Over the past twenty years, the NFL has catapulted itself into the spotlight of national attention, becoming the most popular among all of the professional sports. Throughout this time, the league has instituted a unique and successful free agent model to ensure competitive balance, and it has cultivated the NFL Draft into a cult phenomenon by drawing upon the marauding hoards of fantasy football driven armchair GM’s.
Although much of the NFL’s success can be credited to these innovations, however, the league has historically lagged behind its professional sports counterparts in one vital, yet most exciting area: blockbuster trades. Trades in the MLB and NBA are commonplace, with big-named “franchise players” frequently switching from one team to another. However, the NFL has never seemed to fully grasp the appeal of this particular facet of player acquisition. It seems now, though, that the “No Fun League” may finally be taking a page from the other professional sports leagues.
Already this offseason there have been a smathering of high-profile players traded by NFL teams. Marcus Stroud, a 29 year old with three Pro Bowls to his name, was traded from Jacksonville to Buffalo. Jared Allen and Jonathan Vilma, each only 26 years old and already having been to one Pro Bowl apiece, were traded to the Vikings and Saints respectively. Also, 28 year old and three-time Pro Bowler Kris Jenkins was sent from Carolina to the New York Jets to anchor their new 3-4 defensive alignment. Finally, 24 year old DeAngelo Hall was traded from Atlanta to Oakland in the prime of his career, having been selected to the Pro Bowl twice with the Falcons.
So why the sudden change from the NFL? Players of this caliber, in the prime of their careers, averaging only 26 years old and having a combined 10 Pro Bowl appearances would likely never have changed hands in this way and in this frequency even as little as five years ago. So what is different in today’s NFL landscape that has forced teams to pursue trade negotiations as a viable alternative to talent procurement?
As it turns out, the answer to this puzzling behavioral modification can likely be found in three simple letters: CBA. In 2006, the NFL owners entered into a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the salary cap. No longer were teams hard pressed against the cap, forcing them to cut valuable players with high salary cap numbers to meet the imposed restrictions. Now, teams had the money to keep their talented veterans without sacrificing their ability to sign new free agents or incoming draft selections.
With this increased financial flexibility, the free agent talent pool became much shallower, with names like Kevin Curtis and Bernard Berrian commanding top-dollar in a market that used to contain superstars such as Plaxico Burress and Terrell Owens. Although many key contributors can certainly be obtained via free agency, nowadays there are likely only one or two bonafide superstars in any free agent class.
Given this dearth of blue-chip talent, teams have had to turn to alternative methods of talent acquisition. That is where the trades come in. Now the NFL is more similar to Major League Baseball, with the owners able to comfortably spend as much money as they need to retain elite players. Consequently, like in baseball, if you want a truly great player anymore you are left with little choice than to strike an accord with their present team in order to acquire their rights. The draft is still there, but if you are looking for a proven and talented player to help your team win games now, free agency just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Since the new CBA was signed in 2006, the NFL has seen two of the shallowest talent pools ever to hit the free-agent market. This offseason’s trade bonanza is likely the first response to the new rules of the game. However, given the current landscape of the NFL, it seems that trade frequency among teams will continue to rise in the coming years, as teams look to supplement their roster with proven veterans. In turn, this will add an interesting dynamic to NFL offseasons which should give fans even more reason to hail pro football as the end-all-be-all of professional sports.