Welcome to 2021! New year, new NFLTR Review, same jam-packed issue of NFL content for you to dig into. This week:
- The biggest names who could be on the trade block this offseason
- Eery parallels between the careers of Mitchell Trubisky and Blake Bortles
- Lessons learned from the 2020 fantasy football season
Around The Trade Block: Offseason Blockbusters
Trades can’t be officially processed until the start of the league year, two and a half months away on March 17. But the start of the offseason will begin the season of trade speculation again after a period of dormancy following the trade deadline.
Some of these names are leftover from this past year’s deadline who didn’t get moved for various reasons. Others are new additions who will fuel the trade rumor mill this offseason. Here’s a look at some of the biggest names who will come up in trade talk the next few months.
Eagles TE Zach Ertz
The veteran tight end has been one of the biggest keys to the Eagles’ success on offense the past few seasons. But whispers started about his contract a year ago when the two sides were unable to come to terms on an extension. The normally-reliable Ertz struggled along with the rest of the Eagles offense and started talking more openly about the lack of resolution with his deal. Had he not been injured he might have been moved at the deadline this past October.
Now, it would be a mild upset if Ertz was in Philadelphia in 2021. The Eagles have Dallas Goedert who’s ready to step in as a full-time starter, so signing Ertz to the type of extension he wants makes no sense. The team can probably pick up another Day 2 pick and free up more than $4 million in cap space, both of which will be valuable assets for the Eagles this offseason. There will be plenty of teams interested in adding one of the league’s top receiving tight ends but in terms of need and fit, the Patriots might make the most sense.
Eagles QB Carson Wentz
We’d be remiss to discuss trade candidates and not mention Wentz. How the Eagles proceed with the quandary they find on their hands just three seasons after winning the Super Bowl is one of the most fascinating questions of the offseason. The only thing they can’t do is nothing after finishing 4-10-1 in the worst division in football during a year they were supposed to be contenders, and that means radical changes are probably on the table. Trading Wentz, even if it’s difficult, has to be an option Philadelphia discusses.
The Eagles have made one of the biggest investments ever in Wentz, from draft capital to salary, which would make moving on painful. Trading Wentz would result in a $33.8 million dead money charge which would blow past the NFL record by some distance. But it would clear his contract from the books before even more guarantees vest and would actually be almost a net zero on Philadelphia’s 2021 cap.
His market wouldn’t be near what it was a year ago but various reports from NFL insiders make it clear the rest of the league is still intrigued by Wentz and he’d have a viable market. While it wouldn’t be easy, it’s probably not accurate to call Wentz untradable. It’s easy to make connections to the Colts and former assistant Frank Reich, or the Broncos and veteran-obsessed GM John Elway.
An equally likely outcome is the Eagles keep Wentz and hire a new coach in an effort to salvage their investment. Right now it’s hard to say what exactly will happen but I can’t wait to see either way.
Texans DL J.J. Watt
The Texans beat reporters haven’t had their usual locker room access this year but they haven’t needed it to determine that Watt is supremely unhappy with the way this season has unfolded. From clashing with former HC Bill O’Brien on his way out to calling out teammates for a lack of effort this past week, Watt has had it up to here, and the soon-to-be-32-year-old doesn’t appear to have the time or patience to gut it through what looks like could be a length rebuild in Houston. His comments Thursday were particularly telling, referring to “no guarantees” in his contract, monetary or otherwise.
Watt is the most iconic Texan ever — though give Deshaun Watson a few more years. But we’ve seen teams move on from plenty of icons in the past. Watt might be Houston’s most tradable asset and they need to recoup picks and financial flexibility to navigate the mess they find themselves in. Watt’s age and contract ($17.5 million base salary) will depress his value but a number of contending teams should still have an interest.
The Steelers are an easy fit since they employ his other two brothers, though Watt would have to take a drastic pay cut to fit Pittsburgh’s budget. The Packers are another option to bring him back to his home state. While Watt is not quite the menace he was in his prime, he can still bring a lot to an NFL defense.
Broncos OLB Von Miller
The Broncos also could move on from one of the best players in franchise history this offseason with Miller. The veteran is set to have an enormous $22.125 million cap hit in 2021 and Denver could save $18 million of that with a trade or release. Miller is also coming off dislocated ankle ligaments that cost him the 2020 season and hurt his leverage going into his age-32 season.
