Since 1970, there have been just nine times where two teams agreed on a trade knowing that it was for the first overall draft pick. Will a trade up for Jameis Winston make number ten? Let’s go in reverse chronological order and look at every instance since the AFL-NFL merger when the first overall pick was traded:
New York trades the rights to Philip Rivers (the fourth pick), the first pick in the third round (Nate Kaeding), a 2005 first round pick (Shawne Merriman) and a 2005 fifth round pick (Jerome Collins) to San Diego for the rights to Manning
This one technically wouldn’t count as a trade of the first overall pick, because San Diego selected Manning before trading him. But I am counting it because it this meets the spirit of the question. Prior to the draft, the Chargers and Giants had been in a standoff on compensation, and San Diego upped the ante by actually selecting Manning. New York gave up an enormous haul to move up three spots in the draft, and the Chargers then hit on the additional picks they received (Merriman went to three Pro Bowls; Kaeding went to two). The Chargers flipped the pick that became Collins for Roman Oben, who started 24 games at tackle for San Diego. On top of that, many will view Rivers as the best player in the deal, but this is one of the few trades where I suspect each team is happy with the trade.
At the time, it felt like an enormous haul was being given to acquire Vick, but this is actually less compensation than San Diego would get from the Giants three years later. Vick obviously never reached his full potential in Atlanta, while the Chargers were able to acquire the best running back of his generation. Oh, and they did pretty well when they snagged a quarterback at the top of the second round, too.
The Jets had the first pick for the second year in a row, going 1-15 a year after selecting Keyshawn Johnson. Things would have turned out much differently if a certain Tennessee quarterback had decided to declare for the draft after his junior year, but as of this time, the Manning family was not yet focused on being in New York.
With the luster on the first pick gone, the Jets — now under the management of Bill Parcells — chose to trade down and rebuild. The Rams didn’t have to offer all that much to move up six spots in the draft, as the top six or so players were all generally considered to be in the same tier. Things worked out nicely for the Rams, as the team went to two Super Bowls during Pace’s standout career, winning one in 1999.
The Jets then traded down from 6th to 8th, acquiring a fourth round pick (Leon Johnson) from the Bucs in the process. The Jets finally selected James Farrior, who a role player but not a star during his Jets career (before a decade of strong play in Pittsburgh). Tampa Bay sent the 6th pick to Seattle in exchange for the 12th pick (Warrick Dunn) and the third pick in the third round (Frank Middleton); while the Bucs hits on those picks, the Seahawks were the big winners, trading up to select Walter Jones.
Cincinnati had the 1st pick in 1994 and used it on Dan Wilkinson; the Bengals then went 3-13. But because the Panthers and Jaguars were entering the NFL, that only entitled Cincinnati to the 5th pick. The Bengals running game was putrid in ’94, with Derrick Fenner, Steve Broussard, and Harold Green combining for just 1,094 yards and 4 touchdowns on 311 carries (3.5 YPC) as part of a three-headed attack.
Carter rushed 198 times for 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns during his junior year at Penn State, culminating in a 21-carry, 156-yard, 3-touchdown performance in a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, capping a perfect 11-0 season for the Nittany Lions. Carter’s next game would be much worse. On the third carry of his first preseason game, he tore his ACL, causing him to miss the entire 1995 season.
He struggled in 1996, the days of when a torn ACL was really a two-year injury. In the third game of the ’97 season, he rushed 13 times for 104 yards, but tore his rotator cuff. He would later miss nearly all of ’98 with a broken wrist, while ’99 was lost with a dislocated right kneecap.
The trade obviously didn’t work out for Cincinnati, although in an odd twist, he actually lasted longer in Cincinnati than Collins did with the Panthers. Carolina was happy to grab Carter’s teammate with the 5th pick in the draft, but an immature Collins wore out his welcome in Carolina. Of course, he would turn things around, and wind up playing for 17 seasons. King, a defensive end from LSU, started just ten games in his four year career, and only two of those starts came with the Panthers. This was a trade with no winners.
The Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson were not shy about taking Hurricanes that Johnson had coached at Miami. Here, Dallas sent the 11th pick and a bunch of spare parts1 to move up ten slots, as the Patriots were desperate to retool their roster. Maryland had a good but not great career: he played for ten years, mostly as a starter, and was a force in the middle. But he was rarely dominant, and never had more than 4.5 sacks in a single season. Basically everything the early ’90s Patriots was a failure, this trade included. Harlow was a nondescript starting tackle for four years in New England, while Henderson made just ten starts with the Patriots.
