By: Chris Moore, Jake Rajala, and Menachem Ickovitz
The 2022 NFL draft is the biggest focal point of the offseason and it’s where dreams come true for the next wave of draft prospects. Three of us Pro Football Mania writers decided to nicely reflect back on the most polarizing moments of the NFL draft by celebrating the biggest NFL draft trades of all time. Without further ado, here are the 10 best NFL draft trades of all time.
49ers trade up to select Jerry Rice
By: Chris Moore
You cannot have a list of the NFL’s best draft-day trades without including Jerry Rice. The Patriots probably still regret making the trade with the 49ers that allowed them to move up to select Rice 16th overall in the 1985 draft. The 49ers trading up in the 1985 draft for Jerry Rice was one of the best moves the 49ers have ever made in the history of their organization. Rice would go on to become possibly the greatest wide receiver of all time, helping the 49ers win three Super Bowl rings in the process. Rice played for the 49ers for 16 seasons, accomplishing multiple records, accomplishments, and accolades. Rice was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007. He is regarded as one of the greatest if not the best receiver of all time.
The 49ers’ decision to trade up for Jerry Rice changed their franchise. It’s one of the greatest NFL draft trades to ever happen. Rice finished his career as a 13-time pro bowler, 10-time All-Pro selections, and a Hall of Famer. When talking about wide receiver’s there are not many better than Rice, if any at all. The 49ers traded up for a franchise-changing player, and it is a no-brainer to have this trade on the list.
Steelers trade up to select Troy Polamalu
By: Chris Moore
Well, we just got done talking about a team trading up for a Hall of Famer. Why not discuss another? The Steelers traded up in the first round in the 2003 NFL Draft to select Troy Polamalu. The Steelers traded up for a game-changing safety out of USC, who turned out to be a Hall of Famer. Polamalu was a superstar for the Steelers, making the Pro Bowl eight times, and was selected to the All-Pro team four times throughout his prestigious career. Trading up for Polamalu was a huge draft-day trade for the Steelers, as it was something the organization had never done before. Not only have the Steelers never traded up in a draft before.
But it was the first time the Steelers were selecting a safety that early as well. The Steelers recognized how special Polamalu was, and trading up for him is one of the greatest moves in the history of the organization. Polamalu had a historic career during his time on the Steelers, winning two Super Bowl rings on the Steelers throughout his career. Trading up for Polamalu was one of the best NFL Draft trades we have seen over the years, and Polamalu was a legendary player for the Steelers throughout his time in the NFL.
Saints trade up to select Alvin Kamara
By: Jake Rajala
The selection of Alvin Kamara was really special, especially because he was a third round draft pick. New Orleans Saints picked a future Hall of Fame talent in Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. Kamara didn’t take long to make his unique presence known, as he won Offensive Rookie of The Year in 2017. “AK” had a career-high 826 receiving yards in his rookie year, plus 728 yards rushing and 6.1 YPC. Kamara had a career season in 2020, where he registered a personal high 21 total touchdowns and career-best 1,688 total yards.
Kamara has proven to be one of the most dynamic running backs of all time in his career thus far. If the Saints RB can reel in a Lombardi trophy and a few more seasons of elite play, he will be a sure-fire Hall of Famer and he will go down as one of the most superb all-purpose ball carriers of all time. Kamara was what the Saints expected to get out of Reggie Bush when they selected Bush second overall in the 2006 draft. Bush won a Super Bowl with the Saints and he was a quality weapon and special team player (especially in the 2010 playoffs), but he wasn’t even near the player that Kamara has been with the Saints. Brees expected Kamara to be a skat back, while the Saints expected Bush to be a Hall of Fame RB. It’s safe to say they switched spots.
Sean Payton selected Kamara in the third round, while also selecting Michael Thomas in the second round of the 2016 draft. Payton and Mickey Loomis have been notorious for selecting stars beyond the first round.
Ravens trading up to select Lamar Jackson
By: Chris Moore
While he might not be a Hall of Famer yet, the Ravens trading up to select Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft deserves to be on the list. Jackson was not viewed as one of the best quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class, but he proved doubters wrong as Lamar has shown he is a franchise quarterback. Lamar was in a QB class that included the former number one pick Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen. Considering Jackson was selected after all of those guys, it is safe to say the Ravens made a home run pick and won the 2018 draft while grabbing their future franchise quarterback in the process.
