The NFL trade market has been active in recent weeks. It was especially interesting yesterday when Philadelphia and Seattle agreed on a deal to send DE Michael Bennett and a 7th round pick to the Eagles for WR Marcus Johnson and a 5th rounder. The other major deal of the day was the Giants trading for Rams‘ LB Alec Ogletree and a 2019 7th in exchange for a 4th and a 6th in this year’s NFL Draft. And just recently the Rams also traded for Broncos’ CB Aqib Talib, sending Denver a 5th round pick.
Trades in the NFL have become more commonplace than in the past, but they’re still not utilized as often as they should be. Trading a 5th and a backup receiver for Michael Bennett is a steal for Howie Roseman, and Roseman has pulled off deals like this before. In the off-season he traded a 3rd round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for IDL Timmy Jernigan and a 3rd rounder. He traded the Eagles’ 4th round selection in the 2018 draft for RB Jay Ajayi mid-season, facilitating a deal with his well acquainted trade partner, Miami Dolphins‘ GM Mike Tannenbaum. This trade gave Philadelphia a healthy stable of running backs with different styles to run behind the best offensive line in the NFL en route to a Super Bowl run.
Trading late round selections for players falling out of favor with their current team isn’t a new trend. Bill Belichick is credited with this strategy of trading later round picks for quality role players that he can fit in his schemes to maximize their skill sets. Roseman has taken it to another level, however. He’s been able to acquire highly talented players like Bennett, Ajayi, Jernigan and Ronald Darby for ridiculously low costs. These types of trades are still a market inefficiency in the NFL and Roseman has figured a way to cash in giving his team a distinct advantage in building his roster.
The premise in which these trades are based off of is simple. Late round picks are high variance players. It’s difficult to realistically expect a 5th round defensive end to be a highly productive player for your defense. NFL veterans are much safer propositions. Not only that, but they’ll likely produce more value in their short stint with the team than the 5th rounder does in his entire career. It’s hard to believe why more teams aren’t capitalizing on these valuable opportunities.
I recorded the major trades the Eagles have made since Roseman was named executive vice president of football operations in which draft picks were exchanged for players. Meaning picks for picks and players for players trades were not recorded. I then used Approximate Value to gauge how much a player acquired or traded away produced in the season after his trade. In Bennett’s case I used the previous season because 2018 has yet to be played. For draft picks I used Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart to compare picks AV against the returns the player’s produced. The AV value of a draft pick is the expected value given by a player taken with that selection in their first five seasons with a team. An AV surplus doesn’t necessarily mean a positive or negative outcome for a team, but it can mean events went well in the right context.
Here are the major trades by Philadelphia since March of 2016.
Some quick observations. When Roseman was reasserted as the general manager he ridded the roster of expensive players that Chip Kelly added. He first traded DeMarco Murray’s contract to Tennessee for a 4th round selection. Roseman then used his relationship with Tannenbaum to change the direction of the franchise completely. He was able to get the Dolphins to take on the contracts of Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell plus the 2016 13th overall selection in exchange for the 8th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. That 8th overall pick would later be used to trade up to 2nd overall to select Carson Wentz.
The pre-draft process for Roseman was all about shedding cap space. Thus, the negative AV totals meant absolutely nothing as the value was in creating cap room and the extra picks acquired were icing on the cake.
A unique opportunity presented itself in September of 2016. Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater suffered a severe non-contact injury during training camp that left Minnesota desperate for a QB. Philadelphia took advantage and turned Bradford and his newly signed 2 year $25 million contract into a 2017 1st and 2018 4th. A positive return according to the Draft Value Chart.
Roseman is methodical in his trade process. He’s able to figure out through close relationships which players are falling out of favor with their teams. According to Mike Lombardi, Roseman also poaches rosters that change coaches and thus schemes who will have players that no longer fit the new coach’s schematic philosophy. The Darby trade is a perfect example of that as he did not fit the types of zone coverage that new Bills head coach Sean McDermott ran. The trade resulted in a deficit according to AV, but accounting for context, Darby only played in eight games due to injury. Jordan Matthews, the receiver Buffalo acquired in the deal, was a way to unload a player at a crowded position. In hindsight it’s not difficult to see how Roseman was able to build the Eagles into a Super Bowl Champion as quickly as he did.
As I mentioned earlier Roseman isn’t the only one who gains marginal advantages with this strategy. Bill Belichick does as well.
After studying the trades made by Belichick since 2016 it’s apparent he’s risk averse as well. Many of his deals part with 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks to fill the holes in his roster with veterans rather than rookies. Belichick will also trade his top pick if it means landing a highly productive NFL player like WR Brandin Cooks. At the end of the day a WR like Brandin Cooks is not going to be on the board at 32 overall. Cooks was also similar in age to some of the older draft prospects coming out providing a mix of experience and future value.
Belichick will also unload players that are disruptive near the end of their deals – like LB Jamie Collins and EDGE Chandler Jones. As well as players he thinks highly of, like Jimmy Garoppolo, if he knows the team and player will be unable to come to an agreement.
Acquiring talent with low cost picks is one way to capitalize on the trade market. The other option two NFC West teams have been successful at are using trades to relinquish themselves of unsatisfactory contract agreements.
Focusing on Los Angeles, Les Snead and the Rams have done an excellent job of clearing cap space. They’ve ridded themselves of expensive deals like DE William Hayes, OLB Robert Quinn and Ogletree within the last calendar year. It’s also noteworthy to mention just how many awful contracts the Dolphins agree to take on. Carrying on…
LA has also been able to add quality players like WR Sammy Watkins who was a good overall receiver for the Rams in 2017. The major names on here are CB Marcus Peters and CB Aqib Talib who were both recently traded to the Rams in the last few weeks. Peters is a very talented CB and acquiring him for a 4th and a future 2nd is nothing short of steal for Snead. The same can be said for the Talib trade.
There are essentially two core models to tapping into the trade market – buying low and selling low. It’s good to keep a mixture of the two like all of the teams outlined earlier. New England was at the forefront of this market inefficiency, but more teams have been inclined to trade late round picks in exchange for established veterans. It’s not a surprise that the two teams with this kind of strategy played each other in the Super Bowl. As more teams gravitate toward this strategy the costs will change, but for now only a smart few are the beneficiaries of a mainly untapped market.