NFLTR Review: Trade Market Heating Up

Welcome to Friday, folks! Hope you enjoy this week’s edition of NFLTR Review as much as we enjoyed putting it together.

In this issue:

Around The Trade Block

We’re still about 12 days from the deadline but trade speculation is starting to heat up around the league. Because of the COVID-19 protocols that make it harder to integrate new arrivals expediently, there could be more deals done sooner rather than right up against the November 3 deadline. Here’s the latest reporting and rumors on what could be percolating: 

Shopping List

Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer goes through his Rolodex and provides one of the most in-detail looks at the trade landscape that we’ve gotten this year. His list of players who are definitively available includes: 

Six of these players were highlighted in our comprehensive trade catalog a couple of weeks ago, with Howard, Tate and Zeitler some interesting additions. Several of these players, particularly the receivers, are just dangling for any bare minimum compensation at this point. But there are a few potentially intriguing additions. Anderson and Njoku are both young players who are buried on the depth chart and in the case of Anderson miscast in the wrong scheme. They could fetch mid-round picks for teams who think they could get more out of them. 

With teams always looking for pass rush help, Dunlap and Kerrigan carry some value despite their status as relative elders. Dunlap’s salary could curtail much of his market but Kerrigan could be an attractive option for a contending team like the Seahawks looking to bolster its pass rush without a burdensome commitment given he’s in the final year of his contract. 

Zeitler is another fascinating candidate. He’s 30 years old and has a year left on his deal with a $12 million base salary, and while he’s not elite he’s a steady, solid, above-average starting guard. A team desperate for good offensive line play could find that tempting if the Giants decide to move on less than two years after trading for him. Though it’s a completely new coaching staff, a reunion with the Bengals could make a lot of sense as Cincinnati’s No. 1 priority right now is protecting No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow

“Fire Sale” In Minnesota

The Vikings’ decision to trade DE Yannick Ngakoue after only two months make it clear the team has started to set its eyes on the future, even if GM Rick Spielman refused to say as much Thursday. Breer notes the Vikings have privately made it clear they will listen to any offers teams want to toss their way and so far TE Kyle Rudolph, G Pat Elflein and even WR Tajae Sharpe have drawn nibbles. 

Someone who is not getting buzz but makes by far the most sense as a trade chip for Minnesota is LT Riley Reiff. The team forced him to take a pay cut or be released late in training camp when it traded for Ngakoue in order to be able to square away the cap ramifications. Reiff grudgingly obliged rather than uproot himself on the eve of the regular season after briefly exploring a trade and finding little demand. 

But it’s clear the veteran doesn’t figure as prominently into the Vikings’ future plans, whether it’s moving from the blindside to guard or even a future outright release. And the demand for a steady left tackle has gone up tremendously with injuries in Dallas and Tennessee especially. The time is absolutely right to deal Reiff. His salary for 2020 is already low because of the pay cut and there’s little tying him to a new team in 2021. Dallas is starting a medley of Cameron Erving, Terence Steele and Brandon Knight at tackle. Tennessee has Ty Sambrailo filling in for Taylor Lewan at left tackle the rest of the way. Upgrading that should be worth a late-round pick to either franchise. Other teams like the Chargers and Bengals looking to protect young, developing quarterbacks should also check in. 

Clock Keeps On Ticking For Zach Ertz

Breer and ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler both report that were it not for his ankle injury that will keep him out 4-6 weeks, well past the trade deadline, talks between the Eagles and other teams on a deal to trade away Ertz could have heated up dramatically in the coming days. Ertz’s contract situation already put his future in Philadelphia on shaky ground but the veteran tight end seems to have lost his chemistry with QB Carson Wentz. With talented TE Dallas Goedert in the wings and nearing a return from his own ankle injury, it’s clear Ertz’s time in Philadelphia is ticking to a conclusion. It just won’t be until this offseason. 

Connecting The Dots

There’s a lot of fun speculation that surrounds the trade deadline despite everyone knowing historically there are five moves that don’t get made for every move that goes through. Looking around the league, though, there are some interesting nuggets that probably won’t turn into anything this year but could eventually grow into tomorrow’s blockbusters. 

