Welcome to our latest issue of NFLTR Review! The countdown to Week 1 continues and we’ve got another loaded column to dig into this week.
In this week’s edition:
- A spin around the trade block looking at 10 players who could find new homes this month
- Looking ahead to the crowded free-agent market at running back next year
- Can Clyde Edwards-Helaire live up to the hype?
- Recap of the first week of padded practices
Around The Trade Block
Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue is the biggest domino left on the trade block, but there’s a number of other pieces that could change teams. Here’s a quick whirl around the trade block at some potential players and destinations.
Eagles CB Rasul Douglas
The Eagles reportedly dangled Douglas for sale back before the draft but didn’t get any takers. They later restructured his deal to make his cap hit more manageable but the team is still deep in the secondary and likely would part with him for a relatively low draft pick.
Like any kind of player movement, familiarity plays a key role in trades. Jets GM Joe Douglas was a key voice in Philadelphia taking Douglas in the third round back in 2017 and has already shown an affinity for players he’s scouted heavily coming out of college by signing former Ravens first-round WR Breshad Perriman. The Jets have some internal options vying for the No. 2 corner job but if no one steps up, Douglas could turn to Douglas.
Washington LB Ryan Anderson
After some buzz that Anderson was available for trade because he wasn’t a strong scheme fit in Washington’s new 4-3 look, DC Jack Del Rio walked that back in some recent comments, saying Anderson is currently their No. 4 defensive end and looking at a role as a rotational pass rusher. But given he’s entering the final year of his deal, Washington would probably still part with Anderson for a draft pick.
The Patriots would be a perfect scheme fit for Anderson as they look to replace another former Alabama linebacker, Dont’a Hightower, after he opted out. Anderson’s exactly the type of versatile defender New England loves and would bring toughness and pass-rushing ability to New England’s linebacker corps.
Panthers WR Curtis Samuel
Samuel’s name came up in trade talks this offseason as teams saw the Panthers go out and sign WR Robby Anderson to $10 million per year in free agency despite already having Samuel and D.J. Moore. The logical leap was that Samuel was available, though the team put out through beat reporters it just listened and did not actively shop the former second-round pick.
Carolina isn’t giving Samuel away, as new OC Joe Brady’s offense is heavy on multi-receiver sets and can use a player with Samuel’s versatility, but there is blood in the water as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. With no assurances of being able to re-sign Samuel this offseason, if a team comes with a third or even a fourth-round pick, the Panthers might pull the trigger. Washington needs a lot of help at receiver and their new coaching staff is quite familiar with Samuel, who could be an attractive, long-term piece.
Chargers CB Desmond King
Just two years removed from being a first-team All-Pro as a nickel corner, King finds himself in a fringe role with the Chargers after the team signed veteran slot CB Chris Harris as one of their top free-agent targets. King had an uneven 2019 season after being moved outside but now projects as a sub-package player in Los Angeles’ dime defense.
Like Samuel and the Panthers, the Chargers use enough defensive backs that it doesn’t make sense to give up King for pennies. But if they can get a decent pick or another player to shore up a weaker area on the roster, Los Angeles could bite. Nickel is still somewhat of a question mark for the Seahawks, so Seattle could dangle a draft pick or even veteran LB K.J. Wright to the Chargers for King.
Cardinals LB Haason Reddick
An elite athlete coming out of college, Reddick hasn’t been able to find a fit with the Cardinals since he soared up draft boards and landed in Arizona in the first round. He was a defensive end in college but at 6-1 and 235 pounds he’s shuttled between off-ball linebacker and outside linebacker his first three years in the league. Arizona already declined his fifth-year option and the arrival of multi-dimensional first-round LB Isaiah Simmons makes Reddick’s days in the desert numbered.
Who better to give Reddick a chance to resurrect his career than the college coach who saw him become a budding star in the first place? Panthers HC Matt Rhule has already shown an affinity for former Temple players and the Panthers defense could use all the help it can get. On Arizona’s side, the Cardinals can pick up a late-rounder and about $2 million in cap space by trading Reddick.
