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The Biggest Questions Ahead of the NFL Trade Deadline

Teams have one week to finalize potential deals. In an unprecedented season, will anyone push all their chips in?

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The 2020 NFL season has not been a normal campaign, and the league’s upcoming trade deadline won’t be an exception. NFL teams began adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic long before the season began. Even halfway through the regular season, the coronavirus continues to influence the way teams will pursue a championship in this unprecedented season. The lengthy list of star players shelved by injury so far this year adds to the absences of players who chose to sit out the campaign, leaving a handful of rosters with key holes to fill. The pandemic has also created an uncertain salary cap future, which will almost certainly influence how teams maneuver before the trade deadline on November 3.

This offseason, the NFL and NFLPA agreed that the 2021 salary cap minimum will be at least $175 million, and any potential revenue impact will be spread out over the following three seasons. There are at least 12 teams who are projected to exceed $175 million in salary cap commitments next year, per Over the Cap. Perhaps those squads could look to shed commitments this week. Teams hoping to acquire players would be wise to act swiftly. As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio noted, the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols could urge some teams to complete transactions a week before the deadline, as procedures require players to sit out a week before being permitted to practice. Teams will surely want new additions to be able to play as soon as possible. While teams work phone lines to get a bead on who they could add, these are the biggest questions hanging over the trade deadline:

Will the QB-needy Cowboys acquire a signal-caller?

The Cowboys’ quarterback situation is in disarray. Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury pressed Andy Dalton into action, but Dalton left last week’s loss to Washington after suffering a concussion, and is considered questionable for a key divisional matchup against the Eagles. That could mean rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci sees more time under center. He was sacked three times against Washington, matching the amount of attempts he made after stepping in for Dalton. Considering that Dalton already wasn’t impressive in limited action, this situation is not ideal, to say the least.

The NFC East is a dumpster fire, so even though Dallas has been awful, it is still very much in contention for a postseason spot. If the Cowboys are truly interested in making a run for the division crown, they should bring in a quarterback to perhaps take advantage of their elite receiver trio. There are a handful of options.

When the Dolphins made the surprising decision to name Tua Tagovailoa their starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick was relegated to the bench. Fitzpatrick has played well this season, having completed 70.1 percent of his passes while registering a QBR of 80.2, which would be a career high. At 37 years old, Fitzpatrick doesn’t have much time in the league left. He’s in the final season of a two-year deal he signed with Miami, and is owed $8 million before he hits unrestricted free agency. But prying Fitzpatrick away from the Dolphins could be difficult—he and Tagovailoa are the only QBs listed on Miami’s official roster. Dallas probably doesn’t want to pay too steep a price for a player who may be on the roster for barely more than half a season.

Elsewhere, the Saints have both Taysom Hill—who signed an extension this offseason—and Jameis Winston sitting behind Drew Brees. Winston, who’s on a one-year deal, is listed as New Orleans’s no. 3 QB. If the Saints don’t view Winston as a future starter, it makes sense for them to offload him, and the Cowboys would be a logical fit. If New Orleans doesn’t budge, the Cowboys could also take a look at Colts backup Jacoby Brissett, who’s in the final year of his deal with Indianapolis. Frank Reich brought in veteran Philip Rivers to take over for the Colts this past offseason, so he clearly doesn’t consider Brissett to be the future of the franchise. But the fifth-year passer could provide immediate experience for a Cowboys squad that’s still in the fight for a playoff berth.

Will the Seahawks pursue a pass rusher?

When Seattle acquired superstar safety Jamal Adams this offseason, a popular joke made in light of the deal was that Adams would instantly be the club’s best pass rusher. Well, through seven weeks, that’s essentially been the case—Adams is tied for the team lead in sacks with two, despite appearing in only three games.

The Seahawks are 5-1, but their pass rush remains one of the NFL’s worst. Seattle’s 58.2 team pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus ranks 31st in the league, and while Russell Wilson’s heroics have been enough to compensate for the defense’s ineffectiveness through the first five games, the weakness was fully exposed Sunday night against the Cardinals. Kyler Murray had all night to throw the ball, as the Seahawks generated just one pressure on the second-year QB’s 48 dropbacks, per Next Gen Stats.

