NFLTR Review: 2021 NFL Trade Deadline Preview

The NFL trade deadline is just around the corner and we’ve got a packed issue of NFLTR Review to get you ready:

  • Five possible trade scenarios
  • Other names to keep an eye on
  • Grading the trades so far
  • Plus, top 10 breakout players as we hit the season’s midway point 

Around The Trade Block

Historically the NFL trade deadline hasn’t been much of an event. In recent years, though, teams have become a lot more aggressive and willing to move picks and players, which has provided an uptick in activity. 

This year, the aftereffects of the pandemic on the NFL salary cap have tamped down a lot of the speculation and made things difficult for teams shopping for help. There are still moves to be made, though. Obviously, the big name everyone is watching is in Houston. But there are a number of other quality players who could be on the move before November 2.

In this week’s issue, I’m going to call my shot on five trades that I think should and could happen in the next few days. Not all of them will, in fact, it’s probable none of them do. But it’s a fun exercise nonetheless. 

Broncos trade 2022 fifth to Texans for LB Zach Cunningham

Every year, a couple of teams get unlucky and experience a wave of injuries that basically wipe out one position group. The Broncos unfortunately are in that bucket, as Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell and Micah Kiser are all on injured reserve. Denver’s already made one move for a linebacker ahead of the trade deadline, but they could use more help. 

That’s where Cunningham comes in. Just a year after signing an extension that paid him $14.5 million a year, Cunningham has been reduced to a two-down role player. He played 100, 70 and 100 percent of the snaps the first three weeks. That’s been reduced to 52, 29 and 21 percent of the snaps in the past three games. 

A few weeks ago, we highlighted Cunningham’s situation as one to watch at the trade deadline. We even mentioned the Broncos given they hosted him on a pre-draft visit and the LB coach at the time, Reggie Herring, is still in Denver. Cunningham has already been restructured so he’s on just a minimum base salary for 2021. 

Cunningham would help right away but he also could be a longer term option. The only two off-ball linebackers under contract for the Broncos in 2022 are Baron Browning and Justin Strnad. Johnson, Jewell, Kiser and Young are all pending unrestricted free agents. However, if the Broncos didn’t want to commit to Cunningham, they could cut him before the fifth day of the league year and owe him nothing. 

A fifth-round pick isn’t a lot, but it’s better than nothing given Houston is almost certainly going to cut Cunningham this coming offseason. That means he won’t count for a compensatory pick either. If anything, a fifth-round pick is on the rich side, but if the Broncos see Cunningham as someone who could be a factor for longer than the back half of 2021, it’s a premium they might be willing to pay. 

Chiefs trade 2022 sixth to Steelers for OLB Melvin Ingram

As far as connecting the dots, this was easy even before the report that Kansas City made an offer for Ingram. The Chiefs were one of the teams that hosted Ingram for a visit this offseason and there was a lot of optimism at the time that he would end up signing. The two sides couldn’t come to terms on a deal though and he waited a while longer in free agency before signing with the Steelers later in the summer. 

Now that Ingram’s role is apparently being reduced in Pittsburgh, the Chiefs can re-enter the picture. Kansas City hasn’t been able to generate any kind of a pass rush outside of Chris Jones, who’s playing out of position at defensive end instead of defensive tackle. Ingram is nowhere near his peak but he’s better than the other options the Chiefs have and would help them be able to shift Jones back inside. 

Given Ingram wants out, it shouldn’t cost Kansas City that much to acquire him. Pittsburgh typically doesn’t do these kinds of deals but Ingram’s desire for different circumstances might convince them to handle this differently. 

Jaguars trade 2022 fifth to Giants for TE Evan Engram, 2022 seventh. 

Jaguars HC Urban Meyer has talked about the need to add more weapons around first-round QB Trevor Lawrence. He specifically wants to add a speedy threat on the outside but Jacksonville also still has a need at the tight end position. In-season acquisition Dan Arnold has been just so-so. Engram has been inconsistent during his time in New York, but the potential he has is undeniable and worth taking a shot that a fresh start will be exactly what he needs. 

