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
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.
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.
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.
I can understand why the Patriots would make this deal. The Falcons, though, have to be thrilled about this return. They are 1-6 and going nowhere, with a 0.1% chance of turning things around and making it to the postseason, per FPI. A cap-strapped Atlanta team desperately needs to devote more resources to its defense after ignoring it this past offseason. With Sanu playing as the team’s third wideout behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, the Falcons can use that $6.5 million more effectively elsewhere. It wouldn’t have been shocking if they had cut Sanu after the year or dealt him for a late-round pick.
Instead, the Falcons are getting a second-round pick and saving $3.5 million over the rest of the season. Even given that the Patriots pick could be the final selection of the round, turning a year and a half of Sanu into the 64th pick is good value for general manager Thomas Dimitroff & Co. If the rumors are true and the Patriots offered a second-round pick for Sanu before the draft, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Patriots weren’t able to drive the price down, given that they’ll basically get only 75% of what they would have received before the draft. The Falcons did well to avoid sending a late-round pick in 2021 back to the Patriots as part of the deal.
Dan Orlovsky and Marcus Spears agree that Mohamed Sanu is a perfect addition to the Patriots offense to help them make a Super Bowl run.
Patriots fans might be able to justify the deal by pointing out that New England is projected to receive two third-round compensatory picks after losing Trent Brown and Trey Flowers in free agency. Getting those picks is great, but it doesn’t make New England’s existing picks less valuable. Former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner has a nice way of putting it: “Once the house money is in your pocket, it’s no longer house money.” It’s easy to joke that the Pats just use their second-round picks on disappointing defensive backs every year, but New England also used second-rounders on Jimmy Garoppolo, Jamie Collins and Gronkowski in years past.
What Sanu’s price tag also suggests is that there’s an active market for wide receivers. It’s going to be very tough, as an example, for someone to send a second-round pick to the Bengals for A.J. Green when the Patriots needed a second-round pick to get Sanu. The Saints, 49ers, Seahawks, Raiders and Colts could all conceivably be in the market for help at wide receiver in the weeks to come.
Monday, Oct. 21
Raiders grade: B-
Texans grade: D+
Two coaches who also have a role in personnel decisions responded to Week 7 by making an emotional trade. One side makes more sense than the other, because Bill O’Brien’s propensity for filling holes on his roster by trading away future draft picks has quickly become a habit. The Texans technically have two third-round picks, but their own third-rounder is likely spoken for as a product of the Duke Johnson trade, which seems like a similar sort of misstep from the O’Brien-led front office.
Going after Johnson as a secondary piece to supplement then-starter Lamar Miller made sense at first glance, but when the cost was revealed, O’Brien seemed desperate. The Texans sent a fourth-round pick to the Browns for Johnson which would become a third-rounder if Johnson was active for 10 or more games. Unless the Texans cut Johnson in the weeks to come, the receiving back will trigger the third-round pick, which will force the Texans to send the third-rounder they received from the Seahawks in the Jadeveon Clowney trade to the Raiders.
The Johnson deal seemed like a bit of mistaken genius after Miller tore his ACL, but the Texans have mostly built their running game around Carlos Hyde, who was acquired for backup lineman Martinas Rankin just before the Chiefs were going to cut Hyde at the end of camp. O’Brien ended up trading a third-round pick for a running back who has played about half of Houston’s offensive snaps while averaging just over eight touches per game. Johnson is an underrated player, but good franchises find backup running backs on the waiver wire or late in drafts.
This brings us to Conley. Jon Gruden likely decided that he was done with the former first-round pick after a disastrous game against the Packers on Sunday. When the Raiders tried to play Cover-0 and send the house on a third-and-4 against a dominant Packers offense, Aaron Rodgers threw a quick out to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Conley slipped coming out of his break and failed to tackle Valdes-Scantling, who turned upfield for one of the easiest 74-yard touchdowns you’ll ever see.
Conley struggled elsewhere during the Packers game and hasn’t been good in 2019. As the closest defender in coverage, the NFL’s Next Gen Stats suggest the Ohio State product has allowed opposing quarterbacks to go 21-of-29 for 389 yards with five touchdowns against a lone pick this season. That’s a 139.7 passer rating. The only cornerback who has been targeted at least 20 times who has given up more yards per attempt than Conley’s 13.4 yards per throw is the Chargers’ Desmond King.
Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock didn’t draft Conley. The Gruden-led front office has continued to dump as many of former general manager Reggie McKenzie’s draft picks as possible. After trading Conley, there are just five draft picks across McKenzie’s six drafts left on Oakland’s active roster in Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson (2014), Karl Joseph and DeAndre Washington (2016), and David Sharpe (2017). Conley seemed to round into form during the second half of 2018 and had a famously impressive game against Antonio Brown, but it’s no surprise that the Raiders are moving on from a cornerback they didn’t appear to really want.