Sunday night might have been the wake-up call Seattle needed to address its most obvious flaw. Luckily for them, there are candidates who could offer an immediate remedy. Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is a former first-round pick who remains a productive edge rusher, but he’s fallen behind Montez Sweat and Chase Young on the Football Team’s depth chart. Moving on from Kerrigan could clear nearly $6 million in dead money for Washington, and allow the 32-year-old to earn a full-time role on a contending team. He’s recorded four sacks and six pressures in seven appearances this year. The Seahawks are a bit short on draft capital to exchange for Kerrigan’s services, but they should at least pick up the phone and inquire.

In addition to Kerrigan, Cowboys defensive end Everson Griffen could be worth looking at. Dallas has made it clear that they are shopping Griffen—who signed a one-year contract worth $3 million guaranteed this offseason—but has not yet found a willing partner. Per Spotrac, Seattle has $3.77 million in estimated cap space, so the club should be able to finagle the necessary space if the team pursues him. Griffen, 32, has recorded 2.5 sacks and 11 pressures in seven games this season for the Cowboys.

Will the Texans or Falcons gut their rosters?

The Texans and Falcons were the first two teams to fire their head coaches and general managers this season, but whether either franchise decides to dismantle their respective rosters remains to be seen. Both squads are 1-6 and have virtually no hope of a postseason appearance.

For Houston, it’s possible that we see some deals. On Monday, interim head coach Romeo Crennel told reporters that he’d “been informed of some [trade] possibilities, but nothing definite right now.” Crennel later explained that potential trade partners have not valued the Texans’ players at the same level that the club does. “Most of the time in this situation, they’re offering peanuts and not offering legitimate trade value,” he said.

The Texans possess some potentially intriguing players. Receivers Will Fuller V and Kenny Stills, as well as cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Gareon Conley are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after this year, and it would make sense for Houston to attempt to get anything in exchange for them rather than nothing. Quarterback Deshaun Watson—who last week attempted to squash worry over potential trades—might not be happy to see any more receivers leave the team, but it could be in the Texans’ best interest.

There have been conflicting rumors surrounding the Falcons’ plans around the deadline, with most of the chatter centered on Atlanta’s longtime pairing of quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, who each have a significant portion of cap space committed to them. Last week, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano reported that both players could be shopped, but on Sunday, Adam Schefter reported that neither will be moved.

The Falcons have the NFL’s oldest roster, and it would make sense to start tearing it down. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley is perhaps the most intriguing player that Atlanta could deal. The 24-year-old is in the final year of a rookie contract. He’s generated one sack and eight QB pressures this year, and could provide depth for a pass-rush-needy defense. The Falcons plan on allowing their incoming regime, once hired, to determine what moves to make with the roster, but it will be interesting to see if they make any deals ahead of the deadline.

Will disgruntled Bengals find new homes?

Aside from Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins, there’s not much to be excited about in Cincinnati these days. Perhaps that’s why Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap and receiver John Ross III are ready to bolt.

Dunlap, a two-time Pro Bowler, went as far as to post his Cincinnati house for sale on Twitter shortly after the Bengals’ loss to the Browns on Sunday. The 31-year-old was shown on the CBS broadcast arguing with his position coach on the sideline late in the game.

Dunlap has seemed intent on leaving the Bengals since losing his starting job earlier this season. He’s recorded one sack and six pressures so far this year, and is on track to post career lows in several of PFF’s player grades, including a 57.3 pass-rush grade (tied for 113th out of 176 graded edge rushers). Dunlap still has another year remaining on a three-year, $40.6 million deal, including $7.8 million due this year and $10.25 million due in 2021, making him a tricky trade piece. He hasn’t been productive either, which further clouds his future.

As for Ross, the former first-rounder has something every NFL team wants: blazing speed. Ross set a record by running a 4.22 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine. But in four years, he’s failed to carve out a role with the Bengals. Cincinnati declined his fifth-year option this past offseason, so he’s in the final year of his rookie deal, which suggests that he could be an ideal midseason acquisition at the right price.

Ross demanded a trade after playing just one snap against the Colts in Week 6 and was inactive against the Browns amid trade speculation. He has recorded just two catches for 17 yards and appeared in three games this season. Ross had a career year last season, catching 28 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. In 2018, he caught 21 passes for 210 yards and seven touchdowns. But he hasn’t been able to build on that production, and it seems unlikely he will get a chance to, unless he joins a team with an offensive coordinator creative enough to carve out a specialized role for the speedster.

