Why the NFL trade deadline is different in 2020: COVID-19 tests, cap-space questions and more

In the middle of the weirdest NFL season comes the weirdest NFL trade deadline, which is Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET and, like everything else this year, fraught with the unprecedented.

Example: This week, an NFL head coach told me one of the questions being asked in his front office about potential trade acquisitions is "Has he had COVID?" -- and that the preferred answer is yes.

See, because of the league's COVID-19 testing protocols, it's extremely unlikely that a player acquired in a trade will be able to play the week he's acquired. A player coming in from another team must, by rule, undergo a full battery of COVID-19 testing by his new team before he can enter the building. That means five consecutive days of negative tests and then a negative point-of-care test on the morning of the sixth day. So if a team trades for a player on Tuesday and his first test post-trade is Wednesday, the soonest he can enter the building is Monday. He can't be used in a game for basically two weeks after he's acquired.

Unless ... he has already tested positive for COVID-19.

Under a rule change the league and players' union (NFLPA) made in August, any player or other team employee who tests positive is exempt from testing for the following 90 days. This rule lines up with CDC guidance that indicates three-month immunity for previously infected COVID-19 patients. So when the Titans traded linebacker Kamalei Correa to the Jaguars on Oct. 14, he was able to play in the Jaguars' game on Oct. 18. Correa had tested positive for COVID-19 while with the Titans, so he didn't have to undergo the entry testing procedures upon arrival in Jacksonville.

(To be clear: Individuals who are exempt from testing due to a previous positive test still have to wear masks in the team facility and follow all other COVID-19-related protocols. They just don't have to get tested for 90 days.)

And that's why, when mulling a potential trade, a coach might ask his general manager whether the trade target has tested positive. And if the answer is yes, the trade might become more appealing. Teams would get the player for one more game than they would if the answer was no.

As you might expect, that's not the only reason this year's trade deadline is different. Four others:

A team's 2020 salary-cap space might not be what it appears to be

This year's salary cap is $198.2 million per team. But the salary cap is tied to league revenue, and the pandemic is likely to sap the league's revenue in 2020. A canceled preseason, games played in empty stadiums -- the NFL is projecting revenue losses that will cause the 2021 cap to drop. The NFL and the NFLPA agreed to set a floor of $175 million per team for next year's cap, meaning it can't go below that. But teams are budgeting for that number, which is a nearly 12% drop from this season, and that budgeting isn't easy.

One thing that makes it easier is that teams are allowed to roll over salary-cap space from one year to the next. (This is always the case; it's not a COVID-19-specific 2020-2021 rule.) This year more than ever, that rollover space is precious, and teams are protecting it. Where in the past we might have seen a go-for-it team make a trade for a high-salary player at the deadline, that's less likely this year.

"You're not going to see people take on bigger deals," one team executive said this week. "Usually, if a team is in win-now mode and they're one player away, you might see them say, 'We've got enough cap space, the cap's going up next year, let's do it.' But this year, teams are being a lot more careful with that."

The Bengals sent defensive end Carlos Dunlap to the pass-rush-needy Seahawks on Wednesday. Dunlap has about $4.1 million in salary left for this year, but Seattle offset some of that by sending back offensive lineman B.J. Finney in the deal. Finney has $1.3 million in salary left. The Seahawks ended up costing themselves only about $2.8 million in cap space instead of the full $4.1 million.

Depth matters more

One team executive told me that teams have been "hoarding" offensive and defensive linemen who might otherwise be available in trades because they're worried about being caught short in those positions due to COVID-19 outbreaks within position groups.

Last week, the entire Raiders offensive line had to isolate after one of them tested positive. This week, the Giants find themselves in a similar situation. The expanded practice squads this year -- up to 16 players -- as a result of both the new CBA and the pandemic help, but teams are wary of having to go into games without backups at positions where in-game injury rates are high.

Are teams sure they're sellers?

By this point in the season, teams generally have some idea whether they're still in the playoff race. But this is the first year in which the playoffs are expanding to seven teams per conference. There's all kinds of data that tells teams what their chances of making the playoffs are if their record is 4-3 or 4-4 or 3-4 or whatever, but all of that data was based on a system in which six teams from each conference made the playoffs.

It stands to reason that a team with three wins through Week 9 could have a better chance of getting into the playoff field than it would have a year ago. And that might make said team more hesitant to sell off players to contenders that are higher in the standings.

A week ago, because of the six-day entry testing procedures, the feeling around the league was that most trades would be done this week, to allow teams to use their new players in time for Week 9. But while a few did happen, the midweek activity was not on the level that many expected, and by the end of the week it was clear that some teams were waiting to see what happened this weekend before deciding what to do.

One of the most closely watched teams, for example, is the Patriots. A win Sunday in Buffalo would improve them to 3-4, a game and a half behind the first-place Bills with a head-to-head win in their pocket. But a loss would drop the Patriots to 2-5, three and a half games out of first place behind a team that has already beaten them. Drastically different circumstances. Several teams are watching to see whether the Patriots sell off veteran pieces of their defense. They might have to wait until Sunday evening for the answer.

Why is it on Election Day?

Right? After all the work the NFL has done over the past few months on its voting initiatives, doesn't it feel weird that one of the potentially biggest in-season news days would coincide with the day people are supposed to go vote? A day on which the thoughts of the entire nation will be on far more significant matters?

Thing is, once the season started when it did, the league didn't really have a choice. The trade deadline is, by rule, the Tuesday after the conclusion of Week 8. Moving it a week earlier or later would require a vote by teams, and this is no small issue. The league doesn't want to move the deadline earlier because it wants to give the season some time to shake out and allow teams to identify whether they should be buyers or sellers based on the standings. And while some have proposed moving it later -- especially now that seven teams per conference will make the playoffs and therefore theoretically teams could stay in contention longer than they could in years past -- that idea doesn't yet have the required support.

So why not Monday or Wednesday? Well, there's a game Monday, which means a 4 p.m. ET deadline would fall four hours before the Buccaneers and Giants even kicked off their Week 8 game. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

Moving it to Wednesday would create an odd situation that could force teams to have to pay players who aren't on their rosters anymore. Each week of the season, Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET is an important deadline, because a player who is on a team's roster past that time has to be paid by that team for the following week's game (or bye). So if the trade deadline moved to Wednesday and, for example, the Chiefs traded Patrick Mahomes to the Jets on Wednesday, the Chiefs would still have to pay Mahomes for Week 9 even though he wouldn't be on their team anymore.