What a week! Some big names changed teams, and with the trade deadline coming up in a few weeks, there could be more to come. In this issue:
- 11 names to watch as trade candidates this month
- That includes miscast vets, reclamation projects & a potential big-name WR
- Plus breaking down the fallout from a wild week in the NFL
Around The Trade Block
There are still just under four more weeks to go until the NFL’s trade deadline, set for November 2 after the end of Week 8. While it’s unlikely we’ll see a blockbuster like this past weekend sending CB Stephon Gilmore from the Patriots to the Panthers, there are a number of interesting names worth keeping an eye on still.
Here’s a whirl around the trade block, including some names who have been reported or speculated, and a few others where we’ve connected the dots.
Colts RB Marlon Mack
Both team and player have openly said a trade might be best for both parties and they’re investigating options. Mack right now is buried on the depth chart and not seeing much of a role behind Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. The best thing for his career might be going somewhere with more opportunity, and the Colts have enough depth at running back that they can make do just fine without him.
Typically it’s difficult to trade running backs given how plentiful the options at the position usually are. But injuries have changed things this year. A number of teams have just been devastated this year and Indianapolis might actually be able to get a pick back for Mack. The 49ers, Saints and Ravens could all use reinforcements in the backfield and injuries could create other openings.
Seahawks DE L.J. Collier
The former first-round pick has been a healthy scratch for three out of the first five games of the season. He’s in a bit of a tough position, as he’s not a good enough edge rusher to be higher than fifth in the pecking order and he’s also behind about that many players in the rotation on the interior. A fresh start might be best for both sides, though Seattle probably won’t get much back for Collier.
Plenty of teams would be amenable to taking a chance on a former first-round defensive lineman but some teams to keep an eye on include the Jets, Eagles and Lions. Collier had a pre-draft visit with Philadelphia and a chunk of that front office is now in New York collecting defensive linemen. He also visited the Rams and while Seattle won’t trade him inside the division, key figures from that front office are now in Detroit.
Patriots WR N’Keal Harry
Harry’s camp has already expressed an interest in a fresh start somewhere else that will give the former first-round pick more of an opportunity. And while the trade request has been rescinded, the feelings and circumstances that prompted it are surely still there. Harry just returned from injured reserve and remains fourth on the depth chart behind Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in a run-first offense with two tight ends the team also paid big bucks for in free agency.
New England’s asking price was an obstacle when Harry’s name came up in trade rumors earlier this summer but perhaps the team would be more tempted by the chance to bolster its depth at cornerback. There’s a lot of overlap between the Patriots and Texans’ front offices, so perhaps Houston would take a chance on a young receiver and shed someone like Vernon Hargreaves.
Bill OL Cody Ford
There is a dearth of quality offensive linemen across the entire league, so teams are reluctant to part with even depth pieces. That makes it unlikely the Bills would move on from Ford who was a second-round pick in 2019. Still, given Ford was just benched and has struggled to solidify his standing his first three seasons, it’s not impossible. Buffalo is as well-positioned as any team to trade away an offensive lineman if they get a strong offer.
Ford can play tackle but his best fit is probably inside at guard where his size is maximized and his lack of foot speed minimized. The Giants are on their fourth starting left guard in as many games and can just use reinforcements overall. The Bengals were also high on Ford coming out of Oklahoma and can still use offensive line help.
Jets S Marcus Maye
Maye is a good player but there are a number of reasons the Jets would be hard-pressed to trade him even if they wanted to ahead of the deadline. His salary of $10.612 million on the franchise tag would be difficult for another team to eat, even if they’re only responsible for the prorated amount of about $5.6 million in a deal right at the deadline. He’s also hurt and facing a potential suspension from a DUI in February.
Still, Maye’s camp has made it clear they would welcome a trade. Perhaps a team like the Eagles, which could use some help at safety and employ Mayes former secondary coach, would be interested. The Titans and Washington also could use help at safety and have the cap space to finagle his deal onto the roster.
Texans LB Zach Cunningham
In the modern NFL, players like Cunningham are becoming rarer and rarer. He’s a beast when it comes to defending the run but a major weakness in coverage. Look at him hanging out in the corner by himself in this graph.
Quantifying off-ball LBs can be tough, partially because they play a role in coverage, run stop and pass rush.
Here's a plot getting at all 3. Run Stop Win Rate (x) by EPA per coverage snap allowed (y), with color indicating Pass Rush Win Rate. Up/Right/Red = good.
Some notes: pic.twitter.com/KAFhiSRFC0
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) August 9, 2021
Cunningham signed a $14.5 million per year extension just over a year ago that made him the NFL’s third highest-paid linebacker at the time. It was one of the last moves handed out by the Bill O’Brien front office, and while it hasn’t aged as poorly as most of the notable transactions from that tenure, it’s fair to say the Texans haven’t gotten that kind of impact. New DC Love Smith’s Tampa 2 system asks a lot from linebackers in coverage and Cunningham is currently 76th out of 81 qualifying players in that area according to Pro Football Focus.