Is David Njoku getting dealt?

The David Njoku saga will be resolved within the next week, one way or the other. Per’s Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns tight end asked to be traded back in July, months after Cleveland signed tight end Austin Hooper. But Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick, pulled back the demand in August. Last week, Cabot reported that Njoku had once again requested a trade, which Njoku refuted on Twitter. Per Cabot, Njoku would still like to be traded, though the Browns haven’t shown any willingness to deal him.

Njoku made his first start of the season against the Bengals on Sunday and responded with a two-catch, 20-yard performance in which he snagged his second touchdown of the year. Cleveland has him under contract through the 2021 season, so there’s no rush to move on from Njoku, perhaps to the dismay of the player himself. Since Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is essentially untradable after landing on the injured reserve list last week, Njoku is likely the best tight end option who could be available at the deadline.

There are a handful of teams who would welcome an upgrade at tight end, including the Patriots and Cardinals. Since Rob Gronkowski’s departure, New England’s offense just hasn’t been able to find its footing. Meanwhile, Njoku would be an immediate upgrade for Arizona’s passing attack, even as starting tight end Dan Arnold (11 catches, 154 yards) has made surprising contributions this season. Kyler Murray has struggled mightily when targeting the middle of the field. He’s 14-for-27 with 235 yards, two TDs, five interceptions, and a 66.7 rating when throwing between 10 and 20 yards over the middle of the field, per PFF. Having a reliable middle of the field presence like Njoku could take Arizona’s passing game to the next level and add another potential schematic mismatch for opposing defenses.

Will the Packers or Patriots add an offensive playmaker?

The Packers continue to refuse to add elite weapons to surround Aaron Rodgers. Clearly, Davante Adams is one of the NFL’s best receivers, but his presence alone won’t be enough against dominant defenses, as Green Bay’s humbling showing against the Buccaneers revealed. The 5-1 Packers receivers rank 21st in PFF’s team receiving grades, which doesn’t match the talent they presently have at quarterback (Rodgers ranks no. 2 in PFF’s passing grades). Green Bay could benefit from adding an impact receiver.

The Patriots aren’t in as advantageous a spot in the standings, but it’s been clear this season that they need to upgrade their receiving corps. New England ranks 26th in PFF’s receiving grades. Even as quarterback Cam Newton’s play has slipped since returning from the COVID-19 reserve list, if the Patriots are serious about competing for the playoffs this season, an obvious step toward bouncing back from their 2-4 start would be acquiring a playmaker at receiver or tight end.

Will any star players be moved?

It’s not completely uncommon for teams to trade away star players near the deadline. Last season, the Rams traded for Jalen Ramsey and the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters. Telegraphing those deals isn’t always easy, though.

There has been speculation over whether or not the Texans could trade defensive end J.J. Watt, who spoke candidly about his unhappiness with Houston’s record. Watt, 31, is playing for $15.5 million this season and is owed $17.5 million in 2021, after which he’ll be a free agent. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year would provide a boost to just about any team, but it’ll take some cap maneuvering for most franchises to fit him. The obvious question, though, is who would be willing to give up a haul to acquire him? The Seahawks would make an obvious partner, but already gave up plenty of assets to acquire Jamal Adams this offseason. The Raiders or Cardinals could use more help along the edge, but they would need to sacrifice draft capital and work the cap to be in good enough standing to add him.

For teams that need an offensive playmaker, A.J. Green could be available. The seven-time Pro Bowler has shown signs of life across the past two weeks, notching 15 catches for 178 yards (11.9 yards per catch), but the Bengals do have a pair of promising receivers in Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins who should continue getting reps with Joe Burrow as they establish rapport. Green stands to be a logical trade piece—until you consider his age (32), declining production, and his large cap hit. Green is playing on a one-year, $18 million contract. For the A.J. Green of old, it’s a worthy figure. But it’s a tough ask for a team without seeing production to match. Perhaps a change of scenery would help Green recapture that form, but it will be difficult for Cincinnati to deal him without alleviating some of the monetary commitment for another team.