There’s always a bit of risk involved any time an NFL organization chooses to make a trade. But in that moment, the team’s front office has to be convinced that it is making a decision for the betterment of the franchise as a whole. Whether there’s a player in the draft who the team likes, or if it’s just time to shake things up, wheeling and dealing is all a part of the game. But that doesn’t mean it always goes as planned.
It would be nice if every team managed to benefit equally when they opted to make a deal, but that is completely unrealistic. Although there are occasions when trades work out for everyone, oftentimes, like the game itself, there are winners, and there are losers. With that in mind, here are the 12 worst NFL trades of all time.
12. The Raiders give up Randy Moss for a fourth-round pick
In 2007, for some inexplicable reason that still makes no sense to this day, the Oakland Raiders decided to trade wide receiver Randy Moss, who was in the prime of his career, to the New England Patriots in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. The Patriots robbed the Raiders blind on this deal, as Moss quickly proved that he was far more valuable than a mid-round pick.
In his first season in New England, Moss went on have 98 receptions, 1,493 receiving yards, and caught a league record 23 touchdowns. On top of that, he participated in his sixth Pro Bowl, made First-Team All-Pro for the fourth time, helped lead the Pats to a perfect 16-0 regular season, and played in his first Super Bowl.
11. Chicago Bears trade a first round pick for Rick Mirer
The Seattle Seahawks took Mirer out of the University of Notre Dame with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, and the Indiana native was being tabbed as the next Joe Montana by several scouts and coaches. And as it turned out, the only similarity Mirer had to Montana was that they both played quarterback for Notre Dame.
After Mirer played four largely disappointing seasons (he posted a 20-31 record in 51 starts) in Seattle, the Seahawks somehow suckered the Chicago Bears into giving them a first round draft pick in exchange for the once-promising quarterback and a fourth round pick. Mirer would go on to start only three games for the Bears, and the Seahawks would use the pick the acquired in the trade to select All-Pro cornerback Shawn Springs.
10. Washington Redskins trade up to get Robert Griffin III
The Washington Redskins were able to grab quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but they paid a steep price in the process. In order to move up from No. 6 to No. 2, the Redskins sent the St. Louis Rams three first-round picks and a second-rounder. But the Skins needed a franchise quarterback, and at the time RGIII looked like he could be the guy.
In his first season under center, the former Baylor quarterback proved to be well worth the risk, throwing for 20 touchdowns, leading the Redskins to an NFC East title, making the Pro Bowl, and winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Since that point, though, Griffin has struggled to adjust to the speed of the NFL, suffered multiple injuries, and lost his job with the Redskins to Kirk Cousins. We likely haven’t seen the last of Griffin in the NFL, however, as he will have a legitimate chance to revive his career with the Cleveland Browns.
9. Houston Oilers give away Steve Largent
For some strange reason, the Houston Oilers were never truly sold on Largent. They selected him in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft, and actually planned on releasing the future Hall of Famer before he even played a down of football for them during the regular season.
The Oilers would trade Largent to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for an eighth-round draft pick in what would ultimately go down as one of the worst NFL trades of all time. As history would have it, Largent would go on to be named All-Pro seven times, earn seven Pro Bowl selections, lead the league in receiving yards twice, catch 819 passes for 13,089 and 100 touchdowns, and get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. Mike Ditka loves Ricky Williams way too much
New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka loved running back Ricky Williams. He loved the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas so much so that he gave the Washington Redskins eight draft picks for the chance to select him in the 1999 draft. And as history would have it, that move didn’t exactly work out well for Ditka and the Saints.
They finished the season in last place in the NFC South with a 3-13 record, and Ditka was canned at the end of the year. Williams was eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002. This just goes to show that trading that many picks for one player is usually not good for business. Unless, of course, you work for ESPN Magazine.
7. Atlanta Falcons send Brett Favre to the Green Bay Packers
This trade is a perfect example of how hindsight is always 20/20. While it is clear that the Atlanta Falcons were high on Favre’s football ability (they drafted him 33rd overall in the 1991 NFL Draft), the fact that they traded him after just one season is also very indicative of what kind of future they felt he had in the National Football League.
