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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
With the Super Bowl in the past, the NFL has hit the offseason. However, there’s a thing about the National Football League in the 21st century: There is no offseason.
From the moment the confetti fell at SoFi Stadium (and frankly even before that), general managers and front offices from Arizona to Washington, D.C., have been busy attempting to improve their rosters. They are already hard at work to make it back to the playoffs. Or just make it there at all.
For some teams, that means pursuing a trade for a star. Making a splash move to fill a major hole. Address a glaring need. Add a missing piece.
For others, it means doing the opposite. Sometimes dealing a big-name player can be a good move, offering a chance to parlay depth at one position into draft capital and other assets that can be used to address areas of need. In other instances, it’s the only move. Whether because of salary-cap constraints, age, injury or other factors, teams reach points where it’s time to get what they can and move on.
Not all the star players listed here will be dealt in the days and weeks to come—that would make for an offseason more like the NBA’s than the NFL’s.
But every player is a candidate to be the biggest piece in a trade that can make or break an offseason.
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There will be no shortage of speculation regarding Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson this offseason. But among star signal-callers, the player most likely to be dealt remains Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.
Watson wants out of Houston and is the subject of 22 civil complaints alleging sexual assault or sexual misconduct and 10 criminal complaints.
As Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated reported, new Texans head coach Lovie Smith thinks Watson’s status will be clear by the end of the offseason:
“There are things that need to be taken care of before the football part comes into play. We’re patient, we’ve waited an entire year and I just feel like this offseason, it’ll come to an end and we’ll get it solved and it’ll be good for both parties, whatever that might be. There’s no other answer to give right now except for that one, and we’re going to try to get it resolved as soon as we possibly can. But we don’t play tomorrow. We have a little bit of time, and we’ll get it done.”
Teams aren’t going to offer the many assets it will take to land Watson until they are sure he’ll return to the field.
If Watson’s legal situation is resolved this offseason, however, he should be moved shortly thereafter. Texans general manager Nick Caserio has said a reconciliation between player and team is unlikely, and Houston paid Watson $10.5 million last season. That figure will balloon to $35 million in 2022.
If a deal is made, it will be a rare one. Before last year’s trade deadline, multiple teams offered three first-rounders for Watson, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported.
No trade this offseason would come close to matching this one in terms of compensation.
It might be easier to list the teams that haven’t been linked to Watson. But the Miami Dolphins are the only organization Watson has approved as a trade partner, per Pelissero, though the change from Brian Flores to new head coach Mike McDaniel may have altered that dynamic. The Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos also expressed interest before the trade deadline.
This week, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano reported the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings were looking at Watson, and Breer (via SI.com’s Brandon Little) mentioned the Cleveland Browns.
Of that group, Philadelphia has three first-rounders in 2022, which could provide Houston with the quickest return on investment. And the Eagles, Dolphins and Browns have viable starting quarterbacks still on rookie contracts to offer the Texans as bridge options.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Not that often is a quarterback who just led his team to the NFC Championship Game expected to be traded.
But it’s also not that often that a team is in the situation the San Francisco 49ers are in with Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Niners went all-in on getting their guy in the 2021 draft, trading three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up to No. 3 overall to select North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. But Garoppolo (and not Lance) led San Francisco into the postseason. Given what the 49ers surrendered to obtain Lance, however, there’s ample motivation for him to start sooner rather than later—especially if San Francisco can recoup some of the assets it lost by trading Garoppolo.
Garoppolo’s limitations as a passer were evident in a postseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams. But Sage Rosenfels—who played under head coach Kyle Shanahan from 2006-08 when Shanahan was an assistant with the Houston Texans—thinks the 30-year-old can lead another team to the playoffs and generate significant interest on the trade market.
As Rosenfels told Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area:
“One of his best strengths is his quick release. As a guy who studies quarterbacks and was a quarterback myself, he has an extremely quick release and he was usually really accurate in that short-medium range stuff.
“He doesn’t have a big arm, never will, just not his thing. He can still show a post, he throws a go route, but he’s not going to throw it 70 yards like [Justin] Herbert or Pat Mahomes. He doesn’t have that aspect to him, but as a guy who day in and day out really liked him, I think likability is very underrated.”
Peter King of NBC Sports agreed, telling Damon and Ratto (via Kyle Madson of Niners Wire) that he thinks Garoppolo could garner quite the return.
“If, for the sake of argument, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson stay put, that is great news for the 49ers,” King said. “Because it would mean, in my opinion, the floor of a trade would be then a first-round pick.”
Garoppolo may not generate the interest among teams that an elite player would, but there won’t be a shortage of parties interested in the proven veteran.
Garoppolo wouldn’t be a great fit for Tampa Bay’s vertical passing game, but he also could be acquired for fewer assets than Deshaun Watson. The Broncos will likely be in the mix for any veteran quarterback, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a playoff-caliber roster and could view Garoppolo as a significant upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins. The Washington Commanders are no stranger to splash moves and have a desire, per King, “to do something” at quarterback.
