One of the most exciting aspects of American professional sports is the trade. It’s a relatively rare piece of the game within the game that makes up a large part of every major American professional sports league. Especially in the NFL, the trade is often an overlooked and seldom used tool when attempting to build a competitive roster. Most trades you see are either comprised of only draft picks and in the spring, or 6th and 7th round conditional picks in exchange for a player being cut anyway. Rarely are starters traded close to or in season, and even more rarely are starting QBs traded at all.
Rick Spielman didn’t care. In the days following Teddy Bridgewater’s catastrophic knee injury and just over 2 weeks before the Vikings opened the season in Tennessee, Spielman traded a 1st round pick in next year’s 2017 draft, and a conditional 4th rounder in the 2018 draft for a former #1 overall draft pick, the often maligned Sam Bradford.
This trade was almost exclusively ridiculed outside of Minnesota, and even many Vikings fans looked at the surface of the deal with shock and distaste. A 1st round pick? Something we as Vikings fans have been trained to cherish more than any other asset by Rick Spielman, who has traded into the 1st numerous times since taking over as the sole decision maker at GM for Minnesota. How could they trade a 1st round pick for a QB who went 7-9 and threw only 19 TDs to 14 INTs last year? It seemed common knowledge Sam Bradford was struggling in PHI, even bad enough that the Eagles traded a 3rd, 4th, and future 1st round pick for the rights to jump up 6 spots in the draft to take Carson Wentz. A move that certainly spelled out what their plan at QB would be in the not so distant future. So why did Spielman make such an apparently boneheaded move? The answer to that requires some insight into the Vikings roster and the way it is built.
The Minnesota Vikings are a young team laced with some key veterans that complement those young players extremely well. Rosters must be balanced between rookie contracts that are relatively cheap and veteran deals which tend to make up the large majority of a team’s spending. Players like Adrian Peterson ($12 million), Harrison Smith ($7.2 million), Matt Kalil ($11 million), Kyle Rudolph ($7.3 milion), Linval Joseph($6.3 million), Everson Griffen ($8.2 million), and free agent signee Alex Boone ($6.7 million) are all being compensated very competitively in 2016 in comparison to their NFL peers – and their cap hits reflect that. Even with Spielman signing Griffen and Joseph to deals before their relative increase in play that has made them elite players at their positions, these deals aren’t cheap even if they are as reasonable as you could hope. This brings me to the real core of the 2016 Vikings. The players making major contributions on their rookie contracts, allowing the Vikings to retain veterans and sign key free agents while remaining cap flexible for the future.
Cap hits for Teddy Bridgewater ($1.8 million), Stefon Diggs ($580k), Anthony Barr ($3.4 million), Trae Waynes ($2.9 million), Sharrif Floyd ($2.5 million), Xavier Rhodes ($2.4 million), Cordarrelle Patterson ($2.2 million), Laquon Treadwell ($1.8 milion), Eric Kendricks ($1.1 million), Mackensie Alexander (780k), Jerick McKinnon ($738k), Danielle Hunter (692k), and even more are all players on rookie deals that do or should contribute heavily to the Vikings this year and in the immediate future. If these players were paid market value, there is absolutely no way they would all fit under the NFL’s salary cap of about $155 million when added to the rest of the team’s contracts. We saw this first hand with Harrison Smith, whose cap number last year in the 4th year of his rookie deal was $2.2 million. This number jumps up to to $7.5 million in 2016 and 2017 and all the way to $10 million in 2018. Of course the most important of these contracts was Teddy Bridgewater who was in line to make roughly $15 million less than he’d fetch on the open market and was set to make that amount for 2 more years, in addition to one team option year where he’d get a moderate raise not even close to his market value.