While many believed Jackson would not make it in the league as a quarterback. Jackson won the MVP award unanimously in only his second NFL season. Jackson led the Ravens to the playoffs in his first two NFL seasons and has made the pro bowl twice in his four NFL seasons. Jackson already has an MVP award and has shown he is one of the most electric players in the entire NFL. While he has not led the Ravens to a Super Bowl yet, Jackson has shown he is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. The Ravens got a steal trading up for him in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Ravens trade up in 2018 was one of the more recent big NFL Draft trades. It deserves to belong on the list of the best NFL Draft trades due to how special Jackson is. We do not know if Jackson will end up in the Hall of Fame, but Jackson is a phenomenal player that we don’t see often in the league. There might not be another quarterback who has the special running ability Jackson possesses. The Ravens found their franchise quarterback in the 2018 draft, and it remains one of the best NFL Draft trades of all time.
Chiefs trade up to select Tony Gonzalez
By: Jake Rajala
The Kansas City Chiefs selected “the greatest TE of all time” in the 1997 draft. Tony Gonzalez, who is now pursuing a film career, made three straight All Pro teams in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Gonzalez was also a basketball player for UCLA.
Gonzalez made 14 Pro Bowls in his career and he holds many TE records. The former gifted profile has the most yards all-time for a TE (15,127) and the most receptions of all time for a TE (1,325) and the second-most touchdowns ever for a TE (116).
In 2008, Gonzalez made his first appearance in an Atlanta Falcons uniform. Gonzalez played his last season in the NFL as a Falcon in 2013. It’s obvious that the cream of the crop TE showcased a Hall of Fame career, but he has received his fair share of haters for failing to win a Super Bowl in his career. Meanwhile, Robert Gronkowski of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has won four Super Bowls.
I fully expect Gonzalez to remain the greatest tight end of all time, which is impressive given his time of entrance to the league. Travis Kelce has an opportunity to put together a Top 5 TE career of all time, but it won’t come close to matching the career of former Chief Tony Gonzalez. It’s also important to note that Gonzalez didn’t play with a QB like Mahomes, yet he yielded historical dominance from the TE position.
Houston trades up to select Deshaun Watson
By: Menachem Ickovitz
In the 2017 Draft there were three quarterbacks that were highly touted, Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Of the three, Watson had arguably the best college career. He threw for 10,168 yards with 90 touchdowns in his three years at Clemson. Most notably, he led Clemson to the 2016 National Championship.
The Houston Texans went into the draft looking to make a splash and get their quarterback of the future. The issue they had was they were drafting at pick #25 and the quarterbacks would most definitely be gone by then. So the Texans contacted the Cleveland Browns, who picked Myles Garrett first overall and had pick #12 from their part in the Carson Wentz trade from the 2016 Draft.
The Texans acquired the 12th pick and game up the 25th pick and a first round pick in 2018. Houston got their man in Watson and the Browns picked Michigan Safety Jabrill Peppers in 2017 and Ohio State Cornerback Denzel Ward with the 2018 pick they got.
Watson has had a good career with the Texans through 2020. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and was the NFL’s leading passer in 2020. However, following the 2020 season, Watson requested a trade after being upset with his voice not being listened to when it came to changes in the front office and coaching staff. Additionally, Watson had some off the field issues with allegations of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, he is still on the Texans’ payroll.
The Browns traded away Peppers as part of the deal that landed OBJ in Cleveland for the 2019 season. Ward has played well for the Browns, having been named to two Pro Bowls. He has dealt with some injuries in his short career but has 10 interceptions and 50 pass deflections.
Atlanta trades up to select Julio Jones
By: Menachem Ickovitz
The 2011 NFL Draft will go down as one of the best in recent history. The top of the first round was filled with players with multiple Pro Bowls and probably future Hall of Famers. One such player was Alabama receiver Julio Jones.
The 2010 Atlanta Falcons finished with a 13 – 3 record, good enough for first place in the NFC South. However, they lost in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs to the Green Bay Packers by a score of 48 – 21. While they had nine players make the Pro Bowl, the need for another big-play wide receiver to pair up with Roddy White was one of the team’s top off-season priorities. The problem for the Falcons was they had the 27th pick in the upcoming draft.
Sitting at the 6th pick was the Cleveland Browns, coming off a 5 – 11 season and the firing of head coach Eric Mangini. The Browns were more than one superstar wide receiver away from contending and when Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff called and offered the 27th, 59th and 124th picks in the 2011 Draft as well as first and fourth round picks in the 2012 Draft, they jumped at the opportunity to accumulate assets.
