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Imagine If the NFL Trade Deadline Weren’t Boring

These seven players won’t be traded — but they should be

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Almost nothing ever happens on the NFL trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline typically comes and goes without a whole lot of fanfare. The last deadline trade happened in 2013, when the Eagles sent defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth rounder to the Patriots for a fifth rounder, and there have been just 32 total since 1990. And even when midseason deals happen, most teams are reluctant to make a blockbuster move because of salary cap restraints or the time needed to integrate a player into a new system on the fly. The last superstar deal happened back in 1989, when the Cowboys sent Herschel Walker (and four picks) to the Vikings for five players and a combination of eight conditional and non-conditional picks.

In an ideal world, we’d see a few good players get rescued from their current hopeless situations and a few struggling teams gather more pieces for the future. Whether they were the victims of bad draft luck or simply made a bad decision in free agency, here are seven guys who’ve been left to rot on bad teams and now need saving.

Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver, New York Jets

Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick parlayed a 31-touchdown performance in 2015 into a one-year deal worth up to $15 million, and everything since has been hard to watch. He lost his job to Geno Smith in Week 7 but got it back when Smith tore his ACL. The 33-year-old has thrown seven touchdowns to 11 interceptions, he has a 68 quarterback rating, the Jets are 3–5 … it’s a lost season and no one cares if Brandon Marshall wears a T-shirt to support his quarterback. The elite pass catcher needs a new one.

Marshall has been one of the most dominant receivers in the NFL during his 11-year career, combining immense size with savvy routes and extraordinary body control on jump balls at the sideline or in the end zone. He gives you plenty of terrible drops but makes up for them with a near-weekly assortment of one-handed catches over hapless cornerbacks in the middle of traffic. He’s gone over 1,000 yards receiving in eight of his last nine seasons, and in three of his last four, has gone over 100 catches and caught 10-plus touchdowns. But through eight games, Marshall has just 34 catches and two touchdowns. After dealing with similar situations in Denver, Miami, and Chicago, he’s once again stuck in a bad offense on a bad team.

Cameron Wake, Defensive End, Miami Dolphins

After an achilles injury prematurely ended his 2015 season, the 34-year-old Wake has returned to provide a pass-rushing spark for Miami. He’s registered three sacks and a forced fumble in 195 defensive snaps. Although he now occupies a limited role, the 6-foot-3, 263-pound veteran is still one of the NFL’s most explosive players off the edge when he gets a chance. Now in the twilight of his career, Wake is one of the most underappreciated players of his generation, and the three-time All-Pro deserves a shot at the postseason for the first time in his eight-year career. Miami’s not gonna get him there.

As a situational edge rusher, Wake would be the type of midseason addition that takes a good defense to great. On third downs, in the red zone, and when the opposing team absolutely has to pass to move the ball down the field, a wily disruptor like Wake can be the difference between a huge offensive play and a big defensive stop. As we saw last year when the Broncos dominated the playoffs, a speed rusher off the edge can be a game-changing factor.

DeAndre Hopkins, Wide Receiver, Houston Texans

Getty Images
Getty Images

This season, things are so bad for the Houston offense that fans might actually miss the four-headed bad quarterback hydra of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden. Hopkins rose above last season’s dire situation and still caught 111 passes (third in the league) for 1,521 yards (third) and 11 touchdowns (tied for seventh). But with big-money free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler struggling through accuracy, trust, and confidence issues, the impossible has happened: It’s gotten worse.

Hopkins’s numbers have fallen off a cliff, and it’s not for lack of effort — he has been targeted a team-high 76 times, 25 more than Osweiler’s next most popular receiver, Will Fuller. But through eight games, he’s caught 40 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He’s well off his 2015 numbers, a pace that that would have him at 80 receptions for 868 yards and six touchdowns on the year.

