The NFL's Top 10 History-Changing Trades

Ryan WinnAnalyst IJune 9, 2009

In the NFL, a trade is the least-used form of transaction. During an offseason, each team focuses on signing players already untethered from all ties rather than swapping players currently on the roster.

When the NFL Draft rolls around, teams make several trades for picks but usually wait until the later rounds to avoid the uncertainty that comes with dealing with such high value.

Some trades were made because the player refused to play for the team that drafted him, and some were made because the player did not like his contract.

However, there have been bold moves by uncompromising front office executives, with or without the consent of the player and team, that have shaped the NFL as we know it today. 

10. Patriots Give Brady the Keys, 2002

New England Patriots receive: 2003 first-round pick

Buffalo Bills receive: QB Drew Bledsoe

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After the Patriots won their first Super Bowl title, one huge question loomed over the ensuing offseason: Would New England keep their franchise quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, or trade him and risk it with a young gun in Tom Brady?

Head coach Bill Belichick chose the latter and traded up with that pick to grab defensive lineman Ty Warren, a key piece to their front seven to this day.

Owner Robert Kraft was saddened by the trade that day.

“Let me speak as a Patriots fan,” said Kraft. “Drew Bledsoe is a special player. I have great respect for all he has done for this franchise, not only for his contributions on the field, but also his contributions off the field. He gave our fans some of the greatest memories in the franchise’s history, and there will always be a special place reserved for him in the hearts of Patriots fans. For many reasons, and at many levels, this was a difficult trade to make.”

Brady's play for the better part of the decade, including two more Super Bowl rings and a record-setting year, eased much of that pain.

9. Atlanta Gets Their Dirty Bird, 2001

San Diego Chargers receive: WR Tim Dwight, No. 5 overall pick, third-round pick, second-round pick in 2002.

Atlanta Falcons receive: No. 1 overall pick

The Chargers had said if they could not reach a deal with Virginia Tech QB Michael Vick before the draft, they would trade the draft's top selection. They felt that their man, TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson, would fall as low as No. 5, which was where Atlanta stood.

The Chargers did in fact take Tomlinson, who went on to set the record for most touchdowns in a season with 31 in 2006.

The Falcons wanted a franchise quarterback to replace the aging Chris Chandler, and head coach Dan Reeves had high hopes for Vick.

"We think he's an exceptional young man," Reeves said of Vick. "He's a great football player, but he's an exceptional young man who I think will set this franchise up for a long time to come."

History goes to show that Reeves was a bit off base with his comments.

8. Mike Ditka Breaks the Bank, 1999

New Orleans Saints receive: No. 5 overall pick

Washington Redskins receive: No. 12 overall pick, third-round pick, fourth-round pick, fifth-round pick, sixth-round pick, seventh-round pick; first-round pick in 2000, third-round pick in 2000

New Orleans head coach Mike Ditka wanted Texas running back Ricky Williams so badly that he took a look at his '99 draft board and decided it was expendable.

The Saints traded away their entire allotment of picks in that draft, along with two picks in the following year's draft.

Williams turned out to be a Pro Bowl-type player before leaving for the Miami Dolphins and later heading off to the Caribbean for marijuana freedom. Ditka had been much criticized for the blockbuster trade, and his time in New Orleans did not last long after that.

Meanwhile, the Redskins traded the pick from New Orleans to Chicago for bust QB Cade McNown. In fact, the Redskins only used three of the picks from New Orleans on draft day, trading for future picks.

7. Rams Get Some Horns, 1998

St. Louis Rams receive: RB Marshall Faulk

Indianapolis Colts receive: Second-round pick, fifth-round pick

With fears of disrupting team chemistry, Colts GM Bill Polian traded Faulk to the seemingly hapless Rams, turning the page on the running back situation by selecting Edgerrin James in the first round in that year's draft.

Faulk was the center stone in the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf," where he eclipsed Barry Sanders' record for all-purpose yards (2,429 yards) and won Super Bowl XXXIV over the Tennessee Titans with the title of NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

Faulk went on to win NFL MVP in 2000 and then took his team back to the Super Bowl in 2001, losing to the New England Patriots.

6. Moss Points Toward New England, 2006

New England Patriots receive: WR Randy Moss

Oakland Raiders receive: Fourth-round pick

Thought to be over the hill, Randy Moss wanted to completely reverse his fortunes. In his trade from Oakland to New England, Moss did so in several ways:

  • Flipped his jersey number from 18 to 81
  • Took a pay cut to play with the Patriots
  • Went from perennial losers in Oakland to consistent winners in New England

He also changed his fortunes on the field. He went from a virtual unknown in Oakland to a 23-touchdown receiver in New England, setting a new NFL record, and helped the team to the first ever 16-0 regular season.

Had it not been for the trade, Moss would have left his best days in Minnesota. Playing in New England rejuvenated the career for the "Freak" and reshaped the record books.

5. Vikings Raid Their Roster in "The Trade," 1990

Minnesota Vikings receive: RB Herschel Walker, two third-round picks, fifth-round pick, 10th-round pick

Dallas Cowboys receive: LB Jesse Solomon, LB David Howard, CB Issiac Holt, RB Darrin Nelson, DE Alex Stewart, first-round pick, second-round pick, sixth-round pick, first-round pick in 1991, second-round pick in 1991, second-round pick in 1992, third-round pick in 1992, first-round pick in 1993

Considered the most lopsided trade in NFL history, this transaction still stands as the most players/picks ever used in a swap.

Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson felt that only a blockbuster trade would help his team and thought about trading WR Michael Irvin to the Los Angeles Raiders before Raiders owner Al Davis basically talked him out of it.

