There are three ways an NFL team can improve its roster: draft, free agency and trade. The trade has traditionally been the least-used method of the three.
Times, however, are changing. The lost art of the trade has returned to the NFL, and that is a good thing. The league, in the midst of a ratings surge with potent offenses and an exciting crop of young stars, has created some hot-stove buzz with trades over the past year of well-known players: Khalil Mack, Jimmy Garoppolo, Alex Smith, Amari Cooper, Aquib Talib, Marcus Peters, Jarvis Landry, Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul, Michael Bennett, Eli Apple, Robert Quinn, Jay Ajayi, Alec Ogletree and more. As with the NFL’s evolving attitudes towards other issues I regularly cover in this column, such as gambling, media and safety: This is no longer your father’s NFL.
There have been several reasons for the dearth of trading until recent times, some attributed to traditionally conservative and risk-averse general managers. The “common wisdom” was that because football is so dependent on schemes—3-4, 4-3, Cover 2, West Coast, etc.—it’s difficult to assimilate players as seamlessly as in baseball or basketball, especially in the middle of the season. While there is certainly some truth to that, anecdotal evidence can be found on either side of the argument. For example, the 49ers’ acquisition of Garoppolo and the Eagles acquisition of Ajayi at this time last year benefited both teams appreciably, and immediately.
Other barriers to trading, especially at the deadline, have come from the NFL itself. When I was with the Packers, I drew up a couple of proposals with general manager Ron Wolf that were designed to spark some trading buzz at the deadline, and both were given short shrift by the powers that be at the league.
We first proposed pushing the trade deadline back to much later in the season—the Tuesday after Thanksgiving—when there would be just four weeks left in the regular season. The goal was to replicate the “buzz” from Major League Baseball, where contending teams acquired star players for their stretch run, usually from teams clearly out of contention. A much later deadline, we thought, would allow for clear separation between “buyers” and “sellers.” The NFL rejected the proposal—although it moved the deadline back slightly in 2012 (more below)—and said it wanted to discourage, not encourage, MLB’s “rent-a-player” strategy.
The other proposal we developed to facilitate trading was to allow teams to trade cap room. The NFL, unlike the NBA or MLB, does not allow cash to be part of trade compensation, and I knew that was not changing. However, we proposed that trading cap room—more accounting method than actual money—would promote, not harm, competitive balance and benefit both cap-flush and cap-strapped teams. And instead of tens of millions in unused cap space at season’s end, that space, we argued, could be put to use to acquire players. That feature would be especially helpful now that teams are allowed to carry over cap room from year to year. We also argued that this would allow savvier general managers and cap gurus to separate themselves through shrewd management.
The NFL admired our creativity but dismissed the proposal, as it was unwilling to let teams with poor cap management off the hook, saying: “They made their bed, they should have to sleep in it.”
While the league’s potential barriers are still in place, teams have been more open and active in using the trade as a means of roster improvement. What, then, has spurred this newfound interest in the trade? I see five reasons:
1. Follow the leader. The team that just won the Super Bowl has been one of the most active trading teams in the NFL, if not the most. The Eagles, led by the league’s most aggressive general manager, Howie Roseman, are perennially active in the trade market. In a copycat league, others are following.
2. Trust the source. Roseman is one of this current collection of general managers who know each other well from their previous scouting lives or even worked together before. For example: John Dorsey (Browns), John Schneider (Seahawks) and Reggie McKenzie (Raiders) all worked together for more than a decade in Green Bay. Familiarity breeds trust; trust allows for deals to get done
3. Cap-ready. Teams have managed the cap better in recent years and have more room to take on large salaries or absorb cap hits upon trade. Additionally, the current CBA, unlike the previous one that I worked under, allows teams to carry forward unused cap room. Most teams now have ample cap room, removing a previous barrier to deal making.
4. Later is better. Although the deadline was not moved until Thanksgiving, as we had proposed, it was moved from Week 6 to Week 8 in 2012. That has allowed for teams to know better whether they are still in contention or, in some cases, already out of contention. The move back two weeks has definitely been a factor in sell-offs from teams such as the Giants and Raiders.
5. Market established. The offseason trade activity established trade market prices at certain positions. For example, a number of high-priced veteran defensive linemen—including Jason Pierre-Paul, Michael Bennett and Robert Quinn—were shipped in the offseason for the equivalent of a fourth- or fifth-round pick. With that trade price established, negotiations such as the Lions’ discussion with the Giants to acquire defensive lineman Damon Harrison can be focused and seamless.
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Cooper to Dallas: Advantage Oakland
Regarding the biggest of the trades at the deadline…
The common narrative on business of the Raiders this year has certainly been less than favorable. Fans, and some media, are quick to judge moves such as this through a short-term lens. I have always tried to take the long view.
I will not debate “how good” Amari Cooper is, as that is not my lane. However, even if he is special—something most of the scouting community believes he is not—this trade, in my opinion, favors the Raiders.
First, from a financial point of view, the Raiders will be drafting a player, likely in the top half of the first round, at fixed and reasonable compensation for at least the next five years. In sharp contrast, Cooper is scheduled to make $14 million next season—likely more than the traded pick will make over four years—without any security for the Cowboys after that. And the fact that the Cowboys did not simultaneously negotiate a contract extension upon the trade for Cooper gives agent Joel Segal tremendous leverage when they do negotiate a deal beyond 2019.
Speaking of leverage, the Raiders played it well, especially with no other team offering more than a second-round pick. As everyone associated with the NFL knows, when Jerry Jones wants something, he usually gets it, damn the price. McKenzie deftly positioned Cooper, who became the object of Jerry Jones’ desire, to extract maximum compensation of a first-round pick.
The Cowboys have historically been on the short end of trades of first-round picks for wide receivers with clear data from the past with Joey Galloway (for two first-rounders in 2000) and Roy Williams (2008). With history as a guide, lack of a competitive marketplace, and an underwhelming performance so far this season by Cooper, logic and reason would have advised the Cowboys against this deal. Logic and reason, however, succumbed to the emotion and thrill of the deal by the Joneses.
The Raiders weren’t going anywhere this year, or perhaps next year, with Amari Cooper. But they have an extra first-round pick in tow; they now own three first-round picks in the 2019 Draft. Kudos to this much maligned front office as they retool and reboot towards a different team coming to Las Vegas.
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