NFL Trading: How it works and the biggest in-season trades in history

By Stuart Dick

NFL Trading: How it works and the biggest in-season trades in history

Published: 20:10, 13 November 2021

Trading is a crucial part of the NFL world, whether it’s a team trying to secure that final piece of the puzzle in their quest for a Vince Lombardi trophy or looking to offload a star player to earn vital cap space and draft capital.

When Jay Ajayi was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2017 season for a fourth-round pick, it showcased the Eagles’ desire to spend future draft capital on a win-now approach – Ajayi went on to win a Super Bowl title with Philly a few months later.

Meanwhile in 2019, the Jacksonville Jaguars offloaded a disgruntled Jalen Ramsey after just three weeks of the season. Ramsey continues to be an superstar cornerback in Los Angeles, but the move secured the Jaguars a plethora of high-quality draft picks.

The NFL media circus regularly tries to evaluate trades to decide who is the ‘winner’ and who is the ‘loser’, but it is not always that simple and can take five to 10 years to produce a considered answer to that question.

We take a deeper look into how trading in the NFL works, how it affects the salary cap, the trade deadline and also discuss 10 of the top in-season trades in NFL history.

How do trades work?

There are several reasons why a team may decide to enter the trade market – whether that be a disgruntled or unwanted player, salary cap issues, the need to improve draft capital, and even to allow a star player a chance at a title elsewhere.

Players can be traded for players straight up, but most NFL trades include draft picks – which are one of the most attractive currencies to an NFL front office. The NFL Draft is a crucial part of building a roster – with each team given seven draft picks each year to select players from the college ranks.

The Trade Deadline

One of the most exciting parts of the NFL season is the trade deadline, which comes after the eighth week of the season.

This is when teams who are in contention scour the market for the one player that can make the difference in their pursuit of the ultimate goal.

Teams situated at the bottom of the standings may use the opportunity to move players who don’t have a long-term future with their franchise. This could be a player in the final year of their contract, a player whose salary cap number hampers long-term progress or even a veteran player who wants one final shot at an NFL title.

The Salary Cap

The NFL salary cap was introduced in 1994, with the initial limit set at €34.6million – that would secure you one Russell Wilson and little else in today’s money.

The cap is an agreement between the league and the 32 franchises to have a set limit for money each team can spend in a season. It was brought in to provide another layer of parity to the league, stopping the richest teams from buying all the best free agents.

The salary cap fluctuates depending on the economic situation of the NFL and year-on-year it tends to rise due to the increased revenue the sport generates across the globe. However, the COVID-19 pandemic lowered the cap for the first time in 2021 by 7.92%.

Trading can be a useful tool to move players on if their ‘cap hit’ isn’t team-friendly. In 2019, an injured Aqib Talib was traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the Miami Dolphins with a fifth-round pick in exchange for a seventh-round pick.

LA gave Miami draft capital to take on the contract, while Talib never played a down for the Dolphins.

10 of the biggest in-season trades

1983 – Mike Haynes (New England Patriots to Los Angeles Raiders)

Cornerback Haynes was traded from the New England Patriots to the Los Angeles Raiders in November 1983 for the handsome sum of a first-round draft pick in 1984 – which turned out to be the #1 overall pick – and a second-rounder in 1985.

The move turned out gloriously well for the Raiders – who secured a future Hall of Fame cornerback for seven seasons – as they lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy for the third time.

The Patriots, meanwhile, reached the Super Bowl in 1985 – losing to the Chicago Bears. They acquired wide receiver Irving Fryar with #1 overall pick in 1984, who became the first player in NFL history to record a touchdown in 17 consecutive seasons.

The Raiders ultimately won the trade when they secured that Super Bowl title in 1984, but the Patriots will also be happy with the return they received in the deal.

1987 – Eric Dickerson (St Louis Rams to Indianapolis Colts)

Half of Fame running back Dickerson was traded (after a lengthy contract dispute between himself and the LA Rams) to the Indianapolis Colts early in the 1987 season in a three-team trade involving the Buffalo Bills.