One way or another, Miller will be making less next year. The tenor between him and Broncos is much different than Watt in Houston, though, and there are better odds of the two sides reaching an agreement on some sort of pay cut with the ability for Miller to earn back his salary via incentives. But should things go sour in the next few months, Miller should still draw interest if Denver put him on the block to get trade compensation instead of outright cutting him.
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore
Gilmore drew some interest earlier this season but the Patriots were asking for a first-round pick and no one was willing to pony that up for a cornerback on the other side of 30. This offseason, the price might come down.
Because of his age and contract demands, the Patriots might accept a second or even third-round pick. New England will need to adjust Gilmore’s contract, as they’ve given him salary advances to keep his salary competitive and he has just a $7 million base salary in 2021 as a result. The top corners all make between $15 and $20 million a year.
If New England doesn’t want to make that kind of investment — and the Patriots are known for preferring to cut the cord with a player too soon rather than too late — Gilmore could be available for teams looking to add an impact player to their secondary. Elite cover corners are a prized commodity and Gilmore is one of the rare defensive player of the year winners to play defensive back.
Browns WR Odell Beckham
It wouldn’t be an NFL offseason without OBJ trade rumors, would it? Back in November when Beckham tore his ACL and was lost for the season, it was reported that there was a very real possibility he’d played his last game for Cleveland. The perception at least has been that the Browns offense has been better without needing to force Beckham targets, that it’s allowed QB Baker Mayfield to be more effective and for the team to build its identity around the run game.
It’s hard to say if that perception matches reality, as the conversation around Beckham tends to be polarized. However, what can’t be disputed is that health has been an issue for Beckham in recent years and he has no guaranteed money left on his deal. The Browns have denied ever considering trading Beckham but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to wide receiver trades. See DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs and Beckham himself.
If the Browns could get a first-round pick back while clearing $15.75 million of cap space and knowing they’d be no worse for wear on offense, that’d be a compelling case to make for a deal. As for Beckham, being traded again wouldn’t be good optics. But smart teams will look past that and see the talent that remains, even if the production hasn’t matched it recently.
Falcons WR Julio Jones
Let’s first clear something up: a recent report by ESPN did not say the Falcons have discussed trading Jones. Anything to the contrary is bad aggregation. What has happened though is Falcons team president Rich McKay mentioning in an interview with the Athletic that the team could be open to moving on from Jones and/or QB Matt Ryan if a new general manager had a clear plan. So in that sense, a trade involving Jones this year can’t be completely ruled out.
It can be deemed highly unlikely, however, and that’s primarily because of the financials. The Falcons would take a $200,000 cap hit to trade Jones plus $23.25 million in dead money, which for a team in their limited cap predicament in 2021 is a hard pill to swallow. Jones also isn’t the most easily tradable given his age and struggles to stay healthy in 2020. It’s early still and the new general manager will have a lot to say about the future of Atlanta’s key players, but this trade feels like more talk than action as things stand right now.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford
Like the Falcons, Detroit’s new coaching and general manager situation will offer a lot of clarity on what the future holds for the Lions quarterback of the past 12 years. But staring down the face of yet another rebuild has some around the team questioning if Stafford is interested in sticking around at the age of 33 and more NFL years behind him than in front.
Trading Stafford would create a dead cap charge of $19 million but that’s not insurmountable for the Lions, especially since Stafford would likely have a healthy market. Two first-round picks isn’t out of the question as a return using the Jay Cutler trade as a loose model. That would give them ample capital to try and move up for their presumed quarterback of the future.
Detroit is currently slated to pick No. 7 in the first round. The Jets at No. 2 and the Dolphins at No. 3 would be the presumed trade-up targets. That’s the only way moving on from Stafford really makes sense; if the Lions can land their quarterback of the future in return.
Bears WR Allen Robinson
After making some early grumblings about his contract situation, Robinson let his play do the talking on the field for the duration of 2020. And he’s been spectacular. On one of the league’s most morose offenses, Robinson has 100 receptions for 1,203 yards and six touchdowns. He’s absolutely proven himself one of the best receivers in the league and is presumably seeking a deal in the $18-$20 million a year range commensurate with that status.
The issue with Robinson has been that the Bears have so far been unwilling or unable to pay him in that range. If Bears GM Ryan Pace survives, the stalemate between the two sides might not improve. Even a new general manager could have a hard time finding room in the budget for Robinson while addressing the other needs on Chicago’s roster. If a way forward can’t be found, either because of contentious negotiations or unsolvable financial constraints, a tag-and-trade might make the most sense for the two sides.
