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The Winners and Losers From a Quiet NFL Trade Deadline

Not many big names changed teams before the deadline. Will that come back to haunt some would-be contenders?

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The 2020 NFL trade deadline has come and gone. The final few hours leading up to the 4 p.m. ET cutoff on Tuesday were quiet, with rumored potential trades involving Texans receiver Will Fuller, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore, and Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams failing to materialize. Still, a few teams have made strategic deals in the past few weeks to improve their rosters, and those trades could impact the second half of the season.

A few recent deals stand out, so let’s recap: The Cardinals sent a 2021 sixth-round pick to the Giants for outside linebacker Markus Golden. The Lions gave the Cowboys a conditional 2021 sixth-round draft pick for edge rusher Everson Griffen. The Seahawks boosted their pass-rush group, dealing a 2021 seventh-round pick and backup offensive lineman BJ Finney for Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap. The Steelers added some linebacker help by sending a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Jets in exchange for Avery Williamson and a 2022 seventh-round pick. The 49ers traded Kwon Alexander to the Saints for Kiko Alonso and a conditional fifth-rounder. The Titans added defensive back Desmond King, sending the Chargers a 2021 sixth-round pick in return. The Patriots sent a 2022 seventh-rounder to the Dolphins for receiver Isaiah Ford, and the Dolphins sent a 2021 sixth-round pick for reserve running back DeAndre Washington and a 2021 seventh.

With all those moves to digest, let’s take stock of the winners and losers from the NFL trade deadline.

Winner: Contenders Looking for Pass-Rush Help

There was a clear pattern to a handful of the trades during the run-up to the trade deadline, with the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Lions all bolstering their pass-rush groups with a focus on a second-half run at the postseason. Now, I include the Lions here loosely as a “contender,” but the overall point remains: Thanks to a combination of injuries and underperformance in the first half of the season, all three clubs have struggled to create pressure along the defensive line―an area that is a massive vulnerability for any team hoping to make some noise in the playoffs.

The Seahawks are the headliner of this group. Seattle is a Super Bowl–contending squad with an elite offense, an MVP-candidate quarterback … and one glaring potential Achilles’ heel: a complete lack of impact pass rushers on the defensive line. Seattle has been able to generate pressure here and there this year using its defensive backs and linebackers as blitzers, but when the team has tried to simply rush with four up front, the results have not been pretty. Seattle’s move to add former Bengal Carlos Dunlap, though, could be a major boost to its undermanned unit.

Dunlap, 31, has notched just one sack on the year, but he’s managed 13 pressures in seven games, more than every other Seahawks player except Benson Mayowa (who has 16). Dunlap boasts a combination of length, power, and veteran know-how, and at the very least, he should give the Seahawks another edge rusher who can muddy pockets and get opposing quarterbacks off their spot, which is a crucial factor for the team’s exceedingly disappointing defensive group. If Seattle’s defense can even sniff an average performance in the second half of the year , it’d go a long way toward making this team a true contender in the NFC. (Getting Jamal Adams back should also help.)

The Cardinals’ move to bring back Markus Golden should give the team some much-needed depth on the edge, too. After losing superstar outside linebacker Chandler Jones to a biceps injury, Arizona was left with a skeleton crew at its edge-rushing spots, a group that’s currently led by Haasonn Reddick (who leads the team with five sacks). Golden, who posted career highs in sacks with Arizona back in 2016 (12.5), had a renaissance of sorts for the Giants in 2019, notching 10 sacks and a career-high 27 QB hits, but he was being used in a rotational role for New York this year and quickly became expendable for a rebuilding team. He should provide an immediate boost to a group that badly needs one.

As for the Lions, things don’t currently look all that bright, but there’s still time for Matt Patricia and Co. to right the ship and make a run at a playoffs spot. Griffen could be a big piece of a potential turnaround, a boon for a team that’s notched just 10 sacks on the year, which is tied for 28th leaguewide.