Take for instance the situation with the Texans and DL J.J. Watt. He’s the best player in franchise history until QB Deshaun Watson wins an MVP or Super Bowl. And while Watt would love nothing more than to be a lifer in Houston, the realities of business for rebuilding teams, the cap-strapped, pick-deprived Texans in particular, could push him elsewhere. Even at 31, he’s still one of the game’s most disruptive defenders and he could be the Texans’ biggest trade chip. 

Obviously, a ton of teams would line up to add a player of Watt’s caliber. But one stands out: the Green Bay Packers. Leaving Houston would be a bitter pill for Watt but it could be soothed by making a homecoming to the state of Wisconsin. The Packers also are in massive need of help in their front seven, which remains a looming weakness in 2020. With QB Aaron Rodgers on board presumably for another year after his hot start this year, it could potentially be Watt’s best chance at winning a championship. 

Sticking to major trades that actually have a chance of happening in the next several days, there’s some quiet noise building around Jets DL Quinnen Williams, the No. 3 overall pick just two years ago. Williams had a quiet rookie season and while he’s improved some this year he hasn’t looked like the dominant presence he was at Alabama. Jets GM Joe Douglas infamously will always listen to trade offers and multiple reports have him taking calls about Williams. A couple of Jets beat reporters have mentioned a second-round pick as being enough to get a deal done. 

It would be a bit of a shock to see the No. 3 overall pick go for a second so soon. But Douglas didn’t draft Williams and it looks increasingly likely the team is headed for a complete teardown this offseason. 

This Week In Football

  • The Vikings and Ravens teamed up to ensure this year’s trade deadline wouldn’t go by without a splash, trading DE Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore in exchange for a third-round pick and conditional fifth-rounder just two months after initially trading with the Jaguars for Ngakoue. The net result is the Vikings got six games, five sacks, two forced fumbles and one win out of Ngakoue in exchange for swapping a likely high second for a low third. 
  • I cannot stress enough how colossal of a mistake this was. The Vikings horrifically misjudged where they stood going into 2020 and attempted to compete while rebuilding on the fly. Doing both at once meant doing neither one well. Management gets some credit for recognizing its mistake and not doubling down after realizing it wouldn’t be able to re-sign Ngakoue. But even the trade was botched. Had the Vikings waited until the offseason, there’s a good chance they would have been able to recoup more draft value, especially considering Ngakoue’s franchise tag would have been lower due to the pay cut he agreed to in order to facilitate his trade from the Jaguars. That was the big impediment Jacksonville faced in moving him and it still got a second. Worst-case, Minnesota likely would have been able to get the same deal they just settled for. 
  • As for the Ravens, this is an outstanding move to fix one of the defense’s biggest weaknesses and bring in a familiar face, as Ngakoue played his college ball at the nearby University of Maryland. Baltimore stands to benefit from Ngakoue’s lower tag price but the dynamic with him and franchise-tagged OLB Matt Judon will be interesting this offseason. 
  • More trade-related news; there are some conflicting reports around how the Eagles plan to handle the deadline but the one about them looking to make moves fits their historically aggressive approach. After the 22-21 win against the Giants last night, Philadelphia’s 2-4-1 record is actually good for first place in the NFC East. 
  •  It’s unclear if the Texans are looking to sell off pieces yet but other teams are absolutely eyeing them like vultures. Breer noted the team doesn’t appear to have settled on a course of action regarding the deadline yet, though it could come after this week’s game against the Packers, while Watson this week made it very clear he would oppose any of his teammates being shipped out
  • Browns TE David Njoku flip-flopped again on his trade request, making it known that he would welcome an exit from Cleveland. Elsewhere in the AFC North, Bengals WR John Ross made it known he would welcome a fresh start as well. 
  • The Jets fire sale is on. First, the team dealt DT Steve McLendon to the Buccaneers almost immediately after their loss Sunday. New York picked up a pick and Tampa Bay got a replacement for injured DT Vita Vea. Then the Jets sent reserve OLB Jordan Willis to the 49ers for a late-round pick swap. Neither of these moves are big but they do show the Jets are open for business
  • Thankfully the NFL’s injury rate has slowed down considerably since a brutal September. But there have still been casualties, including two notable ones in the AFC. On a stacked defense, the Steelers lost possibly the one player they could least afford to lose given their lack of depth when LB Devin Bush went down with a torn ACL. And in Tennessee, the unbeaten Titans lost LT Taylor Lewan to a torn ACL as well. His replacement, Ty Sambrailo, was beaten for a major sack-fumble that almost cost the Titans the game. The two teams play this week after a delay and will get the first look at how each contender plans to move forward. 
  • It’s Tua Time. The Dolphins made a decision that was shocking in its timing by benching veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had been playing fairly well and had Miami looking like a wildcard contender, for first-round QB Tua Tagovailoa. The rookie has barely played but now he has full control of the team in Miami. 
  • Ready to get back on the merry-go-round? Free-agent WR Antonio Brown is nearing the end of his suspension and he has multiple suitors interested in letting him back into the league, with the Seahawks potentially at the top of the list.
  •  Bringing it back to the Vikings, Minnesota learned this week that DE Danielle Hunter will have surgery on his herniated disc and is ruled out for the rest of the season. There’s more trouble on the horizon for Hunter, though. His agent has strongly suggested the veteran pass rusher’s $14.4 million per year average that currently ranks 18th at his position won’t be satisfactory going forward. However, Hunter still has three years left on his deal, setting up an interesting standoff between the player and an organization looking to save money the next year or two. 