It seems highly unlikely that the Bears would let a player of Robinson’s caliber just leave in free agency without any compensation. A tag buys time for the two sides to negotiate but if they can’t reach a resolution it should be a workable mechanism to deal Robinson to another team. The Bears would ideally like a first-round pick, but a second is more within the realm of possibility from any number of receiver-needy teams, especially considering a new team will have to extend Robinson.
Jets QB Sam Darnold
Darnold has earned himself quite a bit more job security by doing enough to help the Jets win two more games and drop out of the No. 1 pick. Darnold vs any other quarterback besides Trevor Lawrence in this draft is a much more interesting debate and gives him a legitimate shot to stick around for another season at least in New York.
However, Darnold is in just as much danger of losing his spot given he’s shown very little to be encouraged by through his first three seasons despite the awful situation led by HC Adam Gase. If the Jets decide to still take a quarterback at No. 2 overall, Darnold will be shipped out. The league as a whole remains bullish on Darnold despite his struggles, which should help the Jets recoup a second or third-round pick — still a far cry from what they invested to trade up to No. 3 overall to select him in 2018. The Colts and 49ers have emerged as some early trade contenders if Darnold becomes available.
49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Like they did last offseason, the 49ers will take stock of their options at quarterback to see if they can find an upgrade. Unlike last offseason, there’s no Tom Brady out there as an alternative. That’s why most expect San Francisco to ultimately stick with Garoppolo as the starter in 2021.
But if they do make a change, perhaps for someone like Stafford, Garoppolo’s contract makes him very tradable. And there’s a ready-made fit for him in New England, where he can take over the mantle many thought he was originally destined for and replace Brady after a year’s delay.
Vikings DE Danielle Hunter
Hunter is one of the NFL’s most underrated pass rushers and definitely the most underpaid. He’s looking to change that last part. When Hunter signed a five-year deal worth $14.5 million a year in 2018, it was already a bargain. Two years later, the market for pass rushers has nearly doubled, and Hunter has made it known he wants a raise closer to that level before he plays again.
The issue for Hunter is he’s coming off a neck/spine injury that cost him the entire 2020 season. The Vikings also don’t have a ton of cap flexibility to necessarily oblige him and reworking his deal with three years remaining is a precedent teams hate setting. Those aren’t good signs for Hunter’s goals and this situation has the potential to go downhill.
If it does, the Vikings won’t have a hard time finding buyers given how high the league values pass rushers. In fact, expect teams to be aware of the dynamic with Hunter and the Vikings and inquire early, especially given how the situation played out between the team and Diggs.
This Week In Football
- Since we started this column back at the end of July, this has been one of the busiest weeks of this section. So buckle in, lots to get to. Starting with the fall of QB Dwayne Haskins, who continued his descent to rock bottom by being benched for Taylor Heinicke and cut before the end of his second season. The speed alone at which things came off the rails for Haskins puts him in the conversation of biggest draft busts of all time. Now he’ll look to catch on with another team for 2021, perhaps the Panthers?
- The Packers suffered an absolutely brutal injury, losing rock-solid LT David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL in practice on Thursday. Not only is it a staggering blow to Green Bay’s pass protection as they enter the playoffs as the top seed, it puts Bakhtiari’s status for next season in question as well given the nine to 12 month recovery time.
- The Dolphins continued their unique handling of the quarterback position this season. Miami went to first-round QB Tua Tagovailoa even though former starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hadn’t been playing poorly. Head coach Brian Flores hasn’t hesitated to pull Tagovailoa for Fitzpatrick when the team has needed a spark, including against the Raiders last Saturday. But afterward, he reiterated Tagovailoa is still the team’s starter for a pivotal Week 17 matchup against the Bills that the Dolphins need to win to clinch a playoff berth. It’s a moot point regardless, as Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19 this week and will be out 10 days.
- Black Monday approaches and there figure to be a few more coaches canned other than the three who have already lost their jobs in-season. Broncos HC Vic Fangio won’t be one of them, as he’ll have another season in 2021 to try and find success in Denver.
- There’s no clear-cut top college coach looking to make the jump to the pros this year, but a few names have garnered some buzz. There’s Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who has at least one team interested to see if he can have success as a somewhat unorthodox hire. Then there’s Urban Meyer, who has proven just about all he can at the college level and now is gauging whether he wants to seriously consider the two NFL teams who have reached out with interest.