With scheme fit a question and the team not close to contending, it’s not hard to see Houston being willing to shed Cunningham if it can get a decent pick back. His salary for this year is no problem at just $990,000, but it jumps to $10 million next year which could give some teams pause. That number becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, so Cunningham is a cap casualty candidate unless he dramatically improves in coverage regardless of if he finishes out the year in Houston or elsewhere.
As to what teams could use his services, the Giants still have a gaping hole at the position after losing Blake Martinez for the year. The Broncos could use an upgrade next to Alexander Johnson and did host Cunningham for a pre-draft workout back in 2017. The LB coach from that year, Reggie Herring, is still with the team.
Bears DT Akiem Hicks
By making the move to a rookie at quarterback, the Bears have signaled that this year will be more about development than legitimately competing. Chicago still has a lot of work to do to build a contender around Fields and someone like Hicks, who’s in the final year of his deal, might not be in their long-term plans. If so, it makes sense to unload him if another team has interest.
Hicks’ $10.4 million base salary would be a significant obstacle to a deal, however, unless the Bears are willing to eat salary to get a better pick in return. In terms of a potential landing spot, the Chargers are really the only team that stands out. They have a need on the interior of their defensive line, the cap space to take on the rest of Hicks’ deal and HC Brandon Staley is familiar with him from his time on Chicago’s defensive staff.
Eagles TE Zach Ertz
I know, I know. We’ve been keeping an eye out for an Ertz trade since January. Eagles GM Howie Roseman wasn’t bluffing when he said he wouldn’t just give Ertz away to clear cap space. He’s still in Philadelphia with a legitimate role, ranking third on the team in targets.
However, there are reasons not to discount a trade still happening before the deadline. The Eagles have done a good job of mixing both Ertz and TE Dallas Goedert into the offense, as each have 13 catches through four games. But there are signs HC Nick Sirianni and OC Shane Steichen would prefer to operate more in 11 personnel (three receivers) rather than 12 personnel (two receivers, two tight ends), as it’s easier to stretch the field with the speed Philadelphia has in its receiving corps.
This Eagles team is also still building for the future, and with both Ertz and Goedert on expiring contracts, there’s probably only room for one going forward. It still makes sense to trade Ertz given he’s older, as long as the Eagles can get something similar to what they think he would fetch as a comp pick.
As to who might be interested, Ertz’s salary is a real obstacle. He makes $500,000 a game, so his deal still has $6.5 million remaining in base salary. That knocks out more than half the league. Among the remaining teams, the Titans need help on offense, as they’ve gotten almost nothing from their tight end group. The Panthers’ trade activity signals they view themselves as contenders and they have a need at tight end after dealing away Dan Arnold.
And while Ertz is typically the type of player contenders, not rebuilding teams, would target, the Jets have shown they need more support around young QB Zach Wilson. Ertz would be a safety blanket and it’s worth noting the front office in New York has deep Philadelphia roots, too.
If your favorite team needs a receiver at some point in the next few weeks, the Jets are the team to watch with a couple of options to monitor. Crowder was leveraged into a pay cut during training camp, and in addition to saving New York money, it made the veteran easier to trade should things get to that point. He has a $5 million base salary plus $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses that would be prorated for however many games he plays on a new team.
If the Jets decide they can live with Braxton Berrios or Elijah Moore at slot receiver, it makes sense to deal Crowder. Finding a landing spot for the veteran is a little difficult, as a lot of the teams that need receiver help don’t have a ton of cap space to make a move. The Browns could use some additional depth at receiver but they also emphasize the position among the least of any team in the league and should be fine when they get Jarvis Landry back. The 49ers don’t have a true slot receiver and Crowder is well-versed in a similar system from his time in Washington. But like Cleveland, their depth chart is in solid shape overall and they don’t emphasize the position as much.
As for Mims, the question of why the 2020 second-round pick can’t get on the active roster has been a frequent topic of Jets pressers with the coaching staff. A ton of reasons have been offered — a bout of food poisoning during the summer put him behind the eight-ball with the new coaching staff, he doesn’t know all the receiver positions, he doesn’t play special teams, the Jets want their receivers to be better route runners, etc. Regardless of whether those all add up or not, the end result is the same. Mims isn’t in the team’s immediate plans.
