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NFL trade deadline: An executive's guide to player transactions

Scott Pioli has decades of experience when it comes to building NFL teams. He made five trips to the Super Bowl as an executive, winning three championships as a member of the New England Patriots' front office. This background makes him the perfect teacher when it comes to significant NFL undertakings.

In this educational series, presented via Q&A format, the five-time NFL Executive of the Year will shed light on hot topics and trends throughout the calendar year. With the 2023 NFL trade deadline nearing, Pioli addresses all things trades, including when discussions begin, who's involved and what's off limits.

When is the 2023 NFL trade deadline?

The 2023 trade deadline is set ahead of Week 9 at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Oct. 31.

When do trade discussions begin ahead of the trade deadline?

Trade discussions, a key part of roster-building, happen year-round. They can even linger after the trade deadline -- discussions that went dormant over the latter portion of the regular season can pick up again in January or February, whether between the same teams, a new partner or with a partner who is now working for a new team.

Once rosters have been constructed prior to Week 1, most teams are focused on the regular season. However, the primary job of an NFL personnel department is to find and evaluate players, so this process continues even while coaches prepare for weekly games. At most (if not all) of my stops as a general manager, we always listened to potential trade opportunities but didn't let ourselves get distracted from the task at hand. And while we believed in in-season player acquisitions, they tended to come through the waiver wire, not necessarily via trades.

There aren't typically ton of players made available for trades immediately after a season begins -- but this can change. Sometimes a player will be put on the market if a younger player ascends at his position (consider Cam Akers being traded in Week 3 this year from the Rams to the Vikings after being displaced by Kyren Williams in Los Angeles). Sometimes a player grows unhappy in his current situation. Sometimes a team will decide to capitalize on a closing window for other suitors to acquire a player headed for the open market in the offseason.

The Baltimore Ravens' acquisition of Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears in October of 2022 is a perfect example of this. The Ravens jumped at the opportunity to snag the do-it-all linebacker in exchange for 2023 second- and fifth-round draft picks and linebacker A.J. Klein, rather than waiting until the 2023 offseason, when Smith was set to be a free agent, and Baltimore might have had more competition from other teams. Smith played a major role in Baltimore's defense improving (from 28th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed when he was acquired to ninth in yards allowed and third in scoring by the end of the season). He was voted a first-team All-Pro, then signed an extension in January. The trade also gave Chicago what it wanted -- more draft capital to build for the future.

The ever-changing dynamics within the NFL can increase or decrease trade value and speed up or slow discussions at any time.

How do trade talks start in the NFL?

In short, they can start anywhere people are talking about roster changes. In my experience, those conversations commonly take place between general managers, head coaches and agents. The only way a suitor can confirm a player is available is to check with the team that has the rights to the player. That team must give consent to engage in discussions by league rule and set the boundaries of those discussions. The most important language included in almost every contract is that the player being traded must report and pass the new club's physical in order for the transaction to be complete.

One way to get trades done quickly is for a team to make it known that it is releasing a player a day or two before it actually submits the transaction to the league. This advertises that a player is available, essentially proclaiming, "Come and get this player if you want him." Any player released during the season must go through waivers, and there is a specific claiming order for teams based on current records and standings. Teams with the worst records get first dibs, so if a team with a good record knows it won't be able to claim a player via waivers, it will likely call the team and try to trade for him before the release is officially submitted to the league. Essentially, it's advertising that the team will take close to anything for a player that otherwise would net no returns if the player is just cut. Think of how news that the Broncos were going to release Randy Gregory preceded his trade to San Francisco

When first considering trading a player, it's common to reach out to someone from another team with whom you have a preexisting relationship. Sometimes you want to dip your toe into the water to see how other organizations view a player's value, and reaching out to someone close to you usually ensures news of this inquiry won't leak. Then, if a trade doesn't happen, you don't have to deal with the fallout from the player or agent.

Why do or don't NFL teams engage in in-season trades?

