NFLTR Review: Grading The Trading

Welcome to November! So much has happened since the last issue and we’ve got a ton to catch up on: 

  • Grades for every major 2020 in-season trade
  • A preview of which second-half teams could be poised to fall flat
  • Why Washington didn’t trade Ryan Kerrigan and why they were right

2020 Trade Grades

After a slow start, things did eventually heat up at the trade deadline this year, though not to the same extent as previous seasons thanks to 2021’s projected salary cap austerity.

The full list of 2020 NFL trades is here, but here are some grades on the more notable in-season moves that happened this year. 

Buccaneers send 2022 6th to Jets for Steve McLendon and a 2023 7th

Shortly after losing star nose tackle Vita Vea to an injury for the rest of the season, the Buccaneers went out and patched that hole by trading a late-round pick to the Jets for McLendon. While not as young, athletic or dynamic as Vea, McLendon is an adept run-stuffer and provides more than enough to keep Tampa Bay’s unit near the top of the league in that category. A team quarterbacked by Tom Brady and coached by Bruce Arians has lofty aspirations and a limited window to capitalize, so a Day Three pick two years out is a pittance. But it’s still better than nothing for the Jets, and McLendon probably isn’t sorry to be leaving either. 

Grade for the Bucs: B

Grade for the Jets: B

Viking send Yannick Ngakoue to Ravens for a 2021 3rd and conditional 2022 5th

The flip-flop of Ngakoue provided the biggest trade of both the summer and fall. While the Vikings deserve some credit for recognizing it would be tough to both extend Ngakoue and keep DE Danielle Hunter happy with their financial situation and cashing out, it doesn’t wipe away their initial mistake of misevaluating their roster entering the season. And there’s a strong case to be made the Vikings pulled the plug too early.

Ngakoue took a pay cut to facilitate his trade out of Jacksonville, so his franchise tag in 2021 could actually be lower than it was this past year. Given his sack production, Ngakoue could have brought back a second-round pick in a trade this offseason. At worst, there likely would have been other teams willing to match what the Ravens offered. I don’t think there was much risk in waiting. Instead, Minnesota dropped a potential high second-round pick down to the end of the third. 

The Ravens, meanwhile, will have the benefit of Ngakoue’s contract next year and an elite pass rusher the rest of the season, which was a need as they pursue a Super Bowl. Ngakoue’s presence should allow Ravens DC Don Martindale to be more selective with his blitzes and take pressure off a secondary that has been hit with injuries until it can get healthier. And this offseason, the lowered tag gives Baltimore some flexibility to work on an extension with Ngakoue, who went to college nearby at Maryland and seems like a strong candidate to find a long-term home with the Ravens. 

Grade for the Vikings: D

Grade for the Ravens: A-

Giants send Markus Golden to Cardinals for 2021 6th

New York dug deep into the rule book to keep Golden this offseason, slapping the rarely-used unrestricted free agent tender on him for 110 percent of his 2019 salary. But when the season started, Golden was an after-thought in the Giants’ edge-rushing rotation. Even injuries didn’t really increase his role. So going back to Arizona is a nice outcome for Golden, who left the Cardinals last year to sign a prove-it deal with the Giants. The Cardinals needed a pass rusher and they just added someone who’s coming off 10 sacks in 2019. Meanwhile, the Giants did alright by getting a pick back for a player they weren’t using, but it’s curious a team that needs pass-rushing help wasn’t able to use Golden. 

Grade for the Giants: C

Grade for the Cardinals: B

Cowboys send Everson Griffen to Lions for conditional 2021 6th

Griffen arrived as a late addition in Dallas after perusing his options in free agency for most of the offseason. He was expected to reinforce a deep defensive line rotation for the Cowboys, but that evaporated along with their season. Getting a pick that can become a fifth is a decent return for Dallas. Their playoff hopes are basically dead, even in the brutal NFC East, and this allows them to evaluate younger players.

Griffen can still be somewhat effective, and he gives the Lions help for HC Matt Patricia as he tries to save his defense and his job. Likewise, Lions GM Bob Quinn would gladly sacrifice a fifth for some job security, and he won’t care much about that pick anyway if he’s not there in a few months. 