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Rusty Jones/Associated Press
In January, Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer addressed trade speculation regarding star running back Christian McCaffrey. Per Schuyler Callihan of All Panthers:
“I think there was a report back in November that we were actively trying to trade him and that was not true. What I did tell him though is as a GM, I’ll take any call. You can call and make any offer you want. That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it. That doesn’t mean we’re shopping you. I’ll listen. I look at Christian as a foundation piece on this team, one of those building blocks. We’re a better team when he’s on the field. He’s one of the elite players in the NFL. I would love for him to be here but I would never not take a call. If somebody calls and offers something crazy, yeah, you would look at it but there is no intentions right now of trading Christian McCaffrey.”
So the Panthers aren’t trading the 25-year-old—unless they do.
There’s no question that McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive threats. In 2019, he became just the third player to amass 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. That earned McCaffrey a four-year, $64.1 million contract. But since then, McCaffrey has played just 10 games. With the Panthers staring at a rebuild, rostering the NFL’s highest-paid back isn’t wise.
And Carolina has just one pick in the top 100, so getting back a pair of Day 2 picks (or even a late first-rounder) would be tempting.
A contending team’s acquisition of McCaffrey would certainly make headlines—and send the fantasy football community into a tizzy. But in addition to the risks that come with his injury history, spending substantial draft capital on a running back is something of a luxury move. A contender would only make such a deal if it believed McCaffrey was the missing piece.
With that in mind, imagine the Buffalo Bills or Kansas City Chiefs with McCaffrey. It would take some doing to fit his salary under the cap, but teams play that shell game every year.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
In some respects, Saquon Barkley’s situation is similar to Christian McCaffrey’s. Like McCaffrey, Barkley has shown the potential to be elite. But injuries have been an issue, as Barkley has missed time in three of four seasons, and a torn ACL wiped out most of his 2020 campaign.
Via Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, Barkley thinks 2022 can be a different story under new head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen.
“I love the energy, I love the conversation I had with [Daboll],” Barkley said. “I think he and the GM Joe Schoen, they’re doing an amazing job right now. I can’t wait to get back in April.”
The question is whether or not that enthusiasm is a two-way street. The No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft has been mentioned as a trade candidate, and that speculation hasn’t died down.
“It might be time,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler wrote. “It has been four years. Barkley has high-quality traits, but the Giants need to exhaust all options for their rebuild. Enough teams are still enamored by his skill set that they could be interested in a potential swap. Many still view Barkley as a top-shelf tailback when healthy. He’s due $7.2 million on a fifth-year option, and doing a long-term deal in New York for the 2023 free agent just doesn’t make sense for either side.”
If an extension isn’t in the cards, a trade could be the best thing for each party.
Barkley could be an even more attractive trade candidate than McCaffrey for teams such as the Bills and Chiefs. The return compensation would be similar, but Barkley is only under contract for 2022, and his salary is a lot more reasonable than McCaffrey’s monstrous deal.
That could mean more teams will be willing to take a run at the 25-year-old. Fowler listed the Buccaneers and 49ers as potential suitors, and given the Baltimore Ravens’ reliance on the run and the injuries that destroyed their backfield in 2021, they also seem like a good fit.
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Gary McCullough/Associated Press
There’s no shortage of potential options available to teams looking for wide receiver help this offseason, whether it’s via free agency or trade. However, it appears Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints won’t be among them. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (via Jelani Scott of NFL.com), despite his mere 438 yards over the last two years and a base of $15.4 million in 2022, the Saints aren’t interested in dealing the 28-year-old.
There is, however, a proven, productive veteran who could likely be had for a relatively reasonable cost.
And he’s no stranger to being traded.
As a matter of fact, Brandin Cooks has known no other way of moving around the NFL. After being drafted 20th by the Saints in 2014, he was traded to the New England Patriots. Then he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. And then he was traded to the Texans.
Cooks has played with a pair of sure-fire Hall of Famers in Drew Brees and Tom Brady plus Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills. What hasn’t changed is his productivity. Cooks has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in six of the past seven seasons, recording 90 catches, 1,037 yards and six touchdowns for one of the league’s worst offenses in 2021.
The Texans are in the early stages of a rebuild, which will be accelerated if the team trades Watson. And after restructuring his contract last season, Cooks will head for free agency in a year. The odds he will remain with Houston past 2022 aren’t good—especially given the displeasure he apparently expressed with the team’s direction in October.
Houston can deal him now and get draft capital or wait and perhaps get a compensatory pick in 2024 if Cooks leaves.
Cooks’ base salary of $12.5 million in 2022 is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also not excessive for a player in the prime of his career who has shown the ability to produce at a high level regardless of scheme or quarterback.
A player like that is going to generate interest.
The Los Angeles Chargers have plenty of cap space and a potential hole at the position looming with free agent Mike Williams. The Browns need a No. 1 wide receiver in the worst way, especially with Jarvis Landry’s unclear future. The Eagles, Indianapolis Colts and Las Vegas Raiders also have the means and need to do a deal.