Saving Hopkins doesn’t have anything to do with Houston’s record — the Texans are still in first place in the AFC South at 5–3 — but there might not be a player in the NFL whose talent is being wasted more right now. Hopkins has top-end speed, elite size, vise grips for hands, and an ability to go up and over any defender to make a catch. He needs to be paired with a competent quarterback. He deserves to be paired with a competent quarterback. And well, we deserve for him to be paired with a competent quarterback.

Joe Haden, Cornerback, Cleveland Browns

Once counted among the top cornerbacks in the league, Haden has struggled with injuries the past two years — concussions limited him to five games last year, and a groin tweak has cost him three this season — but the former first-round pick still has the talent, length, aggressiveness, and physicality to be a difference maker in a contender’s secondary.

The two-time Pro Bowler (2013, 2014) has two picks and 21 tackles in five games this season, but in the right scheme that heavily features press-man coverage concepts, he could jump-start a once promising career. Plus, the 27-year-old’s timeline doesn’t match up with Cleveland’s; the Browns won’t be good again for a long time.

Joe Staley, Left Tackle, San Francisco 49ers

Staley combines quick feet, powerful hands, and near-perfect technique at left tackle. He’s equally effective in the run game and in pass protection, and the 32-year-old remains one of the league’s elite at one of the most important positions in the game. Yet his talent is being wasted on the 49ers. It’s clear that neither Blaine Gabbert nor Colin Kaepernick is the long-term answer for San Francisco at quarterback; its defense needs major work; and with the next few years of roster rebooting on the horizon, it’s squarely in rebuilding mode.

Plenty of contenders could use a top-tier left tackle, like, I don’t know, say, the Seahawks, who relied on a guy making his first start since pee wee football to protect Russell Wilson’s blindside this week. I’m sure 49ers fans would love that.

Julius Thomas, Tight End, Jacksonville Jaguars

Getty Images
Getty Images

Remember Julius Thomas? You know, the guy who caught 12 touchdowns in both 2013 and 2014? The unguardable offensive chess piece that Peyton Manning and the Broncos utilized all over the formation? The unstoppable red zone threat with great size, speed, and soft hands? Yeah, we barely do either.

Once known to be one of the most terrifying mismatch nightmares in the NFL, Thomas, who signed a five-year, $46 million deal with Jacksonville in 2015, is stuck in an underperforming, underwhelming Jaguars offense captained by Blake Bortles, whose regression as a passer once again has Jacksonville in last place in the AFC South. As Bortles has struggled with fundamentals and a loss of confidence, his receiving weapons have suffered — and none more so than the versatile Thomas, who has just 19 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns this season. Somebody please find this guy an offense that will actually let him victimize linebackers in coverage.

Todd Gurley, Running Back, Los Angeles Rams

Despite concerns about the ACL tear that caused him to miss much of his junior year at Georgia, the Rams picked Todd Gurley 10th overall in 2015 as the foundational piece to a run-heavy, smashmouth offense. At times, he looked the part en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Except while he rushed for 655 yards on 112 carries during a five-game stretch from Week 4 to Week 9 alone, since then, he’s failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in 13 of his last 14 games.

This season, Gurley has carried the ball 134 times but is averaging just 3.01 yards per carry (38th in the NFL), a huge drop from his 4.83 yards per carry average as a rookie. He has just three touchdowns after scoring 10 last year. At 26th in DVOA, the Rams’ passing attack is so useless that opposing teams are stacking the box to take Gurley out of the game, and as a result, the offensive line has failed to open up any big lanes for the talented ballcarrier.

Few backs possess the natural power, explosiveness, and vision that Gurley does. Every time he touches the ball, he’s a threat to take it to the house, but Los Angeles’ offense is so inept that, even with a heavy load, the former first-rounder hasn’t broken a single run for more than 20 yards after racking up 11 of those explosive plays last year (second in the league, behind only Doug Martin). Gurley hasn’t suddenly gotten worse; everything around him has just deteriorated.