Ravens G Ben Powers
Baltimore threw a lot at the interior offensive line this offseason to try and minimize the loss of G Marshal Yanda and the expected absence of C Matt Skura. They signed G D.J. Fluker and drafted Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson in the third and fourth round respectively. With OL Patrick Mekari returning and LG Bradley Bozeman an option to shift to center, Powers would have been one of several players competing for two starting spots on the interior.
However, Skura has healed remarkably after tearing three knee ligaments late last year and appears ready to resume his starting position without a stint on the PUP list to start the year. That pushes Bozeman back to left guard plus takes up a roster spot. With the team also high on undrafted C Trystan Colon-Castillo, that’s 10 candidates when most teams keep only eight or nine on the offensive line.
Fluker looks like the leader to start at right guard and Bredeson should make the team based on his draft status. Mekari’s positional flexibility gave him the edge over Powers last season for a place on the active roster and likely does the same this year. Fortunately for the Ravens, there’s a lot of teams across the league who could use help at guard. The division-rival Browns were down to as few as two guards following the opt-out deadline. Teams don’t usually trade within their division, but the Ravens did send DL Chris Wormley to the Steelers this past March. Other options include the Patriots who could be forced to kick either G Joe Thuney or Jermaine Eluemunor out to tackle to replace RT Marcus Cannon.
Lions LB Jarrad Davis
Though Lions HC Matt Patricia called Davis a “cornerstone” player in May, the team’s actions spoke louder when they declined his fifth-year option. Davis has been a speedy, hard-hitting, tackling machine when he’s been in the lineup but he’s also been repeatedly victimized in coverage. Detroit spent big bucks on Jamie Collins and returns Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and 2019 second-rounder Jahlani Tavai at linebacker, so there’s some depth in Detroit if they wanted to move on from Davis.
Perhaps New England could do a better job of highlighting Davis’ strengths and hiding his weaknesses than Patriots-disciple Patricia. The Giants are another branch of the New England coaching tree and could also use some help at linebacker despite signing Blake Martinez in free agency. Fun fact: Davis was one of the options the Giants reportedly considered in 2017 before selecting TE Evan Engram.
Patriots OLB Derek Rivers
Coming out of Youngstown State, Rivers earned a lot of buzz as a prospect for his high sack totals and his athleticism that hit a number of promising benchmarks for pass rushers at the NFL Scouting Combine. But knee injuries have limited Rivers to just six games and one sack in his three years in New England. Most projections have had him on the wrong side of the roster bubble for the Patriots 53-man roster but another team could believe in Rivers enough to trade a late-round pick to get him before he hits waivers.
Based on our archives, the Ravens were one of the teams that showed a fair amount of interest in Rivers when he was a draft prospect. Baltimore doesn’t have a clear long-term answer at edge rusher if they don’t re-sign franchise-tagged OLB Matt Judon, so Rivers might be worth a swing to see if he can deliver on his potential.
Ravens RB Gus Edwards
I mentioned earlier the roster crunch the Ravens will face at cutdown day this year. That also extends to running back, where Baltimore added second-round rookie J.K. Dobbins to a group that already included Mark Ingram, 2019 fourth-rounder Justice Hill and Edwards. Ravens OC Greg Roman has talked about how splitting touches between four backs is a good problem to have but Baltimore might find it nicer if it can flip Edwards to address other problems.
That said, it’s hard to trade running backs given how talented the position is top to bottom across the league. Until a starter goes down, there might not be much of a market for Edwards. If I had to pick a spot for Edwards, the Chargers stand out. With Tyrod Taylor taking over for Philip Rivers at quarterback, HC Anthony Lynn — a former running back himself — is set to emphasize the ground game. Edwards’ hard-charging sledgehammer style is a perfect complement to Austin Ekeler and wouldn’t leave Los Angeles in the position of relying solely on fourth-round RB Joshua Kelley.
