On Monday afternoon, two notable wide receivers were dealt away in trades that seemed to make little sense for the organizations who were giving away their best wideouts. The Vikings, a playoff team one year ago, dealt Percy Harvin to the Seahawks for a package built around Seattle’s first-round pick despite the deal leaving Minnesota’s cupboard bare at wide receiver and inspiring their best player to actually describe the trade as like getting ” kicked in the stomach. Several times!!!” Then, the Ravens continued their tear-down of a Super Bowl–winning roster by astonishingly dealing wideout Anquan Boldin, who led all playoff participants in virtually every receiving category, to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick. That only led former teammate Torrey Smith to tweet “WHAT!!!” like he was an ’80s video-game villain whose lair had been unexpectedly broached. One thing to take away from these deals: Star players will almost always respond to deals involving beloved teammates by invoking the triple exclamation point.
So why did these deals happen? And were they good deals for each of these teams to take? If you understand the former, you’ll get a very good idea of the latter.
Harvin to Seattle
Start with the first trade of the day, in which the Vikings finally consummated a Harvin trade that seemed to have been brewing for years. Report after report has come in as to whether Percy Harvin was happy in Minnesota with Leslie Frazier, which served as a prerequisite to Harvin signing a long-term deal to remain with the team. This trade suggests that Harvin had no interest in signing a new contract with the Vikings and/or that the organization was fed up with waiting for Harvin to make up his mind. It’s fair to suggest that Harvin doesn’t have the best reputation in some league circles; Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe referred to Harvin yesterday as “a spoiled brat of a diva with injury issues,” which says a lot considering that even standard-issue divas tend to be pretty spoiled.
From Minnesota’s perspective, if you’re going to trade Harvin, right now is the best time to make a deal. By dealing Harvin before free agency opens up, the Vikings can choose to enter the market and acquire a replacement for Harvin using the cap space they had allotted for a possible Harvin extension. Alternately, by acquiring the 25th pick in this April’s draft, they can spend the next month scouting the wide receiver class more closely and get a better idea of who they might want to acquire with that extra first-round pick. If Minnesota waited even one more week to make this deal, it’s entirely possible that potential Harvin trade partners like Seattle and Miami might have waltzed into the market and come away with one of the many wideouts available in this year’s free-agent class, which would have eroded Harvin’s value and turned that first-round pick into a second- or even third-rounder. And by acquiring him before the free-agent market begins, Seattle can hope to negotiate an extension with Harvin that pays him before Mike Wallace raises the market value for top young wide receivers that much further with his new deal. That could save the Seahawks a couple million bucks, which will be well worth it on such a big contract. If you’re sure you’re not re-signing Harvin, now was the right time to make this trade.
In fact, there’s a way that the Vikings could end up using this deal to actually upgrade at wide receiver. (Skip to the end of the next paragraph now, Giants fans.) Victor Cruz is a restricted free agent who would likely represent an upgrade on Harvin; Cruz is a year and a half older, but he’s had a much healthier professional career, is regarded as a team player, and is a better fit for the Minnesota offense and the relative strengths of quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings could give the same offer they were planning on providing to Harvin to Cruz, mixing in some guarantees early in the contract that would make it difficult for the cap-strapped Giants to match. If the Giants didn’t match, the Vikings would have to ship the 23rd overall pick in this year’s draft to the Meadowlands, but they would still retain the 25th pick from the Harvin deal. In other words, they would basically be trading down two picks in this year’s draft and swapping the Harvin conundrum for Cruz on a long-term deal. That’s a good deal if the Vikings can swing it.
From Seattle’s perspective, they’re acquiring a special talent. Harvin was downright brilliant at times during the first half last season, and his 2012 numbers extrapolated to a full season are terrifying: 110 catches, 1,204 receiving yards, 171 rushing yards, and seven touchdowns. It feels like he’s been around forever, but Harvin is still just 24 years old; the Seahawks will give him a long-term deal that will end before Harvin’s even out of his peak seasons. The one thing the Seattle offense might have lacked last year was a downfield burner, and Harvin is one of the quickest young receivers in football. And that was with Ponder at quarterback; imagine how good Harvin will look with Russell Wilson throwing him passes!
In the process, Seattle is assuming a lot of risk. Harvin’s injury issues can be overblown and date back to a migraine issue that appears to have been under control for nearly two years, but he has already missed 10 games across his first four pro seasons with an assortment of injuries. He hasn’t developed into a complete receiver yet, as he relies mostly on screens to get the football and lacks the statistical record of a downfield weapon. He’s averaged a mere 11.8 yards per reception during his career, which is the fifth-lowest figure among receivers with 200 catches or more over that four-year time frame and is actually similar to the total produced by Wes Welker (11.4 ypc).
It also remains to be seen how Seattle integrates Harvin into an offense that already ranked as the league’s best per DVOA over the second half of the season. Will they take carries away from Marshawn Lynch to hand the ball off to Harvin out of a traditional set? Does the Harvin deal mean that the Seahawks will consider cutting Sidney Rice, a move that would save them more than $6 million in cap space this year?
