The NFL trade deadline is fast approaching.
When the clock strikes 4 p.m. on Tuesday, there are likely to be several players who will finish the season with different teams. Some fan bases will be left sad over the somewhat-definitive message that their team is rebuilding while others will be excited at the prospect of bringing in a new player for the championship push.
In the past, I’ve written articles about the draft, contract restructures, void years, and June 1st. In this article I want to talk a little bit about the mechanics of the ever-increasing mid-season instrument of a trade.
To start, mid-season trades generally involve a player for a draft pick. There are some counterexamples; the Rams sent Marcus Peters – who would become an All-Pro for the Ravens that season – in exchange for linebacker Kenny Young and a draft pick. Yet, most of the time the player is traded for picks – either in the immediately following season or, in the case of Mecole Hardman, future seasons.
As far as the cap is concerned, unless things are adjusted, the trading team is responsible for all of the cap charges associated with monies that have already been paid to the player (e.g., signing bonuses). If the trade happens before June 1st, all remaining prorated money is accelerated onto that year’s cap. If the trade happens after June 1st, only the prorated money on the cap for that season is applied to the cap, while all additional prorated money gets accelerated to the following year’s cap.
One thing that makes trades more appealing than outright releases is that not all guaranteed money is the trading team’s responsibility after a trade (h/t to former Houston Texans executive Jack Easterby for showing me an example of this). Guaranteed future paragraph 5 salary – if the player gets released – gets accelerated all the way to that current season (see the Murray contract below), regardless of the date’s relation to June 1st.
While in practice this doesn’t have to be that onerous, as converting guaranteed salary to a bonus first can spread the hit out if after June 1st, the real distinction is that the trading team isn’t responsible at all for future guarantees if their trade partner agrees to the trade. Thus, for example, if the Cardinals wanted to trade Murray’s contract, they would be off the hook for next year’s $35.3 million guaranteed paragraph 5 if they can find a willing partner, which gets to another, important, point:
In-season trades live in a two-dimensional cost space.
Some teams don’t have, or are unwilling to part with, the draft capital necessary to make a standard trade for a player. However, they may have the cap space or cash available to absorb all or most of the other team’s financial commitment to the player.
For example, when Cleveland traded just a fifth-round pick for Amari Cooper before the 2022 season, many in the media were aghast at the low return the Cowboys received. However, the Browns were willing to take on all of Cooper’s $18.88 million salary through converting it into a bonus and adding void years to the contract.
The Browns, who are one of the highest cash spenders each year, were more than happy to prorate this money out, while Dallas needed the cap relief. Hence, instead of thinking about the trade as “Cooper for a fifth” it should be looked at more like “Cooper for a fifth and $60 million over the next three years ($18.8 guaranteed)”.
While not a perfect comparison because of the structure of the guaranteed money, $18.8 million over three years is worth about a late-second round pick, which combined with a fifth-round pick seems a reasonable price for Cooper at the time.
Possible player in this category: DeAndre Hopkins, Titans (trading team takes on two years, $15 million)
On the other hand, there might be franchises that don’t prioritize draft picks as much, either as a part of an overall team philosophy (e.g., the Rams) or as the product of desperation (i.e., why do these picks matter to me if I’m likely to be fired?). In this case, draft-pick compensation for the trading team will be higher if they are willing to take on a decent chunk of the remaining financial commitments to the player.
This is often attractive for a regime that is safe from a job perspective but no longer harbors hopes for the postseason. A most-recent example of this is the Denver Broncos trading Von Miller to the Rams in 2021 for a second and third-round pick. This was a tremendous return for the Broncos, which was made possible by the fact that the Broncos ate most of the final year of Miller’s six-year, $114.5-million deal through converting his salary to a bonus.
In hindsight, the Rams received a great return on their investment; they won the franchise’s second Super Bowl with Miller earning nine sacks in the final eight games of the season, including two against the Bengals in the championship game.
Possible player in this category: Leonard Williams, Giants (one year, $18 million prorated)
While these two types of trades, low pick/high financial commitment and high pick/low financial commitment, account for most of the trades you’re going to see this time of year, there is a third type that happens relatively infrequently, but is a special case of the former trade type.
Sometimes regime changes or overall poor fits result in the trade of a recently drafted player. From a salary cap perspective, these are mostly rounding errors, as rookie contracts are not particularly big in general, but especially so after the first few picks. For teams that have had recent success, they might get access to blue chip players – and the accompanying salary and surplus that implies – that they would never get in April. For the Steelers and 2018 11th-overall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019, that was exactly the scenario.
Fitzpatrick didn’t fit right with Brian Flores’ Dolphins in South Beach, and the Steelers hadn’t had access to someone of Minkah’s caliber since 2004 – the last time they picked in the top 11 prior to 2019. In this case, the Steelers needed to surrender a first-round pick, which after a Ben Roethlisberger injury became more valuable than when they traded it, while the Dolphins’ brass got to take over a bet someone else made a year prior for similar value.
In 2021 something similar happened with C.J. Henderson, the ninth-overall pick in the 2020 draft selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars. After a great initial game, where Henderson contributed to the Jaguars’ only win by picking off veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, the Florida product mostly struggled, losing his starting job in year two of his career and year one of the Urban Meyer era. Henderson was traded, along with a fifth-round pick, for veteran tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round pick. The Panthers got a depreciated first round pick for roughly a third-round pick, while the Jaguars got to move on and get something for an asset that was currently returning nothing.
One fundamental difference between trading for players on rookie contracts versus simply trading for players with cheap contracts is that all the privileges of a rookie deal go to the trading team. This includes the player’s inability to negotiate a new contract until after the third year as well as the fifth-year option (for first-round picks).
Possible player in this category: Kaiir Elam, Bills (three years, $11.2 million prorated)
The NFL has captured almost all available space in the sports calendar, and even though we’re at the exciting, early stages of the NBA and NHL calendar, Tuesday will be no different. We’ve already seen Kevin Byard, Mecole Hardman, Van Jefferson, Randy Gregory, Chase Claypool, and JC Jackson all already move this month.
I think we’ll see as many – if not more – movements come 10/31.