The Big Picture: Crowded Market For Running Backs In 2021
This week brought the news that the Vikings and RB Dalvin Cook have broken off contract talks for now. While all hope for a deal isn’t lost, it appears Cook will now play out the final year of his rookie contract and face the franchise tag next offseason.
He’s far from the only back in that position. The star-studded running back class of 2017 that featured Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones and many more are all entering contract years with the exception of McCaffrey, who had to become just the third player ever with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving to earn a new deal from Carolina.
While Cook, Mixon and Kamara could still sign extensions with their original teams, there’s a lot working against them. The challenging market dynamics that running backs have faced in recent areas remain. The combination of short careers, heightened injury risk and the glut of talent available at the position depresses most running back salaries. And even before “running backs don’t matter” became a pithy catchphrase on the Internet, teams were starting to catch on to the efficiency benefits of passing the ball more than running it, especially off of play-action with more research showing teams didn’t need to “establish the run” for play fakes to be effective.
All of that could come to a head in the 2021 offseason when there’s a projected bonanza of available running backs. A quick summary of the players available:
Expiring rookie deals:
- Leonard Fournette
- Kareem Hunt
- Dalvin Cook
- Joe Mixon
- Alvin Kamara
- James Conner
- Tarik Cohen
- Jamaal Williams
- Aaron Jones
- Marlon Mack
- Chris Carson
- Matt Breida
- Gus Edwards (RFA)
- Phillip Lindsay (RFA)
- Boston Scott (RFA)
Veterans on expiring contracts:
- Kenyan Drake
- Todd Gurley
- Tevin Coleman
- James White
- Carlos Hyde
- Adrian Peterson
- Jerick McKinnon
- Frank Gore
- LeSean McCoy
- Lamar Miller
- Malcolm Brown
- Travis Etienne (Clemson)
- Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State)
- Najee Harris (Alabama)
- Kylin Hill (Mississippi State)
And potential cut candidates:
That’s 35 backs who will be potentially looking for a seat before the music stops, with the number from the draft likely increasing a fair amount given around 20 backs are picked every year. And an early look at depth charts shows just 12 starting jobs and maybe 8-10 other committee roles available as things stand now. A good number of these players will be left without a seat when the music stops.
Even the best of these backs could find themselves affected. Cook initially wanted to be paid in the same tier as McCaffrey but Minnesota’s initial offers were below $10 million a year and reportedly haven’t budged all that much even as Cook has come down to $13 million a year. And the number tossed around by an agent after Jones met with the Packers at the Combine was as low as $5 million per year.
They might not fare much better in free agency. The open market hasn’t been kind to running backs recently, with Bell and Melvin Gordon each failing to hit their targets in successive years. Neither had much competition, either, so it’s not hard to envision teams looking at the bountiful supply and deciding not to stretch too far to keep their guy with cheaper options available on the market or in the draft.
The good news for running backs is that Saquon Barkley should push the market north of McCaffrey when he signs his extension. There might not be many more players who will be happy with the deal they sign next year.
Fantasy Football Corner
After Chiefs veteran RB Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, first-round rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire saw his stock sore as the presumptive lead back for an incendiary Chiefs offense. Edwards-Helaire was already being drafted in the early rounds but the Williams opt-out juiced his ADP into the first round.
I’m here to pump the brakes a bit on that. Most people see Edwards-Helaire as a lock to repeat Kareem Hunt’s production when he was Kansas City’s lead back in his first two seasons. Hunt led the NFL in rushing as a third-round rookie in 2017, then finished as 2018’s No. 8 back despite missing the final five games after being cut due to video of him kicking a woman. Edwards-Helaire was drafted higher than Hunt and has a similar skillset as a short, stocky, tackle-breaking fiend who might not be the fastest back but is equally adept rushing or receiving.
However, there’s a key difference between Hunt’s rookie year and the 2019 Chiefs. Normally Alex Smith vs Patrick Mahomes at quarterback would be no contest in Mahomes’ favor, but while Mahomes uses his athleticism to buy time and throw downfield when pressured, Smith favored the checkdown to the running back. As a result, Hunt’s targets and receptions dipped when Mahomes took over.
