For the first time in recent history, NFL decision-makers at the trade deadline acted like fantasy football owners. The Panthers and Bills made sure it ended in a flurry right at the 4 p.m. deadline. Are you not entertained?
After being treated to the best game of the season Sunday in Seattle, we got a cornucopia of trades, many involving skill position players, that will help shape narratives for the rest of this season and beyond.
Here’s a look at who won in Week 8.5 of the NFL, who lost and who needs more time in all this.
Philadelphia: The team with the best record in the NFC just got better with the addition of running back Jay Ajayi, who—along with his knees—had worn out his welcome in Miami.
Ajayi will not yet replace LeGarrette Blount as the main ball carrier, but he does offer added pass protection for franchise quarterback (and MVP candidate) Carson Wentz, as well as the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield—something Blount does not.
Blount, who will be 31 years old by the end of the season, is only on a one-year deal in Philadelphia. Ajayi will be able to play on his fifth-round rookie contract until the end of next season, as the Eagles hope he returns to his 2016 form rather than his current 3.4-yards-per-carry production.
New England: No, the Patriots do not have a backup for Tom Brady—that’s something they’ll have to figure out. But we all know the truth is that the Patriots won’t win a Super Bowl without Brady, so it doesn’t matter who the backup is. After all, this story on the aging Brady posits that Bill Belichick only has two or three more years left of coaching anyway.
What the Patriots did was take the 62nd pick in the 2014 draft and turn it into what could possibly be the 33rd pick in the 2018 draft. Think of Garoppolo like a car: The Patriots didn’t drive him much in three-plus years but he was reliable when needed. Eventually he appreciated in value nearly twofold, and the buyer didn’t even get a real test drive. More on that later…
Seattle and Houston: Here’s the most win-win trade of this week. For the Seahawks, clearly they know their window is closing with an aging defense. If they are to go to a third Super Bowl in five years, they’ll need a better offense, and a better offense means a competent offensive line in front of the great Wintertime Russell Wilson. At 32 years old, Duane Brown is not the future at left tackle, but he could stabilize an OL that’s badly needed help for three or so years. Houston gets rid of a player who is clearly (and rightfully) displeased with the leadership of the franchise. In return the Texans get future second- and fifth-round picks, which will be used to build for a future around obvious franchise quarterback (and possible Rookie of the Year) Deshaun Watson.
Legitimately, the Texans’ offense is worse without Brown. But the Texans have faced the toughest part of their schedule (0–3 versus the Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks), have five of their next nine at home and have two of their final four road games in Cleveland and San Francisco. At 3–4, the Texans can still win an AFC South that is currently led by a dubious Jaguars team.
49ers: Unpopular opinion alert forthcoming. I’m not sure I’m convinced that Jimmy Garoppolo is any good at quarterbacking in the NFL. As in, where’s the evidence to prove that he is?
He was a stud at Eastern Illinois and played well in spot duty before starting two games during the Deflategate Era, completing 68% of his passes and throwing five touchdowns to zero interceptions. Those are the objective facts, and the rest is built on conjecture and reputation.
Bill Belichick’s misses are always covered up by his many makes. Who’s to say Garoppolo wouldn’t eventually be a miss? Could reputation be clouding a true evaluation? And you’ll hear about how Garoppolo “fits Shanahan’s system” just like how Brian Hoyer fit Shanahan’s system before he got benched and eventually cut.
Then there’s the matter of whether or not the 49ers can sign Garoppolo long term and not just rent him. All of this could work out very well for the Niners and he could be the savior they’ve been waiting for since Steve Young retired. But it also shouldn’t be considered a stellar trade as we stand here today.
Bills and Panthers: This trade is hard to process because there are still great unknowns—the greatest of which is the health of Kelvin Benjamin’s left knee. He tore his ACL in 2015 training camp and missed the Super Bowl run, struggled in 2016, came into this past offseason overweight for the third time since he began college and was dealing with the same ailing knee in the past two weeks during practice.
If healthy, Benjamin goes to a Bills team that could use a big receiver for Tyrod Taylor to entrust 50/50 balls. At 5–2, the Bills see a real shot at making the playoffs for the first time in 17 years (the longest current postseason drought of any NFL team) and, though Benjamin won’t get a lot of separation, he’s on his way to another 1,000-yard season.
But if Benjamin’s not 100%, the Panthers get to wiggle out of the fifth-year option they inked him to and get a third-rounder (and a meaningless seventh-rounder) out of this. Make no mistake, though: This trade will not please Cam Newton, who has counted Benjamin as a close friend since he was drafted in 2014.
Greg Olsen will be eligible to return from IR shortly, and No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson has stepped up recently. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has been a far better pass catcher than rusher so far. And third-year wideout Devin Funchess is having the sort of breakout season everyone expected of him last year.
But remember that Panthers GM Marty Hurney and first-year Buffalo GM Brandon Beane (a former Panthers lifer) are long friends. They’re both looking for a fair trade here. If Benjamin is only worth a third-rounder and peanuts, maybe that says all we need to know about his knee.
Colts:I firmly believe Indianapolis should tank this season. But this bottoming-out doesn’t have to last into 2018. If Andrew Luck comes back healthy next year after nearly 20 months off, this is still a team that can win the division. T.Y. Hilton isn’t happy with how things are going, but you need him with Luck. You could possibly get something for Vontae Davis, but re-signing him this offseason to team in the backend with Malik Hooker would give you an opportunistic secondary.
Play for a top-three pick in April, but you don’t have to mortgage the future to do so when you’re already on that track.
Dolphins: Less than a week after declaring the Dolphins had the “worst offense in football,” Miami coach Adam Gase decided to do something about it. Unfortunately, that something meant trading away their best rusher and pass-protector for Jay Cutler for a fourth-round draft pick.
Ajayi and Gase butted heads, and so it’s possible that Gase was sending a message to his team. It’s unclear what that message exactly is, though. Is it, I’ll send you to the best team in the NFC if you don’t perform? Or is it, I’ll make the worst offense in football even worse on paper by shipping out our best rusher?
The Dolphins have Damien Williams and Kenyon Drake to carry the load in the backfield and that may not be enough.
Or perhaps this was the message
Browns: This is not to pile on to the 0–8 Browns who have won just one game in 27 tries and who appear to be helpless for the next several seasons.
OK, maybe there’s a little piling on.
The Browns have been selling their parts for the better part of two seasons. There was no annual dance with Joe Thomas at the deadline, but the Browns still could have traded away a player or two to accumulate more draft picks.
Indeed, Cleveland has five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft. That’s five chances to get the position right for the first time in this iteration of the franchise’s history. (Truly, it’s remarkable that the Browns haven’t even lucked into figuring out the most important position in sports in two decades. The Vikings, for example, figured it out twice in three years and both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are injured.)
The Browns know they aren’t smarter than the other 31 teams, so the best way to get the right guy at quarterback is to stockpile picks. A sixth pick in the top two rounds could only help, because they aren’t winning without a quarterback.