I’m not saying New England and Seattle are smarter than everyone else in the NFL. Time will tell if they’ve made the right moves after each of them made a league-high five pre-cutdown trades in the NFL, on a weekend when more than 1,100 players got cut/traded/waived, the biggest transaction period in NFL history.
I am picking a New England-Seattle Super Bowl. The weekend put the exclamation point on that. But this weekend wasn’t the end of it.
“It never stops,” Seattle GM John Schneider said four minutes before stepping into a 6 p.m. Pacific Time meeting Saturday to see which of the 1,100 players on the street the Seahawks might be interest in claiming or bidding for. “This is a non-stop building of the roster now. We’re not smarter than anyone else—I can guarantee you that—so we’re just going to keep working.”
Briefly, I am picking a Super Bowl 49 rematch because—though each team has flaws—I like the quarterbacks, I like each coaches’ imagination, I like the offensive weapons (even the new and strange weaponry in New England), and I like the Seattle defense. A lot. The acquisition of three-technique defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson by Seattle on Friday clinched it for me; I look at a Michael Bennett/Richardson/Jarran Reed/Cliff Avril front, with Frank Clark the nickel rusher or more, as the best in the NFC. Just about unblockable.
With the NFL’s 98th season starting Thursday in Foxboro (Chiefs at Patriots), the unprecedented roster churn less than a week before puts significant pressure on the coaching side and the player-acquisition side to fold in new players quickly. The Patriots and Seahawks, under Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, have track records of getting new players up to speed quickly. They’ll have to, with Week 1 challenges for New England from Kansas City’s pass-rush and its excellent special teams, and for Seattle from Green Bay’s passing game. But it’s going to be a competitive and typically mysterious season, and if you’d predict a Steelers-Giants Super Bowl, or Chiefs-Falcons, or Raiders-Packers, that’s no worse than my pick.
Let’s start with the weekend, and the most stunning trade, and then I’ll get to the two teams that fascinate me the most entering the NFL’s 98th season.
It was a text message from New England at 7 p.m. Friday that started the trade that, when it was complete at midday Saturday, knocked people off their beach chairs on this Labor Day weekend. On Friday evening, a Patriots operative texted the Colts and asked, and I am paraphrasing: Any interest in Jacoby Brissett for Phillip Dorsett?
In the previous five pre-cutdown periods, there was an average of 10.2 trades per year across the NFL. This year, there were 25. “There was a lot of trolling, because there were going to be so many players out there,” said one AFC GM, who was active in the week leading up to the Saturday 4 p.m. ET cut deadline. “There was a lot of, ‘Any interest in this guy? He’s not gonna get to you on the waiver claim system. You’re too low.’” In other words, if a young player, a rookie or impressive undrafted free agent was cut and hit the market, a team with a low waiver priority (a high-finishing team in 2016) would likely get undercut for the guy. That was a propellant for deals like the Patriots dealing a sixth-rounder for Cincinnati special-teams ace Marquis Flowers.
But that doesn’t account for what the Patriots did with the Colts in the stunning trade of the weekend. There was not a whisper of a rumor that the Pats would deal their No. 3 (but rising prospect) quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, this weekend, particularly with the absolutely unknown QB situation the Patriots have in 40-year-old Tom Brady and looming 2018 free agent Jimmy Garoppolo ahead of Brissett on the depth chart. And though Indy had talked to teams (Rams, Patriots, several others) this summer about trading the underachieving Dorsett—two years, 51 catches since taken as the 29th overall pick in 2015—most around the league thought the Colts would get a mid-round pick, or a pick plus a swap of higher picks.
So after the Patriots reached out, the Colts did their due diligence, watching tape of Brissett, especially liking his poise against a hard Houston rush in a September 2016 start. By noon Saturday the Colts had decided to do the deal. Interesting, really, to see how quickly deals developed on this weekend: When Indy staffers were at dinner Friday, they had no thought of doing anything significant at the quarterback position. By lunch Saturday they had upgraded their backup quarterback position—significantly, they thought. Brissett will be an upgrade over Scott Tolzien, who still will likely play at least the opener next week while incumbent Andrew Luck continues to heal from offseason shoulder surgery. The Colts did not make this trade out of a fear for Luck’s health. They did it to get a three-year solid backup/developmental quarterback at a manageable average salary of $735,000 through the end of 2019.
Dorsett is undervalued now. Brissett had a good two-year run in the Patriots’ system, and New England probably maximized his value in part by his four-TD preseason game Thursday night. Trading Brissett is risky, but the way New England looked at it, I’m sure, is they’ll worry about the quarterback of the future in 2018, not now. Now is time to maximize a malleable receiver group. “If you want to get something, you’ve got to give up something,” Bill Belichick said Sunday.
