Posted December 12, 2013

Sour Rankings: From John Elway to Ricky Williams, the 15 worst trades in NFL history

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The Saints went all-in on Ricky Williams in 1999, trading eight picks for the right to select him.

The Saints went all-in on Ricky Williams in 1999, trading eight picks for the right to select him. (Manny Millan/SI)

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.

123 comments
Kenne_W
Kenne_W

The 49ers traded 3 first round picks and a 2nd rounder to the Patriots for Jim Plunkett, who only lasted 2 mediocre seasons with them before being cut. (which lead to him signing with the Raiders and winning 2 Super Bowls).

BillAbendroth
BillAbendroth

I don't mean to be a crabby old guy here, but how does the 1978 49ers trading five draft picks (2nd and 3rd, 1978; 1st and four, 1979; and 2nd, 1980) for OJ Simpson not make the cut?  Simpson's knees were already ruined, and he's out of football a year later.....and that destroyed San Francisco's franchise......

Scramble
Scramble

He forgot about the Patriots moving up to get Gronkowski and Hernandez so the Ravens had to settle for Pitta and Dixon. Thank you Patriots.

FredTaylor
FredTaylor

Rams-Redskins: 3-1st round and a 2nd round for a now benched RG3.


Ranking still to be determined.

thebkitu
thebkitu

No mention of the Raiders trading away multiple first-round picks for Carson Palmer? Because that was exquisite in its hilarity.

Vinny Cordoba
Vinny Cordoba

The Elway deal shouldn't be on here. He wasn't going to play for the Colts. He could have played major league baseball. The Colts had no choice, and Chris Hinton was a pretty good consolation prize.

101philosopha101
101philosopha101

This is a stupid list...most of these apparently bad trades were unavoidable.  #1 is accurate though.  The Vikes messed up.

rentistoohigh
rentistoohigh

So The Redskins do a QB swap with the Cowboys...is that it ?

parkbrav
parkbrav

A lot of these trades do look bad. But sometimes teams trade down knowing that they have no chance in signing the guy they are about to draft. For example, Eli got drafted by the Chargers but obviously did not want to play there. There are other examples and then there is speculation on my end. For example, I can't help but think that Jerry Rice would not have wanted to play for the '86 Patriots.

ScottHoward
ScottHoward

It is a misleading to point out that Largent is currently 27th in career receptions given the numbers mediocre receivers put up these days.   Where did he rank when he retired?  The answer is 1st, in both receptions and yardage.

dfo8131
dfo8131

See how the media is trying to destroy RGIII? Why would they create news like this? Its to sew a negative seed in the minds of the NFL and all the consumers of the product. Going fwd every little mistake will be highlighted and scrutinized.

jshawaii22
jshawaii22

Buffalo trading Marshawn Lynch...  that trade Seattle got Lynch for a 5th round pick... better return  than the Rick Mirer trade and Springs was real good, but Marshawn is better and more important to the team.


Glad to Seattle on the 'winning' side of the list with the Largent trade.  FYI:  Seattle was a expansion team when he came in.   If they were a little more established, he would be rated up there with Jerry Rice... he was THAT good.  Better hands and moves than Welker.   HOF from an expansion team!

tonybot3
tonybot3

Brady Quinn for Peyton Hillis, who went on to grace the cover of Madden the following year.

kcopen
kcopen

it's astounding how staggeringly bad some of these moves are. Trading even a first round pick like the Colts did this year for Richardson is dumb, but trading multiple picks is incredibly insane. BTW, smart teams never draft RBs in the first round, they draft the guys who block for them. Open up the right holes and Bobby Rainey looks good. 

rskins09
rskins09

 Sonny Jurgensen for  Norm Snead  in 1963   straight up ...Eagle - Redskins ..BTW, Redskins passed on Fran Tarkenton  and  drafted  Norm  Snead  in  1961 ....

eznohstar
eznohstar

What about Ollie Matson to Rams from Chicago Cardinals for 9 players in '59?

CharlesTerrito
CharlesTerrito

You forgot the Corneleus Bennett trade with Buffalo! GO BILLS!!

mr.vance.andersen
mr.vance.andersen

Chicago has a habit of giving everything away in order to get a mediocre QB(Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler).

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

McNabb to the Redskins trade doesn't get any love?  

JM3
JM3

The Ricky Williams trade was over rated as a terrible trade.  Most of the picks were lower round which can easily be made up by signing more seasoned free agents.  Draft choices in rounds 4-7 are usually average players who often don't contribute for a couple of years so a team is better off with free agents who have been developed by another team.  Plus Ditka was ultimately correct about how good Ricky Williams was.

Gunther
Gunther

@BillAbendroth How can you say this destroyed the franchise when they went on to win several super bowls very soon after this trade?

Griz406
Griz406

@thebkitu It was one first round pick and one second round pick the next season. Still a bad trade but wanted to get your facts straight.