Grade for the Cowboys: C+

Grade for the Lions: C+

Bengals send Carlos Dunlap to Seahawks for B.J. Finney, 2022 7th

Realistically, Dunlap is one of a number of players the Bengals should have moved last year. And there were a handful of other guys the notoriously-conservative Cincinnati front office should have traded before this past Tuesday. In this case, it was less about the value and more of just getting something for Dunlap before kicking him out the door. In this case, it’s much-needed offensive line help. 

For the Seahawks, expectations should be kept in some check. There’s a reason Dunlap was demoted. The 31-year-old defensive lineman isn’t the force he once was, but if he’s motivated — and he should be — he can still be a very effective player. Seattle didn’t give up much of significance to get him either. Finney wasn’t starting, a 7th is almost nothing and Dunlap even restructured his deal. It’s low risk, higher reward for Seattle. 

Grade for the Bengals: C

Grade for the Seahawks: B+

Jets send Avery Williamson, 2022 7th to Steelers for 2022 5th

The Jets continued their firesale by shipping Williamson to the Steelers in a swap that also moved them up from the seventh to the fifth round in 2022. As far as bottom-feeding goes, that’s a pretty good return for a player not in the team’s future plans. As for Williamson, he was elated to get to Pittsburgh as fast as he could.

The Steelers needed more depth at inside linebacker after the injury to 2019 first-rounder Devin Bush. His replacement, Robert Spillane, was a revelation on Sunday against the Ravens, but they were thin before the injury and are even thinner now. Williamson helps with that. He’s not anything special, but he’s a competent starter and shores up a weakness for a contending team.

Grade for the Steelers: B-

Grade for the Jets: B

49ers send Kwon Alexander to Saints for Kiko Alonso, conditional 2022 5th

San Francisco made Alexander one of the jewels of its free-agent class last year but he’s been limited by a number of injuries and made expendable by others, notably Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. The 49ers will clear a sizable amount, $13.4 million, off their books for 2021 by making this deal and it will play a huge role in allowing San Francisco the flexibility to reload for 2021 once its core players are healthy again. 

For the Saints, linebacker was one of the team’s few weaknesses on paper in camp, and while others have cropped up now that the season is underway, this does add a potential impact player when healthy — which is a big if. From a salary perspective, there’s no guaranteed money on Alexander’s deal next year, so this is likely a rental. New Orleans even saved money this year by offloading LB Kiko Alonso’s deal. 

Grade for the 49ers: C+

Grade for the Saints: B-

Chargers send Desmond King to Titans for 2021 6th

Sometimes there are clear situations where a player just needs a fresh start and a change of scenery. That appears to be the case for King, who went from being an All-Pro nickel corner for the Chargers in 2018 to just a situational player. King was legitimately outstanding his first two seasons, with four interceptions, 15 pass defenses, four sacks, a forced fumble, two recoveries and three return touchdowns between defense and special teams.

 In 2019, though, the Chargers tried to transition him to outside corner and it did not go smoothly. This offseason, Los Angeles signed star slot corner Chris Harris, which pushed King into a backup role, which he did not take well. The Chargers might have been able to get more for King had they moved on quicker. But with just half a season left before King tests the market, this is the best they could probably do. 

For the Titans, they add an excellent slot corner to a pass defense that has struggled mightily in 2020 so far. If King buys in and plays well, they have a chance to recruit him for an extension before he hits free agency. The market for nickel corners still lags behind but their importance on the field only continues to grow, so getting a 25-year-old former All-Pro for a late-round pick is a steal for the Titans. 

Grade for the Chargers: C

Grade for the Titans: A-

Dolphins send Isaiah Ford to Patriots for 2022 7th

The Dolphins have a number of other projects they would like to see develop into slot receivers, which made Ford expendable. New England needs a ton of help at receiver and prioritized Ford over some of the other available options on the market, notably former 49ers second-round WR Dante Pettis. In the long run, this trade is unlikely to move the needle much. But it’s worth mentioning Ford has impressed multiple coaching staffs in Miami with his work ethic. The Patriots also have a history of positive results in trading for Dolphins slot receivers. 