For New York, the reason to do a trade now is because it’s clear Engram is not in their future plans. A deal locks in value instead of forcing the Giants to navigate the compensatory pick formula. Engram is in a contract year, so New York won’t get much more than this if I had to guess. He’s only due a little more than $3 million, which doesn’t seem like much. But it already rules out a dozen or so teams given how many teams are tight up against their budgets from the pandemic. 

The Jaguars can use the second half of the season to evaluate Engram to see if he’d be a fit long-term. They can also use that time to sell him on what they’re building in Jacksonville to recruit him ahead of free agency. If he does end up leaving, they haven’t given up much, just a couple of rounds of draft position. 

Panthers trade 2023 third, 2022 7th to Eagles for OT Andre Dillard, 2023 fifth

Carolina apparently inquired with the Eagles about Dillard this offseason but were flatly rebuffed. The team has been desperately in need of offensive line help, but Panthers GM Scott Fitterer said earlier this offseason the lack of reinforcements hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Very few teams around the league have offensive line depth they’re willing to give up. 

The situation appears to have changed with Dillard, however. After winning the competition to start at left tackle over Dillard, Jordan Mailata received a major extension from Philadelphia. Together with RT Lane Johnson, the Eagles have their bookends at tackle for the next couple of years, making Dillard a backup tackle — a backup left tackle at that, as he doesn’t really play any other position. 

Dillard has started four games this year in relief and acquitted himself well, reinvigorating his trade value. While tackle depth is valuable given Johnson has a history of injuries, Dillard is arguably more valuable to the Eagles if they can convert him into a draft pick to accelerate their rebuild. And because so many teams need help at tackle, Philadelphia actually might be able to get that Day 2 pick they’ve been rumored to be seeking. 

That leads us back to the Panthers. Carolina has shown it’s comfortable trading quality picks for high-pedigree players in need of a fresh start. They’ve already traded away their second and third-round picks in 2022 for QB Sam Darnold and CB C.J. Henderson. They’d have to dip into the well in 2023 to get a Day 2 pick for Dillard. But getting a fifth back mitigates the risk a little, and the upside of securing a potential starting left tackle could be worth rolling the dice again. 

Packers trade 2022 fifth to Broncos for CB Kyle Fuller, Denver eats half of Fuller’s remaining base salary

If the Packers really are going to get CB Jaire Alexander back this year, this move probably isn’t necessary. But it could be a quality insurance policy anyway to ensure a lack of depth in the secondary doesn’t submarine Green Bay in the playoffs. Right now, the Packers have Kevin King, first-round rookie Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas manning the outside corner spots. That’s less than inspiring despite Douglas’ game-sealing pick Thursday night. 

Is this move out of character for the Packers front office? Perhaps, but it’s instructive to look at how things have shifted this season. Green Bay was firmly in the mix for CB Stephon Gilmore before he was traded to the Panthers, and they have signed both LB Jaylon Smith and OLB Whitney Mercilus after the high-profile veterans were abruptly released in recent weeks. After the nudge from Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have been more aggressive at making moves to shore up holes and keep their championship window in 2021 open. 

That brings us to Fuller. Cut in a cost-saving move by the Bears this offseason, Fuller signed a lucrative $9.5 million deal with the Broncos soon after. However, other additions to the Denver secondary have played a lot better and Fuller has been benched, playing just two snaps in the past two games. Teams are always looking for cornerback help, so Fuller should still have trade value if the Broncos want to move on, despite his contract. And Denver could always eat some of that space if it nets them a better pick. 

The Packers are intimately familiar with Fuller from playing him twice a year for his entire career. Green Bay even made Fuller an offer sheet when he was transition-tagged by the Bears in 2018. A fifth is an aggressive offer for a veteran but if the Broncos eat a big chunk of Fuller’s remaining prorated salary, the upside could be worth it for the Packers. 