Loser: Bad Teams Who Refused to Trade Little-Used Players

Technically speaking, the Washington Football Team is still in the playoff hunt. But that shouldn’t distract from the fact they’re a bad, rebuilding team that should be focused on developing young players and adding draft capital in any way they can. Because of that, the team has little reason to hold on to longtime pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who’s set to play as a rotational backup in the second half of what’s likely his last season with the club. Kerrigan is stuck behind recent first-rounders Chase Young and Montez Sweat, and his playing time has fallen off a cliff in the past few weeks (he logged just seven snaps in a Week 6 loss to the Giants, for example), a role change that caused the four-time Pro Bowler to reportedly ask for a trade. But per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Washington told teams they were not willing to deal the longtime veteran.

Washington was never going to fetch a whole lot for the 32-year-old pass rusher, but they’re unlikely to be in the position to get a compensatory pick for him later, either, especially if they’re buyers in free agency this upcoming spring. Even a sixth- or seventh-round pick could’ve given this franchise some ammunition to start adding depth at key spots for 2021. But for whatever reason, Washington was reportedly unwilling to make a move.

The Bengals, meanwhile, followed a similar tack with former first-round receiver John Ross. Because of a combination of injuries and uneven (at times downright ugly) play, Ross has been a major disappointment in Cincinnati, where he’s fallen well down the depth chart and has been a healthy scratch in each of the past three games. Now, the Bengals rarely (and I mean, rarely) make midseason trades—it’s just one of the franchise’s overarching philosophies, for some reason—so it was not all that surprising that they were content to sit on their hands and hold on to a lame-duck receiver like Ross. But after seeing this team break from their typical M.O. and deal Dunlap to Seattle, I had hoped Ross could find a new home for himself as well. No such luck.

Now, instead of finding a way to swap Ross for a late-round pick or some other developmental player, Cincy’s likely to find themselves empty-handed when the receiver leaves in free agency next year. It feels like a lose-lose situation for both teams: Ross is likely to remain a little-used, frustrated malcontent on the Bengals sideline, and the team gets absolutely nothing for its trouble.

Winner: John Lynch’s Salary-Cap Ledger

The four-year, $54 million contract that the 49ers gave to linebacker Kwon Alexander before the 2019 season felt like an overpay at the time, and will certainly go down as one for San Francisco, which doled out $23.5 million for 13 games from the rangy middle linebacker (who missed games to a torn pectoral last year and a high ankle sprain this season). In any case, the team seemed to recognize its mistake and acted quickly, dealing Alexander to the Saints for some draft capital, a veteran contributor in Alonso, and most importantly, some much-needed cap flexibility for 2021. With 27 players set to hit the free-agent market this spring, the Niners needed to move Alexander to give Lynch $13.4 million in cap savings for the 2021 season. That’s a savvy, forward-thinking move.

Loser: Aaron Rodgers

I won’t harp on this too much because at some point it feels like piling on. But after neglecting to give their superstar quarterback some much-needed help at receiver in the 2020 draft (instead drafting a quarterback, running back, and tight end with their first three picks), the Packers again declined to make a move for a big-time pass catcher prior to the deadline.

Green Bay reportedly balked at Houston’s asking price for receiver Will Fuller (a second-rounder, per reports), instead opting to make a run at the Super Bowl by rolling with guys like Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown opposite Davante Adams. Lazard, who’s slated to come back from core muscle surgery this week, is the best of that bunch, but the Packers still severely lack depth at the position. That could come back to bite them down the stretch.

Loser: NFL Fans Who Wanted Something Exciting to Happen

The NFL’s trade deadline had recently shifted from a nondescript, boring day to an exciting, much-anticipated event. Thanks to what had seemed to be an ever-increasing salary cap and a shift to a more aggressive midseason mindset among the league’s decision makers, the trade deadline had actually been pretty fun over the past few years.

This year, not so much.

The lack of action is probably related to the extraordinary circumstances teams find themselves in due to COVID-19. For starters, the trade process has slowed down significantly, with newly acquired players having to go through COVID protocols and spend a few weeks on the practice squad before joining their new teams. This may have contributed to fewer small-name deals. And as for the big-ticket trades, with so much uncertainty around a shrinking salary cap in 2021, it’s likely that fewer clubs were willing, or even able, to take on the contracts of some of the higher-priced trade targets we’d see in a typical year.

This post originally misstated that the Steelers sent a 2022 seventh-round pick to the Jets in exchange for Avery Williamson and a 2022 fifth-round pick. Pittsburgh sent a fifth-round pick in exchange for a seventh-round pick.