Why Blockbuster Trades Are Suddenly a Thing in the NFL
Cowboys COO Stephen Jones joked just before the draft in April that when the Raiders were on the clock with the 24th pick, he and his staff would kick their feet up and flip on an Amari Cooper highlight reel, as a reminder of what happened to their selection. Little did he know that a half-hour after it came and went—Oakland took Josh Jacobs in Dallas’s slot—the hypothetical scene he described was playing out for real, about a thousand miles away.
In Chicago, Bears college scouting director Mark Sadowski hit the lights, and on went the tape of Khalil Mack tearing through the NFL in the fall and winter of 2018. “It made everyone feel pretty good about the pick,” Bears GM Ryan Pace said, months later.
The NFL is changing, and there was more evidence this week.
When news broke overnight on Monday that Jalen Ramsey had requested a trade from the Jaguars, I started calling around to ascertain the asking price. It came back from one exec, then another, then a third and a fourth—Jacksonville wants two first-round picks.
But that’s not what surprised me. Ramsey’s an elite player, the Jags have sunk three-plus year into his development, and they should be asking for a lot for a 24-year-old who already has two Pro Bowls on his résumé at a premium position. What did catch me a little off-guard was how matter-of-fact everyone was about the asking price, as if they were all, via text message, shrugging their shoulders collectively.
Then, an AFC GM gave me perspective: “They’re looking for a [Laremy] Tunsil/Mack deal.”
In other words, the Jaguars just want the kind of blockbuster deal that’s not nearly as rare as it used to be even four or five years ago. The kind that Chicago and Dallas engaged in for Mack and Cooper, respectively, and a year later have very little regret over.
The Week 3 Game Plan is loaded—we’re going to give you big names on both the NFL and the college level to watch this weekend, plus I’m answering your questions on:
• The so-so level of play through two NFL weeks.
• The Jets, and whether they should go Dolphins with their rebuild.
• Whether the Dolphins’ decision-makers will be there to see that rebuild through.
• Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
• The future of quarterbacks from the 2017 and ’18 draft classes.
But we’re starting with a trend that is putting the lie to the idea that the NFL’s hot stove doesn’t burn as bright as those in other sports.
To be fair, the NFL did earn that perception: For years its trade market was the dullest in the American sporting landscape. And that remained true less than two years ago.
Over the first seven years of the current CBA, just eight players, and six non-quarterbacks, were traded for first-round picks. An explosion of three (!) such deals did come in 2013 (for Percy Harvin, Darrelle Revis, Trent Richardson), but the subsequent on-field failures of the veterans involved in those trades restored the status quo. As a result, just three more guys (Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford, Bradin Cooks) were dealt for 1s in the four years to follow (2014-17), and two of those (Graham, Cooks) had pick swaps mitigating the price.
What’s followed since has been a league-shaking earthquake of movement, with plates shifting in not only the number, but the magnitude of the deals. No fewer than seven have taken place in the last 16 months. If Ramsey is dealt for a 1, that will match the number of first-round deals for vets that the NFL saw over the previous eight years of the decade.
“The biggest difference is that really good players are available,” said one NFC exec, as Ramsey went on the market on Tuesday. “Guys like Ramsey and Mack and Tunsil didn’t get traded five years ago. So yeah, the price has gone up. But I’m not sure anyone was parting with those guys back then.”
The bigger question we’ll try to answer here is why. But first, a rundown of all that action …
April 3, 2018: Patriots trade Cooks to Rams for 2018 first-round pick.
Sept. 1, 2018: Raiders trade Mack, 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2020 fifth-round pick to Bears for 2019 first-round pick, 2020 first-round pick, 2020 third-round pick and 2019 sixth-round pick.
Oct. 22, 2018: Raiders trade Cooper to Cowboys for 2019 first-round pick.
March 12, 2019: Giants trade Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon to Browns for 2019 first-round pick, 2019 third-round pick, Kevin Zeitler and Jabrill Peppers.
April 23, 2019: Seahawks trade Frank Clark and 2019 third-round pick to Chiefs for 2019 first-round pick, 2019 third-round pick and 2020 second-round pick.
Aug. 31, 2019: Dolphins trade OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Kenny Stills, 2020 fourth-round pick and 2021 sixth-round pick to Texans for 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 second-round pick, CB Johnson Bademosi and OT Julie'n Davenport.