Other Names To Watch

  • Eagles DT Fletcher Cox and G Brandon Brooks are veterans other teams would value highly enough to have a trade market, especially because they’re playing on minimum base salaries in 2021 after being restructured. The question is if Eagles GM Howie Roseman would ship them off for perhaps just third or fourth-round picks, as the cap savings in future years aren’t great either. 
  • The market for running backs may have dried up with the Saints making a move and the Chiefs, Panthers and 49ers either getting backs back healthy or being slated to get their starters back in the next couple of weeks. That’s bad news Colts RB Marlon Mack who remains on the block. 
  • If the Dolphins decide to have a firesale and retrace their steps on the rebuilding project, CB Xavien Howard and OLB Emmanuel Ogbah are the main names to watch. 
  • The Bills have an embarrassment of riches on the defensive line. After losing J.J. Watt, are the Cardinals interested in sending more than pennies for DT Vernon Butler or DE Efe Obada?

This Week In Football

  • The entire NFL world continues to monitor the situation in Houston to see if QB Deshaun Watson will indeed be traded by this coming Tuesday. Here’s what we’ve learned this week: 
    • The Texans are absolutely hoping to trade Watson before the deadline. NFL Network confirmed this Sunday and also had multiple reporters say the NFL would not place Watson on the exempt list, at least not right away, meaning he could play if traded. Roger Goodell also essentially said the same thing in his press conference Tuesday night. That’s potentially huge, as Watson’s availability has been a huge stumbling block to a potential deal. However, that could also change at any moment if there are developments with the 22 civil suits and 10 criminal complaints against him for sexual misconduct. 
    • There have been multiple people who have said it’s not “Miami or bust” for a trade. It’s pretty clear that if a trade happens before Tuesday, it will be to the Dolphins, though. The Panthers pulled out of the running on Wednesday, and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reported Watson would not waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles. McClain went so far as to say that compensation has essentially been agreed to between the Dolphins and Texans, with the holdup being Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wanting Watson’s legal situation resolved. Obviously the odds of that happening naturally between now and next Tuesday are zilch, but I take it to mean Ross wants Watson to settle the civil lawsuits, which would move things along considerably. McClain says Watson views that as an admission of guilt and a non-starter. 
  • Where does that leave us? There are still a lot of hurdles to clear for Watson to be traded. It’s far from a guarantee, perhaps even less than a 50-50 chance. But I will say, as has been pointed out by McClain and others, the three parties involved here all want a trade. Watson wants out of Houston, the Texans want to turn the page and the Dolphins want Watson. The motivation is there, we just have to wait and see if it results in one or two of these parties compromising more than they’ve been willing to do so far to make it happen. 
  • It’s been a rough time for quarterback injuries. Browns QB Baker Mayfield has a left shoulder injury that caused him to miss Week 7 and could knock him out again. He’s already worsened the injury by playing through it and while Mayfield has to be dragged off the field, at some point his body might give him no choice. Jets first-round QB Zach Wilson also took another hit in a rookie season full of them, injuring his PCL which will knock him out 2-4 weeks. Washington veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s return from a hip subluxation has been slow going and he’s weeks away from returning. Six weeks always sounded optimistic for that kind of injury for someone his age. It does look like the Texans will get veteran QB Tyrod Taylor back, as he was designated to return from injured reserve where he’s been for five weeks. 
  • The attrition has continued at other positions. The Cardinals suffered a massive blow to their defense with the news that DL J.J. Watt suffered a shoulder injury that will need season-ending surgery. He’d been a huge key to their success and undefeated start. Elsewhere, the Giants lost S Jabrill Peppers to a torn ACL and the Bears are looking at an extended absence due to a foot injury for OLB Khalil Mack
  • We haven’t seen the big move yet, but we have gotten some small action in the week before the deadline. The Broncos made a couple of moves to address their defense, adding OLB Stephen Weatherly from the Vikings and LB Kenny Young from the Rams. Denver just had to swap late-round picks for these two deals, pushing a seventh from 2022 back to 2023 for Weatherly and swapping a sixth for a seventh in 2024 for Young. These moves probably won’t make a ton of waves, but Young was actually playing solidly for the Rams before being dealt, so that’s something of a curious move. It probably reflects how little Los Angeles values the off-ball linebacker position. 
  • For months, the Jets beat has been banging on GM Joe Douglas and HC Robert Saleh for not signing a veteran backup quarterback, a weak spot which was exposed after Wilson’s injury. The Jets addressed the issue on Monday trading a conditional sixth that can become a fifth for Eagles backup QB Joe Flacco. That’s definitely an overpay and Flacco isn’t even going to make it to the team facility until Friday. But at least the Jets finally have a backup. 
  • The Saints and RB Mark Ingram are reuniting after New Orleans traded with the Texans for the veteran running back. Houston had a full stable of veteran running backs and could part with Ingram easily. New Orleans could use another back to take the rushing load off of Alvin Kamara and Ingram is the perfect fit. 

