Top 10 Legendary Trades in NFL History

What constitutes a legendary trade? A better question might be, what does this term mean in the context of this title and article? Here, a legendary trade means one we will always remember and that greatly changed the course of at least one of the franchises for the better or worse. The trades listed here could have happened prior too or during the NFL draft. They may have involved one or more players, draft picks or even coaches. In fact, one legendary trade does involve a coach.

Teams trade for a number of reasons. We think, often, they trade for the betterment of their team. We think coaches make a trade to help their team in the short and long term. However, many times this is not the case. They trade to please a desperate general manager, owner or fan base, who watch other teams hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Trades also create “what if” scenarios. For example, what if the Vikings hadn’t traded their entire farm system for Hershel Walker? What if Mike Ditka hadn’t traded his entire draft board to select Texas running back Ricky Williams, who only lasted three years in New Orleans? Or, what if the 49ers’ Bill Walsh had thought little of Buccaneers quarterback Steve Young, like many of his NFL colleagues had?  These “what if” scenarios are the basic foundation to legendary trades. They are trades that shake the very foundation of any team involved and usually the players too. Their tremors can be felt all across the NFL.

There have been many legendary trades throughout the course of NFL history, but these are 10 that you will never forget.


10 Ollie Matson Traded to the Los Angeles Rams

One of the biggest trades in NFL hardly benefited either team involved. The Ollie Matson trade, however, will go down as one of the largest player swaps in NFL history. In all, nine players were involved in a deal between the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Cardinals. In 1959, the Rams G.M. Pete Rozelle traded tackles Ken Panfil, Frank Fuller, Art Hauser and Glenn Hotlzman, as well as defensive end John Tracey, full back Larry Hickman and halfback Don Brown and finally a second-round pick in 1959 and a player to be named later for the future Hall-of-Fame running back Ollie Matson.

Neither trade worked out. The Cardinals moved to St. Louis the following season and wouldn't enter the post season until 1974. The Los Angeles Rams would next make the post season in 1967, a year after Matson finished his career in Philadelphia.

9 Marshall Faulk Traded to the St. Louis Rams


Prior to the Colts trading Marshall Faulk to the Rams in 1999, the running back was coming off his best rushing season to date. He had totaled 1,319 yards on the ground and had rushed for 4.1 yards per carry, which matched his previous best during his rookie year. Coupled with Faulk’s insistence to have his contract renegotiated with two years remaining and the Colts desire to draft Ricky Williams, Faulk was ripe to be traded.

The Rams surrendered their second and fifth-round pick for the all-star running back. While that seems like a measly offering based on what Faulk would bring to an offense, the New York Times actually called the Rams’ move “desperate” because they needed a running back.

Instead, Faulk’s trade set in place a series of historic events that would alter the landscape for a number of franchises. First and foremost, paired with Kurt Warner and an explosive receiving core, Faulk helped create a formidable Rams’ offense that almost built a dynasty; he won the Super Bowl during his first season with the team. Second, his trade set up coach Mike Ditka’s massive trade down to draft Ricky Williams. Third, in trading Faulk, the Colts put quality running back, Edgerrin James, behind Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. In the long run, James turned out to be more reliable than the often-troubled Williams.

8  8. Eli Manning for Philip Rivers

Few NFL rookies have had the gall to demand a trade right before, during or after draft day. Eli Manning was one of them. Although Eli’s father, Archie Manning, reported that his son would not play for the Chargers, the team drafted him anyway. The trade that would change the fate of both franchises came only a few picks later when Giants’ general manager Ernie Accorsi received wind that Manning was on the trade block. 

Accorsi had always rated Manning above the other quarterbacks in the draft and quickly jumped at the opportunity to trade for him. The real twist is this: What if the Giants had never traded for Manning? New York was prepared for this to happen. They had written Ben Rothlisberger’s name down on a card and would pass it in if trade talks with the Chargers fell through. After the Chargers dropped their request for pass rushing phenom Osi Umenyiora, the two sides completed the deal. In exchange for Philip Rivers, the Chargers also received the Giants’ 2004 third-round pick and 2005 first and fifth-round selections.

7 Steve Young Traded to the 49ers


Not many teams have a Steve Young-like quarterback waiting to take over for their future Hall of Fame incumbent quarterback. Few have taking a journey like Young to enter the NFL. In 1984, the quarterback opted out of being selected number one overall by the Bengals to play for the now defunct United States Football League. The Bengals had only offered him a non-guaranteed $3.5 million contract, but the owner for the USFL’s LA Express offered Young a substantial raise, $36 million over four years to be exact.

When the league folded, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Young in the supplemental draft. His career with the Bucs never took off. In two season, he only completed 3,217 yards. The 49ers’ head coach Bill Walsh was impressed with the quarterback and surrendered a second and fourth-round pick for the quarterback and some cash. Following an injury to Joe Montana, Young finally received his chance to start for San Francisco. Young finally “got the monkey off his back” and won the Super Bowl as the 49ers’ quarterback in 1995.

6 John Elway Traded to the Broncos

In the 2000s, Eli Manning refused to play for the Chargers so they traded his rights to the Giants. In the 1980s, it was Elway who refused to play for the team that drafted him. When the Colts made him their number one overall selection, he demanded they trade him, otherwise he’d devote himself to playing baseball (The Yankees actually drafted Elway in 1981 after he hit .361 at Stanford).

