When Trent Richardson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a first round draft pick, it caused a divide amongst NFL fans regarding the value of a runningback. On one side there were the fans lambasting the trade for Cleveland and laughing at a franchise which appeared to already be giving up on the season, and on the other side were the fans who applauded Cleveland’s newmanagement for getting first round value for a runningback. Regardless of which side of that line you stand on, the trade piqued the interest of NFL fans who clamor for their team to trade for that “one missing piece.” The thought was that more trades would be coming, and this was just a sign of new way of thinking in the NFL.
Unless you view the exchange of a couple offensive tackles and a middle linebacker a groundbreaking change, that has not happened yet. While the trades of Eugene Monroe, Levi Brown, and Jon Beason for conditional draft picks were more than we are used to seeing as fans, it is still nowhere near the amount we see in other professional leagues.
The NBA is filled with trades to the point of building trade exemptions into a team’s salary. In baseball, competitive teams are expected to make trades with lower rung teams near the trade deadline to bolster the roster in the present at the expense of the future. The NFL, however, does not see nearly as many trades. Why is this?
The main reason is obvious: certain players fit schemes better than others. I recently was lucky enough to attend a question-and-answer session with Howie Roseman, GM of the Philadelphia Eagles, and I asked him why he thought there were so few trades in the NFL. He agrees with this assertion: “A third baseman on the Yankees is the same third baseman on the Devil Rays. It does not work that way in the NFL.”
In most instances, this is obvious. A 3-4 defensive end such as J.J. Watt would be forced inside to tackle if he played in a 4-3 due to his size. While an athlete such as Watt may still dominate similar to players like Geno Atkins or Gerald McCoy, he would not have the same impact on the game. More than likely, a team planning on implementing a four man front would have little interest in Watt despite his claim as one of the best defensive football players in the NFL. In baseball, every team would make room for Mike Trout, regardless of position or team philosophy.
The Watt example may seem like an extreme case, but the truth is that NFL coaches and front offices have specific ideas of the type of players they want at each position. Without the knowledge of how a player fits into their scheme, many teams are reluctant to forgo assets such as draft picks in order to find out.
In the same vein as schemes, teams are also reluctant to add a player who does not know their playbook in the middle of the scene. This, above all else, is why the few trades you do see in the NFL are predominantly during the offseason. It takes a long time to teach a complex NFL scheme, regardless of position. Many of the smartest players in the NFL take a full year before they feel completely comfortable in a system. Asking a player to learn two schemes during one season can be too much for a player. Even with the incestuous relationship of NFL coaching staffs, it would be nearly impossible to memorize a new playbook in the middle of the season.
The biggest question, then, is will we see more trades in the future similar to the Richardson trade? And the answer, unfortunately, is no. At least in the sense that we will not see a young, superstar level asset given up on by a team so early in his career. You may see veterans nearing the end of a contract traded away by teams that are not competitive. Which means that Maurice Jones-Drew better look out. If I had to guess who was the next guy to be moved, MJD would be it. Not only is Jones-Drew in the last year of his contract, but he is also getting to an advanced age for a runningback. It would be fair to say that the Jaguars front office were amongst those who applauded the Browns, and that is why they would accept any sort of value they can receive for Jones-Drew.