Top 10: 2021 Breakout Players

New stars are born every year in the NFL and 2021 is no different. As we head into Week 8, here are 10 of the biggest and most surprising breakouts of the season so far. 

Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs

It’s hard to get interceptions in the modern NFL. Rules to protect quarterbacks and receivers along with the shift to shorter passing offenses have dramatically cut down on the number of times a game defensive players have the chance to get their hands on the ball. 

Someone forgot to tell Diggs, though. The second-year corner has at least one pick in every game so far. And with two of his seven interceptions returned for touchdowns, Diggs has outscored receivers like Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen and Brandin Cooks — plus equaled his brother, Bills WR Stefon Diggs

Like Ravens CB Marcus Peters who’s also a terrific ballhawk, Diggs can be a little feast or famine in coverage. He’ll get aggressive and he’ll get burned, as evidenced two weeks ago when the Patriots got him for a long touchdown the play after he had a pick-six to take the lead. Still, taking the ball away is an incredibly valuable skill for defenders and no one is doing it better than Diggs right now. 

Falcons RB Cordarrelle Patterson

Most of the players on this list are in their 20s and in their first few years in the league. Patterson is the rare 30-year-old breakout, however, after coming out of nowhere to become one of the most important players on offense for the Falcons. He leads the team in yards from scrimmage (529) and touchdowns (6) and has touched the ball on offense more than anyone not named Matt Ryan

Patterson has been great with the ball in his hands since entering the league as a first-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2013. He’s been one of the best returners in the NFL from Day 1 and one of the best all-time. But he probably entered the league a few years too early before offenses were ready to maximize his skill set. He struggled with the finer details of the receiver position and even when Patriots HC Bill Belichick moved him to running back, his limited experience and body type made him just a part-time player. 

Falcons HC Arthur Smith has been wildly successful, though, in unlocking Patterson’s game. Patterson is getting the ball in situations where he can maximize his natural gifts and it’s all within the natural flow of the offense, not forced like can sometimes happen with gadget players. Patterson has already set a career-high in rushing yards and he’s on pace to do the same as a receiver. 

Chargers WR Mike Williams

Williams had a 10-touchdown season in just his second year, but it came on just 43 catches and 664 yards. His third year, he finally went over 1,000 yards, but he only scored two touchdowns and again had just 49 catches. His first and fourth seasons were heavily affected by injuries. 

Finally in his fifth season, it appears Williams’ breakout has happened. Through six games, he has 33 catches for 498 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace for a huge year and appears to be blossoming into a legitimate No. 1 receiver for QB Justin Herbert. He’ll need to stay healthy — which is why that knee injury that limited him before Los Angeles’ bye is worth keeping an eye on — but Williams is making the absolute most of his contract year. 

Packers OLB Rashan Gary

There’s a saying in the NFL that disruption is production. Defenders can dramatically impact the game even if they don’t get home for the sack. Between the premium stats offerings from places like Pro Football Focus and advanced metrics like pass rush win rate, we have a pretty good idea of which pass rushers are the hardest to block. 

So far in 2021, one of those guys has been Gary. Entering Thursday night, he was rated 13th among 110 qualifying edge rushers by PFF, largely on the back of his 35 total pressures which are fifth in the league. His win percentage is third and his pass rush productivity is eighth. He’s even great against the run, ranking seventh in ESPN’s run stop win rate. 

The only critique of Gary so far has been that he has lagged behind in sack production, which is still what gets defenders the really big bucks when it’s time to sign a new deal. He has just 3.5 sacks on the season, which is a fair amount behind some of the other top pass rushers. Still, sacks tend to come in bunches and Gary is coming off a huge game with two sacks Sunday against Washington. Both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have been banged up, but Gary has ensured Green Bay’s pass rush has experienced little dropoff. 