Now the question is if they would give up on a former second-round pick after just a year. Jets GM Joe Douglas currently says no, per reports, but maybe that’s only until he gets a decent offer. Mims is big, fast, on a rookie deal and showed flashes in an abysmal situation as a rookie, so plenty of teams would probably love to take a shot on him. The Chiefs and Saints come to mind as teams that need cheap receiving help. And the Panthers can’t be eliminated given HC Matt Rhule’s proclivity for his former players.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
This one seems out of left field, but when you dig in it’s not out of the question a deal involving JuJu could be the surprise of the trade deadline. It was a major shock Smith-Schuster returned to Pittsburgh at all this season, as everyone including Smith-Schuster thought he was destined to depart with a big bag of money in free agency. Instead, after flirting with the Ravens and Chiefs, Smith-Schuster opted for another year in the familiarity of the Steelers’ system to try and boost his value.
To make things work on their tight budget, the Steelers gave Smith-Schuster a one-year, $8 million deal, $7 million of which was a signing bonus spread out over an additional four void years. He has just a $1 million base salary in 2021, and because signing bonus proration sticks with the original team, it would cost a team less than $1 million to acquire Smith-Schuster this year.
This kind of trade would be an out-of-character move for the Steelers, to be sure. It could be seen as waving the white flag on the season, not something a proud organization like Pittsburgh ever likes to do. But they clearly are facing a transition beginning in 2022, one that Smith-Schuster might not be a part of. If they can get a decent pick like a third or even a fourth, that might do them more good than playing out the end of the string with Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers have the depth at receiver to live without Smith-Schuster. And frankly, he’s not making much of a difference right now. He’s averaging less than four catches for 32.5 yards a game with no receiving touchdowns. It’s not all his fault of course, and Smith-Schuster is as frustrated as anyone in Pittsburgh with the current state of things.
There would be a number of teams interested in Smith-Schuster should Pittsburgh make him available, but Kansas City remains the most obvious fit. There’s a crying need for another legitimate receiving threat to take pressure off Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and Smith-Schuster could be quite effective in the space created by those two. The Chiefs couldn’t recruit JuJu in free agency, and both sides might be regretting that now. This is a chance to rectify things.
This Week In Football
- There was absolutely zero indication that anything was brewing between the Patriots and CB Stephon Gilmore, even though his contract dispute with the team was well-covered ground. But nice and early on Wednesday morning, Adam Schefter reported the Patriots planned to release Gilmore, giving other teams plenty of time to discuss a trade before the cut became official at 4 p.m. Despite a push by the Packers, in the end it was the Panthers coming away as the winners in the Gilmore sweepstakes.
- Obviously this looks like a coup for Carolina, getting the 2019 DPOY for just a 2023 sixth-round pick, as is his willingness to play out his contract year. The big question is why New England chose to move on now and why they got so little. It comes back to Gilmore’s contract. The veteran had the Patriots in a bind, as by refusing to restructure his deal without a raise being attached, he made releasing him the only alternative to create flexibility, which they apparently needed to sign LB Jamie Collins back for his third stint in New England. His deal and the ticking clock also meant the Patriots were lucky to get back anything for Gilmore, as the veteran could have forced his way to free agency had he really wanted to play hardball and tell teams he wouldn’t report in a trade. Could New England have gotten more had they not been so hung up on getting a high pick back at various points in trade talks? It’s possible.
- Gilmore wasn’t the only player a team surprisingly moved on from. The night before, new broke the Cowboys would be releasing LB Jaylon Smith in a cost-saving move. Smith had fallen behind in the rotation at linebacker and he’s struggled the past couple of seasons. Dallas wanted to avoid a $9+ million injury guarantee in 2022 and ate $7.2 million this year to get his deal off the books. Smith quickly found a home with the Packers, who are razor-thin in terms of depth at linebacker right now. Still, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of role Smith ends up having.
- There are a lot of people in Jacksonville grateful the NFL news cycle picked up and took attention away from the sordid situation involving HC Urban Meyer. An 0-4 start is bad enough, but after last week’s loss to the Bengals, Meyer stayed behind in Ohio, a move that drew a lot of ire in NFL circles. Over the weekend videos came out showing him dancing with and touching a young woman intimately who was not his wife, which caused a stir with just about everyone else. His handling of the situation has drawn even more fire and owner Shad Khan released a statement Tuesday saying Meyer needed to re-earn the team’s “trust and respect.” That’s huge coming just four games into Meyer’s tenure and it causes serious, serious doubts about whether he’ll even make it to the end of his first year in the NFL. That’s how bad things have been in Jacksonville since he took over.
- Another poor week did nothing to quiet the speculation regarding whether Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will eventually be benched this season. The decision rests with HC Mike Tomlin and he’s so far shown zero inclination in that direction, public or private. Perhaps mercifully, though, the problem might be taken out of the Steelers’ hands. Roethlisberger is already quite banged up for it just being four weeks into the season and it’s not hard to see him end up on injured reserve at some point.