- There are more general manager vacancies open right now and the searches for those are starting to kick into gear. The Texans are scheduled to interview Bills director of pro personnel Malik Boyd for their vacancy. Buffalo also has OC Brian Daboll who is starting to build some momentum as one of the top coaching candidates available this year.
- Jacksonville interviewed former Giants GM Jerry Reese for their vacancy, which is now arguably the top general manager opening in the NFL with the Jaguars’ war chest of picks, cap space and the rights to Lawrence. Reese also could draw some interest from the Panthers after they fired Marty Hurney.
- Speaking of Hurney, he has a great shot to land on his feet with the Washington Football Team and reunite with HC Ron Rivera. Other candidates Washington is interested in include former Texans GM Rick Smith and 49ers VP of player personnel Martin Mayhew. It’s not out of the question both Hurney and Mayhew could join Rivera.
- This time of year, teams will circle around to players they see as early priorities to lock up for next season who won’t be difficult negotiations. The Giants did this with DB Logan Ryan, signing him to a three-year, $31 million extension. The Ravens also re-signed CB Jimmy Smith to a one-year deal for 2021.
- Washington LB Thomas Davis announced this would be his final season, capping a remarkable 16-year career. As a Panthers fan, Davis was one of my favorite players to root for. He was drafted as a hybrid safety/linebacker specifically to spy Michael Vick, but he blossomed into a much bigger role. He tore his ACL three times and came back better every time, becoming a key part of the Panthers’ Super Bowl run in 2015. If Luke Kuechly was the leader of the Panthers defense, Davis was its heart.
Trubisky vs Bortles
Up until a couple of weeks ago, Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky’s career looked dead in the water. But if the season ended right now, the Bears would be in the postseason and Trubisky would be coming off one of the best four-game stretches of his career. Despite being benched and having his fifth-year option declined, Trubisky has put himself back in the conversation for Chicago at quarterback.
There’s a case to be made with the way Trubisky is playing now that he could be the Bears’ best option. Nick Foles should be back but he’s shown he’s nothing more than a high-end backup, and Chicago won’t have a lot of cap space or a high draft pick to pursue a clear upgrade.
But how well is Trubisky really playing? Since taking over as the starter, Trubisky has thrown 10 touchdowns to four interceptions, averaged 7.3 yards per attempt as well as completed 68 percent of his passes. The schedule hasn’t been hard, though, with the past three wins coming against the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars. The Bears have also taken the air out of the football. Per NFL Research, since Trubisky has returned to the lineup, his time to throw has dropped by a third of a second and his average depth of target has dropped by three yards, indicating more short passes.
LMFAO Trubisky throwing screens into a new contract
Rank over the last three weeks in
• Depth of Target: 32nd of 35
• Pct of yards to come after catch: 3rd of 35
• Broken tackles from receivers per catch: 1st of 32 teams https://t.co/q88ThTRsd0
— Arif Hasan, solstice-liker ❄️ (@ArifHasanNFL) December 27, 2020
This situation is reminiscent of the one the Jacksonville Jaguars found themselves in a couple of seasons ago with Blake Bortles. In fact, there are enough parallels between the two for it to be eery. Both quarterbacks were surprise top-three picks by their respective teams. Each of their careers has followed a similar arc. Bortles struggled as a rookie after being inserted in the lineup midseason, then broke out in his second season with 4,428 yards passing and 35 touchdowns. He struggled to replicate that success in his third season while dealing with an injury before leading Jacksonville on a deep playoff run in year four.
Trubisky had an awful rookie season, throwing just seven touchdowns in 12 starts. He rebounded in his second year, leading one of the top teams in the NFC and setting what are still a number of career highs. But his third season was a letdown, including injuries. Now in his fourth season, he has Chicago on the verge of a playoff berth and perhaps further replicating Bortles’ path.
One key difference is the Jaguars picked up Bortles’ fifth-year option, then signed him to a three-year, $54 million extension following his fourth season after their run to the AFC championship in 2017. That decision went bad quickly as Bortles was benched 12 games into the next season and then cut. The Bears have already declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option and benched him this year, indicating they’re possibly more willing to move on than the Jaguars ever were. However, a postseason run led by Trubisky would complicate what once seemed like a simple decision.
There are still two more games for Trubisky to show his improvement isn’t a mirage and he’s taken a genuine step forward. The competition will certainly step up, with another matchup against the Packers Sunday and potentially a road playoff game or two. As things stand right now, it should be buyer beware for the Bears.