Instead, Dallas traded heralded running back Herschel Walker for a treasure chest of draft picks, two of which brought in RB Emmitt Smith and SS Darren Woodson, two cogs to the Cowboys' dynasty of the '90s.

Walker lasted only two more years in Minnesota and actually returned to Dallas in 1996. His best year in Minnesota came in 1991 with 825 yards and 10 TD, as Smith went on to be the NFL's all-time leading rusher and a Hall of Famer.

4. Packers Get Their Gunslinger, 1992

Green Bay Packers receive: QB Brett Favre

Atlanta Falcons receive: No. 19 overall pick

After being drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, Brett Favre had a rough start to his career. Favre's first career pass was intercepted for a touchdown, and his rookie season's stat line was unimpressive: 0-4, 0 YDS, 2 INT.

However, Packers GM Ron Wolf liked what he saw in film enough to cough up a first-round pick for Favre. That pick turned out to be RB Tony Smith from Southern Mississippi.

In Favre's first game in a Packers uniform, he threw a pass that was deflected and caught by himself—a sign of things to come in the ensuing 16 years.

Favre went on to win three consecutive NFL MVP awards, won Super Bowl XXXI, and started every game from Sept. 20, 1992 to Jan. 20, 2008. Meanwhile, Smith went on to play three meaningless years in Atlanta.

Favre is a record holder in nearly all of the NFL's passing records, including yards, touchdowns, and, notoriously, interceptions.

Favre came back from retirement to play an injury-plagued season with the New York Jets, and it is not known if Favre will ever completely retire from the game.

3. New England Misses Out on the Greatest, 1985

San Francisco 49ers receive: No. 16 overall pick, third-round pick

New England Patriots receive: No. 28 overall pick, second-round pick, third-round pick

After an amazing season at Mississippi Valley State, WR Jerry Rice impressed San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. It was not enough to impress over half the league's teams, though, so Walsh saw his opportunity at No. 16.

The Patriots traded the pick to the defending champs, who promptly took Rice. Meanwhile, the Patriots would take center Trevor Matich with their pick from San Francisco.

Rice would go on to win NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year, but it would take him three years to win a championship, which he did in an impressive manner.

Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards and one TD, helping the 49ers edge the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-16, in Super Bowl XXIII, earning him Super Bowl MVP honors. Rice would go on to win two more Super Bowls and retire as the league's leader in reception yards.

Even more impressive, with no other rushing or passing yards to impose, his 22,895 yards still placed him second all-time in all-purpose yards. Rice would play for three other teams in the twilight of his career and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, arguably known as the greatest receiver of all time.

2. San Francisco Plunders for Backup Gold, 1987

San Francisco 49ers receive: QB Steve Young

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receive: Second-round pick, fourth-round pick

After drafting Vinny Testaverde first overall, Tampa Bay declared Steve Young, leader of consecutive 2-14 teams, a bust. Already having a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on their team, Bill Walsh and the 49ers decided to trade for the struggling young QB.

The trade turned out to be a gold mine. When Joe Montana went down with an injury in 1991, Young took his chance and ran with it. Young finished his first year in San Francisco with the league's highest passer rating (101.8), but the team missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

The following year, Young was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Raiders with Montana coming back, but with Montana still injured to start the season, Young remained on the roster.

Young went on to be selected to his first Pro Bowl and won the league's MVP that year, but the team lost to their biggest rival in the Dallas Cowboys one game away from the Super Bowl.

Young would see Montana traded to the Kansas City Chiefs the next year and would win his lone title in Super Bowl XXIX. He set several NFL all-time records, including highest career quarterback rating and most rushing TDs by a QB, earning him an enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

1. Jets Lose a Coach for the Decade, 2000

New England Patriots receive: Head coach Bill Belichick, fifth-round pick in 2001, seventh-round pick in 2002

New York Jets receive: First-round pick, fourth-round pick in 2001, seventh-rounder in 2001

While the deal did not go down as a straight-up swap, the legendary transaction between the Jets and the Patriots goes down in the record books as one of the most one-sided (and strangest) transactions in NFL history.

On the same day Belichick was set to succeed Bill Parcells as the Jets' next head coach, he wrote in his resignation on a scrambled piece of paper. The Jets were dealt another blow below the belt when Belichick was announced as the Patriots' next head coach.

To make sense of the fiasco that was the process, the Patriots gave their first-round pick as well as several late round picks for the following year to the Jets in exchange for their new coach and a few picks.

Despite all the negative media and the loss of a top pick, Patriots owner Robert Kraft felt confidence in the future of his team.

"For a No. 1 draft choice, we can bring in a man that I feel certain can do something, rather than the uncertainty of a draft choice," Kraft said after shaking hands with Belichick on a five-year deal. "And it wasn't even close when I thought about it that way."

The pick given to Jets turned out to be DE Shaun Ellis, and Belichick turned out to win a Super Bowl the next year. It only gets more lopsided.

Since joining New England, Belichick has won a total of three Super Bowls, coached the league's only 16-0 team, owns the NFL record for longest winning streak at 21 games, and has the best winning percentage since 2000.

Perhaps the change from a last-place team to a dynasty had something to do with the respect he garnered from his players.

"Any time you give up a first-round draft pick, that's something you obviously don't want to do," said QB Drew Bledsoe, who was traded just two years later by Belichick but lobbied for him after the trade. "But to get a coach of the caliber of Bill Belichick, it's probably a worthwhile thing to do."

It turned out to be the best thing the franchise could have possibly done.

Honorable Mentions

  • Los Angeles Rams trade RB Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh Steelers
  • New York Giants trade QB Philip Rivers to San Diego Chargers for QB Eli Manning
  • Denver Broncos trade RB Clinton Portis to Washington Redskins for CB Champ Bailey
  • Baltimore Colts trade John Elway to Denver Broncos
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