Top 10: Unexpected Breakout Players

Every year, players skyrocket out of anonymity to make their name in the NFL. Other stars fail to meet expectations for various reasons. We’re only six games into the regular season, but already a number of hidden gems have started to shine while other stalwarts have faltered. Here’s a look at 10 unexpected breakout players, with a list of 10 players who need to step up their performance coming next week. 

10 – Packers LB Krys Barnes

Heading into this year, inside linebacker was one of the Packers’ biggest weaknesses after the run defense was Zambonied in the NFC title game. Green Bay’s big addition was to sign Christian Kirksey ahead of free agency but the Packers’ best linebacker this year has been undrafted rookie free agent Krys Barnes. No OTAs, limited practice time and no preseason put rookies all around the league behind and it was even worse for undrafted players who typically get minimal chances to prove themselves. But Barnes has maximized his limited chances to earn a rare starting role. He has 25 tackles on the season including 10 total stops and his run-stop percentage is ninth among all linebackers with at least 60 snaps in run defense. The former UCLA product looks like a keeper for the Packers. 

9 – Lions P Jack Fox

In his second season, Fox has been one of the Lions’ best players, which isn’t just a commentary on how Detroit’s season has gone. Fox has been a legitimate weapon. He ranks first in the league in punting average and second in net average. He’s pinned eight kicks inside the 20 and was instrumental in Detroit’s first win of the season against the Cardinals, helping him win NFC special teams player of the month in September. In case you need any more reason to love the fantastic Mr. Jack Fox — who’s quickly becoming a Lions fan favorite — the advanced stats love Fox as well. 

8 – Steelers CB Mike Hilton

This is Hilton’s fourth season and he’s already established himself as Pittsburgh’s starting nickel corner since coming out as an undrafted free agent in 2017, so technically he might not qualify as a breakout. But Hilton is putting himself in position to cash in this offseason as a part of a growing slot corner market. He’s balling out in a contract year, especially as a blitzer. He already has three sacks and had four as a rookie.

7 – Seahawks S Ryan Neal

When Seahawks S Jamal Adams, acquired as the final piece to a Super Bowl push for Seattle this year, went down in Week 3 with a groin injury, Neal replaced him in the lineup fresh off promotion from the practice squad and eager to prove himself on his third team in three years. He ended up with the game-winning interception in the end zone. Neal has been more than a flash in the pan, with another interception the following week, four pass defenses and a passer rating allowed of just 47. He’s showing he deserves snaps on defense even when Adams comes back. 