The Colts traded linebacker Cornelius Bennett to the Bills in exchange for two first-round picks (1988 and 1989) and a second-round pick (1989), plus running back Greg Bell in the first part of the mammoth trade.

They then traded that entire haul, in addition to their own first-round picks in 1988 and 1989, and a second-round pick in 1988, as well as running back Owen Gill.

As a result, the Rams acquired four first-round picks, two second-round picks and two running backs for Dickerson, who had rushed for 6,968 yards and 55 touchdowns in his first four seasons.

The move brought the Colts little success during Dickerson’s tenure as they made the play-offs just once.

Meanwhile, the Rams acquired very little long-term from their haul of draft picks. Their 1988 first-round pick Gaston Green made the All-Pro team in 1991 at running back, while 1989 first-round pick Cleveland Gary led the league in rushing touchdowns in 1990 – the highlights of their six acquired picks.

The Bills, however, may have been the ultimate winner of the trade – Bennett helped the team to four AFC Championships, won three Defensive Player Of The Year awards and was a three-time All-Pro player.

1989 – Herschel Walker (Dallas Cowboys to Minnesota Vikings)

Speaking of blockbuster trades, the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989 for five players and six-draft picks – this despite Walker only having one 1,000-yard rushing season to his name.

It is easy to see who won this trade – the list of players Dallas acquired, either via the trade or through the draft, is phenomenal and turned the franchise into the dynasty of the 90s.

The Cowboys acquired Half of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, perennial All-Pro safety Darren Woodson, All-Pro cornerback Kevin Smith and three Super Bowl Championships in the years following the trade.

ESPN even documented the transaction in their illustrious ‘30 for 30’ series entitled ‘The Great Train Robbery’.

Since the trade, the Vikings – who saw the acquisition of Walker as the move to tip them over the edge in their title crusade – have failed to make a Super Bowl appearance.

2010 – Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills to Seattle Seahawks)

Drafted in 2007 by the Buffalo Bills, running back Marshawn Lynch was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a 2011 fourth-round pick and a 2012 conditional pick – which ended up being a fifth.

At the time Lynch had two 1,000-yard season to his name and was targeted by new Seattle head coach Pete Carroll as his ‘power back’ of choice.

Lynch’s career soon took off as he led the league in touchdowns in consecutive years – 2013 and 2014 – rushed for four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (2011-2014) and helped bring a first Super Bowl title to the Pacific Northwest in 2013.

In fact, he would have brought the city a second title in 2014 had Carroll given him the ball at the one-yard line against New England. Instead, Russell Wilson threw an interception which cost the Seahawks back-to-back titles.

Buffalo, in return, picked up offensive tackle Chris Hairston in the 2011 draft (he started just 31 NFL games) and linebacker Tank Carder in the 2012 Draft (he was cut without playing a down in Buffalo). Seattle the clear winner here.

2017 – Jimmy Garoppolo (New England Patriots to San Francisco 49ers)

Picked in the second-round of the 2014 Draft, Jimmy Garoppolo was the heir apparent to Tom Brady in New England. The only problem was, Brady didn’t fancy retiring anytime soon. In the fourth year of his rookie deal, the Patriots decided to cash in on their asset.

The San Francisco 49ers shipped a 2018 second-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for the signal caller – a deal that has provided some success on both sides.

Unfortunately, Garoppolo has often been injured, but in the season when he did manage to play the entire schedule, the 49ers reached the Super Bowl.

Now, to understand what New England recouped in the deal shows the intricacies of trading in the NFL.

Without boring you with the details, New England turned that single second-round pick into linebacker Christian Sam, cornerback Duke Dawson Jr, cornerback Joejuan Williams, running back Damien Harris, offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, quarterback Jarrett Stidham and tight end Dalton Keene – they also traded Dawson in another deal to draft offensive tackle Justin Herron.

New England acquired five serviceable players for a backup quarterback, not a bad move for both franchises.

