Making Moves To Fit a System
By: Craig VanderKam
November 9, 2010
Peyton Hillis
Every year teams make changes in their personnel from general manager to head coach and offensive and defensive schemes, some of which go hand-in-hand. This past offseason there were several NFL transactions where good and proven NFL players were traded for very little in return. The lesson to be learned here is that GM's and coaches who are attached to a system will trade quality players for low compensation because they don't fit their scheme. In several of these instances the system set in place could not be tweaked to accommodate a highly skilled player and trades were made to clear a roster spot and make room for a player to better fit the coach's philosophy. This article looks at the teams that took advantage of these low risk-high reward situations and acquired players that were dealt for these purposes.

In what was probably the steal of the offseason, the Cleveland Browns traded QB Brady Quinn to the Denver Broncos for RB Peyton Hillis and two late-round draft picks. A former seventh round pick out of Arkansas, Hillis had averaged 4.9 yards per carry in limited action (81 rushes) with the Broncos in 2008 and 2009. Hillis was in head coach Josh McDaniels' doghouse and was buried on Denver's depth chart behind Knowshon Moreno, Lamont Jordan and J.J. Arrington. He had fumbled two kickoff returns, made some penalties on special teams and failed to grasp the team's playbook. At the time, it made sense to trade a fourth running back for a backup quarterback. But Hillis had always looked good running the ball on tape, and is flourishing in Cleveland with 644 rushing yards through eight games, good for 11th in the NFL. Meanwhile, Brady Quinn has yet to take a snap this season and has since been demoted to third string in Denver.

Alphonso Smith
McDaniels had said before that Hillis would be a good fit getting 20+ carries in a downhill rushing attack. The McDaniels' system, however, is a pocket passing team with timing and option routes that rarely utilizes a fullback or tight end. Hillis didn't fit, because McDaniels didn't tweak their system to make him fit. He also traded receiving TE Tony Scheffler to Detroit, a team utilizing many two TE sets and looking for a pass catching option opposite Brandon Pettigrew. But after Marquez Branson was injured, the Broncos acquired TE Dan Gronkowski from the Lions in exchange for CB Alphonso Smith. Both players were rumored to be cut, and Smith was already labeled a bust after the Broncos traded their 2010 first round pick to select Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft. The Wake Forest product was terrible last season but cornerbacks tend to develop slowly at the NFL level. The pick the Broncos traded to select him went to Seattle, who took safety Earl Thomas at #14 in the 2010 draft. In Detroit, Smith moved into the starting lineup after two games and has five interceptions this season, one for a touchdown, and has allowed a very respectable 6.1 YPA. Gronkowski was a former seventh round pick that had been on the practice squad for Detroit much of the previous season.

Corey Williams
Acquiring Alphonso Smith was just one of several savvy moves Lions' GM Martin Mayhew made last season. He acquired DT Corey Williams, a natural fit in a 4-3 scheme, along with a seventh round pick, from the Cleveland Browns, who ran a 3-4 and had no position for Williams, either as a defensive end or nose tackle, for a fifth round pick. Williams had 14 sacks in his final two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, but just 4.5 sacks in two years with the Browns. Mayhew also acquired cover corner Chris Houston for cheap from the Atlanta Falcons, because he didn't fit their zone coverage schemes. These trades work both ways, however, and Detroit dealt LB Ernie Sims to Philadelphia in the three-team trade to acquire TE Tony Scheffler. Sims was a former top ten selection for a Tampa-2 defense, but did not fit Detroit's new system under head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.

Adam Carriker
Teams switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 or vice versa often must acquire new players to fit their scheme. Last offseason the Oakland Raiders acquired outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves, for a third and fifth round pick, respectively. They also drafted inside linebacker Rolando McClain at #8 in this year's draft. The Washington Redskins acquired defensive end Adam Carriker from the St. Louis Rams for a swap of fifth round picks. All three players here were former first round draft picks, and Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was with the Rams when St. Louis selected him at #13 overall in the 2007 draft.

All of these examples are of players that were made expandable because they didn't fit a system and teams were willing to trade without receiving fair compensation. In these situations the reward highly outweighs the risk and many of the traded players are thriving with their new teams. Peyton Hillis and the revamped Detroit defense are the most obvious examples but these type of trades seem to be happening more often and are evident throughout the league.

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