New York’s best defender wants to leave. Jets safety Jamal Adams, the team’s second-most important player after quarterback Sam Darnold, requested a trade on June 18 with a list of destinations he prefers: Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle. (The list was alphabetical by location, not Adams’s order of preference.) Adams is also open to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to ESPN’s Ryan Clark. Over the weekend, an unconfirmed video of Adams telling a fan he was trying to go to Dallas accelerated the trade fervor. Adams is a 24-year-old reigning All-Pro safety who wants to play for a Super Bowl contender. Assuming the Jets trade him, where could he go?
Before we dive in, let’s just clarify why Adams is worth all of this hoopla. Simply put, he is one of the best safeties in football. The Jets drafted him no. 6 out of LSU in 2017, and a rival scout told ESPN that Adams falling to the Jets was “a freaking gift from the football gods.” He’s listed as a strong safety, but in reality he’s great because he can do everything. Adams excels at covering receivers, stopping the run, and rushing the passer, and that versatility to thrive in different roles makes him a prototypical modern defender. Just like with basketball players, defensive backs with no weaknesses are increasingly superior to those with one or two strengths. But with Adams, almost every aspect of his game is a strength. Since he entered the NFL in 2017, he leads all defensive backs in sacks, is tied for second in forced fumbles, and is third in snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Info. While he has just two interceptions in his three-year career, he was the seventh-best safety in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus. Aside from numbers, Adams is respected by his teammates and coaches. Adams is a team captain whom head coach Adam Gase called “the heart and soul of our defense” at the end of last season. Players who make that kind of impact are rare, and players who make that impact before turning 25 are even rarer. That’s led to Adams taking a firm stance in negotiations.
Adams wants a new contract that would make him the league’s highest-paid safety and the highest-paid player on the Jets, according to ESPN’s Rich Cimini. That is reasonable considering Adams’s contributions. Currently, the team’s highest-paid player is linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed as a free agent last year on a deal averaging $17 million per year. While that number might be right, the timing isn’t. Adams doesn’t have much leverage considering he is just three years into his five-year rookie contract (rookie deals are essentially non-negotiable). Since 2011, just four defenders drafted in the first round have signed a contract extension after three seasons. Even players with better résumés than Adams, like defensive end Khalil Mack, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, outside linebacker Von Miller, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, did not manage to get a raise after three years. Factoring in the uncertain economy due to the pandemic—it’s not guaranteed the 2020 season happens as scheduled—and the Jets have a lot of reasons to stall negotiations until next year. This is the first major negotiation that Jets general manager Joe Douglas has overseen since he was hired last year, and if Douglas signs Adams to an extension after three years, other players will use that as a precedent in their own negotiations.
Adams’s situation with the team has been contentious at times, especially when Adams was discussed in trade talks at the October trade deadline (Dallas offered a first-round pick but the Jets also wanted two second-rounders). After the trade discussions became public around Halloween, Adams called out Douglas on Twitter and in interviews. The situation seemed better in February when Douglas said that he wants Adams to be a “Jet for life,” but now a trade seems realer than ever, especially after Adams’s comments on Instagram and ensuing trade request with a list of teams. But which of those teams are truly interested is unclear.
Trading for Adams has two costs: the price of the trade package to acquire him and the cost of the subsequent contract extension to keep him around. For example, when the Chicago Bears traded for Khalil Mack in 2018, they gave up two first-rounders and then signed Mack to a deal making him the highest-paid defender in NFL history. That means allotting a large amount of cap space to Mack while also losing two first-round picks that could have provided two cheap, young players. Teams will pay someone like Mack a big contract or dish out good draft picks to acquire their services, but teams loathe doing both. Significantly, Adams has indicated that he is willing to wait on his contract extension talks if he ends up at a preferred location, though that doesn’t change the fact that a team must be willing to trade a first-rounder (and maybe more) to acquire a player who may take a hard-line contract stance next year. But the fundamental fact remains: One of the most impactful NFL defenders wants to play for a Super Bowl contender, and he could shift the balance of power in a division or even a conference, depending on where he goes. Let’s run through Adams’s list and see which teams make the most sense for a deal.
