Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Barnwell’s 2019 NFL trade grades

18 min read
Barnwell's 2019 NFL trade grades

In the new, trade-happy NFL, there are plenty of deals to discuss around the trade deadline, which is 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

As the deadline approaches, I’ll grade each swap:

Tuesday, Oct. 22

Detroit Lions get: 2020 fifth-round pick
Seattle Seahawks get: S Quandre Diggs, 2021 seventh-round pick

Lions grade: D+
Seahawks grade: B

This is a surprising, out-of-nowhere deal for a Lions team that likely still fancies itself a contender at 2-3-1. Quandre Diggs was starting at safety as recently as this past weekend, when he played 55 of 71 snaps during the Lions’ 42-30 loss to the Vikings. Diggs was entering the first season of a three-year, $18.6 million extension he signed in September 2018, but there is no guaranteed money on his contract after this season.

Diggs started his career as a slot cornerback, but the Lions moved him to safety after Tavon Wilson went down injured last season, and he impressed in limited time. They kept Diggs at safety this season after cutting longtime starter Glover Quin, but it seems that they were not impressed by his performance. It might be worth noting that his last defensive snap with the team came on Kyle Rudolph‘s touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, and Diggs didn’t appear to make much of a tackle attempt on the tight end at the goal line. I have to wonder if that was the last straw for coach Matt Patricia.

The Lions will presumably give Wilson a larger role, given that the former Patriots safety was playing just under 40% of the defensive snaps this season. Wilson filled in for Diggs when the starter missed two games earlier this season; Diggs had basically been an every-down safety to that point. Wilson, who took a pay cut to stay with the team this season, has always profiled better as a true strong safety.

Diggs’ theoretical range as either a free safety or a strong safety likely appealed to the Seahawks, who need help at both spots. Both strong safeties Bradley McDougald and Lano Hill have struggled with injuries, and Tedric Thompson has had a wildly inconsistent season at free safety. Seattle started rookie second-rounder Marquise Blair alongside Thompson during Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. Blair had played just 12 defensive snaps before taking 100% of the snaps against Baltimore.

After years of wiping away deep passes with superstar safety Earl Thomas, Seattle has been susceptible to deep throws this season. Against passes traveling 16 or more yards in the air, the Seahawks rank 29th in passer rating (122.3) and 27th in Total QBR (97.7). Lamar Jackson was 2-of-3 for 83 yards on those throws Sunday, and the one incompletion was a would-be touchdown that Mark Andrews dropped.

The Seahawks will try Diggs alongside Thompson for the time being before getting McDougald back. In Pete Carroll, the Seahawks have a coach with an affinity for both challenging pass interference calls and developing defensive backs, which should tell you how great he is at the latter. There’s a chance the Seahawks turn Diggs into a very valuable safety in the long-term, and they don’t run much risk while adding a warm body in the short-term.

After Detroit paid Diggs $6.5 million in bonuses the past two years, the Seahawks will be on the hook for only about $1.6 million in prorated base salary and $62,500 in per-game roster bonuses over the remainder of the season. That seems well worth a fifth-round pick, let alone getting a seventh-rounder in 2021 as part of the swap. If you think my grade for the Lions is harsh, well, you can ask star Detroit cornerback Darius Slay what he thinks.

Denver Broncos get: 2020 third- and fourth-round picks
San Francisco 49ers get: WR Emmanuel Sanders, 2020 fifth-round pick

Broncos grade: B-
49ers grade: C

It’s a run on wide receivers! After the 49ers missed out on Mohamed Sanu this morning, they weren’t going to miss out on adding the other prominent veteran wideout on the market. Despite Kyle Shanahan insisting on Monday that the 49ers didn’t feel any sense of urgency to add help at wide receiver, it only took a matter of hours after the Sanu trade for the Niners to add Sanders to their roster.

I’m not sure this moves the needle much for the 49ers, who have plenty of competent wideouts without any standout option. I suggested that the Niners pursue A.J. Green, who would have been a clear upgrade on the options Shanahan rolls out each week. Sanders figures to take snaps away from Deebo Samuel and Dante Pettis, and while the 49ers are ticketed for the playoffs after their 6-0 start, getting those young wideouts reps is still going to be what’s best for the organization in the long term.

It’s also reasonable to ask if Sanders is going to be available to play as the season goes along. Sanders put in an incredible rehab effort to return from the torn Achilles he suffered in December by the start of the season, but he has already missed practice time this year with quadriceps and knee issues, the latter of which knocked him out of a game. He doesn’t necessarily need to be a deep threat, but he has caught one pass more than 20 yards downfield this season, and it came in the opener. The 32-year-old played just one full 16-game season across his four previous chances in Denver.

In the best-case scenario, the 49ers get a healthy Sanders as a supplement to their current receiving corps as a savvy veteran wideout. Like Sanu, he is regarded as a good blocker, which will help one of the league’s most run-happy teams as they get to the edge. Like the Patriots, Shanahan’s scheme asks his wideouts to learn more than the vast majority of NFL teams. The good news is that Sanders has been playing under a similar scheme under Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who worked under Shanahan, which will help give the veteran a head start.

