Exploring Alternate Routes: The NFL Draft’s Trade Market for Receivers

NFL

Published
April 13, 2024, 2:21 p.m. ET

If the NFL draft was a game show, and Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze were the prizes standing behind three doors, audience members would be screaming out three different numbers.

The Giants and other teams seeking a No. 1 receiver atop the first round seemingly face a can’t-lose proposition choosing between Harrison’s route-running, Nabers’ speed and Odunze’s physicality.

Or, the game-show host would interject, do you want to try the mystery behind Door No. 4?

Draft a quarterback and look for your next game-breaking receiver on the trade market.

Risky as it sounds — especially given the Giants’ empty five-year search to replace Odell Beckham Jr. — it’s not a bad alternative.

Elite receivers get traded more often than stars at any other NFL position, as Stefon Diggs’ move last week from the Bills to the Texans reinforced.

Stefon Diggs was traded from the Bills to the Texans. AP

Since March 2019, there have been 16 trades of receivers who had at least 1,000 yards within the previous two seasons in exchange for draft capital — and more could be around the corner in the next two weeks.

Given that receivers are valued as a premium position in the modern NFL, why do these trades keep happening?

Here are the four themes, and a look at who might be available if the Giants go that route:

1. Contract disputes

Arguably the three best receivers traded during that span — Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown — all were locked in negotiation dead ends.

As part of each trade, Adams (five years, $141.25 million), Hill (four years, $120 million) and Brown (four years, $100 million) agreed to an immediate extension with their new teams.

Davante Adams signed a five-year extension with the Raiders after his trade. Getty Images

All three still commanded a first-round draft pick — and more in two of the three cases — in return.

Julio Jones strained his relationship with the Falcons by asking for contract adjustments after three straight seasons and ultimately asked for a trade with three years left on his deal.

2. Fractured relationships

Ever since Terrell Owens made it seem cool to act selfish, “diva” has been a word attached to receivers.

In some cases, the shoe fits.

Much the same way that Beckham punched his ticket out of New York by criticizing Eli Manning, Diggs took one too many shots at Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

I/t was déjà vu for Diggs, who forced his way out of Minnesota four years earlier by missing meetings and practices, and subtly jabbing quarterback Kirk Cousins.

There are other ways to express discontent: Brown requested a trade from the Ravens because he was unhappy with his role in a run-first offense, Brandin Cooks griped about going through a Texans’ rebuild and Antonio Brown started ripping the Steelers after he was benched for missing practices.

Brown’s trade to the Raiders came with a three-year, $50.1 million extension, but he was cut before ever playing a game after a drama-filled training camp.

Then-Texans head coach Bill O’Brien won a power struggle with DeAndre Hopkins and stunningly traded him for peanuts, though losing Hopkins’ production only sped up O’Brien’s firing.

3. Salary-cap hell

The Chargers traded Keenan Allen for pennies on the dollar (fourth-round pick) off his career-best year after he refused a pay cut or restructure to provide relief in a rebuilding pinch ($21 million over the cap).

The Cowboys made Amari Cooper expendable and cleared $20 million to re-allocate to other positions after prioritizing Ceedee Lamb (wise) and Michael Gallup (backfired) as their receiver duo.

Amari Cooper became expendable with the Cowboys and was traded to the Browns. AP

Cooks — a six-time 1,000-yard receiver who curiously has been traded four times during a 10-year career — was dealt from the Rams to the Texans to clear cap space, make way for the ascending Cooper Kupp and replenish draft assets after dealing some for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

4. Extenuating circumstances

Calvin Ridley was traded by the Falcons during his year-long suspension for gambling, and D.J. Moore was included by the Panthers in a massive package to move up to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft.

So, who’s next?

The NFL’s most-productive receiver over the past three seasons is in limbo, as the Vikings claim they want to give Justin Jefferson a record-setting extension but don’t have an appealing quarterback plan in place.

The Bengals’ Tee Higgins (franchise tag) requested a trade, and the 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk (fifth-year option) is using social media emojis to suggest he doesn’t agree with the team’s approach to his negotiations.

Bengals wideout Tee Higgins requested a trade this offseason. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Brandon Aiyuk could get traded from the 49ers before the 2024 season begins. Getty Images

If their teams are more committed to receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Deebo Samuel, respectively, and wary of losing their No. 2 options in 2025 free agency, trades could happen before the 2024 draft.

Aiyuk could command “a late first, early second” in a trade, ESPN draft analyst and former NFL front-office staffer Field Yates said.

He is more valuable than Diggs because he is younger.

Two years after trading Cooper, the Cowboys still haven’t re-signed Lamb, who told TMZ he will “be in Dallas” in 2024 despite no long-term security.

Joe Schoen and the Giants could attempt to acquire a No. 1 receiver via trade. Charles Wenzelberg

Chase, the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle and the Eagles’ DeVonta Smith — top-10 picks from 2021 who all have at least 900 yards in each of their first three seasons — are extension-eligible for the first time this offseason and could get pushy by next offseason.

If the Giants draft a quarterback over Harrison, Nabers or Odunze in two weeks and have a cost-controlled rookie contract instead of Daniel Jones’ salary-cap albatross in 2025, they should be considered players to find their next No. 1 receiver the new-age way.

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