Ravens CB Anthony Averett

If you watched that Ravens/Colts Monday night game a couple of weeks ago, you might be wondering what Averett is doing on this list. There’s no question that was a bad night, as the Colts picked on him to the tune of eight completions, 160 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets his way. The Ravens pass defense is also struggling, ranking 29th in the NFL right now with nearly 300 yards a game allowed. 

But outside of that game, Averett has been solid for Baltimore, especially considering he’s been targeted 60 times, more than any cornerback in the league per PFF. He’s held up well under intense pressure, picking off two passes and knocking down eight others. His quarterback rating allowed is only 75.5 and that touchdown he gave up to the Colts is his only one allowed of the season.

Is he a shutdown corner? No. Is he as good as the guy he’s replacing, Marcus Peters? Probably not. But so far Averett has looked like a solid No. 2 corner and those guys have a lot of value in the NFL. He’s making himself some money for his next contract in 2022. 

Browns DT Malik McDowell

It’s frankly amazing that McDowell is playing at all, let alone reasonably well as a key starter for Cleveland. The former second-round pick of the Seahawks never played a down in Seattle after an ATV accident and a number of run-ins with the law, ending with the team releasing him and McDowell being sentenced to nearly a year of jail-time. 

The Browns gave McDowell a shot and he impressed enough during training camp to earn a spot on the roster. He’s cooled off a bit after a hot start to the season but has still flashed as a pass rusher each week. If you grade him on the curve of this basically being his rookie season — four years after he was drafted — he’s doing really well and is a nice find for the Browns. 

Chiefs G Trey Smith

Smith’s story is well-known at this point. He was viewed as a potential first-round pick early in his college career at Tennessee before a medical condition that caused blood clots in his lungs was discovered. That uncertainty pushed him way down draft boards to the point where OL-needy Kansas City got a huge steal in the sixth round. 

So far Smith has far outstripped his draft capital. He’s PFF’s No. 11 guard and has been a huge key in helping the Chiefs rebuild their offensive line in just one offseason. He’ll still have rookie moments from time to time, but he’s clearly looking like he’s going to be a strong starter for the Chiefs for a long time. 

Titans OLB Harold Landry

Entering this year, Landry had flashed quite a bit, but hadn’t yet put together that huge double-digit sack season that gets edge rushers paid. Well he’s on pace to change that in his contract season, as so far only Browns DE Myles Garrett has more sacks than Landry’s 7.5 through seven games. Landry is also second in the entire league in total pressures at 40, behind only Raiders DE Maxx Crosby

If Landry can keep this up for the rest of the season, some team is going to cut him an enormous check in 2022. 

Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow

I might be a little premature by listing Renfrow here as a breakout player. Not because he hasn’t broken out — he’s on pace for a career-high season across the board — but because I think there’s still another level to his game that could be unlocked. In the right situation, Renfrow could have a season as huge as Wes Welker at his peak. 

It’s a long-running joke that Renfrow looks more like he should be doing taxes for NFL players rather than dusting DBs in the league. He’s not the biggest, fastest or strongest. Stand him next to D.K. Metcalf and it’s hard to believe they play the same position. He has great hands and can stop fast, though, which is essential for getting open on routes. He has a terrific feel for the position, including the storytelling you have to do with your body to lie to defenders and get open. He’s even making up his own routes this year. 

The third-year wideout is getting a ton of respect league-wide this year, coming a long way from making headlines for beating Jalen Ramsey in training camp. I think there’s still plenty more to come, though. 

Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase

No receiver in NFL history has tallied as many receiving yards in the first seven games of their career as Chase. 

Just stop and think about that for a minute. This man basically ran roughshod all over the college football world for one of the most dominant receiving years we’ve ever seen, took a whole year off, and now is doing it in the NFL. 

Chase isn’t just the best rookie receiver or the best rookie in this class. He’s already one of the best receivers in the entire NFL, period. How’s that for a breakout?

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