Grade for Dolphins: C+

Grade for Patriots: C

This Week In Football

  • Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley has some of the best timing of anyone in the NFL. Just a couple days before fracturing and dislocating his ankle Sunday against the Steelers in a season-ending injury, Stanley signed a five-year deal worth a total of $98.75 million. While it’s a couple million a year less than the $22 million a year Texans LT Laremy Tunsil signed for, it locked in long-term security for Stanley at the perfect time. 
  • For whatever reason, Odell Beckham just cannot escape the trade rumors. It didn’t take long after he tore his ACL last week for the talk to start that Cleveland’s offense would run better without him. Six points against a leaky Raiders defense, albeit in gale-force winds, would seem to detract from that hypothesis. Now a report from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport indicated Beckham could have played his last game as a Brown. There’s not much substance to the report, just Rapoport’s “sense” and the fact that Beckham’s deal is very tradable. But some of his early reports regarding Cam Newton last year were similar.
  • The Patriots receiving corps took a huge hit with the news that WR Julian Edelman would be out 3-4 weeks following a knee procedure. Edelman is dealing with a bone-on-bone condition in that knee, the latest of a number of injuries for the 34-year-old veteran in recent years. New England had already scaled Edelman’s role back a good deal even with the lack of other receivers, so it’s fair to question if this is the end for Edelman. 
  • The 49ers can’t buy a break this year, as the injury bug continues to take out player after player on their roster. In addition to a number of short-term injuries that had San Francisco starting someone named River Cracraft at receiver, the 49ers lost both QB Jimmy Garoppolo and TE George Kittle for a while. Kittle has a broken bone in his foot and will be out eight weeks. That puts a return for the playoffs, if applicable, on the table and Kittle is notoriously tough. But the 49ers likely want to be smart after the investment they made in Kittle earlier this year. 
  • Garoppolo, meanwhile, suffered another high-ankle sprain on top of the one he had earlier this season. He’s out a minimum of six weeks as they wait to see how he heals. Surgery is on the table, which would knock him out the rest of the year. And at this point, it’s fair to call durability a question mark for Garoppolo going forward. 
  • The Titans made the decision to cut OLB Vic Beasley this week in what can’t really be described as shocking. The thinking was a fresh start for Beasley leaving Atlanta would help him. But Beasley’s tenure got off to a poor start with an unexcused absence to start camp and he never really contributed even when he worked his way back onto the field. He had three tackles in five games and no sacks. 
  • It was a bad COVID-19 week in the NFL as the virus skyrockets around the country. A quick recap:
    • Sunday’s batch of test results revealed on Monday that Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey was positive for COVID-19 while playing against the Steelers. There hasn’t been any indication of the virus spreading from team to team on the field, but a number of Humphrey’s teammates were exposed. 
    • Another seven players in Baltimore were placed on the list as close contacts of Humphrey, though one, OLB Matt Judon, has come off. 
    • Two Cardinals players picked up the virus over the bye and went on the list, OLB Devon Kennard and CB Byron Murphy
    • Packers rookie RB AJ Dillon tested positive for COVID-19 and RB Jamaal Williams and rookie LB Kamal Martin were knocked out from Thursday’s game as high-risk contacts. 
    • The two most powerful people in the Broncos organization, CEO Joe Ellis and GM John Elway, tested positive for the virus. 
    • The Cowboys put QB Andy Dalton on the COVID-19 list. 
    • The Lions placed QB Matthew Stafford on the COVID-19 list. It’s unclear exactly if he tested positive or is a close contact of LB Jarrad Davis, who landed on the list earlier in the week. 
    • The Buccaneers placed DL William Gholston on the list as he was exposed to someone with the virus outside of the team. 
    • The Broncos placed DL Shelby Harris on the COVID-19 list as a close contact as well. 
    • 49ers WR Kendrick Bourne tested positive and three other players were knocked out Thursday as close contacts, including WRs Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and LT Trent Williams.
    • Bears OL Cody Whitehair tested positive for COVID-19, the second Bears offensive linemen to do so this week after OT Jason Spriggs and G Germain Ifedi tested positive on Tuesday.
    • The Texans put OLB Jacob Martin on the list after a positive test, while OLB Whitney Mercilus and LB Dylan Cole joined him as high-risk close contacts. All three are out this week and the team closed its facility. 
    • Eagles S Marcus Epps tested positive. Philadelphia is on bye. 
    • The Chiefs put star DT Chris Jones on the COVID-19 list as a close contact after their head athletic trainer tested positive. It’s unclear if he’ll be back for this week. The team shifted to virtual meetings but was able to practice. 
    • The Colts also shifted to virtual meetings after practice following a positive test from a staff member. 
    • The Raiders put RT Trent Brown, who’s had a rough week, back on the Covid list due to continued complications from the illness. He tested positive and had a stint on the list two weeks ago. 
  • For now, there appear to be no schedule changes coming as the positive cases and risky contacts appear to be contained. For as uncertain as it seemed back in April and May, the league has now played half the regular season during a pandemic. However, it’s hard to see this number of cases as sustainable and it doesn’t appear like the community level is going down anytime soon. The league discussing backup plans like a 16-team playoff is very telling. 

