The NFL trade deadline may not create quite the perennial upheaval that the NBA trade deadline does, but it’s still a fun midseason benchmark for the league. Which failed free agent acquisitions could help a competitor, like Yannick Ngakoue did for the Ravens last year? Which heavy contract could get dumped onto another roster, as was the case with Kwon Alexander going from the 49ers to the Saints in 2020? Which disgruntled star will force his way into a better situation, as Jalen Ramsey and Amari Cooper have done in recent seasons?
We don’t expect any huge moves before Tuesday’s deadline outside of a potential Deshaun Watson trade, which is its own issue that the league seems perfectly content to ignore. But the final edges gained or lost at the NFL trade deadline can spell the difference between playoff berths and late-season collapses. As such, here are seven players I’d like to see traded at the deadline this year, which landing spot makes the most sense to me, and the capital I could see each player going for.
Indianapolis Colts RB Marlon Mack to the Baltimore Ravens
Indianapolis receives: 2023 fifth-round pick
Baltimore receives: RB Marlon Mack
This one feels way too easy. The Ravens saw the top three running backs on their depth chart go down with injury in the preseason—second-year star JK Dobbins, excellent backup Gus Edwards, and change-of-pace option Justice Hill. Ty’Son Williams, the only incumbent on the roster, started the season and performed fine, but has lost favor in the eyes of the coaching staff, and the team has increasingly leaned on recently acquired veterans Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray, and Le’Veon Bell.
But none of those backs have been actually good. Against the Bengals on Sunday, Ravens running backs combined for 29 yards on 11 carries (2.63 yards per carry); two weeks before that, it was 24 yards on 11 carries against the Colts (2.18 yards per carry). Yes, they ran roughshod on the Chargers in Week 6—but everyone runs all over the Chargers. (More on that later.) The Ravens need help here, and they’ve made a trade deadline acquisition in each of the past three seasons (Ty Montgomery in 2018, Marcus Peters in 2019, Yannick Ngakoue in 2020).
Meanwhile, a perfectly solid back in Indianapolis has fallen out of the rotation: Marlon Mack. The Colts’ fourth-round pick in 2017, Mack was the starting back for two seasons before Jonathan Taylor took over the job last year, and delivered 4.7 and 4.4 yards per carry on at least 16 attempts per game in both 2018 and 2019. That’s good production at good volume, but with Taylor shining and Nyheim Hines extended as the passing-down back, Mack, who is coming off a 2020 Achilles injury, has notched more than five carries in just one game this season. As such, the Colts and Mack have mutually agreed to try to find a trade partner.
All parties benefit here. The Ravens can lean on Mack all season, who needs the opportunity to prove to teams that he still has the juice following his injury and recovery—Mack is only 25, after all, and will be a free agent after this season. Baltimore’s running game should help Mack produce some eye-popping numbers, as the threat of Lamar Jackson always opens up lanes for rushers; and Mack should help the Ravens on the ground, taking some weight off of Lamar’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the Colts can return a late-round selection that’s likely better than the comp pick they’d get from Mack departing in free agency; while the Ravens can potentially recoup a comp pick if Mack improves his stock with a strong performance this year.
Houston Texans WR Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Chargers
Houston receives: 2022 second-round pick, 2023 fourth-round pick
Los Angeles receives: WR Brandin Cooks
This deal would be a bit of a surprise, even though it is everyone’s favorite annual NFL event: a trade centered around Brandin Cooks. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has never acquired a player at the trade deadline in his nine seasons leading the team. Aaron Reiss of The Athletic reports that Cooks is not expected to be traded by the Houston Texans. There are hurdles to overcome here.
But the football argument is plenty compelling. Despite Chargers second-year QB Justin Herbert having one of the strongest arms in the NFL, his average intended air yards (IAY) is only 7.4, which is tied for the eighth lowest in the league. In his neighborhood are Tua Tagovailoa, Geno Smith, and Jimmy Garoppolo; he’s below Davis Mills, Mac Jones, and Taylor Heinicke. That’s not an acceptable usage of the budding superstar.
Head coach Brandon Staley promised to take a hard look at the team’s offensive approach during this past bye week, and the biggest item he circled was performance on early downs (first and second), where the Chargers are lagging behind the sticks and forcing third-down heroics. Herbert’s depth of target on early downs drops all the way to 6.5, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. Just choosing to script more downfield passes on early downs would help, but that means a lot of contested sideline throws for Mike Williams; the Chargers can generate higher-percentage looks if they add a speed threat who can displace safeties and open space in the deeper portions of the field. That’s where Cooks comes in.
Cooks has been used more as a do-it-all receiver in Houston as their de facto WR1, but in three of the past five seasons he’s been a top-10-graded receiver on deep balls by PFF. Cooks’s speed and ball tracking are legendary traits, and with a quarterback like Herbert throwing him the football, the Chargers’ offense can suddenly begin stretching defenses vertically. While the Texans’ reluctance to trade Cooks is understandable given the quality of play he’s given them, Houston should be willing to sell at the deadline given the current state of the franchise. Remember, Nick Caserio was a key decision-maker in New England, one of the most active trade deadline teams in recent history. Cooks’s departure would also create room for young receivers in Nico Collins and Chris Moore—an explosive player in his own right—to develop into starting players with the increased reps.