Sept. 16, 2019: Dolphins trade Minkah Fitzpatrick, 2020 fourth-round pick and 2021 seventh-round pick to Steelers for 2020 first-round pick, 2020 fifth-round pick and 2021 sixth-round pick.
I’d say, at this point, a Ramsey deal is a fairly likely add to this list. And none of the front-office types I spoke to early this week believed this sort of thing was going to come to an end anytime soon. In fact, they all said it was probably more the beginning of something. Here’s why:
The analytics boom. NFL GMs have forever valued high draft picks like they would a star player. Deeper studies into the validity of that thought have brought context to the conversation.
“I have my guy run the value of each pick based on trends, say, the last seven years,” said one AFC GM. “The No. 1 pick has created this type of player—Pro Bowls, All-Pros. Then the No. 2 pick is this, and so on. You can see it by color shading on a chart. You get down to, maybe 22 to 35, there’s not a lot of difference. There’s a dropoff in Round 1 over time, and that’s where I’d go back and say a Jalen Ramsey, a Khalil Mack, guys picked in top five, merit the price.
“If you feel like this player helps get you in the playoffs‚ and your pick is 21 or below, you can justify dealing that 1, and you get a known commodity.”
In other words, if the hit rate on a pick like the one the Cowboys gave up for Cooper or the first one the Bears yielded for Mack is closer to 50 percent than it is to 100, a lot of teams are thinking they simply have a better shot with the established star. Dallas, took it another step and studied the kind of receiver it would get in the 20s, and figured Cooper was a safer play than Hollywood Brown or N’Keal Harry or Deebo Samuel.
And in general, that illustrates how teams have gotten smarter about valuing those assets.
The financials. Free agency is, most of the time, a bad place to do your shopping. Most of the guys available there are available for a reason, and the frenzied nature of the first 48 hours of the league year forces overspending. So yes, the draft-pick compensation has been heavy in a lot of these deals. But some have actually saved teams cap space in an era when clubs are seeing that as a commodity the same way they do picks.
The Rams, for example, let corner Trumaine Johnson walk in 2018 and traded second- and fourth-round picks to the Chiefs for Marcus Peters and a sixth-rounder. That gave them a significantly better player for $10.8 million over two years. Meanwhile, Johnson will take home $34 million over those same two years as part of the monster free-agent deal he did with the Jets.
Along those lines, the Texans sure did send a ton of draft capital to Miami for Tunsil, but now they have him for $12.5 million over the next two years. If Houston had moved to fill that hole in free agency, they might have landed on Trent Brown, an inferior player to Tunsil who’s getting $36.8 over that same time. Fitzpatrick will cost the Steelers just $5.9 million over the next three years (and they have an option for 2022). Meanwhile, Redskins safety Landon Collins, a 2019 free-agent addition, will cost $44.1 million to keep that long.
The savings can mean keeping, or getting, players you otherwise might not have been able to afford, which counts in the final equation.
The NBA Effect. These guys are watching. They saw Anthony Davis force his way to the Laker. Paul George did it twice—forcing first a trade from Indiana, then another to the Clippers. Kyrie Irving decided he didn’t want to be LeBron’s sidekick anymore and compelled the Cavs to deal him.
To a degree, that worked for Mack, who’s initial dispute wasn’t about playing in Oakland, but over money. Then, it really worked for Antonio Brown, who basically kicked and screamed until the Steelers traded him. And since then, it certainly looks like Fitzpatrick and Ramsey have written their own versions of that script.
In 2019, these players have empowerment at their fingertips.
“There’s absolutely a social media component that teams don’t want to deal with,” said an NFC exec. “The noise around disgruntled players can be really difficult to deal with. AB’s the extreme, but rumors pop up, and teams are forced to talk about it more than they used to, the players talk about it more on social, and it becomes a noise that creates more urgency.”
Job (in)security. NFL coaches have forever been on short leashes. Now, GMs are too. Brian Gaine was fired after a division-title-winning year in Houston. John Dorsey got canned the summer after his Chiefs won the AFC West, and made the playoffs for the third time in four years. Dave Gettleman was fired by Carolina 18 months after getting the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
Any wonder, then, that Dorsey and the man who replaced him, Brett Veach, were two of the aggressors this offseason, in acquiring Beckham and Clark? Draft picks can take time to pan out, time that these guys can’t count on having anymore. And future draft picks might be someone else’s to use.