The other part of the story here concerned Rocket Ismail, the Notre Dame star receiver who was the consensus best player in the draft. That is, until Ismail decided to head to the CFL for more money. The Cowboys thought they might convince Ismail to come to Dallas instead of New England, but after the Toronto Argonauts offered more money, Dallas settled on Maryland.
There is a lot to unpack from this trade. Let’s start with what you don’t see here.
- Do you know which team had the worst record in 1989? Most NFL fans probably can recall that under Johnson, Dallas went 1-15 that year, which *should* have entitled them to the first pick. The Cowboys drafted Troy Aikman with the first pick in ’89, but that didn’t stop Johnson from using a supplemental draft pick that same year on Johnson’s quarterback at Miami, Steve Walsh. But it wasn’t just any supplemental draft pick: Johnson used a first round pick on him, costing Dallas the first overall pick in 1990. This was a massive failure, akin to the 2012 Colts using the first pick on Luck and spending a first round pick in the supplemental draft on another quarterback, then finishing 1-15 and being without a first round pick. Even Johnson wasn’t perfect.
- You might be wondering: wait a minute, how did a team trade up to the first overall pick without sending a first round pick back?? The Colts had traded the team’s 1989 and 1990 first round picks in September 1988 to the Seahawks for inside linebacker Fredd Young. Now, that looks terrible in hindsight, but Young had made the Pro Bowl in the prior two years, and was a first-team All-Pro in ’87. You can read more about this trade, including how Brian Bosworth played a role, here.
This was really a trade of players for the first overall pick, which is tough to imagine now (though if Rivers is actually on the trade market…?). Rison had just come off of a strong rookie season, and he would turn into a star in Atlanta, making the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons. In five years in Atlanta, he ranked 4th in the NFL in receiving yards, behind guys named Rice, Sharpe, and Irvin. There was a hint of irony in the Colts trading Hinton to grab the first overall pick on a franchise quarterback: Hinton was part of the package sent to the Colts in ’83 in exchange for John Elway. In Atlanta, Hinton was a starter for four years, and was an All-Pro in 1993. The Falcons were content to trade away the rights to George because of Chris Miller, and Atlanta’s passing attack would shine under offensive coordinator June Jones (not to mention having Rison and Pritchard).
Most view this trade as a disaster for Indianapolis, and that’s mostly true. But it’s all a matter of perspective. George failed to turn around the team, but he was a better player than people remember. He was no savior, but in ’93 he had a league average ANY/A and a 2-9 record; in other words, it wasn’t all his fault.
And there’s a fun post-script to this story. After the ’93 season, Indianapolis traded George… to Atlanta! In return, the Colts received Atlanta’s first and third round picks in 1994, and Atlanta’s first round pick in 1996. Indianapolis would package the first two of those picks — the 7th (Bryant Young) and 83rd (James Bostic) selections — to move up to draft Trev Alberts with the fifth pick in 1994. That final pick, the first rounder three drafts away? That turned into Marvin Harrison.
The Patriots sent the 16th (Pete Koch) and 28th (Brian Blados) picks in the ’84 draft, along with a 1984 tenth rounder (Brent Ziegler) and a 1985 fifth round pick (Lee Davis) to Cincinnati for the first overall pick
Here’s another trade that requires two bits of backstory. Prior to the ’84 season, the Bengals traded Jack Thompson — yes, the Throwin’ Samoan himself — to Tampa Bay for the Bucs future first round pick. That turned out to be the first overall selection, so you might want to include Thompson in your Vinny Testaverde and Steve Young highlight reels depicting the times Tampa Bay spent the first overall pick on a quarterback.
Young is the second bit of backstory here. In 1984, the NFL held two drafts: the regular draft, and a supplemental draft for players who had already signed with the USFL (or the CFL). The supplemental draft was arguably more top-heavy than the NFL draft, with Young, Mike Rozier, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White being the first four picks.
As a result, the 1984 regular draft wasn’t quite like a normal draft. Young would have certainly been the first pick there, and without him or the other USFL stars, the value of the top pick dropped considerably. As a result, it didn’t take much for the Patriots to trade up to first overall.
It took Fryar awhile to break out: he didn’t hit the 1,000-yard mark until 1991, but did so six times in eight years starting that season. The players the Bengals selected were largely busts; in retrospect, Cincinnati would have been better off just keeping Fryar. One has to wonder if having Fryar on the roster could have been enough to tilt the ’88 Super Bowl.
1983: The John Elway Trade
We all know about this one. But since this happened a full week after the draft, I’m not going to count it as “trading for the first overall pick.” As it turned out, after a rough stretch of situations involving quarterbacks and the first overall pick, things have turned around nicely for the Colts.
