Draft day trades seem to fascinate people at all levels. I have been fortunate to have
been the guy pulling the trigger for a franchise and the one who stood to benefit from one of these deals on several occasions. When trades come together, the range of emotions that everyone in that draft room feels is all over the map. All eyes are on you to make it happen and these moves are made by NFL decision-makers in tight time windows, in front of millions on television, and can define your career path in both a good or bad way. Actually, I think the other people in the room feel more pressure and anxiety than the guy with the phone to his ear making it happen.
I thought it might be fun to break down a few of the mechanics that are all in play when “the draft day trade” is used as a team building function. That’s really what it is — a way to further improve your team, either from upgrading the quality of your selection (going up the draft order) or from a quantity standpoint (sliding down the draft pole), by acquiring more chips in the game.
New England Head Coach Bill Belichick has become the king of this type of thinking and in most cases, it’s to slide down and acquire more assets strategy. Since coming to the Patriots, Belechick has pulled off 82 draft day trades, the most in the NFL, during his tenure in New England.
His line of thinking has to be that his best odds of striking gold are best done by increasing the number of choices he has in the draft. I’m no math major but in baseball, if a hitter is allowed five swings when coming to the plate instead of three, he’s got a better chance of delivering a key hit to win a game.
Everyone always says “lets just trade down and acquire picks”. That sounds great in theory, but it’s not that easy to accomplish. You first must find a legitimate trade partner to start the process. The “mock drafters” don’t have this problem. They just wave the wand and make it happen (insert eye rolls).
Some teams will only make a move if it’s a one-sided deal in their favor, believing they have the leverage. Other teams are more interested in what a trade value chart tells them than what they should do to get better or what their conviction is for a certain player. Former Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf once asked me, “Are you and I the only guys willing to make a deal in this league”? At the time, I took that as a compliment. We both were not tied to a chart or perception.
I’m convinced that public or outside reactions keep some teams from moving forward with a trade. I think it comes down to the conviction you have in your evaluations. The more conviction you have for a player, the more confidence you gain in trying to acquire him.
I think to make a draft day trade, when all the eyes are on you, one covets conviction that comes from a solid process to obtain consensus. That way of thinking helps give you more confidence to pull the trigger. Some teams do a much better job of building their consensus with the stacking or aligning of their draft boards. I think it’s easier to make deals when you have everyone, in your room, on board with what you’re trying to accomplish.
When I was with the Seattle Seahawks, it was easy to make the decision, but much harder to execute the plan, for us to make a deal to move up from the No. 12 to the No. 6 position in the first round of the 1997 draft. We wanted to take an unheralded tackle from Florida State named Walter Jones, a player who was a one-year starter (others really questioned the move). We were fortunate that the price for doing this was relatively cheap because we were the only team really looking to move up (supply and demand was in our favor). It still took some maneuvering and even some luck in the end.
My point is that everyone on our staff that was involved in the process, and I have always included more than most, was aligned with what we were seeing on tape and had the same vision for Jones’ future in Seattle. Not only was he in our top group of talent (we thought it was a six-player draft at the top that year), but we also had a clear consensus from within that this move was our best option. With the full support of my staff, and as the final decision-maker, I then felt empowered to be aggressive in making a deal like this.
Sometimes these deals come together quickly, but there are also other times when the table has to be set and the dots have to take time to connect. They all come together differently.
With regard to the Walter Jones deal, I remember going home the night before the first round thinking we had a deal in principle with the New York Jets to move up to the sixth position from No. 12, but the caveat was, as Bill Parcells told me on the phone, “if our guy is not there”.
The move up to acquire the pick for Jones would be a deal that actually happened while the Jets were on the clock. Parcells and I had talked several times leading up to that day and we had all but worked out the compensation before the proceedings started. I think teams need to let these decisions marinate and that takes time. Our situation in 1997 was a process that took a few weeks in my dialogue with the Jets.
This was new owner Paul Allen’s first draft with the Seahawks so updating both him and team president Bob Whitsitt was part of my everyday routine. I remember being upbeat and felt good about our chances to make a deal when I walked out of Whitsitt’s office that night before the draft. I knew that any move up was going to cost us more signing bonus in cash so our ownership needed to be in the loop with this transaction. We had already moved from 11 to 3 with our other first round pick (acquired for QB Rick Mirer in a trade with Chicago) so the cash we were spending was substantial.
That positive feeling got harpooned when I walked into the office on draft morning to a call from Coach Parcells informing me that the Jets were going to make a deal with Tampa Bay instead (this allowed them to not have to slide all the way down to 12th because TB picked above us). I felt deflated but before we hung up Parcells mentioned, “I’d call Tampa, if I was you. I don’t think they know if their guy will be there either.” I immediately called Rich McKay, who was the General Manager of the Bucs at the time. I told him of our wishes to move up and he said they would call back when on the clock. We still had a chance.
Sure enough, Tampa Bay later called and said their guy had been picked and they were willing to make the deal. We actually gave up less in the end than I had initially agreed to give the Jets before the draft. I remember after we finally made the deal and picked Jones walking back into the draft room and seeing all the smiles and relief on everyone’s face. The excitement was palpable. These are giant moves for NFL franchises and everyone involved feels it.
I want to emphasize that at times these deals are a rollercoaster of emotions and they don’t all have a positive ending. I remember one year in Miami working just as hard and making twice the amount of calls before coming up empty. We, the Dolphins, were trying to trade out of a pick in the middle of the first round (17th) that we had zero conviction on. I knew we were in a bad spot to get a good player and I could not make anything happen to improve our situation. It’s a helpless feeling. You know in your gut if what about to happen is positive or not.
When you have a cluster of players on your board that all are graded/valued in a similar fashion, trading down makes the most sense. With options, you can move down three or four spots, gain a pick, and still end up with the same player you were going to pick higher. However, getting stuck and not loving the player you know you’re going to get has given me my share of stomach aches over the years.
Whether its conviction, confidence, supply and demand or just flat out luck, several things will factor into the mechanics of making a draft day deal, especially in the first round. Each draft presents a pressure point or two where action might occur. Experts are able to identify those pivot points in a draft with appropriate intel and they are prepared to handle various situations that may come about.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, I think the position to watch is what the Carolina Panthers do with the eighth pick in the first round? IMO, it’s the desired spot for anyone looking to acquire the last of the presumed first round QB’s and here’s why.
The Denver Broncos have the ninth pick in the first round right now and, after a deeper dive into their 2020 film on offense, really have “no choice” but to acquire a QB (in some fashion) in order to move their franchise forward. Trying to win without a quality quarterback is a tough spot to put Vic Fangio, their 62-year-old head coach in. This is year three of his first head coaching opportunity and their play on offense last year was below NFL standards.
Quite frankly, the QB play in Denver last year was downright depressing. They have no choice but to upgrade, IMO and to cast a wide net to do so but the draft might be their last gasp effort. Of course, other teams know this as well and, after assessing their opportunities, will conclude that jumping ahead of the Broncos is the best option if they are looking to find their QB of the future.
I think teams like New England (15th), Washington (19th) and maybe even Chicago (20th) are all sorting through “trade up” scenarios right now. They all know that the only way to assure they get their guy, if he’s there, is to jump in front of Denver. If my theory of supply and demand dictating terms, along with some conviction holds true, Carolina should have a winning hand. And if they play it the right way, they just might be sitting on the motherlode.
This is the kind of drama that most outsiders covet and love to watch unfold on television. Put me in the same category. I love the deal making aspect of team building, I am right there with the average fan. LETS MAKE A DEAL.