Why You Can’t Always Count On Trades

I’m planning to get something up later in the week about where things stand with the current Broncos roster and what to consider about an offseason plan, but I wanted to get another topic out of the way first.

That deals with one of the means of acquiring players: Trades.

When one puts together an offseason game plan, you first need to ask yourself which pending unrestricted free agents of your own should be re-signed, which restricted free agents should be tendered and at what level (regarding exclusive rights FAs, they are almost always tendered because there’s no risk to do so) and which players must be cut for performance reasons, cap reasons or both. Once you have those in mind, you consider how to fill holes through, in order, the draft, free agency and trades.

The draft comes first because that’s the best way to build your team. Free agents come second because you should use them to fill holes as needed. Trades come last because you can’t count on the players you want becoming available.

When you look at most trades, they come about because the team trading the player has decided it doesn’t want the player any more. The reasons can range from a failed draft pick to a contract dispute to a conflict with a new coach to not fitting the team’s schemes any longer to being a “locker room malcontent.” In a few cases, a team may move a player to free up cap space and there are sometimes cases of teams moving players because they have too many options at one position and are able to move a player to a team that has a need. Instances of “fire sales” that sports pundits like to talk about almost never happen in the NFL; they’re just brought up as a reason to generate “water cooler” talk.

Knowing this, while it’s OK to ask other teams if they have a player they are willing to deal, you shouldn’t use it as your first option because you can’t guarantee that the team is willing to deal the player.

When you look back at this past offseason, John Elway had hoped to extend Brock Osweiler but Osweiler signed with the Texans instead. Elway kept an eye on free agency but found a team willing to deal a quarterback. That was the Philadelphia Eagles, who had reasons to trade Mark Sanchez: They had extended Sam Bradford and signed Chase Daniel as a free agent, so Sanchez was no longer needed. (Philly’s trade for the draft pick that got them Carson Wentz came after the Sanchez trade.) Elway did inquire about Colin Kaepernick but never came to terms, between negotiations with Kaep over a new deal not generating much movement and, just as importantly, the Broncos and Niners unable to come to terms on draft pick compensation.

But while we can all argue about what Osweiler has done this past offseason with the Texans, the point is that Elway’s original intent was to extend him. He never went into the offseason with the intent to let Osweiler walk – he just set a limit as to how high he would go on salary. And he never made a trade the first priority to get a QB – he gave some thought to QBs available in free agency before the opportunity to acquire Sanchez came to be.

What this means is that, as you consider options for, say, improving the offensive line this season, the trade market is not the first place you should look – not because the players aren’t talented, but because there’s no guarantee the players you want will become available.

It’s easy to point to, for example, how the Cleveland Browns were in talks with the Broncos back in 2015 about trading Joe Thomas. However, we have to remember that the Browns, at the time, had a front office that was doing whatever it could to get draft picks from other teams. Ray Farmer was setting high prices for the likes of Thomas, Barkevious Mingo and Joe Haden, all seemingly with the hope he could save his job by impressing Jimmy Haslam with a ton of draft picks. We know how things unfolded with Farmer. And while there are legitimate criticisms to make about Haslam, there’s no evidence he’s insisting players be traded away.

Fast forward to this season, in which Sashi Brown was more reasonable with his asking prices for Mingo and Joshua Gilbert (both failed draft picks) and was able to find teams interested in those players. The assumption pundits made was that Brown would deal just about anybody because all he wanted to do was acquire more draft picks, but despite reports of several teams expressing interest in Joe Thomas, no deal was made. In fact, the only “big name” player involved in a midseason deadline trade was Jamie Collins, a player not one pundit thought would be on the trading block and a player who was dealt to the Browns, the last team any pundit thought would be acquiring a player in a trade.

In other words, the narrative that the Browns were in “fire sale” mode proved unfounded. Instead, the Browns acted more like a typical team when trading players: They move them because they don’t want them any more, and they acquire them because they are interested in the player. There’s no evidence the Browns don’t want Joe Thomas, so if you really want him, you likely have to make a strong offer to get them to listen. Even if you hear the reports that the Browns are willing to trade Thomas for a second-round pick, that doesn’t mean the Browns will make the deal with the first team that makes such an offer. For all we know, the report came from one team who asked about Thomas and was told by the Browns they might consider it, but then followed by the Browns changing their minds or raising their asking price.

That does not mean things won’t change this offseason, but that depends on what happens with the Browns during the offseason. If they fire Hue Jackson, for example, that could be the last straw for Thomas (who likes Hue Jackson) and he could request a trade. But if Jackson is retained, chances are Thomas will want to play for him and thus he won’t request a trade. You might hear reports that Thomas doesn’t know what to make of the front office’s plans, but that’s typical for most players. They have personal relationships with coaches but their relationships with the front office are more about business. Consequently, players who talk about what coaches are doing will indicate how a player truly feels about a coach, while most talk about the front offices boils down to how they view the business side of football rather than their actual thoughts about a particular person.

So the Broncos can’t go into the offseason betting on a trade for Joe Thomas to address the left tackle position. They can explore it if the opportunity presents itself, but it can’t be their first option. What they need to do first is decide whether or not to exercise the option on Russell Okung. If they decide not to, they will need to decide if they want to ask him about staying for a salary less than what he would get if they had exercised the option. If they don’t do that, they need to first consider other free agents and the draft to find somebody who can play left tackle for at least the short term.

It’s fine to think about trades, but a proper offseason plan starts under the assumption that you can’t count on a trade taking place. Only when you know for certain that a trade is an option, and that circumstances show it is the best option, that you can move it further up the list.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.