Which is another component here—five of the seven aforementioned deals happened after the start of training camp, and because of that there’s no opportunity cost. The Bears got Mack and the Cowboys got Cooper last year without having to give up anything on their 2018 rosters. Both teams wound up in the playoffs, which devalued the picks they dealt away.
Younger GMs. This doesn’t necessarily apply to Dorsey or Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who did the Fitzpatrick deal the other day. But part of the reason those guys are engaged in these conversations is that the climate of the league has changed big-time over the last few years.
Remember how Niners GM John Lynch asked about Tom Brady’s availability as a precursor to landing Jimmy Garoppolo from New England? That’s indicative of the prevailing attitude in today’s NFL: It can’t hurt to ask
“People aren’t gun-shy,” an NFC GM said. “People are willing to take these risks, and the conversation is constantly going on.”
The result of this it that tonight Ramsey might play his final game as a Jaguar. Maybe Jacksonville gets its price. Maybe the Jags come close and deal him anyway.
What seems certain is, if a deal does get done, there’ll be a team on the other end moving without much hesitation. And that team won’t be the only one cueing up a different kind of highlight reel on draft night next April.
On to the weekend …
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five pros in the spotlight in Week 3.
Saints QB Teddy Bridgewater. New Orleans is pretty happy with what it’s gotten out of Bridgewater the last 12 months, and now it’s time to prove he’s equal to the type of circumstance he was brought there to handle. Since arriving in New Orleans, Bridgewater has impressed the Saints with his ability to get the most from his teammates, and his deep-ball accuracy been a nice surprise. We’ll see if he can put it all together and keep Taysom Hill’s role limited in Seattle on Sunday.
Giants QB Daniel Jones. The Giants loved how Jones could take a hit and keep coming, which is one reason why they believe he won’t be fazed with starting as a rookie. I would say this, though: Bucs DC Todd Bowles will be planning for him. Bowles has squeezed a ton out of a group that’s not overly talented, and he’s aggressive as can be with his fronts, which should challenge the rookie.
Broncos LT Garrett Bolles. It’s pretty clear that the team is not pleased with Bolles’ holding issue—he was called for four of those against the Bears—and it’s not like this is new. The 2017 first-rounder has drawn 34 flags in 34 career starts. So as if facing Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith wasn’t problem enough, Bolles will have that hanging over his head going in to Green Bay.
Ravens LB Patrick Onwuasor. The former undrafted free agent assumed the role held previously by C.J. Mosley, and has 10 tackles through two games. But that was against the Dolphins and Cardinals. Baltimore has Kansas City on Sunday. And Onwuasor surely will be an important piece in trying to assure that Patrick Mahomes doesn’t break the pocket and get out on the edge too much on Sunday. This is a big one for the fourth-year man.
Colts CB Rock Ya-Sin: Indy’s top draft pick hasn’t wasted time in affirming the team’s assessment of him: He’s tough as nails and already starting. It’s a challenging position for any rookie to play, so there have been ups and downs. And this weekend is going to be particularly interesting, given who the Falcons bring to the table at receiver, from Julio Jones to Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of draft prospects to keep an eye on.
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor (vs. Michigan, FOX, Noon ET): The reigning Doak Walker Award winner and a unanimous first-team All-America as a sophomore, Taylor has started 2019 like you’d expect—tearing through two subpar opponents (Central Michigan and South Florida) for 237 yards and five touchdowns on 35 carries. The Wolverines present a different challenge entirely, and Don Brown’s defense contained Taylor last year, holding him to his second-lowest yardage total of the season (101) and keeping him out of the end zone. So scouts will be watching how Taylor responds on a big stage. One NFC scout I asked believes he’s a first-rounder: “Excellent instincts, vision and balance. Has excellent acceleration and is decisive so he hits holes at full speed. My question is his hands, not sure how natural they are.” So there’s one other thing to watch in what should be a really good matchup.
