The NFL trade deadline is just a few days away, yet there seems to be very little activity taking place. For fans of the Premier League, the weeks leading up to the close of the transfer window mark some of the most interesting and exciting of the whole season, so many English NFL fans are surprised to discover that the trade deadline in the NFL is nowhere near as exciting or fraught with activity. We take a look at why this is, and seek to understand trading in the NFL a little better.
What is the NFL trade deadline?
The NFL Trade deadline is the final date at which NFL Teams can directly trade players. It falls on the Tuesday following the eighth week of football, which in 2014 falls on the 28th October.
Why does the NFL have a trade deadline?
Like most sports, the NFL imposes a trade deadline to help preserve parity as the season develops. Without a trade deadline, teams may be motivated to make lop-sided trades towards the end of the season, that otherwise would never be considered fair or balanced.
Teams who know their playoff hopes for the year are over may be motivated to offload their biggest stars and “tank” their season to get better draft picks the following season. Additionally, players on non-playoff teams may hold their current teams to ransom, insisting on trades to contenders as the season progresses, and playoff teams may adopt a “rent-a-player” mentality, with playoff teams informally agreeing to short-term trades from non-playoff teams to bolster their playoff runs.
A trade deadline also forces teams to keep enough depth on their roster to cover any injuries which could occur down the road, knowing that their ability to pick up starters at certain positions will be limited down the stretch. This means a large number of backups at skill positions, whose roster spot may otherwise be taken by other players, still have a regular salary.
Why is “deadline day” usually a non-event in the NFL?
Probably the biggest reason is the relatively early date of the trade deadline. Week 8 means that most teams will have played less than half of the season (due to bye weeks) and virtually none are guaranteed a playoff berth, nor eliminated entirely from contention by this point.
The second reason relatively few trades are seen is because the NFL is a capped league, and few teams carry enough cap space to be able to make a big splash by this point in the season. Trading for draft picks is virtually out of the question, because most teams would not have the cap room to land a big star without shedding a similar amount of current players. This means only like-for-like trades are viable for most teams—a big star for a big star, or marginal player for another backup.
Next is the fact that American Football is a sport built largely on chemistry, timing and knowledge of the playbook. Even the biggest superstar usually takes 4-6 weeks to begin to fully understand a new playbook, and develop chemistry with the team. Knowing that the player until nearly the end of the season significantly decreases the value of that player, and therefore the overall value of the trade.
Finally, there is the fact that the league, teams, and owners largely want to avoid big-name, mid-season trades Doing so often means dumping a lot of merchendise, losing local sponsorships, alienating fan bases and hurting your reputation. It also signals how you feel about your chances in the season, which can be devastating to your ticket sales and profitability, if fans feel like the trade signals you throwing in the towel.
Is the NFL doing anything to make the trade deadline more interesting?
Yes, partially. In spite of their hesitance towards mid-season trades, the NFL has made some positive strides in this regard.
Historically, the NFL deadline was after Week 6, which was seen as far too early to consider trading any big-name players. However, as part of the 2011 CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) negotiations, this was pushed back to Week 8 from 2012 to encourage more trading. The NFLPA (the union representing the NFL players) had long felt more trades would benefit their members, and agreed to the Week 8 deadline as part of the negotiations
But even this is seen as too early for any team to be giving up on their season, and considering the sort of blockbuster trades seen in other leagues. In the years since the change, deadline day has still largely been a damp squib, with rarely more than a hand full of trades of note taking place between Week 6 and Week 8.
The various NFL owned media brands (NFL Network, NFL.com) are doing their part to hype deadline week, in a similar way to the way it is covered in other sports, but even this has been largely unsuccessful.
What happens after the trade deadline? How do teams replace injured or under-performing players?
After the trade deadline, teams are no longer allowed to trade directly with other teams. The only way teams can add additional talent is through free agency, or waivers.
The waivers process, while technically a trade, is not negotiated with the team.
Before the trade deadline, any veteran with 4 accrued seasons automatically becomes a free-agent if cut. Players with less than 4 seasons are required to clear waivers. After the trade deadline, all players must clear waivers before becoming a free agent.
Waivers is a period when any team can choose to pick up the player, under his current terms, by picking up his remaining contract. The player cannot negotiate a better, or different deal with this team, and cannot refuse to join them in favour of someone else. This is, essentially a trade where his previous team receives no compensation, and is treated as such by the league.
Waivers priority is determined in reverse order to the current standings—essentially the same rules as for the draft—and all teams have 24 hours to either claim the player, and his contract, or waive the right to do so. If multiple teams both place a claim on the player, the team with highest waiver priority gets him.
Waiver claims are irrevocable. Once you have placed a claim you cannot withdraw it, and once you have waived your right, you cannot come back and place a claim, even if the 24 hour deadline has not yet passed.
Once a player has cleared waivers—that is, no teams have chosen to pick up his contract—the player is considered a free agent, and is free to negotiate a new deal with any team in the league.
What happens if the player has a “no-trade” clause in his contract? What about vested veterans?
A no-trade clause is, exactly what it sounds like. It is a clause which prevents a team from unilaterally trading away a player (the player can still request, or agree to a trade, even if he has such a clause, but cannot be forced to move to a team he doesn’t want to join) but this does not prevent him from having to clear waivers.
The team who signs him picks up his full contract, for the full length remaining, including any bonuses, escalators or clauses, as is (including the “no-trade” clause) and the player is required to play for the team.
However, to mitigate against the possibility of a player being stuck with a team he does not like long term—the possibility which caused him to include the clause in the first place—at the end of the season in which he is claimed, the player may unilaterally choose to void the remainder of his contract, and declare himself a free agent for the following season.
Vested veterans—those with 4 years accrued as a player—are able do the same at the end of the following season after he is claimed, provided he is still playing under the same contract he was waived with. If the player signs an extension, agreed to change his salary, or restructures his deal in any way before the end of the season after he was claimed off the waiver wire, he loses this ability.
In neither circumstance is the player is required to do so, and can choose to play out his contract for the team. A team therefore cannot automatically use this rule to get one cheap season out of a player with big escalators or guarantees in his contract down the line, as they cannot know for sure if the player will choose to become a free agent or not.
What would the NFL need to do to make the trade deadline more exciting, like in the Premier League or MLB?
Given the issues, this would be very difficult. The NFL could move back the trade deadline, remove or vastly increase the salary cap, incentivise owners to want to trade more—for example by, allowing cash trades—or even dramatically change the free agency system to make trades the preferable way to acquire new players, but even this wouldn’t overcome the fundamental issue—that players take time to find their feet in a new system in the NFL, and even the biggest superstar may take weeks to begin to perform at a top level once traded mid-season.
The NFL season is simply too short—just 18 regular season games—for players to get sufficient playing time to make a huge impact for their teams if traded once into the regular season. And without guaranteed impact players, teams will always be reluctant to engage in traded.
Plus all of these changes would dramatically impact the face of the game, most people agree, for the worse.
Put simply, a dull and boring trade deadline is one of the costs of having the parity which the NFL fans have come to know and love.