The many theories behind the NFL’s trade explosion

In Sports
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NFL teams have made 30 trades since Aug. 1, more than twice the average for the same period over the previous five years. Many trades involved minimal compensation for fringe players, but there were also moves that could push contenders such as the and over the top.

The increased activity provides an opportunity to consider six factors that could be enabling an increase in trade activity. I spoke with some NFL executives and heard a number of explanations. Some to consider:

Potential trade enabler: Tanking has made its way to the NFL

The have assembled their roster while accumulating draft picks at a furious pace over the past couple of seasons.

The joined the Browns this offseason by cutting , and , but the biggest tip-off of their tanking was the trade of defensive lineman to the Seahawks. The Jets know they aren’t going to overtake New England in the AFC East. The are better off but in a similar situation, making it easier for them to trade away . Why keep Watkins and possibly have to use the franchise tag on him next offseason with the long-term plan at quarterback still unsettled?

“The craziness of football used to be GMs who are on the hot seat,” an exec said. “That was the group driving trades. But nobody liked trading future picks. Now, it is just very different. These guys are all willing to trade.”

“Tanking” is a dirty word. No owner can openly admit he’s tolerating it while still charging the customer full fare. But this is essentially what teams are doing when they willfully become significantly less talented in the short term.

“Every owner wants to win,” the exec said, “but the real question is: Would you rather go 8-8 or 5-11 plus $30 million? If you are the Jets and you traded Sheldon and got rid of Decker, isn’t the owner saying he’d rather go 2-14 and save $40 million than go 6-10? If you are the Bills with Watkins or the Browns with , is it the same thing?”

Potential trade enabler: Some teams aren’t valuing draft picks as much

While the rebuilding Browns have stockpiled draft choices in an effort to go young, the reloading Patriots have increasingly traded picks for veterans such as , and . Ealy has already been released, but in an era in which limited practice opportunities work against player development, there’s a case to be made for adding proven NFL talent. The Browns drafted 14 players in 2016. They’ll be fortunate if more than a couple pan out.

“Draft picks are becoming less valuable across the board,” an exec said.

Picks are still valuable, of course, but if they are no longer sacred, another potential impediment to trades is diminished.

Potential trade enabler: Younger GMs are more willing to trade

The ‘ Howie Roseman and the Seahawks’ John Schneider were in their 30s when they first became general managers. They’ve been among the most willing wheelers and dealers in the trade market for years. There’s now another group of younger decision-makers in place.

Age is not the only variable — the Patriots’ Bill Belichick is 65 and as willing to deal as anyone — but it could be one indicator for an openness to making deals.

“This generation of GMs is far more willing to trade,” an exec said.

Potential trade enabler: Eliminating the 75-man roster reduction creates opportunities

Before this season, teams reduced their rosters from 90 to 75 players before finally reducing to 53 for the regular season. Eliminating the reduction to 75 players is an obvious driver for some of the less significant trades. Teams looking to bypass the waiver system might be willing to part with a conditional late-round pick to get the fringe player they want. In essence, teams can claim a player via trade who would likely be cut anyway. They trade to bypass the market.

“I’ve never seen trades like this at this point in time,” a former GM in his 50s said. “Usually, everybody thinks you will cut a guy, so no one will make a trade.”

A pro personnel director said he thought eliminating the reduction to 75 could lead to the shopping of veterans who might otherwise have been released to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Potential trade enabler: Fewer players have hard-to-trade contracts

Teams have become better at managing the salary cap and avoiding deals that paint them into a corner from a salary-cap standpoint. Large increases in spending limits have also created additional flexibility.

Trading players whose contracts carry little to no dead money is easier. Trading players who do have dead money is also easier when the salary cap is higher.

Potential trade enabler: Technology makes scouting players easier

Teams can thoroughly scout a larger number of players efficiently through advances in video technology. This is not new for 2017, but it’s a trend that has affected the game in recent years, allowing teams to make more informed decisions more efficiently.

Will the wheeling and dealing happen again next offseason? We’ll see. But people in the league see plenty of reasons for the increase in trade volume.



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