they have to win now. But from a front-office perspective, it was, yeah, we want to win now. But we have to keep as many of our [draft picks] as we can so that we have a competitive team year in and year out.
“It seems like that tone may have changed some because of the turnover in the GM area. It’s almost like the coaching area now.”
That clearly was the Rams’ M.O. last year. Coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead set their sights on the Super Bowl and did whatever it took to get there.
It started with a bold off-season quarterbacks swap with the Detroit Lions, sending 2016 first-overall draft pick Jared Goff to the Motor City in exchange for veteran Matthew Stafford and their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks. Then they gave up second and third-round picks for Miller, one of the league’s premier pass rushers, right before the trade deadline. Shortly after that, they also signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after the Browns released him.
Stafford threw 41 touchdown passes in the regular season and nine more in the playoffs, including three in their Super Bowl victory. Beckham had a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl, and Miller had two sacks in the Super Bowl.
The Rams didn’t have a first- or second-round pick in the 2022 draft and don’t have a first-round pick next year. But they won the Super Bowl. So life is good.
“They’re going to pay the price over time,” Tannenbaum said. “But to the victor go the spoils. And they’re champs.”
Added Banner: “I think what the Rams did has shifted some mindsets. It clearly influenced what the 49ers did.”
The Rams finished 12-5 and won the NFC West, then had three 3-point wins in the playoffs, including a 20-17 victory over the Niners in the NFC championship game.
Both the Rams and Niners are struggling this year. The Rams are 3-3 and the Niners are 3-4 after a 44-23 thumping at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Both are trailing the surprising 4-3 Seahawks in their division.
One of the reasons teams were reluctant to make in-season trades in the past, besides not wanting to part with valuable draft picks, was the arrogant belief football was indeed rocket science, and it took weeks and months for a player to adequately learn a new system and get acclimated with his teammates. No more.
“Coaches, who play a secondary role in a lot of these moves, are a lot less concerned about things like how are we going to get him up to speed on the system than they used to be,” Banner said.
“That question used to rule the day and discourage [in-season] trades. But coaches have moved somewhat, maybe not dramatically, off that position. Combine that with the younger GMs who don’t seem as overcome by fear of making a mistake as some in the past, and you’ve created an opportunity for it to become more interesting and impactful on the season.”
The Niners made the deal for McCaffrey last Friday, just two days before the Chiefs game. Two days later, he played 22 snaps against the Chiefs, running for 38 yards on eight carries and catching two passes for 24 yards.
“It’s funny,” Tannenbaum said. “Ordinarily, you’d say we can’t put a running back in the game that soon because he doesn’t know the pass protections, and it’s going to take several weeks. McCaffrey was there for 10 minutes, and they put him in the game. It shows the great coaching by Kyle (Shanahan), and it shows how smart McCaffrey really is.”
It also showed the Niners wanted to waste little time getting a return on their investment.
“You don’t make a move like this unless you believe you have a chance to go to the Super Bowl,” Spielman said.
Unlike the Rams’ trade-deadline acquisition of Miller last year, the addition of McCaffrey has gotten mixed reviews. He’s one of the league’s most versatile running backs and is an excellent fit for Shanahan’s offense.
But he has a fairly significant injury history, and the draft price, coupled with the three first-round picks the Niners gave up last year to trade up for quarterback Trey Lance, left their draft cupboard pretty bare. They didn’t have a first-round pick this year and don’t have a first or second-round pick next year.
“It could pay off,” Banner said. “McCaffrey is very talented, and he fits what they do very well. But I also think on a risk-reward scale, it’s a very high risk that he’s not going to stay healthy, and they’ve given up a lot of picks, a lot of quality picks that they’re going to need going forward. Because they have salary cap challenges. Once you have cap challenges, draft picks become incredibly important.”
With the clock ticking toward next Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline, there are a lot of phone conversations currently going on around the league right now. Whether many of them will develop into actual trades remains to be seen.
But the Rams’ success last season has emboldened teams to do whatever it takes to add the final piece to the Super Bowl puzzle.
“It clearly seems teams are more aggressive about being in the now instead of trying to balance out the now and the future,” Spielman said.
Said Tannenbaum: “If some teams think there’s a window [of opportunity] and decide to go for it and the price is right, they’ll take their shot. And there are going to be [sellers] out there like the Panthers, who see it as an opportunity to help with their rebuild.”
“There is heavy conversation right now between a lot of teams,” Banner added. “I think any player who is in the last year of his contract on a losing team, unless he plays a crucial position and is a young difference-maker, he probably should be keeping an eye on the phone.”