Hunt was still productive in large part because he had an incredible seven touchdown receptions on just 26 catches in 2019. The Chiefs like to use their running backs in high-leverage mismatch situations, which benefits Edwards-Helaire, but it means you’re relying on efficiency instead of volume for production, which is inherently riskier. In five of Hunt’s 11 games in 2018, he had just one target or one reception.
Kansas City liked Edwards-Helaire enough to make him the only running back selected in the first round this year and HC Andy Reid said he was better than one of his favorite players ever, former Eagles RB Brian Westbrook. However, it’s worth mentioning it took a couple of years for Westbrook to really get going as a pro. Running backs tend to have one of the easier transition periods from college to the NFL, but it is still a transition. I watched nearly every snap of McCaffrey as a rookie with the Panthers and while he showed some of his current record-breaking potential, he also had moments where he looked a step slow or like he needed a year in an NFL strength program.
McCaffrey still finished as the RB 15 as a rookie and that’s certainly doable for Edwards-Helaire. The question is if that’s worth a first-round pick. Drafting him that high is taking him near the top of his range of possible outcomes and there’s not a lot of surplus value. I subscribe to the philosophy that you can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it. There are safer picks than Edwards-Helaire right now.
One consistent pattern Reid has shown with his running backs is he needs young backs to prove themselves to earn snaps over veterans who might have less talent but can execute what’s being asked of them. While people saw Williams as the only serious obstacle, there are other backs on the team that aren’t chopped liver, even if they’re being treated that way. I’m higher than most on Darwin Thompson after learning about how he beat the odds to make it to the NFL, but the Chiefs offensive staff has also remained upbeat on Thompson despite not living up to sleeper expectations as a sixth-round rookie last year. Darrel Williams also had some decent performances as a backup last year and DeAndre Washington caught 71 passes in two years with Mahomes in college at Texas Tech.
None of them are as talented as Edwards-Helaire but they all have more experience if the rookie falters. Devonta Freeman also remains on the market and would muddy this backfield considerably if signed. Overall, I would take at least nine backs before Edwards-Helaire, including Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders. I would also recommend checking out the roundtable at FootballGuys.com on Edwards-Helaire, as they go even more in-depth than I do on this topic.
This Week In Football
- The first week of padded practices are always a welcome step back toward having real football and especially so this year when so many other things have been disrupted. However, it also means injuries, particularly with the abbreviated ramp-up process. This week, Gerald McCoy, Jalen Hurd, Robert Alford, Artie Burns, Mack Wilson, Iman Marshall, Renell Wren, Josh Oliver, Duke Ejiofor, T.J. Logan and Alex Brown all suffered severe injuries that likely will cost them the 2020 season. Numerous other players have gone down and teams have been extra cautious with soft tissue injuries to try and keep players healthy for Week 1.
- Packers DT Kenny Clark became the latest player to sign a big-money extension now that teams have some baseline to work off of with the cap in future years. Clark is also just 24 and should be in line for another big payday before he turns 30.
- The negotiations were challenging, but the 49ers were able to get a deal done with TE George Kittle to give a much-needed boost to the tight end market.
- Now other teams have to deal with the ramifications. The Chiefs already signed TE Travis Kelce to a well-deserved pay raise and Eagles TE Zach Ertz is next in line. However, Ertz might not agree to as team-friendly of a deal, and it’s worth keeping him in mind as a potential trade candidate down the road.
- In one of the most surprising developments of this offseason, Ravens C Matt Skura was activated from the PUP list just eight and a half months after a catastrophic knee injury where he tore three ligaments. Kudos to Skura on a terrific recovery.
- We also want to send our thoughts out to Washington HC Ron Rivera following his diagnosis of lymph node cancer, especially in this time of COVID-19. Hopefully he can make a speedy recovery.