The NFL typically awakens from its summer slumber in the days following the Fourth of July. The start of training camp is less than two weeks away, and it won’t be long before rosters around the league are finalized. For smart teams, though, July and August can be a key time to add one or two finishing touches to their personnel.
Free agency and the draft may be over, but trades are more common than ever in the NFL, and we’ve seen plenty of deals around this time of year that have made a big difference. The Rams traded for Sammy Watkins in the middle of camp in August 2017. The Eagles dealt for cornerback Ronald Darby on the same day, and he became the final piece of their Super Bowl–winning puzzle. With moves like that in mind, I decided to look at some of the players (many of whom are entering the final year of their contracts) who might be available for the right price, and possible landing spots.
The Stacked Roster Starters
Byron Jones, CB, and La’el Collins, RT, Cowboys
Dallas is slated to have about $75 million in cap space in 2020, according to Over The Cap, but that number is a bit misleading. A new contract for Dak Prescott is imminent, and even if the Cowboys manage to keep his cap figure relatively low in the deal’s first year, he will probably still cost at least $15 million against the cap next season. Combine that with the fact that Jones, Collins, and linebacker Jaylon Smith all have deals that expire this year, and Dallas’s robust cap space starts to shrink quickly.
It’s possible—though not likely, considering their championship aspirations—that the Cowboys would choose to trade one of their contract-year starters to avoid handing out all those extensions. And if the team goes that route, Jones and Collins seem like more logical trade candidates than Smith simply because of how much draft capital Dallas has spent on its secondary and offensive line over the past few seasons, and the experience other players at those positions already have. As an elite cornerback, Jones would be a more significant loss than Collins, but there’s always a chance that the Cowboys look at their future financial situation and decide to test the value of both players on the market.
Possible landing spot: Jets. Adam Gase’s team somehow still has more than $28 million in cap space left after an expensive offseason, and yet holes at both cornerback and right tackle remain. Considering all the money the Jets have already thrown around this spring, new general manager Joe Douglas could elect to push the team even further into win-now mode.
Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, CB, Rams
Trading for either of the Rams’ starting corners—both of whom are entering the final year of their contracts—would mean an expensive roster addition (Peters carries a cap hit of $9.1 million on his fifth-year option, and Talib will cost $8 million in his age-33 season). But contenders can never have enough depth at cornerback. After their run to the Super Bowl last season, the Rams probably don’t have much interest in blowing up their starting secondary, but L.A. is another team that has several significant financial decisions looming. Unlike the Cowboys and Prescott, Jared Goff’s coming extension will likely lower his 2020 cap hit, which is currently slated to be $22.8 million. But even with that, Sean McVay’s team will still only have around $50 million in cap space. Along with Peters and Talib, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr., defensive lineman Michael Brockers, and guard Austin Blythe will all hit free agency next spring. The Rams aren’t very deep at cornerback, but they’re even thinner along both lines, making Peters and Talib—the former coming off a rough first season in Los Angeles and the latter about to hit his mid-30s—more expendable given their current cap figures.
Possible landing spot: Washington. The Redskins are no stranger to splashy movies for big-name players, and outside of Josh Norman, the secondary is troublingly thin. The franchise doesn’t have a ton of cap space (just over $8 million, according to Over the Cap), but teams have acquired more expensive players with less wiggle room before.
The Realistic Targets
Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles
Agholor is slated to make $9.4 million on his fifth-year option this season, which is a lot for the guy who seems like the odd man out in Philly’s pass-catching corps. The Eagles used 12 personnel (two receivers, two tight ends, and one running back) on a league-high 36 percent of their snaps last year, and that number will only increase as second-year tight end Dallas Goedert’s role expands. With Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson getting most of the snaps in two-receiver sets, Agholor will likely be relegated to the no. 3 job—while costing the team nearly $10 million. With only around $5 million in projected cap space next season, Philly has to consider its cost-cutting options, and Agholor seems like the safest bet.
Possible landing spot: Packers. After an uncharacteristically aggressive offseason, Green Bay has only about $8.5 million in projected cap space, but the team could create some room by restructuring David Bakhtiari’s $8.5 million base salary. General manager Brian Gutekunst loaded up on defensive players in free agency this spring, but other than Davante Adams, Green Bay’s receiving corps is largely unproven and lacks any clear option in the slot. Also, Aaron Rodgers isn’t getting any younger. If the Packers want to take a swing, now is the time.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, T, Eagles
Big V has been vital for the Eagles over the past few seasons, filling in whenever legendary left tackle Jason Peters or right tackle Lane Johnson have missed time with injuries. But after Philly drafted pass-blocking specialist Andre Dillard in the first round this year, and given that Vaitai is in the final year of his deal, the Eagles could listen to offers. Capable tackles rarely become available, and with a base salary of only $2 million, Vaitai would be cheaper than most swing tackles around the league and could be an upgrade for several teams as a starter.