6 – Colts TE Mo Alie-Cox

For the past two years, Colts coaches have raved about Alie-Cox behind the scenes, although he’s played minimally as the team’s third tight end. But this year the former VCU power forward has gotten his chance at the starting role and has been terrific. He caught five passes and rumbled for 111 yards in his first start in Week 2 and snared touchdown passes each of the next two weeks. He’s Pro Football Focus’ top-rated tight end, including fourth in run blocking. Alie-Cox is banged up now but when he comes back it looks like the Colts have one of the NFL’s budding stars at the position.

5 – Patriots G Michael Onwenu

New England drafted Onwenu in the sixth round out of Michigan looking to replenish its offensive line depth. The sixth round has been historically kind to the Patriots and they look like they’ve hit another home run with Onwenu. Although he played just right guard at Michigan, Onwenu has played at jumbo tackle, right tackle, right guard and even left guard for the Patriots. Ask anyone who’s played offensive line, that’s hard to do. And he hasn’t just been serviceable, he’s excelled, rating as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 guard. The service has tagged him with just four pressures allowed, no sacks and no penalties. He looks like a building block for the future.

4 – Jaguars RB James Robinson

Another undrafted rookie who beat the odds this year, Robinson was so good behind closed doors that the Jaguars felt comfortable releasing their former No. 4 overall RB Leonard Fournette coming out of training camp and handing the backfield over to Robinson. He has 362 yards on 85 carries so far with an additional 207 yards on 23 catches and four total touchdowns so far in 2020. He looks like much more of a complete back than Fournette and someone who can carry the load for the offense. 

3 – Buccaneers CBs Jamel Dean & Carlton Davis

Like a lot of rookie corners, Dean took his lumps after being pressed into the starting lineup in 2019. But so far in 2020, the former third-round pick out of Auburn is excelling. He has Pro Football Focus’ top coverage grade for a cornerback through six weeks and picked off Aaron Rodgers for a touchdown — just the third time that’s happened in Rodgers’ career. Dean and Davis, Tampa Bay’s other outside corner, have turned into a dominant duo. Dean also has six pass defenses, while Davis is around the ball even more with 10 PDs and three interceptions. The two have also been terrific against the run and are a major reason Tampa Bay has one of if not the best defensive units in the league.

2 – Panthers WR Robby Anderson

The Jets allowed Anderson to sign with the Panthers in free agency this past March on a two-year, $20 million deal, which was a quieter market than Anderson’s camp expected. New York then turned around and signed WR Breshad Perriman to a one-year, $6 million deal banking he’d be a cheaper and just as effective replacement for Anderson’s role as a deep threat. It turns out the Jets grossly underestimated and misused Anderson, as he’s blossomed in Carolina. He’s second in the NFL in receiving yards and fourth in catches, and he’s done it by usurping D.J. Moore as the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver. He’s catching passes short, deep and in contested situations, endearing himself to his new home in a variety of ways.

1 – Browns G Wyatt Teller

The Browns offensive line has taken massive strides forward after being one of the team’s fatal weaknesses last year and a huge part of that has been the play of Teller at right guard. Acquired by the Browns in a trade from the Bills during camp last year, the former fifth-round pick from Virginia Tech started the final nine games last season, but things finally clicked this year and he looks like an absolute stud. Teller is Pro Football Focus’ top-rated guard by a decent margin and he’s helped pave the way for the Browns’ league-leading 169.5 rushing yards per game and No. 2-ranked pass rush win rate.

Fantasy Football Corner

Le’Veon Bell’s move from the Jets — a peewee squad masquerading as a professional football team — to the defending champion Chiefs has potentially massive fantasy implications. A long list of former Jets and Dolphins have thrived after getting away from HC Adam Gase. The Chiefs already have been the beneficiary of one such revival with RB Damien Williams in the past and even G Kelechi Osemele before his season-ending injury this year. But is it realistic to expect the same from Bell?