Second-Half Fraud Watch

Every year there are teams that come out strong only to fall apart as the rigors of the season take their toll. 16 games isn’t a lot compared to other sports but it’s enough to normalize some of the wacky results from the first two months of the season. As things stand right now, 16 teams, or half the league, sit with winning records going into Week 9. Only 14, seven from each conference, will make the playoffs. 

While anything can happen, there’s a few teams who barring some kind of major injury should be safely considered contenders, among them the Steelers, Chiefs, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Packers and probably even the Ravens and Saints still. Here’s a look at what could trip up the rest:

Bears (5-3)

This is the team you expected to see, right? The Bears are probably the NFL team most synonymous with fraud right now, especially after losing two straight following a 5-1 start. Even the beat writers note the mood around the team doesn’t match the record. The players and coaches themselves seem to realize their current record is largely a product of a weak schedule and a lot of luck. 

While the defense for the Bears has been outstanding, the offense has been bad no matter whether Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky is in at quarterback, ranking 28th in the league in scoring. Bears HC Matt Nagy zeroed in on Foles because of their time working together with the Chiefs, but the two have butted heads a number of times so far this season over the way Nagy runs the offense. For his part, Foles has not played well. He’s more willing to throw the ball downfield to guys like Allen Robinson, Jimmy Graham and Darnell Mooney, only he regularly underthrows his targets and doesn’t have Trubisky’s mobility to compensate for a line that’s banged up by a number of injuries. 

The Bears do have a few things on their side. Foles is the luckiest quarterback to ever play the game in terms of defenders dropping interceptable passes and getting bailed out with pass interference calls on underthrown passes. And the back half of their schedule looks a lot like the first, perhaps even easier. There are five very winnable looking games between the Lions, Vikings, Texans and Jaguars. A 10-6 record is well within reach, but even that might not be enough in a deep NFC field and the Bears won’t have any margin for error. 

Browns (5-3)

The Browns may be in the thick of the playoff hunt right now but their -31 scoring differential is the worst of any team with a winning record by more than two touchdowns. In most of Cleveland’s games against teams with a winning record this year, they’ve been exposed as a tier or two below where some of the talent on their roster indicates they should be. To be fair, losing players like Odell Beckham and Nick Chubb is hard to overcome. Other injuries to guys like G Wyatt Teller and DE Myles Garrett have been critical as well. But there are clear holes, especially on defense in the back seven, that will likely take GM Andrew Berry and HC Kevin Stefanski some time to fix. 