Georgia OT Andrew Thomas (vs. Notre Dame, CBS, 8 p.m. ET): It’s hard to find great left tackle prospects in this era, but the 20-year-old Thomas, who checks in at 6’5” and 320 pounds, is one. “Really thick, strong kid,” said an AFC scouting director. “Good, not elite, athlete. Anchors really well, can run-block with power, and is easily a first-round OT in a class without many slam-dunk Round 1 guys at this point. Can play on either side. … He’s the best [lineman] I’ve seen on tape this year.” Thomas will have his hands full facing potential first-rounder Julian Okwara and his bookend Khalid Kareem, who will likely also be drafted. A good night here could cement Thomas as the class’s best tackle. Or it could go the other way—a tough night in this game from Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey two years ago raised some doubts on the current 49er, and that’s obviously something Thomas will look to avoid.
Now your questions …
From Michael Daly (@STP43FAN): People have complained about dismal play quality. Is it a genuine issue or simply happenstance?
Michael, I feel like we have this discussion every other year—and I’d agree that a lot of teams don’t look right now like will during the holidays. Last year’s Patriots started 1-2 and looked dreadful in losing to Jacksonville and Detroit. The 2017 Eagles lost in Week 2 in Kansas City. The 2014 Patriots looked like a dumpster fire at the quarter pole. All three of those teams won Super Bowls, proving that we shouldn’t take too much from September.
The advent of the 2011 CBA, which eliminated two-a-days from camp and cut five of fourteen weeks off teams’ offseason programs, has led to different approaches to the early parts of the season. Some teams, many with decision-makers carrying job security, use the early part of the season as an extended preseason. Others simplify to start fast. Still others—and this applies to new coaches—hit opponents with the unexpected.
The bottom line is there’s no time of year where there are more varied approaches than the first few weeks of the regular season, and that means different teams are at different stages of their development. Usually by October that evens out. But in some years it means the public having to endure some uneven football to get there.
From Ryan Mangold (@heymangold): Should the @nyjets start the tank a la @MiamiDolphins?? #TakeFlight
Ryan—absolutely not. The Jets have one, maybe two years left of Sam Darnold playing on a rookie deal after this one. And it’d be foolish not to take advantage of that, which the Jets already have to a degree in bringing in high-end free agents like C.J. Mosley, Le’Veon Bell and Avery Williamson. The key, from here, is in the hands of new general manager Joe Douglas, tasked with shoring up two areas where help can be hard to find.
Which brings us to the Jets’ most glaring weaknesses: corner and offensive line. While there are some free-agent names out there—Washington’s Brandon Schreff and New England’s Joe Thuney among the O-linemen and the Rams’ Marcus Peters and Dallas’ Byron Jones are up—those won’t come cheap, and aren’t even guaranteed to make it to the market.
And really, the better way to shore up those areas (and the need for an edge-rusher) is through the draft. As of right now, the Jets are likely to have six picks next April. There are a good number of corners, and decent high-end offensive linemen (if not a ton of depth), and finding players there would be optimal.
I just don’t think it’ll take a teardown to get there. The Jets defense has some strength up the middle, and the quarterback and skill spots are in good shape. I don’t think it’s crazy to think New York could be an offseason away from contending. I do think it was a little nuts to think they’d contend this year, given those aforementioned problem areas.
From Chi Cheong Ho (@chicheongho): Will [Brian] Flores and [Chris] Grier still be [in Miami] to reap the rewards?
Chi, this is a great question, mostly because decision-makers have been brought out behind the barn in these types of ambitious rebuilds in the past. It happened to Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, after he saw the Jags through a thorough makeover from 2013 to ’16. It happened to Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown in Cleveland, when their relationship ruptured and wins didn’t come fast enough for either to get to see the 2016 plan through.
The challenge for both Brian Flores and Chris Grier is pretty clear, as it’s framed within Dolphins owner Steve Ross’ strong desire for a quarterback and fascination with how the 76ers were resurrected under The Process. They have to find a way to keep the building together, even as players watch some of their best teammates dealt off for assets, and endure a tough, demanding program without much in the way of tangible results.
Flores is the kind of guy who can handle it, I think. But it won’t be easy.
From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Early review on Kingsbury’s offense??
On the surface, it looks fine—the Cardinals, even with a revamped receiver group, a shaky offensive line, and a rookie quarterback, are 12th in total offense. Their 22 points per game rank, likewise, 12th in the league. Both are a pretty major step forward from last year’s dumpster fire on that side of the ball in Arizona.