At his peak, Bell was the perfect modern running back, deadly as both a rusher and a receiver. He cracked 2,000 yards from scrimmage his second season and pushed close to that number again each of his final two years playing for the Steelers. But it’s been three years since Bell has been effective, as his efficiency plummeted in New York. He was a full yard worse in YPC and set a career-low for yards per touch. The eye test hasn’t been kind to Bell, either, as he looked rusty to start last season, then gained weight and lost conditioning as the year trudged on. The constant drama from the moment Bell signed with the Jets has also cast the runner in a negative prism from Day 1. 

However, there are some signs of life here. Yards per carry can often be a misleading indicator for running backs, as there are numerous variables that go into that stat. Bell was working with an abysmal offensive line and generally poor supporting cast his entire time with the Jets, and that was reflected in his meager 1.2 yards before contact per attempt that was second-worst in the NFL among backs with at least 100 carries. Per ETR’s Pat Thorman, Bell’s average yards before initial contact dropped from 1.75 to 0.58 per carry while his broken tackles forced per touch stayed the same, suggesting Bell’s ability is less to blame than his supporting cast. 

At 28, Bell is nearing the cliff for running backs and expecting him to return to his past level of production is unrealistic. But there’s reason to believe he’s still 90 percent of the player he was with the Steelers, and a fresh start in a less toxic organization that can utilize him to his strengths could turn him into an effective player again. 

This past April, the Chiefs were the only team to take a running back in the first round, drafting Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of LSU with the 32nd pick. Short and slow but elusive and dynamic as a multipurpose back, Edwards-Helaire was someone the team clearly believed could replicate what it lost after Kareem Hunt’s domestic violence incident got him cut from the team back in 2018. Through the first six games, the rookie has been an integral part of the offense so far. He’s cracked the 20 carry mark three times and had no fewer than 18 combined carries and targets in a game. 

However, there have been gaps. Edwards-Helaire frequently comes off the field on third down or in the two-minute offense despite his receiving chops because he’s still learning as a pass protector. He also has struggled in short-yardage, especially in the red zone as most notably evidenced by being stuffed repeatedly in Week 1’s primetime opener. 

Kansas City’s main substitute has been Darrel Williams, a third-year former UDFA also out of LSU. Williams is a solid pass blocker and a bigger back but is aggressively ordinary in most other areas. Right away, Bell can be penciled into those roles. He’s historically graded pretty well in pass protection per Pro Football Focus. Even if he has lost a step, he should also be much more of a dynamic presence in the passing game than Williams. And as a bigger back, he should be able to be more effective in short-yardage situations than the diminutive Edwards-Helaire. 

With Edwards-Helaire playing an average of 66 percent of the snaps so far, that leaves 35-40 percent of the snaps for Bell to take over in those specific situations and as a change of pace option when the rookie needs a breather. Bell’s ability to secure more likely depends on how much he still has left in the tank and whether Edwards-Helaire hits the rookie wall at some point. Right now, that looks like potentially 10-12 combined carries and targets per game, with a fair amount of those coming in high-leverage situations. You probably want to treat Bell as a flex unless or until he starts demanding a bigger share of the pie. 

If Bell ends up being as close to the end as LeSean McCoy was when he got to Kansas City last year, then the star rookie likely will keep his monopoly on the touches in the backfield. However, he’s almost certainly looking at some kind of reduction in his role at some point just because of how talented a player Bell is. On the field, this is good for the Chiefs, as it gives them another weapon and takes the pressure off of Edwards-Helaire. But for fantasy players who look to volume as the most bankable way to project scoring, this adds more risk to Edwards-Helaire’s weekly outlook. 

Overall, Edwards-Helaire should still be a strong start as a RB2 the rest of the season, which is about how I viewed him entering this season, though it’s played out differently than I expected. Volume has been what’s driven Edwards-Helaire’s value, as he has just one touchdown. But with Bell in the fold, Kansas City might be able to deploy Edwards-Helaire more efficiently, particularly in the passing game, which could help offset any drop in his total share of the load. 

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