Denver Broncos CB Kyle Fuller to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Denver receives: 2022 third-round pick, 2022 sixth-round pick
Tampa Bay receives: CB Kyle Fuller, 2022 fifth-round pick
A litany of injuries has plagued the Buccaneers’ defensive backfield this season. Starting outside corner Carlton Davis and slot corner Sean Murphy-Bunting are both on injured reserve with no clear return date in sight; veteran Richard Sherman, signed during the season, has already injured his hamstring. The Bucs are currently giving significant snaps to Dee Delaney and Pierre Desir, which is not where a championship-caliber defense wants to be. Given the Bucs’ aggressiveness in retaining their Super Bowl roster by pushing money into future years, more bold moves at the trade deadline make sense.
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos are suffering the opposite problem: They have more corners than they know what to do with. When Kyle Fuller was cut from the Bears this offseason, the Broncos signed him to a one-year, $9.5 million deal, rounding out a solid room of Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan—but then went on to select Alabama corner Patrick Surtain II in the first round of the 2021 draft. With Surtain shining as a rookie, Fuller is now fourth on the depth chart while making more money than any of the cornerbacks above him.
The money is important because the Bucs don’t have a lot of it. They have only $3.2 million remaining on the 2021 cap, while the Broncos have $13.8 million—the third most in the league. Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht could restructure another deal to make room for Fuller, but the Broncos could also pay some of Fuller’s outstanding money in the form of a restructure to facilitate the deal. Doing so could pry a better pick out of the Buccaneers’ hands, as Tampa obviously has little use for draft picks now that it’s looking to extend its winning window.
Fuller will turn 30 this February and isn’t the player he once was, but his versatility would be mighty attractive to the Bucs’ depleted cornerback room, as he can play both outside and in the slot. I think it’s worth the risk.
Philadelphia Eagles OT Andre Dillard to the Carolina Panthers
Philadelphia receives: 2022 sixth-round pick
Carolina receives: OT Andre Dillard
Eagles GM Howie Roseman has long proved to be an aggressive player at the trade deadline. He acquired Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi in 2017, Lions wideout Golden Tate in 2018, and Browns pass rusher Genard Avery in 2019. But this year, he’s clearly proved to be a seller: The Eagles have shipped away tight end Zach Ertz to the Cardinals and quarterback Joe Flacco to the Jets in the past few weeks. Philadelphia is reloading, and Roseman is willing to move on from assets accordingly.
Speaking of aggressive general managers, first-time GM Scott Fitterer is not shying from the trade market early in his Carolina tenure. The Panthers have also made two trades during the regular season, both of them acquisitions: Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots and C.J. Henderson from the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s easy to make an argument that the Panthers should relax a bit with their frenetic trading, as they don’t seem to be the contenders the first few games of the season may have indicated—and with the Sam Darnold trade considered, the Panthers are already out their second- and third-round picks in 2022.
But I imagine they’ll stay aggressive, and the biggest weakness on the team is clearly the offensive line. Carolina is fourth worst in pass-block win rate this year, having somehow talked themselves into starting Cameron Erving at left tackle. With Erving struggling mightily and both Brady Christensen and Dennis Daley on the guard depth chart following the injury to John Miller, an immediate improvement and potential long-term starter at tackle would be a welcome sight.
Andre Dillard probably isn’t all that—but he could be! Dillard struggled mightily in Philadelphia when he first arrived in 2019, and Jordan Mailata beat him out in camp for the starting left tackle job this preseason. But when the Eagles reshuffled their line due to in-season injury, Dillard started four games at left tackle and acquitted himself fairly well. One of those games—arguably Dillard’s best—was against the Panthers, a team that already called the Eagles this offseason to inquire about Dillard’s price. At the time, Carolina was told Dillard was not available—but with the deadline approaching, I wouldn’t be surprised if this conversation opens back up. Dillard has two years left of a rookie contract (including his fifth-year option) and no avenue to starting in Philadelphia—the Eagles should get what they can for him now, when his stock has seen a bump following his adequate play.
Kansas City Chiefs C Austin Blythe to the Dallas Cowboys
Kansas City receives: 2022 seventh-round pick
Dallas receives: C Austin Blythe
We often see veterans traded away after they’ve been supplanted by surprisingly successful rookies. Such is the argument for Austin Blythe, whom the Chiefs signed for the veteran minimum of $990,000 guaranteed, with another $760,000 tied up in performance incentives that Blythe is unlikely to meet. Blythe has yet to see a snap this season, as the Chiefs selected Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in the second round of the 2021 NFL draft, and he immediately established himself as an impressive starter through camp and into the regular season.