Less than three years after Seahawks safety Earl Thomas told the Cowboys to “come get me,” another Texas-born All-Pro safety might try and finagle his way to Dallas. Back in 2017, Dallas offered a third-rounder for Thomas, but Seattle wanted a second-rounder. No trade was made, and Dallas ultimately declined to sign Thomas in free agency. Will the Adams situation work out differently?
There is no doubt Dallas needs a safety. It was a weak group before Jeff Heath left for the Raiders. Now, the Cowboys are heading into the season with Xavier Woods and free-agent signing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as the presumptive starters, and each are on expiring contracts. The Athletic’s Jon Machota called safety the weakest position group on the entire roster. This isn’t new. Dallas reportedly offered the Jets a first-round pick at the trade deadline for Adams last October, but the Jets held out for a first-rounder and two second-rounders. Adding Adams would certainly make the Cowboys defense better, especially after cornerback Byron Jones left in free agency for Miami, and the Amari Cooper deal showed Dallas is unafraid to send big draft capital away for talented, top-five-caliber prospects who’ve made a mark in the pros.
It’s unlikely the Cowboys could make an Adams trade until they figure out whether Dak Prescott will be on a one-year deal for 2020 or sign a long-term extension. Prescott signed his franchise tag on Monday, and he will be locked in for $31 million in 2020 unless he agrees to an extension by the July 15 deadline. Dallas has already made long-term commitments to running back Ezekiel Elliott, receiver Amari Cooper, right tackle La’el Collins, and linebacker Jaylon Smith, and Prescott will likely be paid more than all of them, so adding Adams will be tough. But the salary cap is a squishy accounting framework that bends to an owner’s strongest wills, and Jerry Jones is one of the strongest-willed owners in football. If Jerry Jones and his son Stephen want Adams, they can make it happen after the Prescott situation is resolved. But they’ll have to either take a big risk with their roster or get real creative with their salary cap.
Baltimore was the other team who reportedly made an offer for Adams at last year’s trade deadline, according to The Athletic. While many NFL teams chase pass rushers to get a pass rush, Baltimore has followed the Patriot Way of paying defensive backs whose coverage ability may be underrated in creating sacks. Baltimore has built its defense around a talented and deep secondary by adding safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Marcus Peters to a group that already had Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith. Baltimore is already the second-most favored team to win the Super Bowl after Kansas City, but adding Adams could make them the outright favorite.
But acquiring Adams would be out of character for the Ravens.
While the team has not been afraid to wheel and deal, it has been judicious with which draft picks they give up. Instead of shelling out two first-round picks for Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey last October, the Ravens sent L.A. a fifth-rounder for cornerback Marcus Peters, who ended up an All-Pro in 2019. This offseason the Ravens sent a fifth-rounder to Jacksonville for defensive end Calais Campbell, who was an All-Pro three years ago. Splashy deals are not their game—that’s the Cowboys’. But if there was ever a year for the Ravens to break tradition, it’s 2020.
The Ravens went 14-2 last year and didn’t lose in the final three months of the regular season. They sported one of the league’s two best offenses, had one of the league’s five best defenses, and ran for the most rushing yards and the highest yards-per-carry mark of the Super Bowl era. While they were caught sleeping against the Titans and lost their first playoff game, the Ravens are returning 21 of 22 starters and all 22 coaches from last year’s staff. Adding Adams would be saying that the goal is to win the Super Bowl in 2020, and anything that follows would be a good problem to have. It would not be typical for Baltimore to make a huge offer for Adams, but this isn’t a typical year.
Football wise, Adams makes sense as a strong safety playing alongside the budding free safety Justin Reid. In theory, Houston could take Adams on even after cutting a precedent-altering deal for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and budgeting for Deshaun Watson’s megadeal, though it would likely mean cutting running back David Johnson before next season, a year after acquiring him in the DeAndre Hopkins deal. Even if that is possible, it’s unclear what the Texans have to offer. Houston didn’t have a first-rounder this year and sent its 2021 first- and second-round pick to Miami last August. Dipping into Houston’s 2022 draft seems absurd. If this had happened a couple months ago, this would have been a tantalizing option. DeAndre Hopkins for Jamal Adams might have been a great trade for both teams. But the Texans dealt Hopkins because he wanted a new deal, so Adams going to Houston seems out of the question.
