5 Biggest Blockbuster Trades in NFL History

There have been many trades for big-time players in NFL history, often to mixed success

The Cleveland Browns went from team on the verge to Super Bowl contender by trading for a pair of Pro Bowlers in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and linebacker Olivier Vernon. In return, the New York Giants received strong safety Jabrill Peppers, veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler, as well as Cleveland's first-round pick (No. 17 overall) and a third-round selection (No. 95) in this year's draft.

 

And Beckham's not the only elite wide receiver switching teams in 2019. Pittsburgh traded disgruntled four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown to the Raiders for a third- and a fifth-round pick in this year's draft.

 

So will these deals work out for all of the team involved? Only time will tell. Blockbuster trades for big-time players turn out to be generally one-sided or produce mixed results for both teams. 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. San Francisco 49ers Trade Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs (1993)

Montana basically missed two seasons because of an elbow injury and Steve Young had secured the starting job when he was healthy at the end of the 1992 season. The three-time Super Bowl MVP had no interest in spending his final years in the NFL as a backup and asked for a trade. San Francisco obliged, sending him, safety David Whitmore, and its third-round pick in 1994 (used to draft wide receiver Chris Penn) to Kansas City for its first-round pick in '93. This move did work out for both teams. The 49ers used the pick to draft defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who went to three Pro Bowls with the franchise. Montana led Kansas City to the AFC Championship Game in 1993 and another playoff appearance in '94 before retiring.

 

4. Green Bay Packers Mortgage Their Future on John Hadl (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.

 

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

Mack is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL but 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 last season. We will see what the next two drafts bring for the Raiders.

 

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 the 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.

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