Monday, November 2, 2015

Reminder: NFL Trade Deadline is Overrated

The NFL trade deadline is tomorrow, and as usual there are a bunch of articles from football writers trying to drum up some interest with 'Trades that COULD happen' or rumors of players 'being shopped'

This post serves as a big reminder that it's all a bunch of nonsense. The NFL trade deadline is the most boring deadline this side of April 15th.

I can understand why writers would pump up the trade deadline -- it's very exciting in the OTHER major sports. And the NFL is a league we all obsess over, people even watch the draft combine on TV, so why wouldn't fans get excited about the trade deadline.

Because nothing ever happens. Trades just don't happen in the NFL, especially during the season.

I pulled up all the trades for the last ~10 years on pro football reference and looked for trades around the end of October in past seasons. Here are the players that were moved:

2014: Percy Harvin to the Jets for a 5th round draft pick
2013: Issac Sopoaga to the Patriots for a 5th round draft pick
2013: Bryant McKinnie to the Dolphins for a 7th round draft pick
2012: Mike Thomas (who?) to the Lions for a 5th round draft pick
2012: Ronnie Brown to the Lions for Jerome Harrison (a trade that was apparently voided on a subsequent physical)
2011: Carson Palmer to the Raiders for 1st and 2nd round draft picks
2011: Aaron Curry to the Raiders for 5th and 7th round draft picks
2011: Derrick Mason to the Texans for a conditional draft pick (that went unexercised - so basically for nothing)
2010: Alex Magee to the Bucs
2010: Jerome Harrison to the Eagles for Mike Bell
2010: Anthony Smith to the Packers for an unexercised conditional draft pick

And it goes on like that...

So, with the exception of a the Raiders crazy-ass acquisition of Carson Palmer (which I assumed happened under Al Davis, but it turns out he actually died two weeks before the trade), barely anything of consequence happens at the NFL trade deadline (unless you're Jerome Harrison).

There are a couple major reasons why trades don't really happen in the NFL:

- System Complexity: NFL coaching staffs run significantly more complicated systems than other major sports (just look at the size of the playbooks). The ramp-up time for any new arrival is non-trivial, so the expected impact of an in-season acquisition will always have a discount placed on it

- Information Asymmetry: We're just about halfway through the season, which means any NFL player on a roster has 7-8 games worth of tape from this year. That's not a lot of footage unless you go back to pre-season and prior seasons. The other major sports, by contrast, have 40+ or 80+ games to evaluate someone. The comfort in acquiring someone will be higher if you have more observations.

- Difficult Pricing: The NHL and MLB have significant minor league structures and rosters where teams can store/develop talent. This gives them much more material to work from in a trade and in effect - negotiate an appropriate price for another team's player(s). A baseball team has triple A, double A, etc. worth of rosters and prospects. Finding a reasonable match with a trade partner is easier if you've got more potential bargaining chips. An NFL team has its roster and it's future draft picks and that's it. There's no minor league team, no prospects to move. So for an NFL team to want to trade without using draft picks, they have to move a player off their roster, and matching with another team's roster becomes that much harder because your needs have to line up perfectly. That is, unless you trade draft picks...

- Overconfidence Bias in Draft Picks: The other reason trades don't happen in the NFL, is that GMs consistently overrate their ability to hit on draft picks. I forget my brother's historical draft analysis offhand, but the historical rate of finding a starter in the second round is like 50%, the third round is maybe 25%, and declining thereafter. But GMs continue to hold on to those picks like they're guaranteed winning lottery tickets when in reality, they're just regular lottery tickets. That's because trading a draft pick for a bottom of the roster player is much tougher to brag about than finding an all-pro in the 5th round -- leaving out the fact that the latter almost never happens.

- High Variance/Short Season Length: Last contributor -- is that the NFL season is short, and in a short season with only 16 games, lots and lots of teams have mathematical shots at making the playoffs (and as the Giants have always taught us, once you're in, anything can happen). It's easier for baseball or basketball teams to recognize they're out of the picture and they should focus on next year. But in the NFL, it's much harder to be completely eliminated. The Saints were left for dead several weeks ago, but three weeks and three wins later they're right back in the playoff picture. With such a short season, it's harder for a team to admit they truly have no shot because mathematically, they probably still have one.

All of those are contributing factors, and though there are probably more, it'll explain why tomorrow you may read about a trade or two - but they'll almost definitely be players that won't make a big difference.

(Note: As I wrote this, I see that the 49ers have traded Vernon Davis for a 6th round pick. If you think that's a major move, feel free to disagree with me, but I stand by everything I just said)

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