The 49ers have traded Trey Lance to the Cowboys for a 2024 fourth-round pick just two years after San Francisco traded three first-round picks to move up from the 12th overall pick to the third selection for him in 2021. Lance played eight games in a 49ers uniform as this draft trade is understandably drawing buzz as the worst trade in NFL history.
I ranked the 10 worst draft trades in NFL history, strictly focusing on draft trades and not player trades (like Herschel Walker).
10. Browns move up for Trent Richardson (2012)
Of course this list has to start with the Browns. They moved up from the fourth pick to third pick to select Richardson in 2012, who finished third in Heisman voting at Alabama behind Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. This would be higher on the list but at least Cleveland was somehow able to trade Richardson to the Colts for a first-round pick one year later. It could have also been worse had the fourth pick in 2012 (Matt Kalil) made more than one Pro Bowl in his career.
9. Jets move up for Sam Darnold (2018)
The Jets traded the sixth pick and three second-round picks to the Colts for the third pick (Sam Darnold) in 2018. The Colts used the sixth pick to take one of the best guards in football, Quenton Nelson (Pro Bowl in all five seasons) while Darnold lasted three seasons in New York and is now on the 49ers, his third team. Indianapolis also got two other starters out of this deal, RT Braden Smith and CB Rock Ya-Sin (now on the Ravens).
8. Washington gives up three first-round picks to get Robert Griffin III (2012)
There have been five trades involving one team giving up three first-round picks in the common draft era (since 1967). They involved Deshaun Watson, Jim Plunkett, Herschel Walker, Trey Lance and this Robert Griffin III trade. The RGIII deal initially looked like a home run for Washington as he took the league by storm as a rookie before tearing his ACL in the wild card loss to the Seahawks. He never quite recovered from the injury and played just two more seasons for Washington. Meanwhile, the Rams haul included several solid contributors – Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree. They also eventually got Isaiah Pead, Rokevious Watkins, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy and Greg Robinson with the picks from Washington.
7. Johnny Manziel falls to the Browns (2014)
The Heisman sensation was initially in the running for the top pick in the 2014 draft before falling down the board, only for the Browns to swoop in and take him 22nd overall. His meteoric rise was just about as fast as his fall. He started just eight games for Cleveland before getting released. The Browns' trade partner in the 2014 draft night deal was the Eagles, who took LB Marcus Smith 26th overall. Smith notably played just three seasons with Philadelphia.
6. Cardinals move up for Josh Rosen (2018)
Arizona traded the 15th pick (which turned into OT Kolton Miller), a third rounder (Rasheem Green) and fifth rounder (Dane Cruikshank) to get QB Josh Rosen 10th overall in the 2018 draft. Rosen went 3-10 with 11 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions as a rookie and the Cardinals pulled the plug in unprecedented fashion, trading him to the Dolphins for a second (Andy Isabella) and fifth-round pick (Colton McKivitz). Arizona drafted Kyler Murray with the top pick a year after trading up for Rosen.
5. Chargers trade up for No. 2 pick Ryan Leaf (1998)
The Chargers paid a hefty price to move up from the No. 3 to No. 2 pick in 1998, with the intention of drafting whichever QB was still on the board between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. The move cost San Diego two veterans (Eric Metcalf and Patrick Sapp) along with two first-round picks (Andre Wadsworth and David Boston) plus a second rounder (Corey Chavous). Boston, the eighth pick in 1999 had 1,598 receiving yards in 2001. Leaf, of course, ended up as one of the biggest busts in draft history, starting just 18 games with San Diego.
4. Bears move up one pick for Mitchell Trubisky (2017)
Mitchell Trubisky is not one of the biggest busts in draft history, but it's more about who the Bears didn't take that lands them high on this list. They drafted Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes (10th pick) and Deshaun Watson (12th pick). The Bears trade partner, the 49ers, also used a future third-round pick from this deal to take LB Fred Warner. Another pick from the deal also was used to take RB Alvin Kamara.
3. Saints trade entire draft for Ricky Williams (1999)
It was crazy then, it's even crazier now. In 1999, the Saints (and head coach Mike Ditka) traded their entire draft (eight picks) to Washington to move up for a RUNNING BACK, Texas product Ricky Williams. Williams was drafted fifth overall. The three picks around him were incredible players. Edgerrin James (fourth), Torry Holt (sixth) and Champ Bailey (seventh). Bailey was a Hall of Famer who Washington also moved up to take with a first-round pick from the Williams' deal. Williams ran for 10,000 yards in his career, but he lasted just three seasons in New Orleans, who won just one playoff game with him.
2. Colts forced to trade John Elway (1983)
This might be the only draft trade that has more Super Bowl implications than the Trey Lance deal, although we may never know. The Colts traded QB John Elway after the 1983 draft as he refused to play for them. The Broncos were the beneficiaries as they made five Super Bowls with Elway, winning two. The Colts won the same number of playoff games (two) as Denver won titles (two) during Elway's 16-year career. The Colts got Chris Hinton, Mark Hermann and a future first-round pick (Ron Solt) for Elway. Hinton was a great left tackle that made six Pro Bowls for the Colts, but it came nowhere close to making up for Elway's legendary career. It still ranks behind the Trey Lance deal as the Colts really didn't have a choice but to trade Elway.
1. 49ers move up for Trey Lance (2021)
This has to top the list of worst draft trades in NFL history. We don't yet know what Lance will turn into in his career, but it's hard to imagine a worse trade from a team perspective. And if Lance does go on to have a great career (hey, he's only 23), this is an even worse trade because of the 49ers compensation.
- San Francisco traded Lance for a fourth-round pick only two years after they traded three first-round picks for him
- Lance played eight games for the 49ers, the fewest by a top-five pick for his debut team in the common draft era (since 1967)
- The 49ers made back-to-back conference championship games in two seasons since drafting Lance. Better spent picks could have theoretically led to a Super Bowl
- The Dolphins used the three first-round picks from the 49ers to trade up for WR Jaylen Waddle, then trade for veteran WR Tyreek Hill and DE Bradley Chubb
- The 49ers traded out of the No. 12 pick for Lance in 2021. The No. 12 pick was Micah Parsons. The 10 picks after Lance were Kyle Pitts, Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, Penei Sewell, Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain II, DeVonta Smith, Justin Fields, Micah Parsons and Rashawn Slater. Six are already Pro Bowlers
- San Francisco could have drafted Justin Fields (1,000-yard rushing season in 2022) or Mac Jones (started playoff game in 2021).
Once again, it's hardly about the player in this case as Lance battled injuries and inexperience, plus is still just 23 years old. From the 49ers perspective though, they went all-in for Lance and it turned into an absolute disaster.