TulsaMikel
TulsaMikel

@Vinny CordobaI'm just glad El-way finally quit grinning so big when he screwed up. It seemed so inappropriate to me for some reason. Those were some good day's... poor Browns & Bills..El-way was pretty rough on em.

pk_sea
pk_sea

@Vinny Cordoba I've always disliked Elway for that move. I was just a kid at the time but thought he was a big baby for threatening to quit football if he didn't get traded. 

grstallions87
grstallions87

@101philosopha101 It took them years to get over that and when they thought it was smooth sailing to the Super Bowl, Gary Anderson missed his only attempt for that year

raput76
raput76

@parkbrav Oh please....guy from Mississippi Valley State is going to refuse to report to the NFL team that drafts him??

RobLightbody
RobLightbody

@dfo8131The few negative things they are talking about are huge.. The main one is RGIII stating that he was going to be a pocket passer going forward but refusing to be instructed on how to be a pocket passer.. The guy has a massive ego from all of the hoopla last year and needs to get over himself.. And he needs to shut his dad up..

pk_sea
pk_sea

@dfo8131 He's a conservative, therefore he must be demeaned by the media. It's the law. 

NON SMILEY
NON SMILEY

He could be an ok quarterback going forward but I think we will never again see the season he had his rookie year, and he has quite a way to go to become an effective pocket passer. Sorry. That's what many people see when they look at it objectively.

rentistoohigh
rentistoohigh

@jshawaii22 Seattle had a coach with  no stones in those days named Chuck Knox.


.who back in the 14 game schedule days took a 12-2 LA Rams team straight into 


"what the hell do I do now ---it's Texas Stadium ...the Cowboys---oh crap !!!----"


and then got rid of John Hadl......oh yeah...those frozen tundra games in Minnesota also...


My Point ?    The Largent Seahawks team should have gone a lot farther


Now of course they have the legendary Pete Carroll....



ScottHoward
ScottHoward

@kcopen True, but that has really only been applicable for a few years.   The rules are now all about passing offense, and defense, kick returns and running are severely devalued (or legislated out).

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

@eznohstar "Ollie" & "(CHI) Cardinals" would fall under the heading, 'Football History,' and saberheads don't do history, hence, the erroneous cover of Hershel donning Cowboys' regalia.

rskins09
rskins09

@JM3   Why did New orleans  trade Ricky Williams  ? .. He didn't get along with anybody on the team...Ricky  had sooooo much ability  he never used --- it's a shame .... 

mr.vance.andersen
mr.vance.andersen

He got better AFTER he decided that he wanted to play football.

mike.russell
mike.russell

You need to know the whole story.  It wasn't about Baltimore the team, organization, or city.  It was about its odious coach.  Not only did John Elway not want to play for Frank Kush, Elway's father Jack, a good college head football coach (San Jose State, Stanford) didn't want his son to play for Kush.  One of Kush's Colts players poured a something over his (Kush's) head in front of the whole team, and not in a Gatorade friendly way. 

parkbrav
parkbrav

@raput76@parkbrav Case in point: Rocket Ishmail turned down an offer from the 1991 Patriots to be drafted #1 overall and signed for only $8.5m over  5 years. He left the NFL draft to play in the CFL (reason: better deal with the Toronto Argos). He then entered the NFL several years later and played for some other teams but never New England.

http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/22/sports/nfl-draft-when-rocket-skips-lineman-soars-to-top.html


One other point you may not have considered: Prior to Robert Kraft acquiring the organization in 1993, the Patriots were a mess. They went through 3 or 4 different owners in the late '80 and early 90s. One of the owners threatened to move the team out of Boston. They suffered a 1-15 season in 1991. If you were  a NFL agent back then - for John Elway or a young Jerry Rice - you know that this team was mess and did what you could to avoid them

Mel
Mel

@rentistoohigh Pete Carroll has 2 championships to his name, one of which doesn't much count, as LSU won the BCS title that year. The other was stripped. Legendary you say? LOL

pk_sea
pk_sea

@rentistoohigh @jshawaii22 Seattle has had plenty of dark days since their 1976 beginning. They've always had middle of the road to bad QB's. That is way Seahawk fans are so enamored by Russell Wilson. 

Anyone remember Brian Bosworth? I remember Bo Jackson running right through him after all the hype.

grstallions87
grstallions87

@james koenig Supposedly Kush did something to one of his players that banned him from college football. I was told it was because Kush grabbed a players face mask and dragged him all over the field in a violent way

Scramble
Scramble

@pk_sea@mike.russellThe worst part was the officials tanked the Chiefs/Broncos playoff game so Elway wouldn't retire after not making it to the super bowl. The NFL knew it still had more money to make off Elway.

pk_sea
pk_sea

@mike.russell Thanks for the backstory. Like I said, I was just a kid at the time but still thought it was a classless move. 

I guess with his horseface, he was a perfect fit to become a bronco.

mike.russell
mike.russell

@james koenig The story grows.  I mean that respectfully and think it would be interesting to read more about this Elway to college in Arizona point.

james koenig
james koenig

Sorry, Elway was on the way to ASU to play for Kush when his dad struck a deal with Stanford sorry Kushs and the Elways go way back.

mike.russell
mike.russell

And Elway told Baltimore up front he didn't want to be drafted by them, and they did it anyway. 

RobLightbody
RobLightbody

@parkbrav@raput76The Patriots had just finished playing in the Super Bowl in 1986.. The got their butts handed to them by the Bears but who wouldn't want to play for a team fresh off of a Super Bowl appearance?