That has become a thing of the past. A year ago, prominent players such as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Jay Ajayi, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and left tackle Duane Brown were traded on deadline day or the day before. Another deal that would have sent quarterback AJ McCarron from Cincinnati to Cleveland was disallowed because the Browns failed to properly notify the league office by the deadline.
This season has seen running back Carlos Hyde traded from Cleveland to Jacksonville last week, wide receiver Amari Cooper dealt Monday from Oakland to Dallas and cornerback Eli Apple sent Tuesday from the New York Giants to New Orleans. Some expect more activity by next Tuesday afternoon’s deadline.
“Trade discussions going on around the league that would really excite people,” former Browns and Philadelphia Eagles executive Joe Banner wrote on Twitter. “We will see how many actually happen. I predict more action than we are used to seeing.”
A variety of factors have been mentioned in the transformation of the NFL from a no-trade league into one with actual trade-deadline intrigue. There is a new generation of young general managers around the league not beholden to the traditional ideas about roster construction. Coaches, already forced to adapt to the practice-related restrictions in the current collective bargaining agreement, have become more flexible. The burgeoning salary cap has given teams greater freedom to make moves.
But the biggest factor by far, according to former NFL front office executive Bill Polian, has been the 2012 decision by the league, on the recommendation of the competition committee and with the cooperation of the NFL Players Association, to push the trade deadline back from the Tuesday after Week 6 of the regular season to the Tuesday after Week 8.
“For years and years, [the deadline] was earlier and teams had not sized up the race,” Polian said in a phone interview. “Now, a team like Dallas can say, ‘This division is wide open. Let me see if I can fill a need.’ Same for a team like New Orleans: ‘This is winnable. Let’s see what I can do and see if I can fill a need.’ I think it’s good for the fans. I don’t know if it’s good for the clubs.”
These days, there are some clearly defined buyers and sellers as the trade deadline approaches. The Raiders, after trading standout pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago before the season, have a record of 1-5 in Jon Gruden’s return to coaching. Sending Cooper, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who has been far less productive over the past two seasons, to Dallas netted the Raiders another first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft to go with the two they had.
“We felt like it was an opportunity that I felt like I couldn’t pass on,” Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie told reporters Monday. “To get a first-round pick in this business here, I thought was invaluable. It was something that I felt like I had to do moving forward for this organization.”
The Cowboys and Saints have gone all-in on this season. The Saints, chasing one of the top seeds in the NFC playoffs, sent a fourth-round draft choice next year to the Giants, mired in misery with a record of 1-6, as part of the trade package for Apple. The Saints now have only one pick in the first four rounds of next year’s draft. It they reach and perhaps win another Super Bowl this season as quarterback Drew Brees’s career begins to wind down, they won’t worry too much about the cost of their roster-bolstering.
“The Saints' championship window is now with Drew Brees at QB,” salary cap expert Joel Corry, a former agent, wrote on Twitter. “Brees is an MVP candidate at 39 but Father Time eventually catches up to everybody.”
It remains to be seen if more noteworthy trades are to come. The Giants have said they have no plans to trade quarterback Eli Manning. The Arizona Cardinals have said they won’t comply with star cornerback Patrick Peterson’s reported trade request. The Pittsburgh Steelers have said they expect running back Le’Veon Bell, who still has not signed his franchise-player deal or reported to the team, to be a member of the franchise moving forward.
Bell could make the Steelers’ intentions a moot point by joining the team after Tuesday’s deadline. But could the Eagles, after Ajayi’s season-ending knee injury, use one of their two second-round picks next year to try to land Bell? It’s certainly a possibility, as is the speculation about the Minnesota Vikings and Peterson.
But even with the new attitudes around the NFL about trade-deadline maneuvers, getting a football player to learn a new offensive or defensive scheme and blend with his teammates remains a far more complicated in-season, on-the-fly proposition than, say, plugging a new hitter into a lineup or placing a new pitcher in the rotation and telling him to do his thing.
Count Polian among the skeptical. This far into a season, he said, a team usually is what it is, and its fortunes generally will depend on the play of those who have been around all along.
“In the end, it’s probably a lot of sound and fury about not very much,” he said. “For years, the competition committee didn’t even want the sound and fury. But now, you see that it all gets in the blogosphere and people are speculating and talking about it, and it’s not good in a clubhouse or a locker room . . . To me, it takes the focus away from where it should be.”
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