The trade deadline is near, which means NFL clubs have about two weeks left to evaluate their rosters and current personnel situations to determine a course forward. This year has been fascinating in that we’ve seen some traditionally strong teams falter, some franchises confront the uncomfortable end of a window with a roster that had performed at a high level for decades, and whatever the hell is going to happen in Houston with the Texans.
There will be trades made in 2020; this is especially true given how surprisingly competitive some divisions have become (hello, AFC North) and how wide open some underperforming divisions remain (hello, NFC East). Teams are already operating under the assumption that they can forge ahead with little to no practice, which further legitimizes the notion that you can plug and play a talented player without much difficulty. The following trades are not likely to be among them; this is simply an exercise in what is possible and what we’d like to see (and, really, Cam Newton is a Patriot, so never say never).
Sam Darnold to the Steelers
Actually moving Sam Darnold would be complicated now, because doing so would essentially cement the franchise's waving the white flag. Also, Adam Gase would assuredly fight against any efforts to deal Darnold because the rookie’s development over the second half of the season represents the lone sliver of a chance he has at retaining the head-coaching job. I’ve heard an interesting case made that if the Jets continue to falter and earn the No. 1 pick, they should hold onto Darnold and trade the selection for what will inevitably be the largest bounty since the Ricky Williams deal. Trevor Lawrence is a franchise-altering superstar … but … does he fit with a Jets team that needs an upgrade at roughly 20 of the 22 starting positions? Would they just squander his already superb talent? If the Jets were committed to clearing the deck and hiring a coaching staff that would be amenable to Lawrence, the Steelers would represent a fascinating trade partner for Darnold. Pittsburgh has shown, like other clubs perpetually picking in the high teens to late 20s, that the only way to acquire top-of-the-draft talent is to deal picks for damaged goods. Darnold represents the kind of Ben Roethlisberger successor many felt the Steelers missed out on when they dealt last year’s first-round pick for Mikah Fitzpatrick, and the current Jets QB could be had for a cheaper price.
Matt Ryan to the 49ers
While it doesn’t seem like Kyle Shanahan is punting on 2020 yet, he does have the long-term picture clearly in mind. He rested a still-recovering Jimmy Garoppolo amid a blowout loss to the Dolphins last week, among other protective measures that you would not see a coach fearful of the ax usually make. Trading for Matt Ryan would be interesting in that it would pair Ryan with his best coordinator; the pair reached the Super Bowl together in 2016 and accounted for nearly 10,000 passing yards and 60 touchdowns in two seasons with an average quarterback rating over 100. Ryan’s contract takes him through 2023 but can be squeezed out of without (too much) of a strain before then. This would give the 49ers flexibility in the interim and a staunch challenger to the middling Garoppolo. In Atlanta, as soon as the Falcons acquire a general manager and head coach, a massive rebuild will be underway. Why not stock them with as much draft capital as they can?
Julio Jones to the Ravens
Speaking of capital, the Falcons could score a massive coup by netting a first-round pick for Julio Jones before it’s too late. Jones would electrify the market, which is desperate for game-breaking wide receiver talent, and he’d been a boon for the Ravens, a team that flirted with a bunch of different options at the position in the preseason. Lamar Jackson openly lobbied for Antonio Brown, and while his target share to tight ends has decreased since last year—leading to more opportunities for Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin—the Ravens could balance an offense that is second in the league in percentage of explosive running plays (17%) but 15th in percentage of explosive passing plays (9%). Despite being 0–5, the Falcons have a formidable explosive play rate. Jones has played in only three games this year, but is working with his highest career catch rate to date despite one of the lower average separation numbers in the NFL. A developing gunslinger like Jackson might be the perfect pairing.
A.J. Green to the Patriots
Something isn’t working with Green in Cincinnati. Despite having more than a quarter of the Bengals’ air yards, Green’s paltry catch percentage (41.18) and extremely low separation numbers (Green, on average has the second-fewest yards of separation per target in the NFL) show either a player in decline or a player disinterested in another lost season in Cincinnati. If I’m Bill Belichick, I'd see whether a combination of some mid-round picks draws the potential Hall of Famer out of the weeds in Ohio. For years in Carolina, the (simplistic) consensus was that rangier receivers like Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess were better for Newton’s occasional uncorked fastballs. Green’s height and (prior) ability to win one-on-one battles would provide another big target for Newton and diversify the Patriots’ scheme which, at the moment, splits targets between an aging Julian Edelman and a still-developing N’Keal Harry.
J.J. Watt to the Packers
The freewheeling Texans now have bills to pay after their wild two-year trade streak, which involved sending some of the franchise’s best and most productive players elsewhere for, well, not so much. I understand adding another trade to the mix, especially one shipping out J.J. Watt, would be considered somewhat sacrilegious in Texas. Watt has been the face of the franchise for nearly a decade. It was reportedly his willingness to spar with O’Brien that got the coach ousted in the first place. However, this move could be spun as a win-win. Houston would reclaim some much-needed draft capital and the Packers, who are currently 30th in pass rush win rate, could bring Watt back to the state where he grew up, played college football and still keeps an offseason home. Sending Watt back home to an undefeated contender would be one of the rare moves the Texans can make that could ship out a franchise icon but leave the organization and its fans with as positive a taste in their mouths as possible. Deshaun Watson will be a major draw for the team’s next head coach and general manager, but it couldn’t hurt to improve the pick stockpile, even moderately, before the search begins.