Getting a third-round pick for Conley has to be considered a victory, given that the Giants were able to get only fourth- and seventh-round picks when they traded away fellow first-rounder Eli Apple under similar circumstances last year. Seattle’s pick is likely to come at the bottom of the third round, but so was the fourth-rounder the Giants got for Apple. If anything, Apple had shown more across his first two seasons than Conley did, although most of Apple’s success came as a rookie, while Conley was better in his sophomore season.
Either way, the Texans are sending a meaningful pick to try to plug a hole. O’Brien cut 2018 free-agent disaster Aaron Colvin after he struggled during the season-opening loss to the Saints and then moved 2019 free-agent signing Bradley Roby to the slot while promoting second-round pick Lonnie Johnson Jr. to the starting lineup. Roby played well before going down with a hamstring injury, leading the Texans to start Johnson and street free agent Phillip Gaines ahead of veteran corner Johnathan Joseph, who himself was coming off a hamstring injury. Joseph played only 14 snaps against the Colts on Sunday, while Gaines was carted off with an ankle injury (he was placed on injured reserve Monday). Jacoby Brissett threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-23 victory.
In a vacuum, the move to get help at cornerback makes sense. Houston is now perilously thin at cornerback in a year in which it is competing for a playoff berth. Conley is a former first-round pick and still has three cost-controlled years left on his deal, so the Texans might be able to find a starter for years to come. The Texans even play the Raiders this Sunday, so maybe Conley can tip off his new team to some of Oakland’s tendencies.
By looking at the bigger picture, though, you can see how one desperate, emotional move begets another. The Texans failed to sign offensive tackle Nate Solder in 2018, which eventually led them to inexplicably sign Matt Kalil to play left tackle in 2019. When Houston failed to draft its left tackle of the future in Andre Dillard and Kalil was predictably injured during camp, O’Brien sent two first-round picks to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. To help free up the financial space to make that happen, O’Brien agreed to pay half of Clowney’s salary to ship him off to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and two linebackers who have barely suited up for the Texans on defense.
Now, after cutting Colvin in frustration after the opener, O’Brien’s used the third-rounder from the Clowney deal to acquire a player who has been one of the league’s worst cornerbacks this season. Across the first three rounds of the next two NFL drafts, the Texans have just two selections: their second-round pick in 2019 and their third-round pick in 2020.
For whatever issues I might have with the roster-building philosophy in Los Angeles, the Rams have at least used their draft picks to target superstars such as Jalen Ramsey and Brandin Cooks. Tunsil is a star, but shedding draft capital to get players like Stills, Johnson and Conley just doesn’t make sense. O’Brien seems to know that he won’t be around if this all-in ploy fails and continues to throw future assets toward possible short-term fixes. It’s the opposite of just about what every successful franchise in the league does with their roster and their draft picks. Good luck!
Tuesday, Oct. 15
Rams grade: C
Jaguars grade: C+
Ryan Clark explains that the Texans needed a player such as Gareon Conley with Johnathan Joseph injured.
Trading for Ramsey could transform the Rams’ defense. According to ESPN’s coverage analysis from the NFL’s Next Gen data, the Rams have played some version of a man-to-man concept in their secondary on just 34% of their snaps in 2019, down from 41% in 2018 and 53% in 2017. Ramsey’s desire to play in a man scheme and take out the opposing team’s No. 1 wideout is well-known. I would suspect that trading for Ramsey will encourage defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to send more pressure and play tight man coverage behind.
Rams grade: C-
Ravens grade: B+
Trading for Peters lets the Ravens take a flier for the rest of the season on a player with an All-Pro ceiling. Baltimore’s secondary has been disappointing this season, primarily owing to injuries to Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, the latter of whom is out for the year. Peters probably will step in for Maurice Canady in the short term, and the Ravens will be the ones to net a compensatory pick if they decide to move on from Peters in 2020.
Browns grade: C-
Rams grade: C+
Corbett is the most significant misfire so far in the John Dorsey era. Taken with the first pick of the second round of the 2018 draft, Corbett was drafted just before more successful linemen like Will Hernandez and Braden Smith, let alone the likes of fellow second-rounders like linebacker Darius Leonard, cornerback Donte Jackson and wide receiver Courtland Sutton. Corbett repeatedly failed to take advantage of the opportunities the Browns gave him to win starting jobs, but it’s a surprise to see them give up on him for a late-round pick two drafts away before he even finishes his second season on the roster.
The Nevada product played just 15 offensive snaps in a Browns uniform. He might soon have an opportunity to carve out a bigger role with the Rams, who desperately needed offensive line help after Joe Noteboom went down for the year with a torn ACL. Jamil Demby took over for Noteboom during the disastrous game against the 49ers, but the Rams instead started fifth-round pick David Edwards at guard during Sunday’s win over the Falcons. Edwards was making his debut on the interior and played well, albeit against the league’s worst pass rush.
The Rams clearly see Corbett as a possible buy-low at a long-term position of need for their roster. I agree with their logic, although the fact that the Browns were willing to give up on such a highly drafted player at a position of need after less than a year and a half on the roster is telling. By the time the Browns actually take this pick in 2021, Corbett will either likely be a starter or no longer on the Rams roster.