Possible landing spot: Chargers. General manager Tom Telesco drafted Sioux Falls tackle Trey Pipkins in the third round this season, but even if he projects as the long-term answer on the right side, Vaitai would give the Chargers an immediate solution as they look to maximize their title window with 37-year-old Philip Rivers.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins
Miami has been in full tear-down mode this offseason. The team has already parted with expensive veterans Ja’Wuan James (who signed a four-year, $51 million deal with Denver in free agency) and Robert Quinn (who was traded to Dallas), and at this point, few players on the roster seem untouchable. As the Dolphins look to stockpile assets during their rebuild, Drake—who’s set to make a $2 million base salary in the final year of his rookie deal—could be an interesting trade piece for an offense looking to add more pop to its backfield.
Drake was solid last season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 120 carries, and that came after he looked like a budding superstar at the tail end of 2017. That year, Drake ranked third in Pro Football Focus’s elusiveness rating, a metric that combines broken tackles and yards after contact. His production always warranted more touches, but former Miami coach Adam Gase seemed reluctant to lean on the 211-pound back as the team’s primary rusher. The new regime, led by first-year coach Brian Flores, could decide to hang on to Drake so they can determine if he’ll be a part of the team’s future. But dealing him would give Miami some immediate draft capital for a player who may be on the move next spring anyway.
Possible landing spot: Texans. The phrase “just a guy” was invented for players like Lamar Miller. The former Dolphin—who signed a four-year, $26 million deal with Houston in 2016—has been … fine since becoming the Texans’ primary back, but Drake would provide a younger, more potent force that could take advantage of the openings created by Deshaun Watson’s mobility. Houston entered free agency loaded with cap space but was fairly cautious in how it wielded it. The Texans currently have more than $40 million in room, trailing only the Colts. Even if Houston is bullish on third-year back D’onta Foreman, who’s returning this season after missing all of 2018 as he rehabbed a torn Achilles, Drake would be a low-risk way to help the Texans running game.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Texans
Mercilus missed most of the 2017 season with a torn pectoral muscle and was slowed during the early part of last season by a lingering hamstring issue. From Week 9 on, though, he tallied 27 disrupted dropbacks (according to Pro Football Focus) and was among the most effective pass rushers in the league on a per-snap basis. Even in the back half of his career, Mercilus is a versatile piece who’s just as comfortable rushing on the interior as the edge—and he’ll make only $5.8 million in 2019, the final year of his deal.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old pass rusher is a holdover from Rick Smith’s time as general manager, and he arrived in Houston before head coach Bill O’Brien’s tenure began. The Texans will likely prioritize bringing Jadeveon Clowney (who’s currently on the franchise tag) back on a long-term deal next spring, and with Clowney and J.J. Watt on the roster, the Texans are loaded with pass rushers. Rather than watch Mercilus walk in free agency next year, O’Brien and the team’s makeshift front office could look to recoup some value from one of the league’s many pass-rush-needy teams.
Possible landing spot: Giants. After dealing Olivier Vernon to the Browns earlier this offseason, the Giants are desperate for pass-rushing help. Mercilus fits the outside linebacker role in defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme, and he’d represent a massive improvement on New York’s current edge-rushing options.
Trae Waynes, CB, Vikings
Waynes has been the subject of trade rumors all offseason, and it makes sense. The former first-round pick will carry a $9.1 million base salary on his fifth-year option this season, the Vikings are trying to squeeze all they can out of their remaining cap space (they currently have just $5.2 million available, according to OTC, ahead of only the Steelers), and with three highly drafted cornerbacks (Xavier Rhodes, Mike Hughes, and Mackensie Alexander) already on the roster, Waynes is no longer a necessary component. As a team with title aspirations, Minnesota may not want to sacrifice the defensive back depth that head coach Mike Zimmer covets, but $9.1 million is a lot of money to pay arguably the fourth-best cornerback on the team. Waynes and his penchant for grabbing receivers downfield can be maddening at times, but he’s a physically gifted player who would still add speed to any secondary.
