The NFL’s trade deadline often comes and goes with a whimper, but this year has a chance to be different.
Even with the Arizona Cardinals sitting at 7-0, there might be no clearly dominant team in the NFL this season, lending to the belief that the chase for the Super Bowl is a wide-open affair. That could gear up general managers to be more aggressive, seeking those difference-making players.
There are currently 10 teams with records of 2-5 and worse. Since the start of the 2001 season, there have been 98 teams to start out at exactly 2-5 — and a mere six of those went to the playoffs. (It should be noted that the 17-game regular season could change the math on those teams.)
We’ve already seen a greater flurry of trade activity than usual leading up to the Tuesday deadline. We’ve seen players such as Stephon Gilmore, CJ Henderson, Zach Ertz and Bradley Roby sent packing just since Sept. 1.
Salary-cap space might be a roadblock. Only nine teams currently have more than $10 million in cap space, and most of those clubs are out of contention. But for the teams that smell an opportunity, there are many players who could be moved.
Here are five name performers, plus a few more for good measure, who could be available for the right price prior to the deadline:
Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson
This would be the whopper of all whoppers.
Since January, we’ve heard that Watson wants out of Houston. Everything changed by mid-March. That’s when the first of more than 20 civil lawsuits were filed against Watson for sexual misconduct by Houston-based lawyer Tony Buzbee.
In the months since, there have been many Watson-related developments but few concrete ones that indicate how his legal course will go. And therein lies the burden for any team interested in trading for the undeniably talented quarterback.
It’s an enormous risk. The team that considers trading for Watson must weigh the knowns and unknowns in the case and realize that making a mistake could cost people their jobs.
The Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins have been most connected to interest in Watson. The Panthers' Sam Darnold was benched Sunday and Tua Tagovailoa has admitted he’s heard the growing trade chatter.
Will a deal happen? It’s worth noting that most of the buzz on this front has emanated from Houston. The Texans are motivated to move Watson but also don’t want to give him away. It’s a tricky balancing act for general manager Nick Caserio in his first year on the job.
Is there a reason, other than the trade deadline or simply wanting to turn the page, for the Texans’ renewed vigor to get something done? Some league sources wonder privately how much information the Texans have on Watson’s pending legal concerns and whether they might want to get ahead of any possible criminal charges being levied in the future.
The 1-6 Texans also have other pricy veterans who might be shipped, including wide Brandin Cooks and linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Denver Broncos CB Kyle Fuller
New Broncos GM George Paton signed Fuller to a one-year, $9.5 million deal in March, reuniting the former Bears cornerback with his former defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. But Fuller's talent was quietly shopped prior to the season and he has since been benched.
Fuller struggled early and took a seat in favor of Ronald Darby upon his return from injury, playing two snaps in the Week 6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders and zero in the Week 7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. With 2020 third-round pick Michael Ojemudia expected to return from injured reserve shortly, there's no room for Fuller in Denver.
Who would want a high-priced corner deemed not good enough to play for a team that has lost four straight games? Well, it’s a high-priority position, and several contending teams have to feel like they can upgrade their secondaries. Plus, he's still only 29 and is three years removed from a seven-interception, All-Pro season in 2019.
Any team taking on Fuller must also absorb his contract, which would require more than $5 million in salary paid by his new club. The compensation coming back to Denver in any prospective deal isn’t likely to be high.
A big-ish name wide receiver
Are we going to see a high-priced, high-profile receiver along the lines of the Saints’ Michael Thomas or the Bears’ Allen Robinson moved?
Remember, the Saints discussed whether to trade Thomas this summer. The team wasn’t happy with the timing of his ankle surgery, which has significantly delayed his return to the field. Thomas has yet to be cleared for practice, despite his PUP list practice window opening last week.
Robinson signed his franchise tag with the Chicago Bears and didn’t seem too thrilled about it this offseason. And where is his head at now? Despite being the Bears’ de facto No. 1 receiver, Robinson has caught only 15 passes (on 25 targets) for 191 yards and no TDs in five games with Justin Fields as the starting QB.
Both of those potential deals feel like longer shots, but neither can be ruled out. Thomas might present more challenges, given that he’d need to pass a physical, but the Bears might be motivated to see what the interest level in Robinson is as he once more heads to free agency.
If there are no big-name receivers moved, there might be a few lesser ones on the block. Some names to consider include the New York Jets’ Jamison Crowder, the New England Patriots’ N’Keal Harry and the Tennessee Titans’ Josh Reynolds.
Crowder and Harry have been mentioned in trade talk since the offseason, and the Jets and Patriots, respectively, don’t appear to have either in their long-term plans. Reynolds, however, is a surprise, considering he joined the Titans on a one-year deal this offseason. Since then, he has been bypassed on the roster by several other young receivers, including Nick Westbrook, Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers.
Colts RB Marlon Mack
The Colts have agreed to showcase Mack and potentially shop him, as he sits behind Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines in the team’s pecking order.
Mack has looked decent when given the chance. Despite suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1 of last season, he has appeared to return to health and regained his burst. In Week 5, Mack ran for 47 yards on 10 snaps. He’s averaging only 3.6 yards on his 28 carries this season but he’s still only 25 and not that far removed from averaging 84 yards from scrimmage over the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Mack comes cheaply, on a one-year deal worth $1 million, and is scheduled to hit free agency in March. That makes him easier to move, as the team acquiring Mack could offset whatever pittance it costs to trade for him with a positive net gain in the free-agency formula used to determine 2023 compensatory draft picks.
Then again, the Colts might believe they’re back in contention now and could keep Mack as insurance against injury to their top two backs.
New York Giants TE Evan Engram and DB Jabrill Peppers
Two-for-one deal perhaps? Unlikely. But we’re pairing this Giants duo for a reason.
Both have become spare parts for a bad team, and there’s little reason to keep them in what looks like another lost season in New York.
Engram has become an easy mark for fans, who have been disappointed with the 2017 first-round pick’s return on investment. After a solid start to his career, Engram has been hurt by critical drops and frustrating injuries. Plus, his blocking has never been a forté.
Perhaps in the right system, he could be showcased as a receiver, but it hasn’t happened consistently with the Giants’ past three offensive coordinators.
Peppers has started multiple games this season, but has played fewer than half the team’s defensive snaps and has moonlighted on special teams, mostly as a punt returner. Now he's on injured reserve with a rupture to his right ACL and also a high ankle sprain.
When healthy, the 2022 free-agent-to-be needs a specific role to maximize his value. He is best close to the line of scrimmage as a box safety and blitzer. He had a sack in last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers and could provide a new team some punt-return insurance.
There isn’t likely to be a robust market for either player, but the Giants should try to add to their draft-pick till any way they can as they enter another phase of their seemingly interminable rebuild.
Of the two, Engram might be more likely to go. If the crosstown Jets could get a fourth-round draft pick for Chris Hernon and a sixth-rounder a few months ago, surely Engram can bring something of note back. Right?