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Trades infiltrating NFL roster-building landscape

Posted Mar 20, 2018

The trades executed by NFL teams this March more than doubled the number of trades at this time last offseason.


Though none of them were official until the new league year began last Wednesday, the NFL trade market was the lightning bolt that flashed well ahead of the free agency thunder that followed days later. A decade ago trades in the NFL were about as frequent as a blue moon. Now they’ve become a useful tool for team executives looking to move salary, acquire draft assets or add proven talent quickly.

Counting the New York Jets move up the draft board from six to three in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts last weekend, and the Browns latest trade of CB C.J. Smith to Seattle on Monday, there have been a total of 22 trades, most of which were made official when the new league year began.

It’s a sharp spike from the eight trades that were executed just a year ago in March.

Bills GM Brandon Beane, in his first full offseason with Buffalo, was part of the trade explosion this offseason. First, he moved Tyrod Taylor off the roster in a deal with Cleveland for their 2018 pick at the top of the third round.

He then sent Cordy Glenn, their first-round pick at 21 and a fifth-round pick to Cincinnati in exchange for the Bengals pick at 12 and their sixth-round pick.

“We’ve got to build this team through the draft and that’s where we’re at. We were able to add some more draft capital,” said Beane of the two trades. “Tyrod, I thought we got good value for that, but he’s a good player. He’s worth it. It’s a win-win and we wish Tyrod the best. Then Cordy the same thing. Our short time with Cordy he was battling some things. We saw a good return on moving him and it also gave us some cap relief.”

Many other NFL GM’s have come around to seeing the same benefits with trades.

“Across the board there have been more trades this time of year, more trades midseason, more trades later in the offseason from the research we’ve done,” said Spotrac.com managing editor Mike Ginnitti in an appearance on the John Murphy Show. “There are generally more trades across the calendar year. It’s becoming a tool that these younger GMs are using more and more because it’s an easier way to circumvent their dead cap, and it’s an easier way to get immediate impact on your roster. The draft is certainly the cheaper way to go, but it takes time.”

Trades of course happen for different reasons. While the Bills were focused on accumulating draft capital, the Los Angeles Rams, who reached the postseason in 2017 and obviously feel they’re close, got proven talent at both of their starting cornerback positions. They completed a pair of trades acquiring Marcus Peters from Kansas City and Aqib Talib from Denver for draft picks.

“It depends on where your team is,” said Beane. “Has this team been a consistent playoff winner that just needs a player or two to get over the hump? Or has this team gone through some turmoil and they have some aging players and need to flip the roster?

“Maybe they have cap problems and they need to move money off their books. The wisest investments you can make are still in the draft, if you draft well, because it’s set money and you know what you’re spending. I think that’s a big reason for all the trades.”

But NFL personnel executives are also adjusting their approach to player contracts as well in an effort to keep their salary cap manageable.

“I think there’s a more modern group of front offices in place that are more cap astute,” said Ginnitti. “They make more adjustments. We’re seeing fewer restructures. More trades, shorter contracts in terms of free agency, a little more guaranteed money. But we’re seeing smaller signing bonuses. We’re seeing more salaries guaranteed and fewer massive signing bonuses, which leads to dead cap. That’s been the big cap issue in the past.”

Better management of the cap means teams can be more amenable to trades, especially if they’re interested in a player with a sizable veteran contract.

“It’s getting to a point where it’s becoming more flexible for all teams,” Ginnitti said. “We had five or six teams with $80 million or more in cap space. That’s unheard of. And because of that trades are more prominent and with free agents you see big roster bonuses and salaries for one or two years, so they can be out of the contract and do it all over again in two or three years.”

Seeing NFL head coaches turn over at a rate of six or more per year, offensive and defensive schemes can change. A team’s whole culture can change under a new sideline boss. That typically demands change on the roster as well. If a team has a quality player, but he is no longer a fit for the team he currently plays for, these shorter-term contracts cater to moving said player via trade.

“I think teams have learned over time to do a better job of managing the cap, managing contracts,” said Beane. “They’re thinking about how you can manipulate them so they’re tradeable and that player is still of value to you even if they’re not fitting what you’re doing anymore.”

And then executing trades is a whole lot easier than it used to be thanks to things like group texting where one GM can float something out to as many colleagues in the league as he wants instead of the old time-consuming process of one phone call at a time.

“That’s especially true with guys you’ve built a relationship with in the league,” said Beane. “You might text them and say, ‘Hey, keep this quiet, but we might be interested in moving this guy.’ And you’ll receive texts whether it’s me or (Assistant GM) Joe (Schoen) or (Director of Pro Personnel) Malik Boyd and they’ll come in and relay something to me like, ‘These guys say they’ve got a tackle they’re shopping.’ I think that’s part of the deal too.”

Beane realizes he spent money to fill some of Buffalo’s holes in free agency, but building through the draft is his primary philosophy. That’s why the two trades he executed with Cleveland and Cincinnati could prove critical to both Buffalo’s immediate and long-term future.

“We had to fill holes in free agency, but I like to build through the draft,” Beane told Buffalobills.com. “We got good return on (Taylor and Glenn). We also got cap gain this year and again this has been a two-year process that I talked to Terry and Kim (Pegula) about when I got the job to clean the cap up. The cap was a mess. So 2019 and 2020 we’re in a lot better position there than we are now.”

Player trades helped make that possible.