Sour Rankings: From John Elway to Ricky Williams, the 15 worst trades in NFL history
When Robert Griffin III was carrying Washington to an NFC East title and playoff spot in 2012, the franchise’s blockbuster trade for him — three first-round picks and a second-rounder for St. Louis’ draft spot last year — looked plenty fair.
Now, after an RGIII knee injury, a 3-10 start to this season and news Wednesday that Kirk Cousins will take over as QB, the NFL world is back to wondering if Washington made a huge mistake in its wheelings and dealings.
The truth is, just as with the Colts’ recent move for Trent Richardson or Seattle’s trade for a hobbled Percy Harvin, we won’t know the final verdict for at least another year or two.
But if Griffin’s NFL career peaked in his rookie season, the Redskins’ trade eventually could go down as one of the worst in NFL history … joining these ill-advised moves:
15. Dolphins trade Wes Welker to New England for second- and seventh-round picks: The end result here was more a damnation of how the Dolphins utilized Welker than of their decision to trade him. He was an unspectacular player in Miami, his best season coming in 2006 with 67 receptions and 2,100 all-purpose yards. Welker’s career arc changed dramatically in New England, where he became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver.
His catch totals in six seasons there: 112, 111, 123, 86, 122 and 118. Miami drafted Samson Satele and Abraham Wright with its extra picks.
14. Falcons trade Brett Favre to Green Bay for a first-round pick: Obviously, a game-changer for the Packers. Favre took over as starter in 1992 and stayed there through 16 unforgettable seasons. But from the Falcons’ perspective, he was a gamble at best when they traded him — ex-Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville said in 2010 that part of why Favre was traded was that “I could not sober him up.” A few years later, Favre had to enter a rehab facility (more on that here, from an interview with Peter King in 1996).
The overall picture, though, is too great to ignore. Favre turned into one of the greatest QBs of all time; Atlanta drafted running back/returner Tony Smith with Green Bay’s pick.
13. Patriots trade down in 1985 draft, allow 49ers to draft Jerry Rice: For all the wheeling and dealing that’s gone on at the draft, few moves have worked out as well as San Francisco’s trade here: the Nos. 28, 56 and 84 picks for the Patriots’ Nos. 16 and 75.
The 49ers used that early selection to nab Jerry Rice, in most people’s minds the greatest receiver of all time. New England wound up taking Trevor Matich, Ben Thomas and Audray McMillian with its three picks.
12. Colts trade John Elway to Denver for Chris Hinton, Mark Herrmann, 1st-round pick: This one could be higher given how Elway’s career played out, but what were the Colts to do after drafting a QB who refused to play for them?
Hinton, the No. 4 overall pick in that famed 1983 draft, actually turned into quite an offensive lineman for Indianapolis, with six Pro Bowls in seven seasons.
11. Cowboys trade first-, third-, sixth-round picks to Detroit for Roy Williams, seventh-round pick: This was a heck of a way for Lions GM Martin Mayhew to begin his run after replacing Matt Millen. Williams was a total bust for the Cowboys, catching 19 passes in 10 games in 2008 and following that up with 38- and 37-catch years. Detroit didn’t do much with the third- or sixth-rounders but did score TE Brandon Pettigrew in Round 1.
10. Oilers trade Steve Largent for an eighth-round pick: At the time, with the Oilers prepared to cut Largent after drafting him in Round 4 of the 1976 draft, they probably were happy to get any return. In the long run, this trade turned into a nightmare for Houston.
Largent went on to post a 14-year, Hall of Fame career with the Seahawks — his 819 receptions rank 27th in NFL history.
9. Dallas Texans trade Les Richter to Rams for 11 players: This was a win for the Rams, despite coughing up nearly a dozen players. It took two years for the then-L.A. Rams to cash in on this trade, as Richter spent 1952 and ’53 serving in the Korean War.
He formulated a Hall of Fame-worthy career upon his return (Richter was inducted in 2011), complete with eight Pro Bowl bids. The best player the Texans received in return was DB Tom Keane, who picked off 10 passes in 1952 and another 11 in ’53, after the Texans moved to Baltimore.