Blythe is far from a dominant starter along the offensive line—there’s a reason he was available for the veteran minimum—but he was a three-year starter at guard and center for the Rams before signing with the Chiefs this offseason. He could start over a few currently rostered centers in the league, including Cowboys center Tyler Biadasz, who has struggled mightily in his second season as a pro. Failed snaps between Biadasz and quarterback Dak Prescott have been common enough that GM Jerry Jones was asked about it earlier this month; Biadasz’s pass protection, even after a successful snap, is leaving plenty to be desired as well. Backup interior offensive lineman Connor McGovern has worked on snapping in practice—a clear sign the Cowboys are willing to investigate other options—but apparently has struggled there as well. With Jones’s history of trade deadline acquisitions considered (Amari Cooper in 2018, Michael Bennett Jr. in 2019, Eli Ankou in 2020), center is a position to watch in Dallas.
Blythe would come cheap and at the very least should provide some nice depth—but ideally, he replaces Biadasz at the pivot. Blythe is lighter than most Cowboys linemen, but they have been heavily working outside zone this season, which is Blythe’s best system. Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Philbin should know how to work with Blythe to get him in a position to succeed—he was the offensive line coach in Indianapolis in 2016, when Blythe was drafted by the Colts in the seventh round.
Pittsburgh Steelers Edge Melvin Ingram III to the Dallas Cowboys
Pittsburgh receives: 2023 fourth-round pick
Dallas receives: Edge Melvin Ingram III
What can I say? Jones likes to make deals at the deadline. Ingram is a player clearly on the block this season, and finding a landing spot for him is tricky. Dallas is one of a few teams that makes a lot of sense.
Ingram hasn’t been bad for the Steelers at all. He’s tied with T.J. Watt for second on the team lead in pressures (18) and win rate (17.6 percent), despite delivering far fewer sacks (one to Watt’s six). But his snap counts have been decreasing over recent weeks, as the Steelers prioritize the three-down ability of emerging pass rusher Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick in 2020. Ingram took at least 60 percent of the snaps in each of the first three games; in the last three games, he’s never broken that number. As such, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network named Ingram as a player discussed by teams approaching the trade deadline.
Ingram has sustained hamstring and knee injuries that forced him to miss 12 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons, and his medical sheet was the primary reason he was still available as a free agent into the summer. He looks healthy with Pittsburgh, but keeping his snap count down is important. That reality, along with his unique skill as an interior rusher and crasher on stunts from a stand-up alignment, make him a tricky player to place. A defense that maximizes Ingram must be willing to blitz, run games with their front, and rotate personnel on third down.
The ideal team for Ingram is the Cleveland Browns, but teams rarely make trades within their division. So Dallas could step in. Star defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is expected back at some point this season, but his return is not on the horizon; in his absence, Randy Gregory and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons have stepped up, each delivering 22 pressures apiece. But the depth behind those players is worrisome: Tarell Basham, Dorance Armstrong Jr., and Chauncey Golston all have struggled to win around the outside in limited playing time. And remember, for as cool as it is that Parsons can rush the passer, the Cowboys drafted him to play linebacker—a role all the more important after they moved on from off-ball linebacker Jaylon Smith a few weeks ago.
With Ingram in hand, the Cowboys can add another body to their rotation and shore up depth once Lawrence returns from injury. Ingram is an intuitive pairing with Parsons and Gregory, in that all three are dangerous interior rushers, and Parsons and Ingram can both drop into coverage. He is a force multiplier for a line that has likely been surpassing expectations this season.
Miami Dolphins CB Noah Igbinoghene to the Detroit Lions
Miami receives: 2021 seventh-round pick
Detroit receives: CB Noah Igbinoghene
An important tradition during the trade deadline is finding new homes for young, struggling players who have fallen out of favor with their coaching staff. Such was the move for players like Desmond King II (Chargers to Titans in 2020), Austin Corbett (Browns to Rams in 2019), Leonard Williams (Jets to Giants in 2019), and Eli Apple (Giants to Saints in 2018). I’d like to dump Noah Igbinoghene onto that train.
A first-round draft pick in 2020 for the Dolphins, Igbinoghene had a tricky path to playing time: Byron Jones and Xavien Howard already had the outside jobs locked down, while incumbent slot covermen Nik Needham and Jamal Perry weren’t going to give up their jobs easily. Igbinoghene largely played on the outside in relief of Jones and Howard in his first season and was picked on mercilessly as an inexperienced cornerback (at Auburn he transitioned from wide receiver during his freshman year). Igbinoghene never really broke the depth chart through 2020 and into 2021, where he has been a healthy scratch in four of the Dolphins’ first six games. He got his first significant action in Week 6 against the Jaguars, but was unavailable in Week 7 against the Falcons due to a knee injury.
Speaking of cornerback injuries, it’s been a tough spell in Detroit, where young cornerbacks Jeff Okudah, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and A.J. Parker have all gone down with injury at some point this season. Okudah is out for the year, Melifonwu is “a little ways away,” and Parker was only recently injured—but suffice it to say, the Lions are scraping the bottom of the barrel for cornerback play. At 0-7 in the first year of a rebuild, why not trade for a former first-round pick who has seemingly missed his window in Miami? Passing-game coordinator and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant is viewed as a rising star among defensive coaches and a developer of cornerbacks, considering his work in Los Angeles with Darious Williams and Troy Hill. Let him work with Igbinoghene’s impressive athleticism and see whether he can reignite the young man’s career.
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