Unlike Sanu, though, the 49ers aren’t really getting a financial bargain. Sanders has just over $6 million in prorated salary due over the remainder of 2019. And while the Patriots have the option of paying Sanu a team-friendly salary in 2020, Sanders is a free agent after the year. Combined with the chances that Sanders will miss time during the season, I think you can raise questions about whether this is good value for the 49ers.

The Broncos, meanwhile, bite the bullet and trade another one of the veteran standouts from their Super Bowl-winning team in 2015. Adam Schefter reported that the Broncos wanted Sanders to suit up against the Colts on Sunday before making this trade, which seems bizarre for a 2-5 team with a 3.3% shot of making the postseason, per FPI.

The difference between San Francisco’s fourth-round pick and Denver’s fifth-round pick should be small given where each sits in the standings, so this is really a third-round pick and the equivalent of a late-round selection for Sanders. That’s a fair return for the Broncos, who get to save $6 million and spend the rest of the season evaluating whether they want to add another wideout around DaeSean Hamilton and new No. 1 Courtland Sutton, who has had a breakout season. General manager John Elway will likely want to see what he has in Tim Patrick when the 6-foot-4 Utah product is eligible to make his way back from injured reserve in midseason.

Atlanta Falcons get: 2020 second-round pick
New England Patriots get: WR Mohamed Sanu

Falcons grade: B+
Patriots grade: C+

There’s always some trepidation in suggesting the Patriots didn’t get the better end of a deal. Bill Belichick is smarter than, well, just about anyone else in the league. The Patriots are prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl, with ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) giving them a 36.1% chance of winning their third Lombardi trophy in four years. If they do, simply by being on the roster, Sanu is likely to play a big role along the way. The chances of him throwing for a touchdown on a trick play when the Patriots are struggling to create offense at some point during the postseason are approximately 100%.

Belichick has also probably had that pass play drawn up for years. With his affinity for Rutgers products who played under Greg Schiano well-known, it’s no surprise Belichick has repeatedly tried to acquire Sanu. Belichick tried to sign the 6-foot-2 wideout when he hit free agency in 2016, only for Sanu to sign with the Falcons. As Adam Schefter noted, Belichick also tried to trade for Sanu before the 2019 draft.

Now, with the Falcons floundering, Belichick gets his man. Sanu should step in quickly for an offense that started Phillip Dorsett and gave the combination of Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski 54 offensive snaps during Monday night’s blowout win over the Jets, although I suspect this move is more about shifting the offense as a whole than trying to create some short-term boost for the Patriots.

As previously constructed, the Patriots’ offense simply wasn’t playing up to its usual standard. They might very well have seen how they played during the 2018 playoffs, when they relied on a heavy dosage of Sony Michel, and hoped to run a similar sort of offense again throughout 2019. It hasn’t happened. The offensive line hasn’t been the same without Trent Brown or David Andrews, even before Isaiah Wynn went on injured reserve. The offense sorely misses tight end Rob Gronkowski, perhaps more as a blocker than as a receiver. The same is true for fullback James Develin. Michel has plodded through a frustrating campaign. The Pats are 22nd in points per drive over the past month despite inheriting the league’s fifth-best field position.

They have used three or more wideouts on 62.4% of their snaps this season, which is up from 56.8% a year ago, despite the fact that they’re yet to be in a situation where they need to throw to catch up. If New England’s options are to run out inferior players in 21 or 22 personnel and wait for Michel to find his footing, or lean more heavily into 11 personnel and Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, well, you can understand why the Patriots would prefer the latter.

Sanu gives Brady another reliable pass-catcher in and around the line of scrimmage. Take a look at Sanu’s route chart from the NFL Next Gen Stats and you can see that most of what he was running in Atlanta was quick outs and dig routes behind linebackers. He was targeted just four times on passes traveling 15 or more yards downfield. Among 83 qualifying wideouts, Sanu ranks 76th in average air yards per target.

Basically, the Patriots are trading for a second Julian Edelman. While Sanu gives the Patriots added depth if Edelman were to become unavailable, it’s likely that Belichick will want to play both Edelman and Sanu in the slot, given that two-thirds of Sanu’s targets in 2019 have come out of the slot. Playing them both in the slot means New England will use more three- and four-wideout sets. Sanu is also a sound blocker, which will help the Patriots when they do run out of smaller sets.

Everything the Patriots do is about getting ready for the postseason, of course, and by the time we get to January, this offense could look very different. Wynn should be back at left tackle. First-round receiver N’Keal Harry could return from injured reserve, which would give the Patriots a bigger body on the outside to either supplement, rotate with or replace the injured Josh Gordon.

At the same time, this is also a move for 2020. Sanu’s deal, which was signed before wideout salaries really spiked during the 2018 offseason, pays the eight-year veteran $3.5 million in prorated base salary over the rest of 2019 before a $6.5 million base salary in 2020. That’s likely to be cheaper than just about anyone the Patriots would pursue in next year’s free-agent market, unless they go after a player coming off of an injury, as they did with Demaryius Thomas a year ago. The option to keep Sanu in 2020 might have led the Patriots to prefer Sanu to someone like Emmanuel Sanders, who is a free agent after the season.


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