1979: The O.J. Simpson Trade
This one doesn’t qualify: the 49ers traded for O.J. Simpson in March of 1978, sending the team’s second and third round picks in 1978, a first and fourth in ’79, and a second in 1980 for the aging back. A disaster of a trade on the surface2 turned into a nightmare once the 49ers finished with the worst record in football in 1978. The Bills drafted Tom Cousineau with the first overall pick, but the Ohio State linebacker chose to go to Canada for more money.
When Cousineau left Canada, the Bills still held his rights, and decided to send the Cleveland native back home. The Browns gave up several picks for Cousineau, including a 1984 first round pick that turned into Jim Kelly.
The Bills whiffed on the 1978 picks they received from San Francisco (Scott Hutchinson in the second, Danny Fulton in the third); a year later, Ken Johnson (the 4th round pick) turned into a six-year Bill, but started just 24 games. So the Bills weren’t able to take those picks and create a dynasty, at least not yet. But Buffalo used the ’80 pick on running back Joe Cribbs, who turned into a star, and got a second bite at the apple with Kelly three years later.
1978: Houston trades up for Earl Campbell
The Oilers trade Jimmie Giles, the 17th pick (Doug Williams), a second round pick (Brett Moritz), a 1979 third round pick (Reggie Lewis), and a 1979 fifth round pick (Chuck Fusina) to Tampa Bay for the first overall pick
Tampa Bay had drafted USC’s Ricky Bell with the first overall pick in 1977, so it’s understandable that Tampa Bay was willing to deal the rights to draft Campbell. On the other hand, Hoston was eager to grab the Texas native, and this is a pretty easy trade to analyze. The Bucs were still a team low on talent — after all, Tampa Bay had gone just 2-26 in ’76 and ’77 — and were able to grab Giles (a promising young tight end) and a bunch of picks. The problem, of course, was that the Bucs whiffed on most of those picks. Williams would one day win a Super Bowl, but that was with Washington nine years later. He was a good but not great quarterback with the Bucs, and Giles turned out to be a pretty good player, too. But neither was Campbell.
Fifteen years before the Falcons traded the rights to the first overall pick and a franchise quarterback to the Colts, the teams were on opposite sides of the trading desk. In ’74, the Colts went 2-12, but had a promising young quarterback in Bert Jones. With the Cowboys holding Roger Staubach and the second pick (thanks to the Craig Morton trade), there’s a good chance Bartkowksi would have slipped to three, anyway.
But the Colts were able to convince Marion Campbell — come on, did you think his name wouldn’t come up at some point here?? — to send Kunz, a star tackle, to Baltimore to move up the two spots. With Kunz and Jones, Baltimore fielded a dominant offense over the next three years. As for Bartkowski? He turned into a good but not great quarterback. He’s the second best quarterback in Atlanta history, but that still isn’t enough to meet the expectations of being the first overall pick (he ranked 101st on this list).
This one doesn’t count, either, but it’s worth looking at for the trip down memory lane. In the summer of 1973, the Oilers traded the team’s first and third round picks in the ’74 draft to the Cowboys for Smith and Parks. Houston had a new general manager by the name of Sid Gillman — yes, that Sid Gillman — and based on this story, the Oilers scouts were not very enamored with the talent in the ’74 draft.
As a result, Houston sent those picks to Dallas for a pair of prospects who had yet to reach their potential in Dallas. Smith was the 25th pick in the ’71 draft, but the defensive end was a reserve with Dallas during his first two seasons. Parks had was a 6th round pick of the Chargers in 1970 who sat the entire year due to injuries. But in 1971, Parks had a bit of a breakout seasoning, finishing 8th in the league with 60.9 yards per game. But that only caused San Diego to trade him to Dallas as part of the Duane Thomas trade; that changed Parks’ trajectory, as he was just a role player on the ’72 Cowboys. In Houston, Parks had a pair of solid seasons before retiring after the 1975 season.
That future first round pick, of course, turned into Too Tall Jones. And the future third round pick turned into Danny White. That sounds pretty incredible, but it gets better. In what could only be described as Bill Belichick’s wet dream, the Cowboys — now with a Hall of Fame quarterback on the roster and a quarterback of the future — traded Craig Morton to the Giants in October for a 1975 first round pick and a ’76 second round pick (Jim Jensen). At the time, the Giants were 1-5, but that seemed to only increase New York’s desperation for a new quarterback. The Giants finished the year 2-12, and that first round pick turned into the second overall selection — and Randy White. So for Tody Smith and Billy Parks, the Cowboys got Too Tall Jones and Randy White, and got to replace an aging Morgan with White. That’s hard to top.