Tip Sheet: Let's make a deal
New free-agent landscape has made trades more feasible, attractive
What has transpired to this point in free agency, with seven veteran players changing franchises via trades, is essentially the equivalent of a runaway swap meet.
At least by NFL standards.
Through Thursday evening, there have been seven trades in the NFL since March 5, all of them involving a league veteran. If that doesn't seem like a lot of trade action, consider this: In the past three years, between March 1 and May 1, the league averaged eight trades that included at least one veteran switching clubs.
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Compared to the country's other professional sports leagues, where the respective trade deadlines usually garner enough attention to merit their own "SportsCenter" specials, the NFL has virtually been a no-trade zone.
But that might be about to change -- relatively, of course -- in a major way.
In an environment in which the free-agent pool has been severely gutted by the ramifications of the uncapped year, including the exclusion of more than 200 four- and five-year players who would have been unrestricted free agents but are now relegated to restricted status, expect more of the same.
"With so many [players] taken out of the unrestricted pool, and teams still having needs to address, you're naturally going to see more [trades] now," said former NFL general manager and current CBS studio analyst Charley Casserly at the league combine two weeks ago. "I don't know that we'll see [rampant] wheeling and dealing. But there definitely will be more deals."
Prophetic words, indeed.
With so few quality players in unrestricted free agency, teams have generously expanded their lists of available veterans to include some trade-mart guys they formerly might not have considered. And those franchises that regard draft choices as the NFL's currency of choice have been all too willing to surrender overpriced or unwanted veterans for extra selections in the 2010 or 2011 drafts.
Among the veterans dealt to this point are a onetime league leader in interceptions (cornerback Antonio Cromartie, from San Diego to the New York Jets), a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver (Anquan Boldin from Arizona to Baltimore), a former Pro Bowl safety (Kerry Rhodes to the Cardinals from the Jets) and a backup quarterback with 14 career starts (Seattle's Seneca Wallace to Cleveland).
Each of the seven trades included a veteran player for a draft choice/choices. None of the deals featured a player-for-player swap. All included veterans with at least one more season remaining on their existing contracts.
A lot of past trade rumors -- Boldin was on the block a year ago, for instance, but the ESPN.com Tip Sheet reported at least twice in the past two months that the Cardinals' brass had decided to deal the wide receiver -- have suddenly become trade realities. With the absence of a salary cap, trade price tags have been lowered in some cases, clubs have taken advantage of the opportunity to dump salaries, and trades that normally would not have advanced beyond the discussion stage have been culminated.
For years, one of the NFL's several excuses for the dearth of veteran trades was the difficulty of fitting a player under the salary cap. Even though most franchises have suggested they will have a self-imposed budget in 2010, the simple truth is there are technically no salary-cap limitations with which to contend.
Said Cromartie, who in 2007 collected a league-best 10 interceptions, but whose alleged soft play for the Chargers in 2009 and perceived indifference led to his availability in the offseason: "It used to be that you'd hear talk [about trades] and kind of ignore it. But now, where there's smoke, there might be fire too. So you've got to listen hard anymore. Something could be coming down."
Even with the relative trade spree over the past week, the deals figure to keep coming. For one thing, there have been ongoing trade conversations in some cases, and one player agent noted he has "heard more [trade-related] talk this spring than in the last 20 years or so," and anticipates further action. For another, NFL teams have yet to dive into a potentially fertile market where some restricted free agents will be swapped.
Clubs have placed one-year qualifying tenders on most restricted players. But let's say a team places a tender on a player, and the one-year offer requires first-round compensation from the club that signs the veteran. Rather than match an offer sheet from a new team, the incumbent club may decide to reach a trade agreement instead, to deal a player for less than the tender level and collect an extra draft pick.
"The [restricted] market is next," said Washington general manager Bruce Allen. "Before it's all said and done, we'll see some deals there."
And when that occurs, the past week might seem fairly benign by comparison.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.