But there are also the issues that are predictable to spread offenses—a struggle to get things going in tight spaces. The Cardinals are 31st in red-zone offense, and four trips into the red zone in Baltimore last week produced just one touchdown.
Kingsbury is known as an innovator in the passing game, and he’s certainly shown where he and Kyler Murray can go with that early on. And that works between the 20s. Now, with David Johnson in tow, they need to get better closer to the end zone, with space compressed and some of the effectiveness of his four-receiver sets taken away.
From Griffin Rucker (@GriffinRucker): Will Trubisky get an extension when he’s eligible, or will Chicago look elsewhere for a QB?
It’s a fair question, Griffin. The good news is the Bears don’t need to make that decision tomorrow. At the end of this season, Mitch Trubisky will be eligible for a new contract, but it’s not like he’s a free agent. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz got deals at that juncture because one was coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and the other had a borderline MVP campaign (that ended in a championship for his team) on his résumé. Trubisky isn’t that.
So my guess is if things stay the same, the Bears will want to see more before considering extending him ahead of time. They will have to make a decision on his 2021 fifth-year option—which would likely come at a cost of around $25 million—next May. If they exercise it, that money is guaranteed against injury, which means there’s risk involved. But even if they choose not to, they’d have the franchise tag to play with.
That’s not say this is ideal. The Bears would rather have the champagne problem the Chiefs do right now, having to figure out how they’ll make Patrick Mahomes’ numbers work long-term. But it’s not like the Bears have to make up their mind tomorrow on a quarterback who’s still just 25 and working with one of the best quarterback coaches in the business in Matt Nagy.
From Hontzy (@hontz_michael): How would you rank the QBs drafted in 2018 a year-plus into their careers?
Right now I’d take Baker Mayfield before the rest, despite his inconsistency through two weeks this season. I think the way he plays is most sustainable long-term, and my feeling is he’s at a generational level with his accuracy, feel and presence (even if the height thing has bitten him a bit early on this year, with some batted balls).
From there, it’s tough, but I’d go with Sam Darnold based on how he plays and his makeup. Give me Lamar Jackson, who’s looked incredible through two weeks, as the third guy off the board, Josh Allen fourth, and Josh Rosen fifth. I know that’s not exactly flipping the apple cart over (I only really moved Jackson out of order). But that’s how I see it.
From Mike Johnson (@Draftman516): Is Dallas the class of the NFC?
Right now, I’m very tempted to say yes, because I thought that coming into the year, the Cowboys were with the Eagles, Rams and Saints as the most complete rosters in the conference, and the edge the other three had was probably at quarterback. I’m not so sure that edge isn’t gone now. Without completely overreacting to two games, Dak Prescott has completed 82.3 percent of his throws for 674 yards and seven scores against a single pick.
That’s not sustainable, but it sure is a sign of immense progress. And as a big believer that quarterbacks are significantly affected by their environment, I’m intrigued by the idea that Prescott got the right guy to design and call the offense for him in ex-teammate Kellen Moore. The 30-year-old OC has married the run game to the pass game, sprinkled in spread concepts and ramped up pre-snap movement, and the results have been obvious.
Prescott was phenomenal as a rookie in part because the Cowboys were creative in finding ways to make him and fellow Class of ’16er Zeke Elliott comfortable, and put both in position to succeed. I think that’s happening again, on a graduate level. And I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
From Alonso Gabriel (@alonsogabr): Do the Packers need to make a trade at WR?
Well, Alonso, an hour after you tweeted this to me the Packers actually traded a receiver away—sending Trevor Davis to Oakland. Which, I believe, is indicative of their feelings on the receiver group as a whole, and why I’d have given you a no to this question even before the Wednesday afternoon deal.
Now, I understand why you’d ask the question—through two weeks the receivers group as a whole has 24 catches (New Orleans’s Mike Thomas has 20 on his own). And that’s unusual for a team with an elite quarterback. But I think, as would be the case with a new coach and system in most places, the Packers will evolve as the season goes on offensively.
I know they view Davante Adams as a true No. 1, and believe Marquez Valdes-Scantling has the kind of freakish combination of size and speed that could get him there someday as well. And Geronimo Allison has impressed them too, despite his limited early production (though his touchdown catch last week was something else). So just give Matt LaFleur and company some time.
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