Six of the players Dallas received never played for the team, one (FB Dick McKissack) lasted one game and two more (Billy Baggett and Joe Reid) called it quits after the 1952 season.
8. Raiders trade Randy Moss to New England for a fourth-round pick: Two years after dealing for Moss themselves, the Raiders turned around and sent him to New England following a hugely disappointing 2006 season. Moss spent three-plus seasons with the Patriots, catching 50 touchdown passes and helping them post a 16-0 regular-season record in 2007.
Oakland used the pick it received, No. 110 overall, to take CB John Bowie, who now plays in the CFL.
7. Bears trade first-round pick to Seattle for Rick Mirer: The hype always exceeded reality for Mirer, first at Notre Dame and then in the NFL. He was taken No. 2 overall by Seattle in 1993 and despite going 20-31 in the next four seasons, somehow showed Chicago enough that it was willing to cough up a Round 1 choice.
Through another deal, Seattle turned that pick into CB Shawn Springs. Mirer started just three games — all losses — for the Bears.
6. Chargers trade two first-round picks, a second-round pick, Eric Metcalf and Patrick Sapp to Arizona for (via draft) Ryan Leaf: The debate headed into the 1999 draft was whether Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf should be No. 1 overall. The Colts took Manning; the Chargers happily settled on Leaf, after earlier sending that huge offer to Arizona to ensure it would get one of the QBs.
The gap between Manning’s career and Leaf’s was impossible to imagine. Leaf was 4-17 as San Diego’s starter and out of the league within a few years.
5. Rams trade Jerome Bettis and a third-round pick to Pittsburgh for second- and fourth-round picks: Talk about not getting a great return on investment. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Bettis No. 10 overall in 1993, then three seasons later (after moving to St. Louis) dealt him to the Steelers. Bettis made them pay by rushing for more than 10,000 yards and winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers. He’s also been a three-time Hall of Fame finalist.
Oh, and one of the main catalysts for the trade? St. Louis wanted Bettis to move to fullback to make room for Lawrence Phillips at RB.
4. Packers trade two first-rounders, two second-rounders and a third-rounder to Los Angeles for John Hadl: Arguably the most infamous panic move of all time. After starter Jerry Tagge endured a rough outing, dropping Green Bay to 3-3 in 1974, the franchise quickly spun five draft picks for 34-year-old John Hadl.
Hadl finished that season 3-3 as starter, went 4-9 the next year, then wound down his career with two nondescript seasons in Houston.
3. Buccaneers trade Steve Young to San Francisco for second- and fourth-round picks: Young did not become the full-time starter in San Francisco for five seasons after this trade. And then he delivered a Hall-of-Fame run.
The 1994 Super Bowl MVP, Young racked up a 91-33 record as San Francisco’s starter over 13 seasons. Tampa Bay drafted Vinny Testaverde No. 1 overall after dealing Young, then used the extra picks on LB Winston Moss and WR Bruce Hill.
2. Saints trade eight draft picks to Redskins for opportunity to draft Ricky Williams: Mike Ditka went all-in on Williams in 1999. And the Saints then finished Williams’ rookie season 3-13, Ditka was fired and the franchise dealt Williams to Miami two seasons later. New Orleans at least saved a little face with that 2002 trade with the Dolphins, scoring a pair of first-round picks and four draft choices overall.
And hey, at least we got this ESPN the Magazine cover out of this situation.
1. Cowboys trade Herschel Walker to Vikings for five players and eight draft picks: A trade that changed the course of NFL history. The Vikings destroyed what appeared to be a budding dynasty by selling the farm for Walker, who tallied 2,264 yards rushing in his two and a half seasons with the team.
Dallas turned around and turned one of the Vikings’ picks into Emmitt Smith. (Would the Vikings have been the NFL’s team of the ’90s had they stayed put and maneuvered for Smith themselves?) The Cowboys also snatched up Darren Woodson, then spun a couple of the extra selections into later moves.
Smith and America’s Team went on to win three Super Bowls in the 1990s, while Minnesota won just three playoff games — and made no Super Bowl appearances — that decade.