Years after his one-year stint in Atlanta, we all learned (thanks to an interview with former Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville) that Favre battled substance abuse issues early in his career, and according to Glanville, his sobriety struggles were the reason the Falcons shipped him to Green Bay.
Still, this trade will forever go down as a terrible deal for the Falcons. They gave the Packers a franchise quarterback who would lead them to a Super Bowl title and go on to break nearly every major NFL passing record over the course of his career in exchange for one first round draft pick.
6. The San Diego Chargers strike out on Ryan Leaf
The San Diego Chargers gave the Arizona Cardinals two first-round picks, a second-round pick, Eric Metcalf, and Patrick Sapp in order to move up to the second pick in the 1998 draft. The Chargers were perfectly content to select whichever quarterback the Indianapolis Colts passed on.
The Colts took Peyton Manning and San Diego was more than happy to land Ryan Leaf. Unfortunately, one of these two passers went on to have a Hall of Fame-caliber career, and the other turned out to be a major bust. It’s safe to assume that the Chargers are wishing they could take a mulligan on that one.
5. Green Bay Packers hit the panic button
In 1974, after struggling to a 3-3 record to start the season, Green Bay Packers head coach Dan Devine felt that his team needed to make a change at the quarterback position in order to compete for a Super Bowl title that year. He responded by trading away five draft picks – two first rounders, two second rounders, and one third rounder – to acquire John Hadl, who was 34-years-old at the time of the trade, from the Los Angeles Rams.
This trade turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in NFL history. In his one and a half seasons with the Packers, Hadl posted a 7-12 record while throwing six touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in 19 starts.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers trade Steve Young to the San Francisco 49ers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had no time to wait for Steve Young to develop as a quarterback, so in 1997 they shipped him off to San Francisco for second- and fourth-round draft picks. Big mistake. We guess (and hope) that the Bucs learned a valuable lesson with this trade: Patience is a virtue.
Young eventually replaced the legendary Joe Montana under center and lead the Niners to a Super Bowl title in 1994. If you’re looking for any more proof that this deal didn’t work out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you can find it in in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Young has had a bust there since 2005.
3. Los Angeles Rams waste Jerome Bettis
The Rams used the No. 10 overall pick in the 1993 draft to select Bettis out of Notre Dame, and for reason that remain a mystery to us, they gave up on “The Bus” after three seasons. In his three years with the Rams, Bettis rushed for a total of 3,091 yards and 13 touchdowns. The highlight of his stint with the Rams was his rookie year where he won the 1993 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award after rushing for 1,429 yards and seven touchdowns.
Following Bettis’ third season in the league, the Rams made the decision to move Bettis to fullback – which was a direct result of them drafting Lawrence Phillips, who is one of the biggest busts in NFL history, with the No. 6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Shortly after making that head-scratching decision, the Rams changed course and decided to trade Bettis and a third round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for a second and a fourth-round pick. All Bettis did with the Steelers was rush for 10,571 yards and 78 touchdowns, and win a Super Bowl title. When it was all said and done, that was enough for him to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. The Baltimore Colts trade John Elway to the Denver Broncos
John Elway made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of playing quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. Yet they still selected him with the first overall pick in the 1983 draft. The Colts would then quickly learn that Elway was not messing around. In the end, Baltimore was forced to deal him to the Denver Broncos for Chris Hinton, Mark Herrmann, and a first-round pick.
Elway spent his entire 16-year career with the Broncos and led them to back-to-back Super Bowls titles as a player in 1997 and 1998, and he would later build a Super Bowl-winning team as the franchise’s General Manager in 2015-16. Needless to say, the Hall of Fame quarterback has certainly left a lasting mark on the city of Denver.
1. The Vikings give Dallas a dynasty for Herschel Walker
When Jimmy Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, he set out to rebuild the team in his image. Of course, to do so required sacrifice. In this case, that meant trading away superstar running back Herschel Walker, who had just rushed for 1,514 yards the season before.
The Cowboys traded Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a king’s ransom of five players in eight draft picks. Dallas turned one of those draft picks into Emmitt Smith and wound up using another on Darren Woodson. And just like that, the Cowboys were well on their way towards crafting the NFL dynasty that would win three Super Bowls in the ’90s.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.