20 years ago the Saints traded their entire draft class for Ricky Williams

Remembering one of the worst trades in NFL history

Seth Dunlap
April 16, 2019 - 5:49 pm

The New Orleans Saints have had a few marquee draft classes in recent years.   They had just five picks in 2016 but managed to grab Michael Thomas, Sheldon Rankins, Vonn Bell, and David Onyemata.   A year later the Saints had one of the best draft classes in NFL history that included Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alex Anzelone, and Alvin Kamara.  There is one year, however, quite a long time ago that they'd like to forget.

Rewind 20 years ago, when Mike Ditka was patrolling the sidelines for an ever-dysfunctional Saints franchise.  Long gone were the Bobby Hebert playoff years.  It was 1999 and the Saints were coming off their fifth-consecutive losing season, and hadn't finished above .500 in six years.  The franchise was desperate.  So was Ditka who had won just 12 total games in his two seasons with the franchise.  

Ditka became enamored with Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Williams leading up to the draft.  Ditka even stated during the owners meeting leading up to the draft that he liked Williams so much he would be willing to trade the Saints entire bevy of draft picks to move up and select Williams.  Most people thought he was being hyperbolic, that he was bluffing.  He wasn't.

On April 17, 1999, the first day of that year's NFL Draft, Ditka and the Saints traded away every one of their draft picks, plus two picks in the following year's draft, to move up to the #5 overall slot to select Williams.   Eight draft picks in total were sent away for one running back.

It's hard to imagine any team in today's modern NFL making such a move.  Draft picks are too valuable, even mid-to-late round picks.  Running backs have also been devalued to a point where selecting one anywhere in the first round usually leads to instant derision from fans and draft-nits everywhere.  Any coach or general manager who even discussed such an absurd trade out loud would probably be out of a job by the next morning. Two decades ago it actually happened.  

The Saints would win only three games in Williams' rookie season, one that would also be Ditka's last with the franchise.  It was the Hall of Fame coaches swan song to the league and one that he, and Saints fans everywhere, would like to forget.  Williams played just three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami.

Williams did have a productive NFL career, although it was derailed twice due to his fondness for a certain green herb.  He rushed for over 10,000 yards with 66 touchdowns in 11 seasons in the NFL.  His legacy with the Saints, however, will always be remembered for the most bizarre draft-day trade in NFL history.

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