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The Winners and Losers From the NFL Trade Deadline

Russell Wilson got a new lineman, Kirk Cousins lost out on an obvious landing spot, and Jay Ajayi landed on a contender

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Apparently the NFL trade deadline is awesome now.

Over the past few decades, it’s mostly been an anticlimactic affair—and from 1989, when the Cowboys sent running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings, to this time last year, when the Patriots shipped Jamie Collins to the Browns, the most we usually hoped for was a handful of minor moves involving back-end-of-the-roster-type players. But we’ve now seen four blockbuster (or at least impactful) trades in the span of two days, with the Seahawks acquiring left tackle Duane Brown from the Texans, the 49ers dealing for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Eagles bringing in Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins, and the Panthers sending receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills. It’s like the NFL has been taking notes from the NBA.

There’s a lot to digest, but let’s take stock of some of the early winners and losers from an exciting couple of days of action.

Winner: Russell Wilson

Brown is easily the best and most consistent left tackle Wilson has had in his six-year career, and he represents an enormous upgrade for one of the worst offensive line groups in the league. Coming into the season, Wilson’s blindside protector was supposed to be sophomore George Fant, a former basketball player that the Seahawks converted to tackle after signing him in rookie free agency last April. But Fant tore his ACL in preseason action and the team turned to his backup, Rees Odhiambo. The results have been grim: Through the season’s first eight weeks, Wilson has faced the second-highest pressure rate in the league (42.6 percent, per Pro Football Focus), with Odhiambo surrendering two sacks and a total of 35 pressures, the latter of which is second worst among all tackles.

Insert Brown, who gave up just one sack (tied for fewest among 56 qualifying tackles) and 28 pressures (tied for 14th) in 12 games last year. The 32-year-old should be an anchor on Seattle’s young line, and the protection he provides on the edge should give Wilson more time to sit in the pocket and pick apart defenses. Though Wilson’s played well with pass rushers in his face—throwing five touchdowns and three picks with an 85.3 passer rating (sixth best in the league), per Pro Football Focus—he’s nearly unstoppable when kept clean, with 10 touchdowns, one pick, and a 109.3 passer rating when not under pressure.

Loser: Deshaun Watson

The Texans’ heavy use of pre-snap motion and six- and seven-man blocking schemes up front helps mitigate some of the team’s issues protecting its young quarterback, and Brown’s departure doesn’t mean Watson will fall off a performance cliff. But, man, it sure would’ve been nice for this front office to give Watson a pocket to throw from. When the rookie signal-caller has had solid protection this year, he’s gone into full-on god mode, throwing 12 touchdowns and just two picks for a league-high 124.1 passer rating in his first seven games as a pro.

Watson’s going to be fine long term, and the sensational rookie’s record-breaking start has mostly come without Brown (who missed the team’s first six games). But it’s not a stretch to think that the veteran left tackle, who gave up just two pressures in the Texans’ exhilarating matchup with the Seahawks last Sunday, would have provided a massive boost to Watson’s already-impressive development.

Winner: Jay Ajayi

On one hand, Ajayi’s about to go from being “the guy” in Miami (where he hogged 85 percent of the team’s total rushes in seven games this year) to being one piece of a running back by committee in Philadelphia, where the former Dolphins bell-cow will join a crowded backfield that also includes LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood. Plus, if Blount remains the team’s primary goal-line back, Ajayi may also lose out on the opportunity to score touchdowns, which could create problems for a guy who has zero so far this year and had reportedly been unhappy with a lack of red zone touches for the Dolphins.

Then again, Ajayi’s going from a very bad team without a quarterback in Miami to a very good team with one of the league’s rising superstar signal-callers in Philly. The Eagles have a great defense and are legitimate Super Bowl contenders―and as the old saying goes, winning cures all ills. Ajayi might actually benefit from a decreased volume of touches, especially if the report that the Dolphins front office made the trade because they fear that “knee issues stemming from a significant 2011 surgery are finally catching up to him.” Fewer carries equals fresher legs. Fresher legs equals more burst. More burst equals more broken tackles and breakaway runs.

Winner: 49ers Fans

Coming into this week, there may not have been a single reason to get excited about an 0-8 team that seemed to be going in the wrong direction. The Brian Hoyer experiment, which was a bridge to the future anyway, was an abject failure. The C.J. Beathard era, which initially generated a little bit of excitement, lasted all of two games. But with the acquisition of Garoppolo, the team has who it believes will be its franchise quarterback—a player to build around—and the next half of the season will give the fans a chance to see the future of their offense.