Fantasy Corner: 2020 Debriefing
If you rostered Alvin Kamara, Stefon Diggs, Tom Brady or Josh Allen on your fantasy team, I hope you stayed alive long enough to reap the benefits this week. It was an unusual year but fantasy football helped provide a slight sense of normalcy when not trying to replace a player who was put on the COVID-19 list late in the week or figure out how to manage a postponed game.
With the fantasy season in the books, I wanted to look back at the top scorers and see what takeaways jumped out. Assuming a 12-team league, these were the top players excluding scores from Week 17. For comparison, here’s FantasyPros’ preseason ADP.
Many FF players completely ignore Week 17 and don’t even consider those stats in the end of season numbers. If that’s you, here are the top scorers at each position for 2020…
— Ryan McDowell (@RyanMc23) December 29, 2020
There were a few people that saw a big season from Allen coming. I was not one of them. Finishing as the top-scoring quarterback is something I never would have thought Allen was capable of coming into this year. I thought his inconsistency would hold back Diggs, too, but instead, the two have blossomed into one of the top QB/WR tandems in the league.
Kyler Murray was such a popular breakout pick that it was hard to get him at a discount but if you picked him, you still got value. Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill and even Kirk Cousins were later-round picks that paid off huge if you waited on the position, while Lamar Jackson disappointed as usually the second quarterback off the board even though he still finished eighth at the position. Justin Herbert is the obvious breakout star and will be a popular breakout pick next year.
At running back, absolutely no one saw James Robinson coming until right before the start of the season. So if you were on top of waivers then, you landed the biggest pickup of the year. Similar situation for Mike Davis stepping in for the Panthers. Figuring out the running back position in fantasy is a little like playing minesweeper, you just have to hope you don’t land on a bomb. If you took Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley, it likely blew up your roster. If you settled on Kamara or Dalvin Cook, you probably did very well.
Despite some belly-aching about rookie running backs, which I was a part of earlier this year, the class actually rebounded in larger part due to strong finishes by Jonathan Taylor and Antonio Gibson to end the year. Both landed in the top 12, while Clyde Edwards-Helaire finished 18th and J.K. Dobbins 28th despite coming on stronger toward the end of the season. Fantasy players with Josh Jacobs or Ezekiel Elliott on their roster likely will feel surprised to see them as RB1’s, as both had inconsistent seasons week to week.
Injuries struck the receiver position kind of hard. Guys like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Hopkins held their usual place at the top of the pack, but Michael Thomas, Kenny Golladay and Beckham dropped out. In their place were breakout stars like D.K. Metcalf, Justin Jefferson and Calvin Ridley.
Both Jefferson and fellow Vikings WR Adam Thielen finished as WR1s, which obviously speaks to their individual talent but could also help reframe Cousins’ standing given his finish, at least as a fantasy football asset. He was expected to struggle without Diggs and his preseason ADP reflected that, but 2020 was the fourth time in the past six years that he’s finished as a starting-level fantasy quarterback.
In addition to Diggs, Keenan Allen is a terrific example of how preseason prognostications can fly completely out the window, as he was expected to struggle for targets in a low-volume passing attack led by Tyrod Taylor, but instead ended up dominating as Herbert’s favorite weapon.
Finally, tight end, where it was Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and then the rest of the pack. Per FantasyPros half PPR scoring, Kelce was about 60 points ahead of Waller who was ahead of the next closest tight end. From there, the pack narrows and there wasn’t a huge difference between the TE3 and the TE12.
Personally, this validates a strategy I’ve been gravitating to the past couple of years. If you play in season-long leagues, a big factor in having success is finding the edges over your opponent from week to week. If you can lock in an advantage at a position with such clear tier cliffs like tight end with Kelce or Waller, it can go a long way toward helping you win, though you obviously need more than just a stud tight end. My one championship team this year featured both Kelce and Waller, as well as Kamara, Metcalf and Herbert.
Studs like Kelce and George Kittle, though it didn’t work out for the latter this year, who produce like elite receivers are worth the pick in the second and even the late first round. If you can’t land a stud, it’s better to just boot the position until later so you can focus your resources elsewhere. This year, you would have been much better off waiting to draft T.J. Hockenson in the 15th or add Logan Thomas/Robert Tonyan off waivers rather than taking Ertz, Mark Andrews or Evan Engram in the middle rounds.