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5 Biggest Blockbuster Trades in NFL History

QB Rankings Week 1: Deshaun Watson

Despite some unresolved, highly publicized legal issues, the Cleveland Browns sent six draft picks, including three first-rounders, to the Houston Texans to acquire embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson

The Cleveland Browns have invested a lot to snag Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, giving up six draft picks (including three first-round selections) to get the troubled Watson. Blockbuster trades for big-time players turn out to be generally one-sided or produce mixed results for both teams.

And 2022 has already been a big year for significant trades with Watson, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Davante Adams, Khalil Mack all swapping teams in March.

But not all of these transactions crack this list of the biggest blockbuster trades of all time. Before we dive in, we say goodbye to the Green Bay Packers going big on John Hadl in 1974. Packers head coach Dan Devine thought his team was an experienced quarterback away from a return to greatness so he paid a hefty price for Hadl during the 1974 season. The 34-year-old veteran had led the Los Angeles Rams to the playoffs in 1973 and was named NFC Player of the Year, but was not worth the five draft picks Green Bay traded for him. And he actually had been benched before the trade was even finalized. Green Bay traded first- and second-round picks in 1975 and '76, and its third-rounder in '75. Hadl went 3-6 in 1974 and 4-10 in '75 as a starter before being traded to the Houston Oilers. Los Angeles used the picks to draft defensive tackle Mike Fanning, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Monte Jackson, center Geoff Reese, and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Pat Thomas. It took Green Bay years to recover from the loss of draft power.

Here are the five biggest in NFL history. (Note: By biggest, I mean the caliber of player and the volume of picks and players involved. For example, the Ricky Williams trade in 1999 does not make this list because Saints head coach Mike Ditka traded all of his picks just to move up to draft him.).

5. The Oakland Raiders Send Khalil Mack to Chicago (2018)

At the time of this trade, Mack was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL but then-incoming Raiders head coach Jon Gruden wouldn't (or couldn't) meet his salary demands. After he sat out the entire 2018 preseason, the Raiders traded him and second- and conditional fifth-round picks in 2020 to the Chicago Bears for first and sixth-round picks in 2019 and first- and third-round picks in '20.

Mack became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history and made the Pro Bowl in both 2019 and '20. The Raiders used the 2019 picks to draft Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and traded the sixth-round pick to the New York Jets as part of a deal for offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele. In 2020, the Raiders took cornerback Damon Arnette in the first round (No. 19 overall) and wide receiver Bryan Edwards in the third while Chicago used its second-round pick on tight end Cole Kmet (No. 43 overall) and the other pick (which ended up being a seventh-round selection) on guard Arlington Hambright.

Jacobs earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2019 and has been serviceable but not spectacular, averaging 4.2 yards per carry over his first three seasons with one Pro Bowl (2020). Meanwhile, Arnette has been a colossal disappointment, not making much of an impact on the field when he wasn't injured and the subject of several highly publicized off-field incidents. He was released by the team last November after a video of him brandishing firearms and making death threats was discovered. He was then arrested in January on weapons- and drug-related charges. Edwards is averaging an impressive 17 yards per catch in his first two seasons but he's been mostly inconsistent, totaling 45 receptions and four touchdowns in 28 games. Less than a month after this year's draft, Edwards was traded along with a 2023 seventh-round pick to Atlanta for a fifth-round pick.

For the Bears, Mack was the big winner of this trade considering the contract, but he also made three Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro in 2018 before injuries limited him to just seven games last season. Mack produced 36 sacks in 53 games but will be suiting up for the Chargers in 2022 after being traded at the start of the new league year. Chicago received a pair of draft picks (second-rounder in 2022, sixth in '23) and some eventual salary-cap relief in the deal (and then during the draft sent the Chargers back that sixth-rounder for two 2022 seventh-round picks). Kmet has steadily improved in each of his first two seasons and is cemented as the team's starting tight end.

4. The Denver Broncos Trade for Russell Wilson (2022)

The Broncos traded quarterback Drew Lock, defensive lineman Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant, its first- and second-round picks in 2022 and 2023, and a fifth-round pick in 2022 for Wilson and a fourth-round pick in 2022. At first glance, this seems like the Seattle Seahawks made a killing, but only time will tell who this deal works out for the most.

3. The Cleveland Browns Follow a Hollywood Script to Get Deshaun Watson (2022)

The movie "Draft Day" tells the story of a Cleveland Browns general manager (Kevin Costner) who ponies up three first-round draft picks to get an elite quarterback with baggage issues. The real-life Browns did something eerily similar, sending their first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, a 2023 third-round pick, and two fourth-round selections (2022, '24) to the Houston Texans to get Watson (and a 2024 sixth-round pick). Whether this story will have a Hollywood ending (or if one GM will call another one a “pancake-eating motherf***er”) remains to be seen, but the Browns have already signaled their commitment to the embattled Watson by signing him to a record-setting contract extension before he even plays a down for his new team.

2. Three-Team Deal Sends Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts (1987)

Dickerson was the best running back in the league, but was unhappy with his contract with the Los Angeles Rams and asked to be traded. He got what he wanted. It just took three teams to make it happen during the strike-shortened 1987 season. First, the Colts traded linebacker Cornelius Bennett to the Buffalo Bills for their first-round pick in 1988, first- and second-round picks in '89, and running back Greg Bell. The Colts then traded Bell, those three draft picks, as well as their first- and second-round picks in 1988, their second-rounder '89, and running back Owen Gill to the Rams in exchange for Dickerson. The Rams then used all of those picks to draft running back Gaston Green, wide receiver Aaron Cox, linebacker Fred Strickland, running back Cleveland Gary, linebacker Frank Stams, and defensive back Darryl Henley. Got it?

Bennett became a key player in a defense that went to four straight Super Bowls and the Rams went to the playoffs two seasons in a row. Dickerson rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in two-plus seasons with the Colts and they made playoffs in 1987. However, injuries derailed Dickerson’s career from 1990 until his retirement in '93 and the Colts did not make the playoffs again until '95.

1. The Herschel Walker Trade (1989)

The largest trade in NFL history involved 18 players and draft picks and launched the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty. Walker had accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in 1988, but head coach Jimmy Johnson knew he needed more picks to build a team. Minnesota thought Walker was the last player it needed to make a Super Bowl. After intense negotiations, the Cowboys traded Walker, along with their third- and 10th-round picks in the 1990 draft, the San Diego Chargers' fifth-round pick that same draft (acquired by trading running back Darrin Nelson), and their third-round pick in the '91 draft to Minnesota. The Vikings traded linebacker Jesse Solomon, linebacker David Howard, cornerback Issiac Holt, defensive end Alex Stewart, Minnesota's first-, second-, and sixth-round picks in 1990, and a second-round pick in '92.

However, the trade had a conditional draft picks option with the four players Minnesota traded. If Johnson cut them before Feb. 1, 1990, the Cowboys also would get Minnesota's first- and second-round picks in 1991, and first- and third-round picks in '92. Johnson waived Stewart in November 1989 and made it clear he would cut the other three, but he and Vikings general manager made a deal to lessen Minnesota's hit on draft picks and for the Cowboys to keep the players.

The rest is history. Dallas used the picks to trade and acquire players that included Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and Russell Maryland and went on to win three Super Bowls in four seasons. The Vikings only made the playoffs once with Walker, who never found his footing in Minnesota and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1992.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.