clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the NFL’s trade deadline falters in excitement, and why fixing it is daunting

General managers sure love making trades at any point except late October and early November.

NFL Contract Talks Continue As Deadline Approaches Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Late July and early August are conventionally part of the dog days of summer; the weather warms as the season progresses into its final stages. Students’ anticipated return to school is just about the only awakening from a continuum of summer.

In terms of sports, though, such a time frame is a contrast from the accustomed harmony. While NFL teams enter their first days and weeks of training camp, what ultimately steals the show is MLB’s trade deadline.

For some, baseball’s trade deadline can supersede the optimism of Opening Day or the grandeur of the postseason. For a period of two or three days, the world constantly refreshes social media to try to keep pace with a flurry of moves. This year’s August 2 deadline hardly disappointed, with stars such as Juan Soto, Josh Hader and Luis Castillo being dealt to contenders until the mere seconds of the buzzer.

Fast forward nearly three months, and the NFL will enjoy its own version of the trade deadline, except with far less pomp and circumstance.

Last season’s November 2 cutoff for teams to make trades did little to drum up excitement. Only six deals were consummated right around the deadline, the most notable of which was the Broncos sending Von Miller to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Rams. Other names swapped include Melvin Ingram (one Steelers fans may rather forget), Charles Omenihu, Kary Vincent Jr., Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and Daniel Brown.

If many of those players don’t ring a bell, you’re not alone.

The 2021 NFL trade deadline is emblematic of the flaws within the league’s desires to have a firm end date for mid-season trades, one that typically results in less significant and/or under-performing players being shopped.

Before delving into football-specific reasons behind a lull in exchanges, it’s important to distinguish between several crucial structures between the NFL and MLB.

For one, most baseball trades are buoyed by prospects, who play in the minor leagues. The NFL has no such equivalent; the closest element is the practice squad, but such players aren’t exactly viewed as future stars (and can be poached by other teams, anyway).

It’s also key to understand the framework disparity in how players fit within their organizations in the two sports. In baseball, a team like the Padres can trade for Soto without asking him to radically alter his approach of walking and hitting at an elite rate. Conversely, football players are contingent upon the schemes that their coordinators/coaches run and have to become acclimated to playbooks. In other words, it’s not as simple to pull off deals in a binary sense in the NFL.

In regard to foundational barriers to a trade deadline in the NFL, possibly none stands out more than the date of the cutoff itself.

The deadline is almost always the Tuesday before Week 9, which serves as a relative midpoint in the season — something standard of most professional sport trade deadlines. The issue is that the NFL’s sample size of games prevents teams from having a clear picture of playoff projections.

By last year’s November 2 deadline, 21 of 32 squads were within three games of a .500 record. With teams having played just seven or eight contests, there is little perspective for understanding how a unit will perform the rest of the season, let alone in paramount months like December and January.

Take the 2021 Cardinals. Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury and the Birds started 7-0 and looked like a bonafide contender entering the deadline. The team would finish 4-6 down the stretch and lose in horrific fashion in the Wild Card Game.

Another great example is last year’s Ravens. Baltimore sat 5-2 but lost Lamar Jackson for much of the rest of the season, ending 8-9 on the outside of the playoff picture — despite leading the AFC North by November 2.

In other words, injuries and stretches can affect an NFL team’s season like few other sports.

Aside from the inherent difficulty of assessing a team’s quality by Week 9, NFL executives generally do not seem inclined to look at the future around the midseason point. Rather than concentrate on expiring contracts or draft picks, general managers and other personnel appear more concentrated in the present season and how they can maximize a roster without racing to March.

Speaking of the spring, that’s when we tend to see deals, especially those of a greater magnitude, become finalized. This offseason, the Broncos (unofficially) traded for Russell Wilson on March 8; the Browns tentatively acquired Deshaun Watson on March 18.

Those dates fit the conventional cycle of the start of the new league year, free agency and the draft, a period in which GMs are heavily focused on their roster construction and leveraging their assets. From a football perspective, it’s most logical to determine how to improve a team once the full glut of free agents, trade offers, draft prospects and positioning of picks are laid out.

By the end of the preseason and cut date in late August, front office members typically have a solid understanding of how their roster appears and the nature of the season in store; as such, the weeks just before kickoff can be a hotbed of deals. Last August provided a whopping 24 trades, including the Steelers adding Joe Schobert from the Jaguars on August 14 and the Rams nabbing Sony Michel on August 25.

Moreover, NFL studs tend to hold more gravity than MLB stars, meaning trades are more so driven by football players than executives.

In the cases of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jalen Ramsey, Baker Mayfield and more, the player’s desire to seek a new landing spot created ripple effects in front offices that led to them being dealt. Even with “softer” hold-ins, Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf and Diontae Johnson have put pressure on GMs to propose larger contracts in short order. While MLB players can veto trades via no-trade clause, as the Padres’ Eric Hosmer did by eschewing the Washington Nationals, baseball owners and executives may be less inclined to follow the requests at the behest of players.

For as much as baseball execs value their prospects highly, NFL leaders hold their draft picks even closer to their chests. Consequently, football GMs are likelier to retain picks by forgoing money, a strategy which manifests itself in free agents.

A byproduct of rosters being finalized is a pool of recently released available players, many of which are seasoned veterans. Teams frequently take advantage of such stragglers, adding them during the season. The 2020 Buccaneers did so with Antonio Brown, while the 2021 Rams signed Odell Beckham Jr. Most importantly, mid-year acquisitions do not have to come at the expense of draft stock.

It’s clear that the NFL’s trade deadline has an assortment of undermining factors, but how can it be improved? That question has few immediate answers.

One solution could be moving the deadline to late August or early September as squads are finalizing their roster makeup. This shift follows the more logical pattern of pre-existing trades and would create MLB-style havoc by forcing GMs to make a quick-thinking decision, either going all in or risking a futile season. At the same time, such a departure ruins the nature of a midseason trade deadline.

A far less practical suggestion is to urge NFL executives to take a page out of MLB personnel’s playbooks and utilize the halfway point as an opportunity for substantial change. Even if a team is four games under .500, why not roll the dice on a star on an expiring contract? The problem is that pro football guides have inculcated the need to wait until the end of the season with free agency and the draft around the corner.

The NFL’s trade deadline has generated the movement of high-stakes players in the last three years, like Ramsey, Marcus Peters, Zach Ertz, Emmanuel Sanders, Leonard Williams, Yannick Ngakoue and Carlos Dunlap. Yet until the league reconciles the institutional and mental hurdles of its late October/early November cutoff, MLB’s trade deadline will continue to sprint to victory.