These contracts keep Minnesota’s window for Super Bowl competitiveness as wide as it could be. You only have to look as far back as Super Bowl 48 to see the benefits of a QB playing on a rookie deal but at a high level. Seattle won the Super Bowl with Russell Wilson making well under $1 million. Wilson signed an extension that now pays him $18 million a year. That $17 million in cap space to spend at other positions helped to catapult SEA into the elite tier of NFL teams and while Wilson’s play has helped to keep them there even after he got paid, free agents like LT Russell Okung, RG J.R. Sweezy, and LB Bruce Irvin all departed just in this offseason for bigger deals elsewhere. Those players have combined cap hits over $27 million in 2016. This is the inevitable when you draft well and develop players to their fullest potential in the NFL. The Seahawks can certainly make it through, but the window for success gets a little narrower for every big contract that needs to be given out. Which brings us to the point.
Minnesota is built to win now, the window is wide open, and a QB of or near the caliber of Teddy Bridgewater is absolutely essential to drive the bus that is the 2016 Minnesota Vikings. That window is set to narrow slightly as the Vikings pay out contracts to players who are proven studs. Minnesota could not afford to throw a season of these high value rookie deals out the window by handing Shaun Hill the reigns to the offense. At this point in his career Adrian Peterson, whose play at best has been below his standards and at worst has fallen off a cliff to mediocrity, isn’t enough alone to compete for a Super Bowl title with a QB of that caliber, even before his injury.
Enter Sam Bradford. The 2010 first overall pick out of Oklahoma started his career off with the St Louis Rams with a bang, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and passing for 3512 yards along with 18 TDs. However, despite his hot start he soon found himself too often on the injury report and often not healthy enough to play. He missed 6 games in 2011 with an ankle injury, and 11 games in 2013 with a torn ACL. The next year, he tore his other ACL in a preseason game and missed an entire year. This led to a trade to Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles before the 2015 season in exchange for Nick Foles (who started one season for STL and is now a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs) and a 2nd round pick. A 4th and 5th pick were also swapped in the deal. The former #1 overall pick and former Offensive Rookie of the Year was traded mostly for spare parts.
Bradford found himself amassing some decent statistical accomplishments in Philadelphia, throwing for 3725 yards and 19 TDs to his 14 INTs in Chip Kelly’s high octane offense, the fastest in the NFL. Still, Bradford went only 7-7 as an Eagle, missing 4 games with a concussion and a sprained shoulder.
Box scores don’t tell the whole story of Bradford’s time in PHI, however. When looking at the amount of dropped passes from Bradford’s receivers, you can put together a near 10 minute video, which has been done right here in this link. Per Bleeding Green Nation, Pro Football Focus charted Bradford’s pass catchers with the highest drop rate in the NFL at 7.9%. Along with that, they say this:
“Bradford ranks fourth overall in PFF’s “Quarterback Accuracy Percentage”, which accounts for “accounts for dropped passes, throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball.” His 78.1% figure in this category only ranks behind Teddy Bridgewater, Kirk Cousins, and Russell Wilson.”
Obviously, Bradford may not have been the best QB in the NFL last year, but he was considerably better than his box scores indicated when healthy. PFF even went as far as to rank him the #11 QB in the NFL and the #10 pure passing QB. In that same article PFF notes that only 7 of his 14 interceptions could be attributed to poor play on his part. Balls bouncing off of WR’s hands and into the hands of defenders can’t be held against a QB when a pass is thrown on target.
Which brings us to our second major point, Bradford’s tape was better than his public perception, and Rick Spielman was the only GM out there savvy (and desperate) enough to go get him.
Let’s talk for a second about what the Vikings gave up and how draft picks are valued. Common knowledge tells us two things:
- Draft picks are generally discounted one round for every year you must wait to use them. A 2016 1st round pick is worth about an equivalent 2nd round pick in 2017. And a 3rd in 2018.
- The Vikings would be picking in the later part of each round of the draft due to the talent level of the team and the players at their offensive skill positions. This pick wasn’t going to be top 10 or even top 15 once Bradford stepped foot on the field, and maybe even with Shaun Hill.
So the Vikings got a QB to contribute to their team while the Eagles must wait through a full season to utilize their picks. The picks the Vikings sent were worth the equivalent to an immediate late 2nd round pick (a 1st rounder discounted for a year of waiting) and a conditional 4th-6th round pick (a conditional 2nd-4th round pick discounted for 2 years of waiting). The Vikings are enjoying the fruits of this trade right now, sitting at 5-0 with the #1 DVOA in the NFL and the #1 ELO rating in the NFL.
Going into Week 6, MIN has been given a 94% chance to make the playoffs, an 83% chance to win the NFC North, a 69% chance for their first playoff bye since 2009, and a 16% chance to win the Super Bowl, per 538’s ELO ratings. The Vikings entered 538’s ELO ratings at 10th in the NFL, and had only a 54% chance to even make the playoffs, with a minuscule 4% chance at winning the Super Bowl. Bradford’s play along with in incredible step forward from MIN’s defense have catapulted the Vikings into the NFL’s elite, and helped to make them the NFL’s only undefeated team with the best odds at a Super Bowl victory.
The kicker in this deal, is that the Eagles had to pay $11 million of Bradford’s $18 million salary. The Vikings only lose $7 million in cap space in the trade, and still have him under contract for 2017, where only $4 million of his contract is guaranteed. This means if MIN trades him, they will be on the hook for substantially less than his total cap number. And with the way he has played this year, his value has done nothing but rise. If the Vikings find themselves in a position to trade either him or (god forbid) Teddy Bridgewater, they could recoup the cost of the trade and more. Especially with how cheap Bridgewater’s contract is for the next 3 years, his value is sky high, as is Bradford’s. Of course if Bridgewater’s injury takes too long to heal the Vikings could easily carry both next season and push the decision down the road, even signing Bradford to a short extension.
THE EAGLES SIDE IN THIS
The Eagles made a decision to move on from Sam Bradford when offered the 1st round pick that they coveted from the Vikings, even though they were only two weeks away from their opener and Bradford was their starter. They were in the hole a 1st round pick in 2016 due to their move to trade up to draft Carson Wentz out of North Dakota State University, and with not much they could do with Bradford, they chose to let the rookie sit and learn while the former Sooner played. That is, until Spielman made them an offer they did not expect. A chance to recoup that 1st round pick they had lost. Even if the Eagles were set to pick earlier than MIN was, the “1” in front of the pick carries weight in the court of public opinion, despite the 1st round stretching 32 picks and the Vikings likely selecting very late in the round. This was a chance to get their rookie QB they invested so heavily in on the field, and get something in return for a lame duck QB who himself had seen the writing on the wall. PHI was done with him, and this was a best case scenario for them even if they had to risk taking some lumps with a rookie QB. However, like the Vikings, this season started out better than anyone could have imagined, with PHI going 3-0 into their bye with Wentz playing beyond his years under center. They have since lost two straight, but remain in the hunt in the NFC and most importantly seem to have their QB of the future. They do take an $11 million cap hit, but save $7 million over what they would have paid without the trade and free up $17 million in cap money for 2017. Even if things go south, a 1st year head coach gives some breathing room in terms of pressure to win immediately. A 1st round pick plus another future pick are great tools to start building the franchise up and helping the team to compete for a Super Bowl in the Doug Peterson era.
EVERYONE LEAVES A WINNER
The Bradford trade has no losers, and it had none from the get go. I will admit that things for both teams have gone even better than either team likely could’ve imagined to this point in the season with the pieces in and affected by this trade, but it was never going to do anything but help either team. The Vikings found short term help for a team with a wide open championship window, the Eagles recouped assets they gave up to get their franchise QB while at the same time getting him on the field, Minnesota has an asset that allows them to get back some value that they paid for Bradford past what they even spent, and PHI seems to be thriving as a team overall without the quarterback they traded for in 2015. This trade has even the fans that booed Santa Claus thrilled, and one of the most perpetually cynical (rightfully so) fanbases in sports feeling optimistic. And that’s why it’s a rare trade in the NFL – that is undeniably a win-win.