At the moment of the trade, both teams did well. The Falcons picked Jones who elevated the offense and quarterback Matt Ryan while the Browns picked up multiple assets with the opportunity to improve their team in multiple spots.
Jones, who played for the Falcons from 2011 – 2020, was named to seven Pro Bowls, was a first-team All-Pro twice and a second-team All-Pro three times. In his 10 seasons in Atlanta he had 848 catches for 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Browns took the five picks from the Falcons and whiffed on all of them. Most notable of the picks were DT Phil Taylor, WR Greg Little and QB Brandon Weeden. All played for the Browns, none particularly well and were out of the NFL soon after.
Chiefs trade up to select Patrick Mahomes
By: Jake Rajala
The Kansas City Chiefs made a trade up for the best young quarterback in the league right now with Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 NFL draft. Mahomes was selected 10th overall in the 2017 draft. Mahomes displayed arguably a Top 3 QB single-season performance in a season in 2018 where he unleashed 5,097 yards and 50 passing touchdowns.
The Chiefs QB has three seasons of 37+ passing touchdowns, four straight seasons of 11+ wins, and he’s obtained a Super Bowl ring. Mahomes has serious potential to go down as the greatest QB of all time.
Mahomes has been trying to win another Super Bowl ring since achieving Super Bowl glory in 2019. He should have the fastest WR of all time in Tyreek Hill and the Top 3 TE Travis Kelce to help him make the progress for many more Super Bowl berths.
Mahomes may break all of Drew Brees’s records, but I don’t expect the Chiefs QB to come close to matching Tom Brady’s Super Bowl count. I still expect Mahomes to be in and out of the AFC Championship throughout most of his career.
Mahomes’s offense in Kansas City is very similar to that of Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos offense, or Kurt Warner’s “greatest show on turf” offense. When it’s all said and done, Mahomes’s offense could go down as the most respected offense of all time. Mahomes has quite the story, as he also chose to pursue a career in baseball.
New Orleans Saints trade up to select Rickey Williams
By: Menachem Ickovitz
When you’re one piece away from Super Bowl contention, mortgaging your future for one player makes some sense. However, this was not the case for the New Orleans Saints heading into the 1999 NFL Draft.
Saints’ head coach Mike Ditka was enamored by Texas running back Ricky Williams and traded up to the 5th spot in the Draft to take him. Ditka gave the Washington Redskins all his picks in the 1999 Draft as well as the Saints’ first and third round picks in 2000.
For the bounty that Ditka gave up, he and Williams would forever be tied together. It got so strange that ESPN the Magazine did a photo shoot of the two of them as a bride and groom, with Williams donning the wedding dress. Sadly, for both of them, the honeymoon was over quick, after a 3 – 13 season, Ditka was fired.
Williams played three seasons in New Orleans before getting traded to the Miami Dolphins. Each season in New Orleans he got progressively better, finishing with 3,179 yards in his 38 career games with the team.
The Redskins used the picks they acquired from the Saints and maneuvered around a drop. They traded back up to pick #7 and drafted cornerback Champ Bailey. They also drafted key contributors, Jon Jansen and LaVar Arrington with picks they got for New Orleans.
The infamous Phillip Rivers-Eli Manning trade
By: Menachem Ickovitz
Before the 2004 NFL Draft, the worst kept secret was that Eli Manning did not want to play for the San Diego Chargers. The problem was that Manning was considered the best quarterback in the draft and San Diego had the first pick.
As for the Chargers, they wanted a talented quarterback like Manning but also had the opportunity to work closely with NC State quarterback Phillip Rivers at the Senior Bowl and he impressed the coaching staff. When Draft Day came, the Chargers chose Manning and waited.
New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi drafted Rivers with the fourth pick, with the thought of trading him to the Chargers to get Eli Manning. The Giants and Chargers consummated the deal, as the Giants got Eli Manning and the Chargers got Phillip Rivers and three draft picks. The Chargers used two of the picks on players who were with them for numerous years, kicker Nate Kaeding and linebacker Shawne Merriman.
This was one of those trades that you look back at and realize both teams did very well with. The Giants won two Super Bowls with Manning. He was the face of the franchise for his entire 16 year career and is a future Hall of Famer. The Chargers didn’t get the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl, but for most of his career, Rivers was the reason that Chargers were always a playoff contending team. Additionally, Merriman and Kaeding had productive careers with the Chargers.