- If you had all rookie quarterbacks starting by Week 5, congratulations. The Bears named first-round QB Justin Fields the starter for the rest of the season, ending the dumbest charade in football. Maybe Bears HC Matt Nagy can put more effort into leading his team now than crafting PR strategies. Meanwhile, a Jimmy Garoppolo calf injury means we might see 49ers first-round QB Trey Lance in the starting lineup for the first time in his career. We even have another week of Davis Mills in Houston, if you’re into that kind of thing.
- The Packers exited this weekend with a couple of major hits to their defense. After trying to fight through it, OLB Za’Darius Smith will get back surgery and go on injured reserve for an extended period of time. Reading between the lines, it’s not a sure thing he comes back this year — which has implications for the big picture in Green Bay. They also came out of the win against the Steelers without CB Jaire Alexander, with a shoulder injury that could potentially be very serious.
- Jets DE Jonathan Franklin-Myers has been one of the league’s underrated players the past year or so. He was a bright spot for the woeful Jets last year and we pegged him as a breakout player to watch coming into this year. So far he’s living up to that with three sacks in four games and he was just rewarded big-time with a four-year, $55 million extension from the Jets. That’s a hefty deal for how short Franklin-Myers’ resume is at this point but the Jets are banking that it will turn out to be a steal for them if he keeps up his pace.
- Rounding things out, what can a sixth-round pick buy you these days? For the Panthers, it was enough to get Gilmore. For the Bears, it got them WR Jakeem Grant in a deal with the Dolphins. Grant is a blazing-fast receiver and was second-team All-Pro as a return man last year. That’s the primary role he’ll fill in Chicago, though with Fields’ big arm I’m sure they’d love to make other uses of his speed. Between Grant (4.38 second 40 time), Darnell Mooney (4.38), Damiere Byrd (4.28) and Marquise Goodwin (4.27), the Bears are building a heck of a 4×4 relay team if nothing else. Throw in Breshad Perriman as an alternate (4.25 second time at his pro day).
Nickels & Dimes
Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…
Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow has been raising his profile in a big way so far this season with his route-running chops, but his biggest play of the season came on defense…
HUNTER RENFROW HIT STICK TO PREVENT THE FAKE PUNT COMPLETION 🤯
— ESPN (@espn) October 5, 2021
The NextGenStats dots really show the big picture of how alert Renfrow was to pick up on this. This is just absurd instincts and a picture-perfect form tackle. Renfrow clearly would be at home on defense, which got me thinking how many other receivers could make the switch. Is this a potential answer to the NFL’s perpetual cornerback shortage…
It's time for the first win rate plot of the year!
Double-team rate at edge (x) by pass rush win rate at edge (y).
(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/o0Rkt2yh7p
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 5, 2021
I’m a sucker for these types of plots, I think there’s always a ton to glean from picking them apart. For instance, you have the usual suspects who are still winning a ton of reps despite being double-teamed — T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett. And then there’s Jets second-year UDFA Bryce Huff. It starts to make sense why the Jets haven’t been as abysmal on defense as some folks, myself included, expected…
Fun fact: Last year for the Panthers, Teddy Bridgewater set career highs in rushing, including attempts, yards and touchdowns (5). This year, current Panthers QB Sam Darnold has already doubled his career rushing touchdown total and leads the NFL with five in four games. Something about Joe Brady’s offense clearly sets up the QB for success on the ground…
While we’re on the subject of the Panthers, this is my nightmare scenario. Buoyed by the success of Darnold as the highlight of his resume, Brady lands a head coaching job this offseason. Carolina extends Darnold rather than have him play out his fifth-year option. But in 2022 without the benefit of Brady and a paper-soft schedule, he turns back into a pumpkin. Does this stem from years and years of the team not being able to string back-to-back winning seasons together. Probably. You can’t tell me that scenario isn’t spookily possible, though…
Aaron Rodgers and Mike Tomlin. Pals. pic.twitter.com/gA6BbbPxAA
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 3, 2021
Epic meme material…and also maybe fun to come back to if Pittsburgh is in the QB market in 2022…
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) October 6, 2021
This video of Chargers HC Brandon Staley has united football Twitter unlike almost any other topic (exception below). And it’s amazing in that it’s like that dang photo of a dress from a few years back. Everyone sees their own point of view reflected in it…
September 19 ➡️ October 5 pic.twitter.com/wcU6K5h4LQ
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) October 5, 2021
Football Twitter can also agree that Urban Meyer has been a pretty much unmitigated disaster so far…
And along those lines, I have more thoughts. From the NFL’s perspective, Meyer cavorting with a woman in a bar who wasn’t his wife mattered far less than the fact he abandoned his 0-4 team to stay in Ohio, reliving his glory days in a bar plastered with murals of his face in a Buckeye quarter-zip in case someone needed help making the obvious connection. But to me, that’s the biggest sign of Meyer’s moral bankruptcy, the latest red flag in a career full of glaring indicators that he doesn’t have the high character we should all demand from our leaders in every walk of life…