The NFL trade deadline has become a slog, with plenty of lead-up intrigue but a lack of substance in the final hours. The 2021 season’s deadline is Nov. 2, but teams aren’t waiting for the action to come to them.
The Carolina Panthers have already dealt for All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and former top-10 pick corner CJ Henderson in recent weeks. Last year’s deadline was a dud amid COVID-19 complications, with only five moves of any significance and none involving star power, but the 2019 season saw cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Marcus Peters, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety Quandre Diggs all switch teams a few weeks before the cutoff date.
Sure, teams are more open to trading precious draft capital than perhaps ever before and working the phones nearly year-round. But cash-flow issues loom large. Seventeen of 32 NFL teams entered Week 5’s games with less than $5 million in cap space. That’s why Carolina, with $18.7 million in space as of last week, was a sensible destination for Gilmore and his $5.8 million remaining salary. Teams are also stashing talented players on practice squads, which could further temper the trade market. And while Russell Wilson‘s injury means the Seattle Seahawks need a backup quarterback for Geno Smith, the team can also simply promote Jake Luton, a former sixth-round pick with Jacksonville making $9,200 a week on the Seahawks’ practice squad.
What keeps the trades churning regardless: Players will forever be upset over playing time, and teams will always look for excuses to save money. So with three weeks to go until the deadline, let’s take a closer look at how things might play out, players to keep an eye on and situations to watch across the league.
Corners available in Mile High
The Denver Broncos, armed with four good cornerbacks, received calls on Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan in the preseason. What they wanted in return wasn’t cheap — roughly a third- or fourth-rounder, multiple teams told me. Ronald Darby‘s early-season injury put any trade talks on hold, but now that Darby is back, teams could try again. (Pat Surtain II is the fourth cornerback, a first-rounder this past April.)
Several teams have actively monitored the cornerback market in recent months, including the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets, Houston Texans and New York Giants. The position has only grown in importance because of injuries across the league.
Salaries could be a hang-up for Denver, with Fuller at $9 million and Callahan, primarily a slot corner, at $6.5 million. Both players will be free agents in 2022.
Maye jetting out of New York?
I continue to hear Jets safety Marcus Maye would welcome a move to a contender, and he’s a prime player to watch at the deadline. The Jets understand they are at least a year away and could save on Maye’s $10.6 million salary. GM Joe Douglas doesn’t prioritize safety like he does offensive and defensive line, and that showed in negotiations. Maye felt undervalued.
Maye’s offseason DUI arrest in South Florida came to light last week. Though it’s unclear if this would factor into his trade market, coach Robert Saleh has publicly supported Maye, who has served as one of the Jets’ locker-room leaders.
Safety needs aren’t glaring leaguewide. But Maye’s former head coach in New York, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, has had injuries to his secondary. The always-aggressive Los Angeles Rams could also look to bolster their defensive backfield.
Does anyone need a QB?
The Chicago Bears would love to trade quarterback Nick Foles, with Justin Fields and Andy Dalton also on the roster. They’ve leaked that they’d listen to offers. They might as well have sent flares into the sky with the message “Call us” in orange letters above each NFL team facility.
Once it became clear teams weren’t pushing for a deal, the Bears held on to Foles and his $4 million fully guaranteed salary for insurance, which looked smart when Dalton suffered a knee injury in Week 2. Other teams with injuries at QB just aren’t doing anything drastic, so Foles is set to remain a Bear unless more options open.
The Seahawks appear set on riding with Geno Smith after the Russell Wilson injury. And the sense right now is injuries to QBs Daniel Jones (concussion) and Joe Burrow (throat contusion) aren’t serious enough to force the Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively, to make moves at the position. Burrow should be fine, and the Giants will monitor Jones’ steps through the concussion protocol.
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is the bigger name on the quarterback market, but his situation is of course much more complicated. Dan Graziano and I will have a closer look at his status, legal issues and resulting murky standing in trade talks later this week.
One other Chicago note: The Los Angeles Chargers monitored the Akiem Hicks situation in the preseason — coach Brandon Staley has Chicago ties from the Vic Fangio coaching tree. They’ve also had injuries up front. If Chicago tries to unload the defensive tackle by Nov. 2, teams would love to add his disruption to their lineups. The problem: Hicks’ $10.4 million salary is a nonstarter for many franchises.
A surplus of edge rushers in Buffalo?
The Bills are expected to get calls on their deep defensive line. The team has used draft capital on promising edge players Greg Rousseau, AJ Epenesa and Boogie Basham in recent years, which could make their veterans attractive at the deadline.
Jerry Hughes is an interesting case because of his salary ($6.1 million), age (33) and production (0.5 sacks). Those aren’t very enticing numbers. But he has been solid, and Buffalo plays him a lot (54 snaps in the Week 5 win over Kansas City). Perhaps the Bills hold on to the experienced rusher for the late-season stretch.
