Breaking Down the Most Realistic Potential Trades of the 2018 NFL Offseason
In the NFL, big trades are a rarity, at least relative to sports such as baseball and basketball.
That isn't to say we never see trades. Despite the fact the new league year doesn't begin until March, we've already seen a whopper in 2018, when the Kansas City Chiefs shipped quarterback Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller.
It was a deal that left some scratching their heads, especially after the Redskins signed Smith to a contract extension that will guarantee him $71 million.
But there are big deals that make sense for both sides—deals where clubs that are realistic about their financial and competitive situations can come out ahead.
Of course, that's partly why such deals probably won't happen. They make too much sense.
Giants Trade Eli Apple to Buccaneers
Cornerback Eli Apple to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a Fourth-Round Pick in 2018
Eli Apple's first two seasons have not gone according to plan.
When the Giants made Apple the 10th overall pick in 2016, the belief was the Ohio State star would help anchor the back end of New York's defense.
That Apple struggled as a rookie wasn't all that surprising—first-year cornerbacks often do. But the bottom fell out in 2017. Apple was regularly roasted in coverage. He wound up playing in just 11 games—not because he was hurt, but because his clashes with coaches and teammates got so bad he was a healthy scratch.
By the last week of the regular season, Apple had been suspended from the team and publicly called a "cancer" by Giants safety Landon Collins. Collins later walked back those remarks, but calling Apple's future in the Big Apple cloudy is putting it mildly.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers ranked dead last in pass defense in 2017. With veteran Brent Grimes set to hit free agency, cornerback is at the top of the Bucs' offseason to-do list.
Shipping Apple to Tampa Bay would allow the Giants to rid themselves of this headache. While it's almost unheard of to see a first-round pick traded just two years into his career, it's worth pointing out that Apple was drafted by the previous regime. The Giants could blame this failure squarely on former general manager Jerry Reese.
A Day 2 pick might seem like a hefty price to pay for Apple given how badly he struggled a year ago. But it wasn't that long ago when he was considered the No. 1 prospect in his class, and a change of scenery (and moving to a smaller market) could help him get things back on track.
Why It Won't Happen
Teams don't just deal top-10 picks after two seasons, regardless of how big a pain in the Big Blue backside Apple may have been. A Tampa regime sitting squarely on the hot seat isn't going to get aggressive in adding a player with a reputation as a head case—talented though he may be.
Even if New York's amenable to moving Apple, compensation could be hard to arrive at. The Giants would likely angle for a Day 2 pick given what they just paid for Apple in 2016. The Bucs could balk at that notion given how badly Apple struggled in 2017 and refuse to offer more than a fifth. I split the difference, but finding that sweet spot could be the biggest sticking point with this deal.
Jets Trade DE Muhammad Wilkerson to Colts
Defensive End Muhammad Wilkerson to the Indianapolis Colts for a Sixth-Round Pick in 2018
There must have been something in the water at MetLife Stadium in 2017. Disgruntlement ran aplenty in both locker rooms.
After piling up a career-best 12 sacks in 2015, the New York Jets rewarded defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson with a five-year, $86 million megadeal that included over $50 million in guarantees.
He was going to be a defensive cornerstone for the foreseeable future.
As it turns out, that was two years. Over the past two seasons combined, Wilkerson has only eight sacks. The 28-year-old was a healthy scratch in the final two games of last season after repeatedly violating team rules.
Jets GM Mike Maccagnan didn't offer a ringing endorsement of Wilkerson's future while speaking to Daniel Popper of the New York Daily News.
"I'm not going to speculate on any particular player who is going to be on or off the team," he said. "Those things will work themselves out here over time before free agency."
The Indianapolis Colts have the third-most cap space in the NFL (over $77 million, per Over the Cap). That's more than enough to absorb Wilkerson's contract.
While the Colts made a substantial investment defensively last year, that investment didn't pay off. They fielded the third-worst defense, and the team managed just 25 sacks, the second-fewest in the league.
Wilkerson has scuffled of late, but we are talking about a player still in his prime who can both set the edge and rush the passer. As recently as 2015, Wilkerson was a Pro Bowler.
The Colts have the money to roll the dice on Big Mo and a glaring need at the position. At this point, the Jets would probably take half a ham sandwich in a trade if it meant getting out from under Wilkerson's deal.
Why It Won't Happen
There's only one reason why this deal wouldn't happen: The Colts know that Wilkerson will be released this spring. They may think it's worth the savings they'd get on a new (lower) deal to risk letting Wilkerson hit the open market, especially given the cap resources at their disposal.
Bengals Trade AJ McCarron to Jaguars
Quarterback AJ McCarron to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a Second-Round Pick in 2018
This operates under the assumption that AJ McCarron doesn't win his grievance against the NFL on Feb. 15. If he does, all bets are off. He'll hit the open market and will likely command a hefty contract despite making just three career starts.