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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
Among the players in this article, Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry may be the least likely to be traded—because he’s arguably the most likely to be released.
Landry has been discussed as a potential trade (or release) candidate, and for multiple reasons. He is headed into the final year of a contract that carries a cap hit of $16.4 million in 2022. The 29-year-old is coming off career lows in receptions (52), yards (570) and touchdowns (two) in a season in which he missed five games. Landry all but stopped speaking to the media around the time Odell Beckham Jr. was sent packing, and his release would cost the Browns just $1.5 million in dead cap.
Whether you believe Baker Mayfield can rebound or that the Browns need to turn the page at quarterback, what can’t be denied is that the wide receiver corps needs work.
But Cleveland doesn’t need a slot receiver making so much money coming off the worst year of his career and who doesn’t want to be there.
The other 31 teams know this too—and many could be inclined to wait the Browns out. But if Landry is amenable to a change of scenery and a restructured contract, there could be a few teams willing to throw a Day 3 pick at the Browns for the right to skip to the head of the line.
Calling Landry a “star” may be pushing it a little. But he is still on the right side of 30, has been named to the Pro Bowl five times, has topped 100 receptions twice and topped 1,000 yards three times.
He can’t carry a pass-catching corps. But he can be an excellent No. 2 option.
A rebuilding team such as the Detroit Lions could use his talent and veteran presence, but Landry is unlikely to take less money to join a bad team. However, getting Landry to take a pay cut with Kansas City or the Green Bay Packers is another story.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
Let’s get this out of the way: Unless Aaron Rodgers digs in with both feet and demands to be traded, he isn’t going anywhere. You don’t trade the two-time reigning MVP unless you have no choice. Rodgers’ top target in the passing game isn’t going anywhere either; whether it’s via an extension or the franchise tag, Davante Adams will return in 2021.
With that said, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has to make some moves. Rodgers’ cap hit in 2022 is well north of $46.7 million, and the Packers are $53.9 million in the red against the projected salary cap.
Something has to give.
Edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith has done nothing but live up to the four-year, $66 million contract he signed with the Packers in 2019. He tallied 26 sacks over the first two seasons of the deal and made the Pro Bowl twice.
However, 2021 was a different story. The 29-year-old logged a sack in Green Bay’s playoff loss to San Francisco, but it was his only one in a season that was all but wiped out by a back injury. And Smith will carry a cap hit of $27.7 million in 2022.
The Green Bay pass rush was just middle-of-the-pack without Smith, but the Packers can’t afford him. Not on this deal. And with fellow edge-rusher Preston Smith also carrying a huge cap number ($19.7 million), someone has to go.
Among the pair, Za’Darius would likely create more value on the trade market.
Dealing Smith would be a tough pill to swallow, given that it carries a dead cap hit of $12.4 million. But Green Bay’s cap situation is such a mess (without even factoring in Adams’ 2022 salary) that clearing his $15.3 million salary from the books while adding draft picks is at least worth considering.
Smith’s back would no doubt loom large over any potential trade talks. But his scheme versatility and track record could net Gutekunst some phone calls.
There are at least three teams in the AFC with more than $35 million in projected cap space that could use help on the edge: the Dolphins, Chargers and New York Jets. A deal with a team closer to contention such as the Raiders would take more creative accounting, including a restructured contract.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
There was a time when Marcus Peters was considered maybe the best cornerback in the NFL.
But things happen fast, and now Peters, 29, is returning from a torn ACL amid speculation he could be a valuable trade chip.
In a perfect world, talk of dealing a player of Peters’ caliber would be dismissed with a shrug and a “pfft!” Peters is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro who allowed a passer rating of less than 80 in 2019 and 2020.
But Peters missed the entirety of 2021 and is entering the final season of the three-year, $42 million extension he signed after joining the Ravens via trade in 2019.
There’s also the matter of Baltimore’s precarious salary-cap situation. The Ravens have $3.7 million in projected cap space. But that’s without taking into account Baltimore’s free agents (who include a younger corner in Anthony Averett) and the megaextension looming for quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Do the Ravens want to trade Peters? No—the pass defense took a big hit last season with the veteran on the shelf. But the financial realities they face and Peters’ value as a tradeable asset are factors general manager Eric DeCosta will bear in mind the next time his phone rings.
Outside of quarterbacks, offensive tackles and maybe edge-rushers, cornerbacks are arguably the most valuable players in the league.
And Baltimore’s status as a contender narrows the potential destinations list at least a bit. Peters isn’t going to Kansas City. The AFC North-rival Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals (who have the cap space and then some to absorb his salary) are also out. So are (most likely) teams such as the Chargers and Raiders.
But there are NFC teams that would benefit from a bump in the secondary: the 49ers, Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.
Essentially, just about any team with cap room and aspirations of making the postseason could be considered a possibility.