Let's talk through several circumstances. Salary-cap issues can impact either side of a potential deal; after all, teams aren't just trading for players, they're also trading for their contracts. Although it didn't occur in-season, a perfect example of this is the Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff trade from the 2021 offseason, where the Lions and Rams had to ensure the money balanced out in addition to exchanging assets. We've also seen another trend where the team that trades away a player is paying portions of the salary (SEE: how the Los Angeles Chargers handled the J.C. Jackson trade), and sometimes a player will take a pay cut in an effort to make himself potentially more appealing to trade suitors (SEE: Frank Clark having his contract restructured, though a trade partner ultimately was not found).

Player holdouts also present unique and complicated situations. Deion Branch wanted a new contract in 2006, two seasons after he was named Super Bowl MVP with the Patriots, and he held out through training camp. We truly didn't want to trade him, but we couldn't agree to a contract that was comfortable for both the team and player. Plus, by the end of August, it was evident that our relationship was fractured. We were at a stalemate. Ultimately, we gave Branch permission to seek a trade, and we eventually traded him to the Seahawks in exchange for a first-round pick.

Generally speaking, teams prefer to receive something of value in return when moving bad contracts, but sometimes, just getting a contract off the books -- and thus lowering one's cap -- is worth making a deal, regardless of the compensation.

Are NFL teams traditionally familiar with a player before they pursue him in a trade?

Yes, but to varying degrees. The player might have a preexisting relationship with a coach or member of the personnel staff or another player on that team. Sometimes, a team will retain institutional knowledge about -- or maintain a crush on -- a player it wasn't able to draft. Think of the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade between the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers in September of 2019, early in Fitzpatrick's second pro season. A deteriorating relationship between Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins led to the team granting him permission to seek a trade, and the Steelers -- who clearly possessed relevant information on Fitzpatrick from old homework assignments during the draft process -- pounced on the opportunity to get him.

Teams don't always have a preexisting relationship with a player they're pursuing, but those types of trades carry greater risk, because there generally is not enough time to do sufficient due diligence between when a player becomes available and when the player is traded. Teams sacrifice a lot of capital for great players, but at some point, there has to be a return for the investment. Is winning a division or getting to the playoffs enough?

In fantasy football, people are sometimes wary of giving up too much for a player or get too attached to players. Does this happen in real life?

Sure it does, but NFL decision-makers are paid to do what is best for the team and the greater good of everyone involved -- the owner, coaches, players, personnel department and the fan base. There is an obligation to everyone working in the organization to make roster moves and decisions that you believe are in the best interests of the organization, in the short- and long-term, so everyone can remain successful and employed. Also, fantasy football owners don't have to worry about team chemistry, the makeup of a roster, building teams or managing personalities and emotions.

Do NFL teams have a checks-and-balances system in place when it comes to trade acquisitions?

There are organizations out there where one person makes all of the decisions, but even there, it's imperative to have a leadership group at least involved in all personnel conversations. Any good operation has a structure that allows one individual to make a final decision. The best operations also have checks and balances in place, or a leader who is willing to empower others to help make decisions for them. The primary leader who has enough respect, trust and security to delegate decision-making to other people -- a group of confidants who can tell the emperor when he has no clothes on -- often has a great deal of success.

Why does it feel like the NFL trade deadline isn't as big a deal as it is in the NBA or MLB?

There were a somewhat surprising 19 in-season trades made in 2022, and I believe this may be a trend that continues. However, I still believe this answer is two-fold. First, one player on an NBA team can make a world of difference, and the same thing goes for a great player (pitcher, hitter, fielder, etc.) in baseball. In the NFL, however, so much has to go right even for the best players to make a seismic difference on a team. (SEE: San Francisco's acquisition of Christian McCaffrey in October of 2022. The 49ers went 10-0 in the regular season and advanced to the NFC title game after acquiring McCaffrey and despite shuffling through starting quarterbacks.)

And second, the trade deadlines in the NBA and MLB are closer to their postseasons. The NFL's trade deadline is much earlier in the regular season, and I believe this is to prevent the kinds of fire sales we see in the other professional sports leagues. With only 17 games in a season, one player makes less of an impact in the immediate future.

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