Possible landing spot: Chiefs. Kansas City hasn’t done nearly enough to revamp its secondary this offseason, even after signing Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breeland in free agency. The Chiefs currently have more than $25 million in cap space and would easily be able to fit Waynes’s expensive deal on their books. This is the type of move a team going all in with an MVP quarterback making $4.5 million on a rookie deal should make.
Karl Joseph, S, Raiders
The Reggie McKenzie regime took Joseph in the first round in 2016, but he doesn’t seem to be part of Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock’s long-term plan. After drafting safety Johnathan Abram in the first round and signing Lamarcus Joyner to a four-year, $42 million deal this offseason, Oakland declined Joseph’s fifth-year option—despite his career year in 2018. Joseph will now make $2.1 million in base salary on the final year of his deal, which could make him an attractive option for any team looking for a low-risk, high-pedigree player to add to its secondary.
Possible landing spot: Cowboys. Dallas signed George Iloka this spring to bolster its safety depth, but the position remains the biggest weakness on an otherwise strong roster. Dallas has more than $19 million in cap space, so it would have no issue taking on Joseph’s relatively modest deal. Players selected by a departed GM are often excellent trade targets, and it seems like the Cowboys could land Joseph for the right price.
The “Worth a Call” Guys
A.J. Green, WR, Bengals
It’s possible that any inquiry into the contract-year players in this category would be met with some combination of laughter and expletives, but all four are so good that teams should make the call anyway. Green is a fixture of the Bengals roster, but he’s also a 30-year-old receiver with a checkered injury history. Not to mention that the Cincinnati organization is in a state of flux. Zac Taylor is entering his first season as the Bengals head coach, and Andy Dalton has no remaining guaranteed money on his deal after this season. This team could be on the brink of a full-scale rebuild, and despite his remarkable talent, Green may not fit into those plans.
Green wouldn’t come cheap to any team looking to trade for him—in terms of both the draft capital necessary to land him and his 2019 salary. He has a base salary of about $12 million in 2019, and at this point in the offseason, few teams could absorb that. But there’s no denying what a healthy A.J. Green would bring to any offense in the NFL. Even after six 1,000-yard seasons in his first eight years, it still seems like he has never fully emerged as the receiver he’s capable of being.
Possible landing spot: Saints. The money would be tight, considering New Orleans has about $12 million in cap space, but this is the type of win-now move the Saints love to make. Head coach Sean Payton’s offense is one of the most complete groups in the NFL, but even after signing tight end Jared Cook this offseason, New Orleans is still missing another outside receiver to pair with Michael Thomas. Green is an overqualified no. 2, but he’s exactly the type of player who could put New Orleans over the top.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
I’m sure that Seahawks fans are burning me in effigy right now, but Seattle might not immediately hang up the phone if someone called with a massive offer. Wagner has made it clear that he wants to reset the linebacker market with his next contract, and the Seahawks’ brass may not be inclined to pay the 29-year-old north of $17 million a year after signing Russell Wilson to his $140 million megadeal. Wagner is one of the most valuable players in the NFL, at any position, but $52 million a year is a lot of money to tie up in two players, no matter their ability.
Possible landing spot: Ravens. Baltimore currently has about $12 million in cap space, so with some creative financial gymnastics, the front office could conceivably fit Wagner’s $10.5 million base salary onto its books. After losing C.J. Mosley in free agency, the Ravens have a significant need at inside linebacker, and there’s no better option in the league than Wagner. The price to pry Wagner out of Seattle might be higher than any team is willing to pay, but for a player of his caliber, it’s worth the ask.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jaguars
At just 24 years old, Ngakoue has already tallied 29.5 sacks in three seasons. He’s set to make $2.0 million in base salary on the final year of his rookie deal, and he’ll almost certainly be looking for a new contract in the range of the $20 million per year deals that Frank Clark and Demarcus Lawrence got this offseason. Even without a new Ngakoue contract in place, the Jags are slated to be more than $14 million over the cap in 2020. Jacksonville has plenty of cost-cutting moves available, and the team may decide to move on from 32-year-old Calais Campbell instead of Ngakoue, but after taking Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen in the first round of the 2019 draft, there’s no denying that the Jaguars have a glut at the position.
Possible landing spot: Raiders. Oakland drafted Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell with the fourth pick this year, but this team could use another top-flight pass rusher. Even after signing a slew of large free-agent deals this spring, Oakland is slated to have more than $44 million in cap space in 2020, and that number could grow if the team chooses to move on from Derek Carr, who will have just $2.5 million in guaranteed money left on his deal.