Why It's Always Smart To Be Buyers At The NFL Trade Deadline

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Whether your team is winning or losing, the trade deadline is always a time of excitement. There are a handful of teams on each side that are expected buyers or sellers, and of course there are the extra ones that seem to come out of nowhere that you didn't expect to make moves but did.

This year the big movers of the deadline -- and really the movement around the NFL over the last calendar year -- was the Rams, who went out and acquired pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. for a third round pick in 2019 and a fifth round pick in 2020.

Like most football fans, you probably read that initial report and thought, "What the hell? How do the Rams keep doing this? Is Les Snead a mad man? Where are they getting this cap space?"

There are varying answers to all those questions, but the one that I particularly wanted to react to was one where fans would say, "I guess they're all in on this year, huh?"

Yeah, they are, and if you're at all a contender to win a Super Bowl, you should be, too -- the NFL is set up for you to thrive doing so.

Compensatory picks have changed the game, and now that compensatory picks can be traded, it makes even more sense to plan for them as you make moves at the deadline.

Compensatory picks are those extra picks at the end of rounds 3-7 that are awarded to teams who lose big (ish) players in free agency. According to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, "Teams are awarded compensatory draft picks in Rounds 3-7 based upon a formula, which is not release by the league, that takes into account a player's average salary per year (APY), snap count and postseason awards. While there is a general expected level of compensation for a player based upon the amount he has signed for, playing time (or lack thereof), will often alter the expectation by the end of the season."

Last year 15 teams were awarded a total of 32 compensatory picks. That's nearly half the league gaining extra draft picks for lost players. That's where the calculated risk comes in for teams that are buyers.

The most commonly dealt draft picks for teams that are getting players who you would consider "worth-while risks" at the deadline (which are usually talented players who have only a year or two left on their deal) is a third to fifth round pick. The most compensatory picks that were handed out last year were sixth round picks, but the second most were fourth and fifth rounders.  That right there puts the numbers in your favor to have minimal risk for deals. Either the player works out for you and you want to keep them (a win) or you lose them in free agency and still gain a draft pick for them coming from your team (not a full win, but a net loss of much less than a total draft pick).

Now let's take a look at the percentages of starters per round.

Forbes polled data from the 2014 draft that showed 12.6 percent of starters from that year came from the third round, 10.8 came from the fourth round and 6.4 came from the fifth round. So, to calculate the risk of  current third round picks to take a gamble on a potential starter/a piece that could be the difference in a Super Bowl compared to the minimal drop in starter percentage that you would find anyways gives heavy favor towards taking a risks at the deadline. And that's not to mention the fact that 13.6 percent of starters from the 2014 draft were undrafted -- a higher percentage than any compensatory round.

There's another factor that comes into play via compensatory picks that is more vague, and that is via future free agency, meaning if you're big buyers in the following free agency, even after trades, you're less likely to get awarded picks. But, if that's the case, you're then weighing talent acquired versus talent replaced, which is still less of a net loss (maybe not even a loss at all) than the initial trade price implication, if you're looking at it that way. But a team can also carefully calculate that themselves. They still hold some power there because they were the ones who went to make the move.

So was the move the Rams made for Fowler or the Redskins made for Clinton-Dix or the Patriots made for Josh Gordon really a big risk? If you ask me, when it comes to a potential game-changer and a player for them to win a Super Bowl, it wasn't much of a risk at all.

In fact, the odds of them still being able to make the most out of a "loss" from those situations hardly comes close to the potential pay off if it hits.

The Rams are already planning on getting third rounders for losing Sammy Watkins and Trumaine Johnson, and that gives them what they would considered "extra" to acquire a guy like Fowler -- and a potential pick Fowler may garner himself for them the following season, if he's only a rental for a Super Bowl run.


Written By:

Trevor Sikkema

Chief Digital Officer

CDO & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast.