The NFL Draft has finally arrived, and each year, we can always expect the unexpected once it rolls around. Most years, we see trades of all kinds, some of which have changed teams for the better, and others for the worse. We never know when it will happen, but each year brings many surprises that can’t be accounted for before teams are on the clock. Sometimes we get moves prior to day one, and many other times, blockbuster deals fall in the middle of the draft. Most of the trades we’ll look at here happened during or near the draft, but all had significant implications on the draft in one way or another.
Eli Manning and Philip Rivers swap jerseys — 2004
This might be one of the most infamous draft trades, as both essentially came out of it on the winning end in retrospect. Had it not been for Eli Manning not wanting to play in San Diego, the fortunes of the Chargers and Giants could have been quite different in the future. But as it were, both Manning and Rivers had outstanding NFL careers, with Manning winning two Super Bowls. Rivers also had a terrific run with the Chargers that has him on the cusp of being a Hall of Famer.
Kansas City Chiefs trade up for Patrick Mahomes — 2017
This could be the most impactful draft day trade of all time based on what Mahomes has accomplished in his first six NFL seasons. Let’s not forget he started just one game his rookie year and was the league’s MVP the next. Two Super Bowl victories and Super Bowl MVPs already, two-time All-Pro, and five Pro Bowl selections.
Yep, it’s safe to say the Chiefs got a future Hall of Famer and potential top-five all-time quarterback at a bargain. KC gave up the 27th overall pick in the ’17 draft, a third-round selection, and their first-round pick in ’18. After Mahomes’ first year as the starter, the Chiefs had already won this trade.
New England trades for Randy Moss — 2007
In his first six years as QB1 in New England, Tom Brady never threw more than 28 touchdowns in a season. That all changed because of this trade during the ’07 draft when the Patriots acquired Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders for a fourth-round pick. To get a wide receiver of Moss’ caliber for so little sent shockwaves through the league at the time.
That was nothing compared to once Brady and Moss were finally on the field together and connecting for 23 TDs and nearly 1,500 yards during an undefeated regular season. Their record-breaking campaign took the term “dynamic duo” to new heights. Had they been able to run the table, it would’ve been considered the greatest season ever. But they fell short of finishing undefeated, losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, 17-14.
Washington sells the farm for RGIII — 2012
Robert Griffin III was considered the next big thing at QB entering the ’12 NFL draft. He was so highly coveted, especially by Washington’s then-owner Daniel Snyder, that the team traded multiple first-round picks, and a second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams for the No. 2 pick in that draft. After RGIII’s campaign, in which he was awarded Rookie of the Year honors, things went downhill.
In Griffin’s second year, he started 13 games, and posted decent stats but won just three games. From there, RGIII never played in more than nine games in any NFL season as he finished his career in Cleveland, and Baltimore. Washington gave up all those picks for one year of greatness.
Atlanta brings Julio Jones to the Falcons — 2011
The Falcons had their eyes set on Julio Jones, and nothing else would’ve been acceptable. But for them to move from No. 27 to No. 6 in that draft would take a lot. So, Atlanta put a package together, including a first, second, and fourth-round pick in ’11 and another first and fourth the following year. That many picks for a wide receiver might seem wild to some, but Jones was nothing less than spectacular during his Falcons’ tenure. They had seven Pro Bowl selections, were two-time All-Pro, and were voted to the All 2010s-decade team.
Jerome Bettis goes from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh — 1996
The Bus is fondly remembered for his time as the bruising running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but what some younger fans may not realize is he was drafted, and played his first three years for the Rams in LA. Bettis was even Rookie of the Year in ’93, earning the first of his two All-Pro selections.
After a move to St. Louis in ’95 and implementing a new offensive scheme that limited Bettis’ carries, the All-Pro back was traded to Pittsburgh during the ’96 draft for a second, third, and fourth-round pick. This pick paid off big time for the Steelers as The Bus embodied that traditional Pittsburgh Steeler hard-nosed mentality they were famous for while winning Super Bowls in the 70s. Bettis eventually helped the Steelers win another Super Bowl while trucking his way into the Hall of Fame.
KC traded up five spots to select Tony Gonzalez — 1997
Tony Gonzalez was among the most gifted and talented players to ever step onto an NFL field. So, it’s easy to see how a team could fall in love with a guy playing tight end who performed like Gonzalez. KC swapped spots with the Tennessee Titans (then Oilers) in the ’97 draft, moving from No. 18 to 13 so they could take Tony G. Gonzalez, a player who participated in two sports at Cal, starting football as well as basketball court in the mid-90s.
Giving up a third and sixth-round pick seems light looking back at this trade. Tennessee probably should’ve asked for more, but that’s the advantage of hindsight speaking there. Gonzalez is generally considered as no less than a top-five TE of all time and top three in some people’s minds.
America’s team secures Emmitt Smith by moving picks — 1990
Dallas only had to move up four slots to draft Emmitt Smith, but that small margin could’ve been the difference between the triplets never happening and the Cowboys winning three championships in the 90s. Then head coach Jimmy Johnson only had to give up a third-round pick and swap spots with Pittsburgh, going from No. 21 to 17 to select the former Florida Gator.
Baltimore trades up for Lamar Jackson — 2018
Joe Flacco had gotten long in the tooth by 2018, and the Ravens needed to inject some youth into the huddle at QB. The Ravens traded up in ’18 to snag the Eagles’ pick at No. 32 and got their guy, Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Baltimore gave up three picks to get Jackson, but all were second round, or later. So, they may have gotten off lightly based on his performance thus far, and becoming league MVP in his first full year as a starter.
San Francisco moves up to draft the G.O.A.T. — 1985
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the greatest wide receiver of all-time (possibly the greatest overall player) wasn’t highly touted coming into the draft in ’85 as he wasn’t from one of the big schools that usually get the best players. There weren’t many scouts and coaches fawning over Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice. But 49ers head coach and West Coast offense innovator Bill Walsh was the exception.
San Francisco jumped from No. 28 in the first round up to No. 16 to grab Rice. They also sent a second and third-round pick to trade partner New England and received one of the Patriots’ third-round picks in return. Rice went on to help the Niners win three of their five Vince Lombardi trophies while racking up countless awards and records along the way.
Minnesota trades Stefon Diggs, then drafts Justin Jefferson with compensation — 2020
This trade happened just a few years ago, but it’s already had a major impact on the league and has worked out well for both teams. Stefon Diggs’ was a Viking who wanted a change of scenery, while the Buffalo Bills had Josh Allen and no primary receiving target for him to connect with. While this trade didn’t happen specifically on draft day/weekend, the results of the transaction are undeniable.
The Vikings sent Diggs to the Bills and received three picks in that year’s draft, with one of those producing Justin Jefferson in the first round. Jefferson alone would’ve been enough to make this an equal trade, as Diggs has continued as one of the top wideouts in the NFL.