Kansas City Chiefs
Remember, this is a wish list. Who wouldn’t love to go play for the defending Super Bowl champions, especially when the Chiefs average almost two touchdowns more per game than the Jets do over the last two seasons combined? Adams would certainly make the Chiefs defense more formidable alongside fellow LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu. But this is unrealistic. Kansas City is stretched in cap space and needs to preserve the little it has to figure out the situation with franchise-tagged defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is Kansas City’s best defender and one of the most dominant interior pass rushers in football. After Jones, the Chiefs are possibly going to give Patrick Mahomes an unprecedented NFL contract extension. Trading for Adams is a luxury this team literally cannot afford.
The Eagles need Adams as much as any team on this list except Dallas, their main competition for the NFC East title. This offseason the Eagles front office ousted safety Malcolm Jenkins, who led the team in tackles for five of the past six seasons. Rather than replacing Jenkins, the team traded a third-rounder for Lions cornerback Darius Slay, made him the league’s highest-paid cornerback, and planned to move cornerback Jalen Mills to safety. But adding Slay while losing Jenkins doesn’t change the fact that Philadelphia has lacked secondary depth for the last three seasons, including during their title run, when New England accrued a Super Bowl record 613 yards and did not punt. Adams would fit well in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s system as a versatile chess piece that can play in multiple spots, which is something the Eagles desperately need.
But the Eagles, like the Ravens, aren’t likely to trade high picks to pay players big money, especially when they have already traded a middle-round pick to pay a player big money this offseason. Philadelphia is much happier bargain-bin hunting than adding a player like Adams for a first-rounder and possibly more. Plus, Jets GM Joe Douglas came from the Philadelphia front office. That gives him a better relationship to make a trade with Eagles executive vice president Howie Roseman, but Roseman may be hesitant to hand out two big contracts to defensive backs acquired in the same offseason.
San Francisco 49ers
More wishful thinking. Aside from Adams listing the 49ers, the main connection here seems to be Trent Williams tagging Adams in an Instagram post. Adding Adams to the secondary of a defense that was already elite with pass-rushing talent would make the entire NFC’s eyes widen. But the 49ers still have to pay tight end George Kittle and have had enough issues with cap space that they dealt defensive captain DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis. The best hope here is head coach Kyle Shanahan loves Adams. Shanahan got a contract extension, suggesting he may have more weight in personnel decisions than he has in the past.
Head coach Pete Carroll is a secondary coach by trade and oversaw the Legion of Boom, so there might not be a team in the NFL who understands the value of a player like Adams more than Seattle. The Seahawks also have a history of these trades. General manager John Schneider has dealt first-rounders for gifted young players before, like tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Percy Harvin (though Seahawks fans will point out those deals were not great). Seattle has been lacking at safety since Earl Thomas broke his leg in 2018, and Adams would be a big upgrade over safety Bradley McDougald. Financially, the Seahawks have to get Tyler Lockett a contract extension soon, but Seattle has one of the sharpest front offices in football and can make cap space appear when they need it. In a division where the 49ers have tight end George Kittle and the Cardinals just added DeAndre Hopkins, the Seahawks could use a player as good as Adams in the secondary.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tompa Bay was not on Adams’s initial list, but ESPN’s Ryan Clark reported on Friday that Adams would also consider going to the Bucs, and it’s not just Tom Brady drawing him there. Tampa Bay’s defense was excellent last year, ranking top five in context-adjusted efficiency, though the performance was obscured by Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions. Tampa is returning all 11 starters on defense plus defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who was the Jets head coach for Adams’s first two seasons in the NFL. While the Bucs would have to figure out their cap situation to accommodate Adams, obviously they are in win-now mode by signing the 42-year-old Brady. Just when Jets fans thought Tom Brady couldn’t hurt them anymore, it could be just a matter of days until he helps draw their best player away.