It was the ultimate power move, and the Colts obliged. They traded Elway to the Broncos for quarterback Mark Hermann, the rights to offensive tackle Chris Hinton and a first-round pick in 1984. Elway’s impact on the Broncos was legendary. He won two out of the five Super Bowls that he led Denver too and over the course of his 16-year career, put up a number of passing records.

5 Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey


This remains one of the most legendary player-for-player trades in NFL history. In fact, it is one of the best trades of all time. Although this trade did include a second-round pick, rarely do teams outright swap Pro-Bowl and even Hall of Fame players. “I’d seen people get traded for draft picks and stuff, but usually players—Pro Bowl players, at least—don’t get traded like that,” said Bailey.

The trade’s first spark flickered at the Senior Bowl where Jack Reale, Champ Bailey’s agent, told then-Broncos’ General Manager Ted Sundquist the Redskins were likely to place the franchise tag on Clinton Portis. The thought provided the Broncos’ camp enough reason to look into a potential trade with Washington. After all, both teams knew that the situations surrounding their star players were unstable and uncertain. Denvers’ coach, Mike Shanahan was concerned Portis’ desire for a new contract might result in a long hold out. Also, the Redskins were going to have trouble retaining Bailey because they were tight against the cap. The flame between the teams grew larger until they swapped players.

The Broncos received Bailey and a second-round pick, while the Redskins received Portis. In four of his first five seasons with the team, Portis ran for over 1,200 yards. Bailey also had a great first season with the Broncos. He started all 16 regular season games and earned a Pro Bowl spot.  

4 Brett Favre Traded to the Packers

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Brett Favre in the second round of the 1991 draft, which many scouts considered to be a steal. His first year with the Falcons was ugly. He threw only four passes. Two were intercepted. On February 11th, 1992 the Packers traded a first-round pick to the Falcons for Favre. Green bay had gone 4-12 in 1991 had a new head coach in Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf. When Holmgren was in San Francisco, he had liked Favre.

After incumbent starter Don Majkowski was knocked out of action in the third week of the 1992 season, Favre took over full time. With a 9-7 overall record that season, the Packers failed to make the playoffs, but Favre had supplanted Majkowski as the full-time starter. In 1992, Favre’s 64 percent completion percentage, 3,227 yards passing and 18 touchdowns to 13 interceptions earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl.

And then the legend was born. He’d started 297 consecutive games before his streak ended in December 2010 when he was sidelined with a damaged throwing shoulder.


3 49ers Trade up to Draft Jerry Rice


Back before the New England Patriots were THE New England Patriots, they were bottom feeders in the NFL. And even when they were given opportunities to raise their standard of living, they opted to eat scraps and left overs. In 1985, New England had a chance to draft receiver Jerry Rice with the number 16th overall pick. Instead, they traded their pick to the defending champion San Francisco 49ers for the 28th pick, as well their second round selection and they swapped third rounders.

Rice would win NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year and become the greatest receiver to ever step onto a football field. He ranks first in all-purpose yards with 23,546, receiving yards, 22,895, most 1,000 yard seasons with 14, total touchdowns with 208 and a number of other accomplishments. Rice played for 20 years in the NFL and during that period played in eight conference championship games and won three Super Bowls.

2 Herschel Walker Traded to the Cowboys

This trade went full circle for the legendary Herschel Walker. He started his illustrious career in Dallas, was traded to the Vikings in a monstrous trade and only a few years later ended up back in Dallas. In 1989 the Vikings’ general manager Mike Lynn traded five players and eight draft picks to the Cowboys in exchange for Walker. In those eight picks, were the Vikings first-round selections for the following three years. Walker only lasted a couple of years in Minnesota, but the picks sent to the Cowboys helped create their dynasty. The Cowboys moved the picks around and wound up with Darren Woodson and Emmitt Smith.

Walker isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but there is a strong argument that he should be. In 2013 Walker made a case for himself by arguing, “You look at my stats without my USFL stats, and I don’t know how you can argue with that. Look at my combined yards. I’m not one to make excuses, so I’ll play by their rules and not even count the USFL stats.”

Walker’s USFL stats were off the charts. In 1985, he rushed for 2,411 yards and 21 touchdowns. In three years in the now defunct league, he amassed 5,562 rushing yards. He is also ninth in NFL history with 18,168 all-purpose yards, which don’t include the yardage he put up while a part of the USFL.

1 Bill Belichick Traded to the Patroits

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images

In probably the most lopsided and infamous kind-of trades in NFL history, the Patriots swapped their 16th overall selection, as well as the teams exchanging some lower picks as well, for the soon-to-be Jets’ new head coach Bill Belichick. “I resign as HC of the NYJ” scribbled Belichick on a loose leaf paper one day after he was elevated to the position. He then took the podium and uttered the following words:

“Due to the various uncertainties surrounding my position as it relates to the team’s new ownership, I've decided to resign as the head coach of the New York Jets…I just can’t do it with the conviction, confidence and certainty that is needed to get the job done.”

It wasn’t an easy trade or one the Jets wanted to make. They argued that Belichick was still under contract, and then Commissioner Paul Tagilabue agreed. The Patriots were then forced to surrender compensation. Five Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl victories later, it’s hard to argue it was the most value the Patriots have ever received from a kind-of first-round pick. It’s also the single most legendary trade in NFL History. Period.   

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