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Are player-for-player trades making a comeback in the NFL?

Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (91) celebrates with cornerback Casey Hayward (29) against the Cincinnati Bengalsin the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL took a page out of the NBA’s playbook during an entertaining offseason that featured blockbuster trades involving franchise cornerstones and fantasy superstars. Whether by design or not, the NFL has done a great job of having a big story every week.

Even the rare player-for-player trade saw an uptick last month in what was the wildest NFL offseason in recent memory. The NFL still has not fully leaned into trading players in a one-for-one swap in the same way the NBA, NHL and MLB have. Pre-draft player-for-player trades (that don’t include any draft capital) are still so uncommon that two such deals last month qualified as an increase over average.

The Cleveland Browns traded linebacker Mack Wilson to the New England Patriots for edge defender Chase Winovich, and the Las Vegas Raiders dealt edge defender Yannick Ngakoue to the Indianapolis Colts for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

There have been just 90 player-for-player trades (that include zero draft picks) since 1994, according to Stathead data on Pro Football Reference. Only 20 player-for-player trades have occurred before the draft in the last 28 years, and there have been only seven in-season player-for-player trades since 1994. The sweet spot for player-for-player trades is between the draft and the start of the regular season when teams are mostly swapping players at the bottom of their 90-man rosters.

So, why aren’t player-for-player trades more common, especially at this time of year?

“I think a lot of it is because football is so role-specific,” Raiders GM Dave Ziegler told PFF at the NFL Annual Meeting last week. “It's hard to find players a lot of times of equal value. Oftentimes you're not going to trade a receiver for a receiver, because if you like the receiver, you usually keep the receiver. So it's usually not that much of a difference. Usually you're trading two positions, receiver for a cornerback or whatever it may be. I think it's hard for people to equate the value of two different positions equally. So it's like, how do you trade? Like this is a starting cornerback or a No. 2 corner. All right, well we're going to trade them for this receiver. Well, this receiver's a third receiver.”

Ziegler says the nature of roles in football makes player-for-player trades more difficult — you're trying to equate a player's value to his specific role. A third-down defensive tackle and No. 2 tight end might hold similar value in a vacuum, but you're trying to meet very specific team needs. 

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