A week before the season, New England found itself suddenly in big trouble on special teams with arguably the best kicking-game units in football, Kansas City’s, coming to Foxboro this week. Thus the trades for special-teams aces Marquis Flowers and Johnson Bademosi before final cuts. I don’t expect Dorsett, who is not a good returner, to be in play as a punt returner; if he plays Thursday night, I expect it to be in the regular offense, and I expect him to be used exclusively as a receiver this season.
What the Patriots have done on offense since the end of the season, even with the ACL tear suffered by reliable Julian Edelman, is bolster their capacity to play positionless football. This is probably the fastest receiver group Belichick has ever coached. Dorsett and Brandin Cooks, both sub-4.4 guys in the 40-yard dash, could line up wide, stretch the field and open up the intermediate areas like never before. Chris Hogan is a 4.45 guy and figures to be in the slot with Danny Amendola a lot. I doubt Rex Burkhead, who is capable of playing the slot, will play much if at all there; I figure he’s going to be a versatile presence in the backfield only. Rob Gronkowski could be more of a move player than he has been, now that solid blocking tight end Dwayne Allen is in the house—we’ll see.
New England has the ability to be so much different on offense than the explosive team that put up 34, 36 and 34 points, respectively, on three postseason foes. Who knows what they’ll do. This is a team that has the potential to be much better on offense later in the season than in September … and I take you back to my conversation with Brady in February to explain why. I marveled at the precision of the timing routes to first-year Patriots Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell at crucial times in the Super Bowl, and this is what Brady said: “That's a lot of throws. That's 111 practices that we had. That's however many games. Films, meetings. It's got to be like clockwork. You're throwing it to a spot, he's turning, those are the ones the DBs have been covering all year too. It took great execution.”
Cooks, Dorsett, Burkhead. Allen, Mike Gillislee. When I think of folding in so many new guys to the New England offense, I think of 111 practices. It could take a while before it all fits together. The Patriots could change more than any offense in football between today and December. That’s not a bad thing.
More cutdown weekend thoughts
• On the Sheldon Richardson trade.(Richardson and a seventh-round pick from the Jets to Seattle for wideout Jermaine Kearse, a second-round pick and a seventh-round pick.) Good for both teams. Might be great for Seattle. The Seahawks plan to try hard to sign Richardson beyond this year, and it’ll cost quite a bit; Richardson will be supremely motivated to play great in Seattle. Next March, at 28, could be the last chance he’ll have to do a mega-deal in the NFL. The Jets can use the low second-round pick they’ll get for a player or as ammo to help them move up for their quarterback of the future next April. And Kearse is a good place-holder with a great worker-bee rep.
• The Seattle pre-cutdown haul. Six trades, with the biggest chip dealt being their second-round pick in 2018. When the picks that flew back and forth cancel out, Seattle might have gotten marginally better on the offensive line (Matt Tobin from the Eagles, Isaiah Battle from the Chiefs), but Richardson is the big key, particularly with the future of the rookie the organization loved, three-technique tackle Malik McDowell, in doubt after an ATV accident. One thing that GM John Schneider does with his scouting staff is stress that, yes, he knows the offensive line needs help. But Anthony Muñoz is not walking through that door, so let’s not cry about it. Let’s find bodies better than the bodies we have.
• Brock Osweiler’s a Bronco. John Elway wanted to sign Osweiler as Denver’s quarterback of the future in March 2016 for about $16 million a year. He signed him Saturday night for 4.8 percent of that. But Osweiler’s better suited as a third-stringer or backup now; his accuracy is not NFL-effective. Elway made it clear Osweiler will be the backup to Trevor Siemian until Paxton Lynch returns from a shoulder injury in about a month. After that? That’s in Siemian’s hands. If he plays well in the first month, the Broncos may be inclined to cut Osweiler and use the roster spot on another position of need. If not, Osweiler could have an on-field second act in Denver. Man, how weird it’s going to feel for Osweiler this week, back in that locker room after he made it clear he was happy to leave there 18 months ago.
• Dot dot dot … I like Sammie Coates in Cleveland—a big, imposing receiver who got trumped by Martavis Bryant’s return. Coates and Kasen Williams (waiver claim from Seattle) are intriguing weekend catches for the Browns … One of my favorite waiver claims: running back Alex Collins, by Baltimore. The Ravens’ backfield is the land of opportunity, and Collins runs hard … Like the T.J. Ward signing by the Bucs. Good leader, hard hitter. Julio Jones will know where he is on downfield throws, to be sure … The Eagles’ offensive line got better with the one-year extension for Chance Warmack, who’s having a good second act with the Eagles after flopping in Tennessee … Interesting the Texans choose to go with Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson and no number three quarterback—though I’m sure Brandon Weeden will keep his phone handy for a call if Savage goes down … And the Niners kept only two quarterbacks, with Iowa rookie C.J. Beathard, camp star, being number two.