Will Ertz finally get traded?
You can’t ever sleep on the Philadelphia Eagles potentially unloading a player or two at the deadline. Sources say tight end Zach Ertz thought he was getting traded at least twice in the offseason before things calmed down, and the Minnesota Vikings inquired about the Eagles’ other tight end, Dallas Goedert, before eventually landing on Chris Herndon in an August deal with the New York Jets.
Contentious contract talks turned sour for Ertz during the offseason, and the Eagles appeared to be moving on with Goedert. But the Eagles convinced themselves that they would be good, so they kept the roster mostly intact. And Ertz developed a strong relationship with new head coach Nick Sirianni. A win over Carolina puts the Eagles at 2-3, just competitive enough but not the kind of statement that dissuades trading away players. And so, Ertz’s name could resurface, though he’s probably not willing to take a pay cut at this point. He is playing well in a contract year, with 14 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.
As for where Ertz could go, league execs have long pegged Buffalo and Indianapolis as potential landing spots.
Return of the Mack … but where?
The feeling around Indianapolis is the Colts want to do right by running back Marlon Mack, who has requested a trade, but there is not much interest just yet. Things could pick up closer to the deadline, and a conditional late-round pick probably gets it done.
The Eagles’ Sirianni was Indy’s offensive coordinator when Mack produced a 1,000-yard season in 2019. With the Eagles’ tailback identity still in flux — quarterback Jalen Hurts has 42 more rushing yards than any Eagles back through the season’s first five weeks — a change-of-pace player could help. Miles Sanders (48 carries for 214 yards) remains terribly underused in that offense, and backup Kenneth Gainwell has 21 carries for 100 yards.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have looked into Mack, too. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is expected to miss extended time because of a knee injury suffered Sunday, so perhaps they add Mack to pair with Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon.
Panthers still on the prowl
As mentioned, Carolina already landed Stephon Gilmore and CJ Henderson — but it probably isn’t done making moves.
The Panthers want offensive line help, which they’ve all but advertised publicly. The problem is teams don’t want to give it. It was telling in the preseason when the Giants and the New England Patriots gave up late-round draft picks for backups such as Billy Price, Ben Bredeson and Yasir Durant.
Offensive line depth is coveted leaguewide, but Carolina is one team to continue to watch. Through the first four weeks, the Panthers’ 45.3% pass block win rate was No. 31 in the NFL.
The Chiefs have good O-line depth but need edge-rush help (league-low seven sacks). Carolina happens to have pretty good depth up front.
Will the Cardinals stand pat?
Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim wisely stayed patient when edge rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Jordan Hicks requested trades in the offseason. Jones exploded with five sacks in Week 1, and Hicks is on pace for 1,000 defensive snaps despite questions about whether he’d crack the starting lineup.
People around the league don’t expect the Cardinals — who sit atop the NFC West — to make any drastic moves on a defense playing well. They will most likely take their chances with Jones, who is eyeing 2022 free agency after contract extension talks fell through.
The Cardinals are, however, seeking help at tight end help after Maxx Williams went down with a knee injury. I’m expecting them to try to make a move here soon. The 5-0 Cardinals were thin at the position even before the injury.
Who could be traded out of Houston?
The Texans could be unloading players again. Houston garnered interest on safety Lonnie Johnson Jr. before Week 1 but ultimately stood pat. Though Houston considers his services valuable, it has three talented safeties for two spots, with big money attached to Eric Murray ($18 million over three years) and Justin Reid set to hit free agency in March.
Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has found a way to play all three. Reid has led the trio with an average of 57 snaps played per game, while Johnson and Murray have averages of 52 and 37, respectively. But Johnson, who is on a rookie deal for two more years, could play a more prominent role elsewhere.
Defenders available in Cleveland?
Teams are still monitoring the Mack Wilson situation in Cleveland, after he was considered available in the preseason. He’s in the Browns’ linebacker rotation but not heavily, logging a total of 28 defensive snaps in Weeks 3-5. The return of starter Anthony Walker and the emergence of rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah makes cracking the lineup difficult.
Another guy in Cleveland who is not prominently featured is defensive tackle Andrew Billings. In Weeks 1-4, he totaled 22 snaps in three games — though he did play 21 snaps in Week 5, so maybe things are looking up.
Will a Miami slide lead to trade movement?
I talked to one team that wondered whether the Miami Dolphins would move some offensive players. The Dolphins have not given off this vibe yet, but if the 1-4 slide gets worse, teams could call on receiver DeVante Parker if they feel they are one player away. Parker has 17 catches for 242 yards and a touchdown.