An active trade deadline and off-season have created a new world of possibilities and unpredictability that is a win for football fans
Being a basketball and football fan is sometimes an exercise in contradictions. Football, the ultimate team sport, often requires elite coaching and strength at multiple positions. In basketball, however, we have a sport that is defined by superstars and their ability to do things that most players simply cannot. As a result of this, historically the trade deadline in both sports have been vastly different.
In the NBA, trade deadline day is an event where general managers are making deals to either bolster their chances of competing in the playoffs or to prepare for the future by offloading expensive players in return for young talent and/or player compensation. In the NFL, this has never been the case as the trade deadline is usually a quiet story that passes without much fanfare. This has changed this year, with a record number of players traded leading up to the deadline. Why has this happened? The NFL has increasingly become a what have you done for me lately league, where the talent you can get today will far outweigh the talent that may be coming next year. In short, NFL teams are getting aggressive and making moves to win now. This is a shift that is ultimately great for the game.
Win Now, Worry About the Rest Later
The NFL is a league that prides itself on parity, where a team can go from worst to first in their division in a year. This is shown by the sheer number of franchises that have made Super Bowl appearances since the year 2000. Since the start of the 21st century, 20 different NFL franchises have made the Super Bowl accounting for over 60% of the league's clubs. This happened despite the prolonged success of the New England Patriots dynasty in that period.
The focus on parity has meant that many teams can approach their seasons with a “why not us” approach. This lends itself to going after big-name impact players that can lead to more wins on Sundays. Traditionally, this has been done through the free agency period where a team will sign a player at an important position such as an edge rusher, wide receiver, or cornerback. But the Los Angeles Rams showed the football world recently that there was another way to add talent: through trades.
In recent years, the Rams have acquired players such as Jalen Ramsey, Matt Stafford, and Von Miller through trades and the forfeiting of future first-round draft picks. The approach has been successful as the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2022 and are considered perennial contenders in the NFC. The ripple effect of this has been other teams becoming more aggressive in the trade market to compete today and worry about the repercussions tomorrow.
The success of the Rams led to teams like the San Francisco 49ers trading for running back Christian McCaffery and the Miami Dolphins trading for wide receiver Tyreek Hill. These trades are ones intended to move the needle, to be high-impact deals that lead to instant success. Owners around the league have seen the success of prioritizing today over tomorrow and they are instructing their general managers to be more aggressive and acquire the player that could take them over the top. This leads to questioning just how valuable are draft picks in the grand scheme of things.
Known vs Unknown Quantities
The drafting of young prospects in any sport is always a bit of a game predicated on luck. The NFL Draft is a massive undertaking consisting of 7 rounds and 259 selections made. Most of these players never make it in the league, and oddly enough it is the players that aren’t drafted that end up with quite a few roster spots with roughly 30% of rosters in the league being made up of undrafted free agents.
Before the start of this season, Sharp Football Analysis came out with a list of the top 100 players in the NFL (see the full list HERE). These players are considered to be the cream of the crop in the league, and yet less than half of them were first-round draft picks. 36 of the 100 players on this list were taken in the 3rd round or later in the draft. What this shows is the true crapshoot nature of the draft and the unknown value of a first-round pick. In the top half of the first round which should be high-potential players, only 31% of the top 100 were drafted that high.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that in a league that covets parity it is imperative to simply acquire players, don’t be concerned about losing draft picks, and focus your efforts on scouting in the later rounds to find impact players. But beyond this, it is imperative to target players at positions that matter. In today’s NFL, not all positions are created equally. Having an elite left tackle is much more valuable than having an elite guard for instance. Much like the NBA, the NFL is now focusing on high-impact positions and players that can do things that their contemporaries simply cannot.
It is understood that the NBA is a league of stars. They can do more with the ball in their hands and when you have one of those stars you will always have a chance to win a game. A perfect example of this in the NBA is this season's Brooklyn Nets. The Nets have been in disarray having fired their coach and dealing with the ongoing suspension of Kyrie Irving. But the Nets are still considered a viable team for one reason: they have Kevin Durant and the rest of the league does not. The NFL is now morphing into a version of this, especially at certain key positions.
There are 5 positions in today’s NFL that simply hold more weight than others: quarterback (the most important position), wide receiver, left tackle, cornerback, and edge rusher. The reasoning is simple, this game is predicated on quarterbacks getting the ball to their elite playmakers in space. As a result, teams need a quarterback that can make those throws, a wide receiver that can get open to receive them, and a left tackle to protect the quarterback while the first two things are happening. On the defensive side, teams need an edge rusher to get past that left tackle and bother the quarterback. They also need an elite cornerback that can prevent the wide receiver from making a play downfield.
When we look at some of the marquis trades that were made at this trade deadline and in the offseason they were mostly centered around these positions. The Denver Broncos acquired Russell Wilson because they felt that they had a roster that an elite quarterback could elevate to the next level. The Raiders traded for wide receiver Davante Adams because they felt that their passing game needed a vertical dimension to be more dynamic. At the trade deadline, the Miami Dolphins wanted to shore up their defense so they acquired edge rusher Bradley Chubb from Denver so that they can stop opposing quarterbacks come playoff time. These moves were all made because these players are stars at their positions and can make an impact right away.
Today’s NFL is about making big-time plays and having the players that can make them. A team like the Indianapolis Colts is a perfect example of targeting the wrong players. They are a team with an elite running back, offensive guard, safety, and middle linebacker. While these positions are important, the team has been limited as they are not dynamic enough on offense at quarterback and wide receiver. And on defense they often struggle to get to the quarterback, resulting in a mediocre team that just fired its coach. The Colts have not been aggressive enough and in this NFL, that is a poison pill that not many organizations can overcome.
The Art of Being Aggressive
Football by its very nature is an aggressive sport. It involves a level of regulated violence that is unseen in other major American sports. Over the years, the way that coaches call plays has gotten more and more aggressive. Defenses will blitz the quarterback often to make him uncomfortable at the risk of leaving themselves open to one-on-one coverage down the field. Offenses throw the ball more than they ever have to maximize scoring opportunities. Coaching decisions have even made this shift with a record number of 4th down and 2-point conversion attempts.
The way that teams are playing and coaching the game is reflective of a “go for it and win at all costs” mentality. That mentality has now rubbed off on the management of these teams. To go for it, get the player, and try to win a championship. We saw it with Tampa Bay, they acquired Tom Brady and get him pieces to help him on the way to a championship. We saw it with the Rams with their aforementioned acquisitions of Matthew Stafford and Jalen Ramsey. We are seeing it this year in Miami with the acquisitions of Tyreek Hill and Bradley Chubb. Teams are going all-in and forsaking the unknown of the draft, and throwing the idea of a slow rebuild out of the window.
In my eyes, this makes the game fun. Christian McCaffery on the 49ers in the Kyle Shannahan system is an intriguing idea, a curiosity of what is possible when pairing an elite running back with an equally elite offensive play-caller. Aggressive moves foster the prospect of the unknown, and a more chaotic trade deadline and off-season is the result. These moves have created a more intriguing progression to the story that is this year's regular season. I expect teams to continue to be more aggressive as the years go on, which can only be considered a win for football fans.