The good news for the Browns is there aren’t many more of those games where their flaws will be on prominent display. Cleveland is set to match up against the Texans, Eagles and Jaguars coming out of their bye this week. The Titans and Ravens loom as a reality check for the possibly 8-3 Browns at that point, but they have a two-week stretch against the New York teams before a Week 17 tilt against a Steelers team that could potentially have already locked up home field. 10-6 or 11-5 is absolutely on the table. Of course, so is 8-8 with a few poorly timed bad days in there. It is Cleveland after all. 

Titans (5-2)/Colts (5-2)

I’m lumping both AFC South teams together because one will win the division and the other will play Russian Roulette with the playoff tiebreakers in a crowded wildcard field and both teams have cause to be worried they’ll be the latter. Let’s start with the Colts, who were my preseason pick as a breakout team and to win the AFC South. However, QB Philip Rivers has looked much less revitalized than Indianapolis was probably hoping. Injuries in the receiving corps haven’t helped matters, but the run game is also underperforming right now, including the offensive line and some rookie growing pains from second-round RB Jonathan Taylor

The defense ranks near the top of the NFL, but a look at the two halves of the schedule should temper some of the optimism for that unit and the team as a whole. The two teams the Colts played with winning records are the two teams I’ve just listed before them, the Bears and Browns. The schedule toughens up considerably, with the Ravens, Packers, Steelers, Raiders and Titans (twice). It’s a chance for the Colts to prove they’re legitimate contenders, but it’s also a gauntlet that could expose them as a mediocre team. 

And while the Titans were one of the NFL’s final unbeaten teams before a run-in with the Steelers, a closer look at their schedule shows some cause for concern. A 42-16 win against the Bills is outstanding, especially coming off not practicing for the bulk of two weeks during their outbreak. But the Titans have squeaked out a bunch of wins against bad teams, including the Broncos (16-14), Jaguars (33-30), Vikings (31-30) and Texans (42-36). Against a Bengals team playing their entire second-string offensive line, the Titans got smacked 31-20. 

While offensively the Titans attack remains hyper-efficient, the defense has been bad. Despite adding Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney to a pass rush that already included Harold Landry, the Titans are just 30th in the NFL with seven sacks, including none against the undermanned Bengals who led the league in sacks allowed. With no pass rush, the secondary has been torn apart. Tennessee’s schedule toughens up in the second half as well, though not to the degree of Indianapolis. They’re also in danger of being exposed as paper Titans if the defense can’t fix things. 

Rams (5-3)

If the Rams were in the NFC East, they’d be running away with the division. They’ve already completed a sweep of those four teams, in fact. But the reason the Rams are listed here is because they play in the NFC West and they’ve lost the only division game they’ve played so far, a 24-16 Sunday night setback to the 49ers. 

Los Angeles still has to match up twice each with the Seahawks and Cardinals, plus games against the Buccaneers and Patriots. They do get the Jets, so you can put one more win in Sharpie. But that would be a tough schedule for anyone, let alone a team like the Rams that hasn’t definitively shown if they’re a good team or not. You can point to a shellacking of the Bears and a furious comeback attempt against the Bills that probably should have been successful. But then there’s also this past week’s loss to the Dolphins where QB Jared Goff was overwhelmed and HC Sean McVay was outcoached — again, which is now becoming a trend that you wouldn’t necessarily expect for a supposed franchise quarterback and offensive mastermind. 

The Rams are primarily competing with the Bears, Cardinals and either the Buccaneers or Saints out of the NFC South for one of three wildcard spots. Their odds against the Bears are good, especially with the head-to-head tiebreaker now. But they need to win one or two out of the five games they have against the Cardinals, Seahawks and Buccaneers to avoid missing out on the postseason for the second straight year. 

Bills (6-2)

Back in September, it would have been ludicrous to think about having the Bills on this list of potential second-half frauds. But October has not been kind to the Bills. There was a beatdown by a Titans team that was supposed to be vulnerable, followed by a primetime loss to the Chiefs the following week. Buffalo then gave the 0-8 Jets their smallest margin of defeat yet in an 18-10 win and narrowly avoided a loss to the Patriots thanks to a fumble from Cam Newton

After a hot start, the Bills offense and QB Josh Allen have come back down to earth. They’re no longer hitting on deep passes quite the same way they were before and Allen’s interception problem has come back. The Bills defense is also struggling mightily, especially against the run. For a defensive-minded head coach like Sean McDermott, that’s both galling and troublesome. 