2017 – Jay Ajayi (Miami Dolphins to Philadelphia Eagles)

We mentioned this trade earlier but it certainly provided the Philadelphia Eagles with an instant impact as they went in search of their first Super Bowl victory. The Eagles sent a 2018 fourth-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for Ajayi at the trade deadline to add depth to their backfield.

Ajayi would rush for 408 yards during the remainder of the season in a backfield which included LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. The Eagles went 13-3, won the #1 seed and Ajayi went on to rush for 57 yards in Philly’s 41-33 Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots.

There was no long-term success for Ajayi, however, as the Englishman played just seven more games in his NFL career before having to retire in 2019 due to injury (aged just 26). Miami, meanwhile, spent the pick on running back Kalen Ballage – he played just two years in Miami before stints at the New York Jets and LA Chargers.

A trade with excellent short-term success for Philly, well worth the fourth-round pick they gave up.

2018 – Amari Cooper (Oakland Raiders to Dallas Cowboys)

The Dallas Cowboys gave up a 2019 first-round pick (#27 overall) to secure the services of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was approaching the end of his rookie contract and was eager to leave the struggling Californian franchise.

Since the move, Cooper has been come a vital piece in the star-studded Dallas offense – surpassing 1,000-yards receiving in each of his two full seasons at ‘Jerry World’.

2021 could be the year the Cowboys finally contend for another Super Bowl, and Cooper would be a big reason for it. In return for Cooper, the Raiders took safety Johnathan Abram with their acquired pick.

Abram has had a solid, if not spectacular, start to his NFL career – both sides are likely content with the outcome of this deal.

2019 – Jalen Ramsey (Jacksonville Jaguars to Los Angeles Rams)

All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey demanded a trade away from the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars during the early stages of the 2019 season after falling out with head coach Doug Marrone in explosive fashion.

The Jaguars managed to recover a huge haul for a player in the final year of his contract – they accepted two first-round picks (2020 and 2021) and a fourth-round pick (2021) for the wantaway star.

Due to Ramsey’s coverage abilities, very few quarterbacks throw his way, meaning this trade can’t be quantified on individual statistics alone.

The Rams are 22-12 since Ramsey arrived in LA, and in 2020 the team gave up the least amount of passing yards (3051) and least amount touchdowns (17) in the entire campaign.

A year later the Rams defense is joint-second in touchdowns allowed and second in interceptions made.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, drafted K’Lavon Chaisson with their 2020 first-round pick, before adding running back Travis Etienne and combining the Rams’ fourth-round pick in another deal with the LA franchise.

2021 – Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles to Arizona Cardinals)

We’ve also gone with two trades we expect will provide value in the coming months and years to complete our top 10.

Tight End Zach Ertz, a perennial Pro Bowler who is perhaps just below the top three tight ends in the NFL (George Kittle, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce), joined the Arizona Cardinals from the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season.

The Eagles and Ertz had failed to negotiate a new contract over the past 18 months, and with backup Dallas Goedert ready for a starting role Ertz was available for the championship-contending Cardinals to acquire – especially after a season-ending injury to Maxx Williams.

Arizona gave up a 2022 fifth-round pick and cornerback Tay Gowan in the trade to acquire Ertz. In three games to date, Ertz has caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown as he adjusts to live in Phoenix – he could prove vital in the Cardinals quest for a maiden Super Bowl victory.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, added to its haul of 2022 draft picks – they currently own three first-rounders, a second, a third, a fourth, three fifths and a sixth.

2021 – Von Miller (Denver Broncos to Los Angeles Rams)

With Arizona acquiring another offensive weapon, the LA Rams moved swiftly to secure one of the premier pass rushers in football, Von Miller from the Denver Broncos.

Canton-bound Miller, drafted #2 overall in 2011, has amassed 481 tackles, 110.5 sacks and forced 25 fumbles in his illustrious career to date – winning Super Bowl L in the process.

Miller was expecting to finish his career in Denver, but the Rams came calling just before the 2021 trade deadline, offering second and third-round picks in the upcoming draft for the veteran.

With a defense including three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the aforementioned Jalen Ramsey, there is no doubt LA have tooled up for a run at a Vince Lombardi trophy this season.


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