You can’t fault Seattle for trying to make a move to put their offense over the top, and if they can somehow keep Harvin healthy long enough to fulfill his promise, this deal could look like a steal in two years. But with the risks related to Harvin’s health and (reported) attitude issues, it could also look like an enormous misstep. Seattle hasn’t had the best of luck with big-money wideouts in recent years, with Rice, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Deion Branch (acquired to put the post–Super Bowl Seahawks offense over the top) all struggling to provide a return on hefty investments. Those guys don’t have any predictive value in determining whether Harvin will succeed, but Seattle fans don’t have to look far to remember that the much-celebrated acquisition of a talented wide receiver doesn’t always work out the way it seemed on the day of his arrival. In a market where other options (Wallace? Greg Jennings?) would have been available without requiring draft pick compensation, Harvin will need to be an elite player to justify this trade and the contract extension he’s about to receive.
Boldin to San Francisco
The outrage over Baltimore’s decision to ship Anquan Boldin to the 49ers for a mere sixth-round pick is marked by an impressive number of logical fallacies and gaps. It’s easy to see why the deal makes sense for the 49ers, who had more picks than anybody else in the draft and a hole at wideout across from Michael Crabtree on a team that is expected to be a Super Bowl contender next year. If you put the deal in context from Ozzie Newsome’s perspective, it makes a lot more sense for the Ravens, too.
It’s easy to express disbelief at the idea that the Ravens would deal away a postseason hero just months after he led the team to the Super Bowl. Boldin had one of the great postseasons in league history, but here’s one of those fallacies: You pay a guy for what he’s going to do, not what he’s done. There’s no guarantee that you get the Boldin from that four-game stretch for 16 games next year, and the preponderance of evidence — Boldin’s 45-game run as a Ravens receiver during the regular season — suggests that Boldin wouldn’t have been a superstar if Baltimore had brought him back. Boldin has averaged a 62-882-5 line over his three seasons in purple, which is decent, but it roughly compares to the work done by, say, Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams (64-910-8) over that same time frame. Boldin’s a great blocker, more valuable on third down, and a team leader, but the difference isn’t worth the millions of extra dollars Boldin would make in a new contract or even by remaining in his old deal for one year.
The decision to deal Boldin also illuminates the importance of considering opportunity cost when evaluating player decisions. Those saying that the Ravens could have held on to Boldin for one more year at $6 million without giving him an extension have a very strong case, but the opportunity cost for that deal is not insignificant. The cap-strapped Ravens are bleeding free agents this offseason, and while they’ve locked up Joe Flacco and seemingly let Ed Reed go, retaining Boldin would have cost them a chance at re-signing somebody like middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who is younger than Boldin and plays a position at which the post–Ray Lewis Ravens are desperate for some stability. The Ravens didn’t try to renegotiate Boldin’s deal or trade him because they were cheap; they did so because they were trying to retain the likes of Ellerbe as core pieces of the next great Ravens team.
I also can’t help but think that part of the backlash for the deal comes from people upset that the Ravens “only” got a sixth-round pick from the 49ers for Boldin. I ask you this: Once Baltimore decided that they were getting Boldin’s salary off the roster, would they have been better off cutting Boldin as opposed to acquiring a low draft pick for his rights? They wouldn’t have taken the same level of flak because it would be clear that the Ravens were cutting Boldin to free up space as opposed to potentially implying that Baltimore only values Boldin’s level of play as being worth a sixth-round pick, which obviously isn’t true. A sixth-round pick isn’t much, but it is unquestionably better than no compensation whatsoever.
Most significantly, a Ravens trade allowed the organization to dictate where Boldin would play in 2013, which is valuable for a team that still expects to compete in a crowded AFC. Had they let Boldin hit the free market, he could have chosen to sign with an AFC North team and played the Ravens twice this year. He could have joined the Broncos or Texans, both of which have tilts scheduled against the Ravens in 2013. Instead, Baltimore sent him to the other conference and to an organization that they won’t play this upcoming season.
And as for that price, well, all it takes a simple game of elimination to remove the vast majority of the league’s teams and reveal just how small the potential trade market for Boldin would have been from Baltimore’s perspective. It’s safe to assume that the Ravens wouldn’t want to deal Boldin to a team they had on the schedule during 2013, so it’s right to rule out the AFC East, NFC North, the other teams in the AFC North, and the Broncos and Texans. That’s half the league right there. Most of the remaining teams are either bad enough that Boldin would probably retire before going there (Jaguars, Raiders, Rams, Titans), capped out with massive holes elsewhere on the roster (Chargers, Redskins, Panthers), or already set at wide receiver (Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, Falcons, Giants, Saints). The Colts have a similar, arguably better player already on the roster in Reggie Wayne. The Buccaneers just signed Vincent Jackson to a mammoth deal, and the Chiefs did the same with Dwayne Bowe. That leaves two teams: the 49ers and the Seahawks, one of whom had just spent a first-round pick to acquire a wide receiver hours earlier. Where was the market for Boldin supposed to come from? San Francisco might have been Baltimore’s only palatable trade option for Boldin, and it’s likely that their sixth-round pick was the best offer available.
Boldin and Harvin may very well be successes in their new locales; nobody doubts their respective talents, and they’ll be among better quarterbacks on two of the league’s best teams. But the decisions made by their prior organizations to make Monday’s trades have merit behind them. Neither of the trades was a slam dunk by any means, but on some level, they both make sense.