NFL Trading Rules

Baker Mayfield traded from Cleveland Browns

The Trade Deadline

NFL teams cannot trade after the trade deadline. In 2022, the NFL trade deadline is Tuesday, November 1st at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

The rules of trading in the NFL is complicated. The key is to understand the CBA contract.

The CBA contract

The contract between the Player’s Union (NFLPA) and the NFL is called the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and it is central to the amount of pay that players can get and how long their contracts run.

This contract has been developed into three separate tiers in order to deal with trading.

1. NFL Draft

After the NFL draft, if a player is drafted, he is only able to negotiate with the team that drafted him. The player’s only other option is to not play for a season.

The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 draft.

Jackson explained to ESPN in 20212 that he told the Bucs owner, Hugh Culverhouse, that he would not play if the team selected him.

Earlier that year, Culverhouse assured Jackson a visit to Tampa Bay on his private plane would not break NCAA rules. Bo Jackson was found later to have broken the NCAA rules by accepting the private plane trip and forced to forgo his senior baseball season at Auburn.

So, after the Kansas City Royals 1987 season finished, Bo Jackson accepted an offer to join the Las Vegas Raiders.

That being said, if terms cannot be met, it is in the team’s best interest to orchestrate a trade with another team that will keep them from losing out entirely. This is the first level of trading.

If a drafted rookie has not signed a contract 30 days prior to the first game of the regular season. For 2022, Tuesday, August 9, 2022 is 30 days prior the first game of the regular season.

The drafting team has two rules from the CBA:

  • The team cannot trade the player.
  • The team is the only team the player may sign a contract, until the next years draft.

The player holding out till the next draft is then only eligible to be drafted by the other teams.

One final caveat, after 4:00 p.m. New York Time on Tuesday of the tenth week of the regular season - November 15, 2022 - unsigned drafted players may not play in the 2022 NFL season.

2. Restricted Free Agents

Once players have had three full seasons in the league, they are considered “Restricted Free Agents” and they have limited rights to negotiate with any team.

At certain salary points, the team the player is with has “right of first refusal” before the player may go to another club.

When the numbers reach a certain point, making it impossible for the current team to match, they still retain right of first refusal but might also get a higher draft pick for the following year if they let the player go.

If the salary climbs to astronomical heights, the former club could end up with a first-round draft pick along with right of first refusal.

3. Free Agents

After four years, a veteran player is a free agent and may, at any time when not held within a contract, negotiate with other teams.

In order to hold on to team-making players, there is a “franchise tag” that can be claimed by the team.

Among a team's potential restricted or unrestricted free agents, a team can designate ‌one franchise player.

At that time, the team guarantees the player a contract that is the average of the five highest-paid players of the same position or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. This locks the player into that team for one more year.

Trading between Teams

As far as trades amongst teams, when a player is under contract, the team to which they are contracted is an at-will employer. The NFL team can trade a player to any other team at any time unless the player has enough power to put stipulations in their personal contract.

Reasons to trade an NFL player?

Teams trade players to help secure future success. Also, when internal trouble between a player and the team, the owner, coach or manager, players will be traded.

In July, 2022, the Cleveland Browns traded their quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, to the Carolina Panthers for a 2024 conditional draft pick.

Why would the Browns trade a top pick? Rumors were the team was not happy with him.

Players can be traded freely amongst teams for draft picks, other players or groups of other players.

Players can be traded for three items:

  1. Draft Picks
  2. Players
  3. Groups of Players

Even free agents tend to sign contracts in order to secure their pay rate, so they are often able to be traded.

These players are less desirable as they tend to be older and often do not have more than a year or so left on their contracts. Therefore, the receiving team has no way of guaranteeing that they will stay around even after they have given up some of their players or picks in the trade.