It’s going to be ugly at times, sure—it took Matt Ryan more than a year to fully grasp Shanahan’s playbook in Atlanta—but if Garoppolo can demonstrate some of the traits he showed in relief for the Patriots last year, namely poise, mobility, accuracy, and a strong arm, it gives fans something to be excited about down the stretch.

Loser: Kirk Cousins

Cousins has already made himself a lot of future money this year, seeing as he’s passed for 1,900 yards (ninth), 13 touchdowns (tied for seventh), and just four picks for a 103.3 passer rating (third)—but the Niners putting their eggs into the Garoppolo basket takes them out of the running as one of Cousins’s rumored top suitors. San Francisco figured to be one of the deepest-pocketed teams, if not the deepest-pocketed team, to pursue Cousins this upcoming offseason, so taking the 49ers out of the bidding could negatively affect the 29-year-old quarterback’s market in free agency.

Likely, though, Cousins is still going to get paid extremely handsomely. The reason he’s the loser in this situation is that he’s not going to get the opportunity to work with Shanahan, who’s proved to be one of the league’s most innovative play-callers. With the right quarterback at his disposal, Shanahan has shown the ability to scheme receivers open, keep defenses off balance, and utilize all his playmakers. A Shanahan-Cousins pairing felt like a match made in heaven with the potential to turn Cousins into a superstar, but that looks unlikely now.

Winner: Tyrod Taylor

For a while there, it actually felt like the Bills were trying to sabotage Taylor’s career. The team let 1,957 snaps, 219 targets, 118 catches, 1,663 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns from Taylor’s 2016 passing offense go when Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Justin Hunter left in free agency and Sammy Watkins was traded to the Rams. In their place, Buffalo’s front office gave its quarterback rookie Zay Jones, free agent Andre Holmes, and trade acquisition Jordan Matthews. Unsurprisingly, this has been the result:

Benjamin, who new GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott know well from their time together in Carolina, might not be a cure-all for the team’s underwhelming passing attack—but he gives Taylor another big body in the red zone and a weapon over the middle on third down. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound playmaker comes relatively cheap, too—Buffalo’s only giving up third- and seventh-round picks to complete the trade, and will just have to pay what’s left of Benjamin’s $1 million base salary this year before his $8.46 million fifth-year option hits the books next season.

Loser: The Browns

Yeah, this one is always kind of a given. The Browns, who passed on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson the past two drafts (those two lead the NFL in touchdown passes this year, by the way), and who decided against trading for Garoppolo, also failed to trade for Bengals backup quarterback A.J. McCarron on Tuesday, per reports. And by failed to trade for him, I mean either they or the Bengals reportedly messed up the bureaucratic red tape required to make the deal go through.

Winner: Also the Browns

The unintentional consequence (reward) of the bungled A.J. McCarron trade is that the Browns are now not giving up second- and third-round draft picks to acquire A.J. McCarron.

Loser: Zay Jones

In a way, this might be a good thing long term for Jones, as it’ll give him more time to acclimate to the pro game and work on his hands. But in the short term, the unreliable rookie (whose 28.5 percent drop rate ranks second worst in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus) could find himself pushed down the depth chart down the stretch. Instead, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bills lean on Matthews out of the slot, with Benjamin, Holmes, and recent pickup Deonte Thompson on the outside.

Winner: Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey

With Benjamin gone, Cam Newton will likely lean even more heavily on the Panthers’ top-two-targeted pass catchers thus far: Funchess and McCaffrey. Funchess has taken a big step forward in his third year, finally showing some consistency in his hands and his route running, and leads the team in touchdown grabs (three). He’ll assume the role as the team’s primary threat on the outside, and we could see his production take a major jump.

This move may be about providing Newton with a little more speed over the middle of the field. With two big-bodied ents like Benjamin and Funchess on the field together, the ability for Newton’s receivers to separate from defenders was always going to be an issue. Now the team can get rookie Curtis Samuel and, perhaps more frequently, McCaffrey involved in the passing game.

McCaffrey has been disappointing thus far as a runner, averaging just 2.4 yards per attempt, but he’s been a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield (he leads the team with 49 catches). If they can get him involved even more as a de facto receiver, it might help get Newton’s season back on track.