If the Bills don’t figure out how to improve what’s ailed them the past several weeks, a drop in the second half of the schedule from 6-2 to 9-7 isn’t out of the question when looking at the schedule. Buffalo still holds a significant lead in the AFC East, but it’s not one that can’t be overcome if the Patriots get their stuff together. And you can never rule that out with Bill Belichick at the helm. You don’t have to look back far this season to find New England playing quality football. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the league…

From an outside perspective, Washington electing to hold onto DE Ryan Kerrigan at the trade deadline might seem like a mistake. Kerrigan had some legitimate value from other teams and isn’t a part of the future in Washington. Even a fifth-round pick theoretically helps the team more in the long run than anything Kerrigan can do this year…

But I was struck by Washington HC Ron Rivera‘s comments about what Kerrigan brings to the culture Rivera is trying to build. That’s not as easily quantifiable by us observers who can’t help but view things through the lens of fantasy sports and other simulations. But it is lasting production. Former Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams credits QB Vinny Testaverde of all people for sparking his breakout with a conversation about work ethic after Williams was caught from behind on a long run. You don’t even have to leave the Washington roster for more stories like that, backup QB Alex Smith is credited with playing a major role in Patrick Mahomes‘ tutorship behind the scenes with the Chiefs. This is more of a quarter than a dime, but all of it to say there are intangible production variables that matter, sometimes just as much as the ones on the field…

It sounds like Raiders RT Trent Brown has had a rough season between his calf injury, Covid diagnosis and the incident Sunday with a faulty IV. And while much of it probably isn’t his fault, the reality is he’s missed 10 games and counting since signing with the team just last year. With a $14 million cap hit and no dead money next year, the brutal business reality is that Brown is not long for Vegas at this rate…

The Patriots have bigger issues that QB Cam Newton, even if his fumble might have been the biggest thing to cost them the game against the Bills Sunday. The Patriots have no receiving weapons whatsoever and don’t have the personnel to attack downfield. They’re using up what little margin for error they have on offense with drive-killing penalties. On defense, they have serious front-seven deficiencies that are resulting in a bad run defense. Belichick may be a wizard and Newton might not be washed, but there are roster problems that won’t be fixed until next year…

Check out Jets first-round stud LT Mekhi Becton picking up (Frank Clark) where he left off after returning from injury…

Speaking of holy moly…

There are some tougher tests coming up for Wilson later on this season but the raw arm talent he’s shown alone so far is going to get him drafted high. It’s just a question of how high…

The Jets have been notably more effective on offense in the first half each of the past two weeks despite reverting back to Jets football in the second (baby steps). The shift coincides with OC Dowell Loggains taking over as the play-caller and the difference has been stark…

The Jets’ 26th-ranked 6.3 percent rate of motion here actually includes Loggains calling it half the time in Week 7, which shows just how little HC Adam Gase ran it before…

In fairness to Gase, he comes from the Peyton Manning school of remaining static at the snap to provide a clearer picture to the quarterback. Robert Mays with the Athletic has an excellent look at not only why and how motion can create advantages for offenses like the Packers and Rams, but also why it’s not as simple as “just doing it more” for other teams…

When offenses are loading up on speed, Packers S Darnell Savage is a great example of how defenses can fight back. Savage was a surprise first-round pick after running a 4.36 40-yard dash at the Combine in 2019. That speed showed up in two big ways on Thursday night against the 49ers…

First, San Francisco ran a sweep to speedy WR Richie James, who had a monster night with nearly 200 receiving yards as the last man standing in San Francisco’s receiving corps. But Savage matches James’ speed, forcing him out to the sideline and preventing a potential touchdown. Later on, Savage lined up deep as the Packers showed a two-high safety look. But at the snap, his speed allowed him to crash down and rob a slant route QB Nick Mullens had his eyes on. Mullens never saw Savage and a drop saved him from a potential pick-six…

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