Tuesday April 3rd, 2007

March is all about player movement in the NFL, but if you were paying attention, you probably noticed that free agency didn't dominate the headlines to the degree it has in recent years. Last month's roster shuffling featured an unexpected element: the renaissance of the significant NFL trade, which had grown relatively rare in the era of free agency.

But the art of the deal is back. There's a new enthusiasm for talking trade long before the usual bevy of transactions that involve teams swapping picks and players during (and in the days just prior to) the NFL Draft.

To wit:

• The Texans found themselves in need of a quarterback and went all out in pursuit of Atlanta backup Matt Schaub, making the Falcons an offer they couldn't refuse.

• The Eagles picked up two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Takeo Spikes from Buffalo, thereby removing that position from atop their draft-day need list.

• Running backs Willis McGahee (Baltimore), Thomas Jones (Jets), Reuben Droughns (Giants) and Tatum Bell (Detroit) all relocated via trades last month, bringing fresh blood to their respective running games.

• And high-profile deals involving cornerback Dre' Bly (Denver), receiver/return man Wes Welker (New England) and Jake Plummer (Tampa Bay) all got their share of attention.

"It seemed like just a couple years back, nobody traded," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said at last week's NFL annual meeting in Phoenix. "And then people talked about how nobody's trading, and all of a sudden everybody's trading. (The Spikes deal) worked for us because we wanted to get a veteran linebacker or two this offseason. We thought that was important for us."

All told, there were 11 NFL trades executed in March, compared to just five deals over the same time frame in 2006, and eight in March 2005. And while headline names such as Daunte Culpepper and John Abraham were dealt last year, and Randy Moss, Laveranues Coles and Santana Moss moved in 2005, this year's burst of trade activity largely involved prominent players at the game's most important positions.

And we're probably not done. There are a number of enticing names being dangled as possible trade bait, including Chicago Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lance Briggs, San Diego super-sub running back Michael Turner, Kansas City veteran quarterback Trent Green, Seattle receiver Darrell Jackson and possibly Oakland's Moss. If the majority of those dominoes fall before or during the draft, this offseason will go down as the one in which the trade returned to prominence in NFL personnel maneuvers.

"I think everybody this year has been looking for a specific need to really help the team," said Washington head coach Joe Gibbs, whose Redskins dealt safety Adam Archuleta to Chicago for a sixth-round pick and are trying to pry the disgruntled Briggs away from the Bears in a blockbuster that may include the teams swapping first-round draft slots. "You look at (a trade) and say, 'Hey, this is a place where we can really fill a hole,' and teams seeming willing to do it. It seems like in some years teams are willing to be more aggressive."

I talked to at least a half dozen NFL head coaches or general managers at last week's league owners meeting and they said the reason for the increased March trade activity stems primarily from the hefty amount the salary cap has expanded in the past two years under the new collective bargaining agreement -- from $85.5 million in 2005, to $109 million this year.

That dramatic jump has left most teams with money to spend. It has also lessened one of the recent past's biggest financial roadblocks to significant trades at this time of year: the immediate cap hit that is taken by a team trading a player when the remaining pro-ration of his signing bonus counts completely on the current year's cap.

"Teams are more willing to make a deal because they have the room anyway, and they need the player," said Rams head coach Scott Linehan, whose team traded a fifth-round pick last month to Detroit for defensive end James Hall. "It's a lot easier to make a trade than it is to sign a free agent. This year, there were guys out there getting a lot of offers. It was pretty competitive for a relatively small pool of players in free agency. If you needed to address a need, like in our case at defensive end, it was pretty obvious to us that it'd be easier for us to trade.

"It takes two teams to make a trade, but you might be bidding against 10 teams for that player in free agency. Two teams can get together and say, 'We've got a draft pick and you've got a player. We need the player, you'd like to have another draft pick.' It's a fair conversation, so let's do the deal. Whereas you get in free agency, you've got an agent talking to 32 teams. You don't know what the deal is. You don't even know what the market is going to be yet. You're waiting for a number. In a trade, you just get it done. Trades can literally happen in an hour if it's the right deal. If it doesn't happen that fast, you're usually moving on."

It was more economical for the Rams to acquire Hall's current contract in trade, Linehan said, than to get in a bidding war for him had the Lions released him and he reached the free agent market.

"You'd rather absorb that than absorb an unbelievable contract for a (free-agent) player who you're not completely sure of how he's going to fit in with your team," Linehan said. "But some of the deals happen when a guy's in the last year of his contract, and you just re-do the deal with the player, and that's part of the negotiation, too."

Such was the case with Bly, who balked at becoming a Bronco until Denver gave him a new contract, and with Schaub and McGahee, who got huge extensions upon joining Houston and Baltimore, respectively.

In need of a veteran running back in the wake of Tiki Barber's retirement, the Giants got nothing accomplished in free agency, where Dominic Rhodes, Travis Henry and Ahman Green were hot commodities. But New York pounced on the opportunity to add Droughns to its roster, in exchange for reserve receiver Tim Carter going to Cleveland.

"It didn't take long for us to get something done with the Browns," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "It's just a matter that you're shopping for something specific and you have to find a partner who's interested in working with you. But with the increased cap room, there was an opportunity to make something happen. With the (limited) number of players in free agency, the only alternatives are the draft or a trade. I wouldn't think it's preferable to trade. It's not the first and foremost thing. But before, you might not have had enough room under the cap to handle the acceleration factor."

In his then-dual role as Seattle's head coach and general manager, Mike Holmgren is remembered as the guy who traded running back Ahman Green to Green Bay in 2000 for cornerback Fred Vinson, a move that backfired when Vinson was injured while Green went on to attain Pro Bowl status with the Packers. Holmgren feels good about last September's deal in which Seattle sent its 2007 first-round pick (24th overall) to New England for holdout receiver Deion Branch. In having no first-round pick this month, though, the Seahawks will pay the price for that transaction.

"The fact of the matter is a lot of times a trade just doesn't line up," Holmgren said. "And you don't ever want to do it just to do it. They used to do it just to do it in the NFL, before the salary cap ramifications. Now the easiest thing to do is just sit on your hands and not do anything, just sit there.

"But the cap room gives you the chance to at least think about making a trade. With Deion, it felt right. The only decision there is is it too costly? But once you can answer the question of whether you'd take him in the first round -- which we thought was easy -- if you think you would have, then you do it."

This year at least, with more money to spend and slimmer pickings in free agency, more and more teams are showing a willingness to pull that kind of trigger on a trade. In the NFL, the art of the deal is back.

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