Why Has the NFL Finally Started Embracing the Art of Trading Players?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 21, 2015

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In the span of about two weeks, 15 NFL players with a combined 24 Pro Bowl berths were swapped around 10 different NFL rosters. This March been the wildest month of trades in the last 20 years, and it isn't even over.

More than that, it may signal the start of a freewheeling new NFL era.

For years, popular wisdom has held that NFL teams don't consummate a lot of trades—especially not trades involving difference-making superstars like Jimmy Graham, LeSean McCoy and Haloti Ngata. The acceleration of prorated bonuses against the salary cap made moving stars incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

But was popular wisdom right? Are we remembering correctly, or have the years dulled our senses of just how much teams used to wheel and deal?

Using Fox Sports' NFL transaction database, which has data going back 20 years, we can compare this year's trades (using the data from March to project 2015's numbers) against two decades of trends.

Credit: Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report
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The sheer number of players traded has been much more volatile in the last decade than the one before, but it's hard to pick out any real trends. From 1995 until about 2004, the total number of traded players hovered a little over 30 per year.

From 2004 through 2009, we saw a period of much more active trading (save 2008). Then there was a massive spike up to 78 players in 2010, followed by a steep dropoff, then sharp ups and downs.

To figure out what's going on here, we need to break it down a little further, this time by months:

Credit: Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Now we see trends.

In 2004 and 2005, there was a big increase in March trades, as well October trades. There had been only nine players traded in October from 1995-2003, yet there were six each in 2004 and 2005.

In the 2006 offseason, the NFL Players Association and NFL agreed to one last extension of the 1993 collective bargaining agreement that ushered in free agency as we know it. After outgoing NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue signed off on what was supposed to be a long stretch of labor peace, there were a huge number of trades—and an unusually even distribution of them, with at least five players getting swapped in every allowable month save June.

MonthPlayersPro Bowls
Mar 20151524
Jul 20111215
Mar 20071515
Apr 20102313
August 1995175
Aug 2006171
Sep 2010160
FOX Sports

In the following years, summer trades dwindled, and total deals fell off sharply. Ballooning rookie deals and veteran free-agent contracts again made players tough to move around. The owners opted out of the Taglibue CBA in 2008, and 2010 was the dreaded Last Capped Year.

That's why teams went bonkers with trades in that spring and fall. A year's worth of trades (37 players) were consummated in March and April 2010—and that April was, by far, the heaviest month of trading in the past two decades, with 23 players changing hands. Another year's worth of trades (34 players) were completed between Aug. 1 and the deadline.

The expiration of the CBA, and ensuing lockout, begat the wildest July ever. Twelve players, with 15 Pro Bowl nominations between them, were dealt like Pokemon.

Ever since the new CBA was ratified, trades have been trending up. Renewed television deals, new packages like CBS' Thursday Night Football slate and new Internet streaming options have pumped up revenue, leading to big cap increases nearly every year.

The new CBA's manageable, slotted rookie deals with shorter lengths, and frontloaded veteran deals with easily voidable backends, have made players much more mobile.

The league and union also agreed to move the trade deadline back from Week 6 to Week 8. Since that 2012 agreement, the average number of players traded in October or November jumped to 3.75 a year—up from 2.5 over the 17 previous seasons.

There have been at least 14 players dealt in each of the last three Augusts, historically as busy as it ever gets. Only an unusually flat spring of 2014 kept the post-lockout trendline from soaring back towards all-time heights.

The white-hot start 2015's gotten off to puts the NFL on track to have the most trades ever, with the possible exceptions of 2006 and 2010's CBA-driven totals.

What about impact? This month's traded players have been incredibly good—Pro Bowlers and All-Pros at the peak of their powers.

We can't automatically cross-reference the last 20 years of transaction data with the players' career achievements. To assess the quality of players being moved, I had to resort to a subjective blend of name recognition, trade compensation value and my recollection of the player's expected post-trade impact.

I'm calling this totally subjective, wholly made-up classification "Kind of a Big Deal":

Credit: Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Out of 764 trades made, I decided 189 passed the "Kind of a Big Deal" eyeball test. My personal recency bias (as well as being just 14 years old in 1995) is partly responsible for the lack of high-impact trades in the 1990s, but not entirely. Many of the highest trade-volume months of that period, like August 1995, were low on quality. Of the 17 players traded that month, tailback Michael Bates accounts for five of the six Pro Bowl nods!

So why the recent upward trend in big-name trades? Shorter, frontloaded contracts mean lower accelerated cap hits when players are traded. High-seven-, low-eight-digit increases in the salary cap mean even free-spending teams can absorb the salaries of market-setting superstars like Graham.

Moreover, the NFL's growing impatience with coaches and general managers have made so-called "honeymoon periods" a thing of the past. No one can spend years slowly getting their guys in there; it's sink or swim. New head coaches like the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly have to go all out to get players who can run their system before they get run out of town.

None of these trends are slowing down. Veteran contracts will continue to get shorter and richer, with more guaranteed. The salary cap will keep going up by leaps and bounds, or commissioner Roger Goodell will die trying. Fans and owners won't get less impatient.

Keep an eye on the transaction wire during the draft, and especially in August, when training camp starts and teams fill holes and replace camp injuries. If it stays this hot, look out. For the first time in a long time—maybe ever—the NFL trade deadline will be a date sports fans look forward to.