While trade deadline days in the MLB, NBA and NHL are often active both for contenders buying low and for teams out of contention trading away players on expired contracts, the NFL trade deadline does not have that same reputation. The trade deadline often comes and goes with little fanfare or attention, and rarely features blockbuster deals.
You don’t have to look far to find speculation on which players contending teams should be pursuing and pretending teams should be trading away in advance of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. (ET) NFL trade deadline, but if recent history is any indication, it is unlikely there will be many significant deals made as the final hours of the season’s trading window tick down.
After Late 1980s Blockbusters, Past 23 Years Marked Mostly By Inactivity
The most resonant deal in NFL trade deadline history occurred on Oct. 13, 1989, when the Dallas Cowboys traded superstar running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings. Also the largest trade in league history, the Cowboys traded Walker and four draft picks, the highest of which were two third-round picks, to the Vikings in exchange for five veteran players and eight draft picks, including three consecutive seasons of first- and second-round draft selections.
The Walker trade came two years after another superstar running back, Eric Dickerson, was a key piece of a three-team blockbuster trade at the 1987 deadline.
The Los Angeles Rams received two veteran running backs, three first-round picks and three second-round picks from the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts in exchange for sending Dickerson to the Colts, while the Colts sent the rights to 1987 No. 2 overall pick outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett to the Bills.
Those two trades each involved one of the league’s biggest stars at the time of the deal and helped spark the success of at least one team involved in each deal (the Cowboys used their acquisitions in the Walker trade to build their teams that won Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995; Bennett was a star for the Bills teams that won four consecutive AFC championships from 1990-1993).
Since then, however, impact midseason trades at the deadline have been few and far between.
There have only been 32 trade deadline deals since 1990, which averages out to fewer than three deals every two years. Few of those deals have involved star players in their prime or significant assets being swapped.
Some of the most significant deals in the past 23 years have included:
The San Diego Chargers traded third- and sixth-round draft picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for wide receiver Keenan McCardell in 2004. McCardell went on to catch 137 passes for 1,747 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Chargers from 2004-06.
The Indianapolis Colts traded a second-round draft pick to the Buccaneers for defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland in 2006. McFarland went on to become a key piece of the Colts’ defensive front, picking up 2.5 sacks and 33 total tackles and winning a Super Bowl ring in his only playing season with the team. He suffered a torn ACL in 2007 and never played another NFL game.
San Diego made another deadline deal for a wide receiver when it acquired Chris Chambers from the Miami Dolphins in 2007 in exchange for a second-round pick. Chambers caught 68 passes for 1,017 yards and nine touchdowns for the Chargers in 2007-08, but he was cut by San Diego in the midst of an unproductive 2009 season.
The Dallas Cowboys traded three draft picks, including a first-round pick, in exchange for Detroit Lions wide receiver Roy Williams and a seventh-round pick in 2008. Williams would go on to catch 94 passes for 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns in Dallas.
Desperate for a quarterback after Jason Campbell broke his collarbone, the Oakland Raiders traded their 2012 first-round pick and a 2013 conditional second-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for quarterback Carson Palmer. As expected, this was a trade that worked out in Cincinnati’s favor, as Palmer struggled throughout his two seasons in Oakland, throwing 30 combined interceptions and leading the Raiders to just eight wins in two seasons.
All of those trades were significant and impactful, but there have been many examples in the past 23 years of deadlines passing without a major trade or any trades at all.
In many of those years where a significant trade occurred, there were no other trades that involved starting-caliber players changing teams (the biggest exception was in 2004, when McCardell was one of four wide receivers—Antonio Bryant, Quincy Morgan and a well-past-his-prime Jerry Rice being the other three—to switch teams in a deadline deal).
It has been unusual for significant trades to take place at the trade deadline. A change to the NFL’s calendar implemented in 2012, however, could lead to an increase in trades Tuesday or in upcoming years.
Will a Later Trade Deadline Lead to More Deadline Deals?
Prior to the 2012 season, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to move the trade deadline back to Week 8 from Week 6, giving teams two more weeks to potentially make trades.
There is reason to believe that this calendar change could lead to a growing trend of midseason trades, including deals made at the deadline.
Many deadline trades in other professional sports leagues, especially in Major League Baseball, consist of a team that is out of playoff contention trading away veteran players who have expiring or undesirable contracts, with the buyers being contending teams looking for a missing piece in hopes of a World Series run.
The trade deadline has not generally been viewed the same way in the NFL, largely due to its timetable.
When the MLB trade deadline hits at the end of July, with more than half of the season completed, many teams have already conceded they will not be contenders that season and are in a position to focus on future seasons. With a Week 6 trade deadline, when every NFL team still had 10 or 11 games remaining on its schedule, few teams would have approached the trade deadline with an out-of-contention mindset.
Teams may be starting to think that way with a Week 8 trade deadline, however, as there are certainly teams whose realistic chances of making a playoff run have all but ended halfway through their seasons.
Although there were only two trades at the inaugural Week 8 trade deadline in 2012, it came with one MLB-style deadline deal when the New England Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Aqib Talib.
Although the Buccaneers may not necessarily have been out of contention with a 3-4 record at the time, they did not intend to re-sign Talib, whose contract was expiring at the end of the 2012 season. They therefore traded him, acquiring something (a pick used to select defensive end William Gholston) in return for Talib rather than losing him for nothing. Meanwhile, the cornerback-needy but contending Patriots were able to pick up a key starter for their playoff run.
The Talib trade set the template for how deadline deals could become more commonplace in the NFL.
It is unknown whether Tuesday’s deadline will be full of action or pass by quietly, but there has seemingly been an uptick of unexpected in-season trades already this season.
The most significant in-season trade this year took place on Sept. 18, when the Colts acquired second-year running back Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a first-round pick.
Additionally, three other veteran starters also changed teams in exchange for draft picks in early October.
The Jacksonville Jaguars acquired two draft picks from the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for left tackle Eugene Monroe, the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Arizona Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown for a draft selection, and the Carolina Panthers sent linebacker Jon Beason to the New York Giants for a draft pick.
The past 23 years should keep you from hanging on the edge of your seat and getting your hopes up for a wild day of deadline deals, but there is reason to believe midseason trading could happen more frequently in upcoming seasons.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.