We’re in the midst of a historic time of football, with respects to blockbuster trades. Since the NFL was established, there have been eight trades involving two first-round picks for an established player, and four of them have come in the past two years. The latest monster transaction took place on Saturday, as the Seahawks shipped two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and safety Bradley McDougald to the Jets for star safety Jamal Adams and a fourth-round pick. There have been a variety of opinions regarding this topic; some believe Seattle gave up too much, while others believe it was worth it for a player of Adams’ caliber. However, the question I’m going to try to answer today is deeper than just the Adams trade- what is the value of having one defensive star?
Before we answer that question, let’s provide some background on what the Seahawks are getting in Adams. Over the past two seasons, the 24-year-old has been an elite player in coverage (87.3 grade or higher) and as a pass rusher (89.9 grade, 47 pressures), while he’s also no slouch in the running game. Notably, he has the versatility to line up anywhere the defense needs him, and as Seattle aims to be more flexible with their coverages, he’ll be a fantastic chess piece for them.
Okay, so it’s clear that Adams is one of the top defensive players in the entire sport. Yet, how much is that actually worth? Well, certainly not what the Seahawks gave up. Per Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus, the median Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of the picks they gave up was 1.06. On the other hand, the difference between Adams and McDougald is projected to be worth less than half of that. In general, it’s very difficult for a non-quarterback to be worth 1 WAR, and if that’s the case, they clearly don’t move the needle enough to justify sacrificing so much capital for.
When comparing this trade to the other recent blockbusters, it’s hard to gauge where Adams’ trade fits in:
- The Texans gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick for tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills. Tunsil is an offensive player that can directly help quarterback Deshaun Watson, but he was unproven at the time, and also isn’t valuable enough to be worth that amount of draft capital
- The Rams traded two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is similar to Adams in terms of that he plays a valuable defensive position. Nevertheless, this trade hasn’t aged well so far.
- While the Bears gave up two first-round picks for edge rusher Khalil Mack, they also got back a second-round pick (second round/third round pick swap), and got a player that is rarely available on the open market. As expected, though, Mack hasn’t moved the needle for them.
Whereas Tunsil and Mack simply don’t play a valuable-enough position to give up so much draft capital for, that isn’t the issue for Adams, who is regarded by many as the best safety in the NFL. Neither is the contract; per my model, he is projected to be worth around $28 million per year, so Seattle will be getting some surplus value when they sign him to a new contract. Still, it’s clear that Adams won’t be able to be worth the draft capital the Seahawks gave up, which is critical for a team that lacks depth. With quarterback Russell Wilson making $35 million per year (soon to be more whenever he signs his next contract), they had to be careful with how they managed their money, and I wouldn’t describe this as being responsible. Sure, it makes sense to try to compete with Wilson still in his prime, but going “all-in” is never an ideal strategy given how random football can be, and, in the end, they’re overrating how much slotting in Adams for McDougald will move the needle.
The Jets, on the other hand, should be ecstatic with how this trade turned out. Even with Adams, their outlook for this season was grim, as the betting market only had them pegged to win 7 games this season (my model has them slightly lower). Thus, the drop-off from Adams to McDougald means even less than it normally would. However, that’s not what makes this trade spectacular. Rather, New York, as the 49ers did with interior defender DeForest Buckner, have demonstrated the proper method of business with a highly-regarded defensive player: get three years out of them, and then flip them for future draft capital when they get too expensive. The fact that more teams don’t follow this blueprint is astonishing, especially when they don’t have a franchise quarterback. Say what you want about Sam Darnold, but he certainly hasn’t proven to yet be “the guy” for them. Well, if he doesn’t pan out, the Jets now have all the draft capital in the world to replace him with a high-end talent in the draft. If he does impress this season, then they can finally support him with some much-needed depth on the roster, particularly at wide receiver and cornerback. We’ve seen the amount of flexibility the Dolphins, Jaguars, 49ers, and Raiders have been able to obtain by trading their star defensive players, and as general manager Joe Douglas aims to get the Jets out of the messy situation he inherited, this was a no-brainer decision for him.
In my mind, there’s no doubt that the Jets absolutely got the better end of the Jamal Adams trade, but that’s not the main point anyways. Rather, if it’s clear that if teams are going to continue to overestimate the value of one star non-quarterback, especially on defense, teams with those players can take advantage of that. Safeties are valuable, but, in the end, unless you have a quarterback that is supported, it doesn’t really matter. Thus, doing everything in your power to get high-end quarterback play is the optimal team-building strategy. Take the Chargers, for instance. They hope quarterback Justin Herbert is their future quarterback, yet they’d be foolish to be fully confident in him. Therefore, you can argue that rather than paying edge rusher Joey Bosa $27 million per year, they should’ve been shopping him on the open market, hoping to obtain picks to improve a talent-deficient offensive line, as well as other players at premium positions. If Herbert pans out, then that missed opportunity won’t matter, but if he doesn’t hit the right tail of the bell curve, they’re going to be in a much worse position than if they exploited a clear market inefficiency. Kudos to the Jets for recognizing the value of Adams, and leveraging everything they could from an asset that was simply overvalued by another organization; hopefully, more teams in their position can learn from them.