If he loses the grievance, McCarron will spend the 2018 season as a restricted free agent. He'll absolutely be given a first-round tender. At that point, Cincinnati will have one more year to figure out what to do with the 27-year-old.
The Bengals already tried to deal McCarron once, but the aborted trade with the Cleveland Browns happened while Sashi Brown was still in charge. It's unlikely that John Dorsey is going to send a second- and third-round pick to the Bengals like Brown was. In fact, Dorsey may not be willing to part with either of Cleveland's early twos to get McCarron.
There is a team picking later in the round that might be an even better landing spot for McCarron anyway.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are in uncharted territory in 2018: win-now mode. They are also likely out of the running for Kirk Cousins. Unless Blake Bortles can pass a physical by March 16 (unlikely given that he had wrist surgery just last week), his $19 million salary for 2018 becomes fully guaranteed.
Unless the Jaguars want to gamble that Bortles can stay healthy and be effective, or that Chad Henne's corpse can keep the team on track if Bortles falters, the Jags need a better Plan B.
If the team is serious about making a Super Bowl run next season, that insurance policy is worth a late-second in April. That second-rounder isn't a bad return for the Bengals given what they will get for McCarron a year from now: a fat bag of nothing.
Why It Won't Happen
As the Alex Smith deal plainly demonstrated, logic goes out the window where quarterbacks are concerned. After the gonzo deal the Browns offered, the Bengals could balk at the notion of "just" a second-rounder for McCarron.
The Jaguars aren't going to offer more, and a team like the Browns could still swoop in and offer better compensation.
Broncos Trade Demaryius Thomas to Redskins
Wide Receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Washington Redskins for a Compensatory Third-Round Pick in 2018
This is not a trade that would sit well with many Broncos fans. As a matter of fact, I expect to be roasted a bit for suggesting it.
On some level that's understandable. After all, Demaryius Thomas is the longest-tenured player on Denver's roster. In eight years with the team, the 30-year-old has averaged over 1,000 receiving yards a season—a benchmark Thomas surpassed five straight years from 2012 through 2016.
But the Broncos are at a crossroads after a disappointing 2017 campaign. Just two short years after winning Super Bowl 50, they are an aging team with no quarterback coming off a 5-11 season.
If the Broncos are serious about making a run at signing Kirk Cousins, the team needs to clear some cap room. Coming off his first season with under 1,000 yards since 2011, Thomas is owed $12.5 million for the upcoming season.
With just under $50 million in cap space, the Washington Redskins have the room to absorb Thomas' salary, even when you account for Alex Smith's new deal. Washington badly needs a No. 1 receiver for its shiny new (old) quarterback, and the Redskins have already demonstrated they aren't shy about adding veteran players.
Yes, the trade would leave the Broncos with a hole at receiver. But Emmanuel Sanders is still there, the team would add a draft pick, and Denver could add receiver talent in free agency and/or the draft.
Why It Won't Happen
There are nearly as many reasons for the Broncos not to do this deal as there are to do them.
Thomas had a down year in 2017, but he's still been as consistent as they come at his position over the past half-decade. Denver may think its best shot at landing Cousins lies with keeping the Sanders/Thomas duo together. And it's possible Thomas would be amenable to restructuring his deal to free up some cap space.
Never mind that given the multitude of suitors Cousins will have this will all be moot if it looks like he plans to choose another one.
Browns Trade OT Joe Thomas to Broncos
Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas to the Denver Broncos for a Third-Round Pick in 2018
If the Broncos can unload the fat contract of Demaryius Thomas (and/or veteran cornerback Aqib Talib), the team might be able to do more than just get in on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. They could also potentially add some improved protection for that quarterback.
If the Broncos are going to swing a deal in that regard, they might as well swing for the fences.
Cleveland's Joe Thomas saw his 2017 season cut short by injury, but it was the first missed time of the 33-year-old's NFL career. Thomas is a 10-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer, the best player of his generation at the position.
He still hasn't indicated whether he will even play in 2018, but given the effort he's already put into recruiting Cousins and even Drew Brees to Cleveland, it sounds like he wants to play. It also sounds like he wants to be on a competitive team for once in his career, and he's made it clear that if he does return, he will play out the final year of his deal in Cleveland before another decision on his future.
Read between the lines, and it sounds like even in a best-case scenario Thomas' time in Cleveland ends after the upcoming season. The odds of the Browns competing for a playoff spot in 2018 are approximately 0 percent.
They might as well get something in return for Thomas to help the team build for the future, even if the idea of dealing him would not sit well with the fanbase.
In Denver, Thomas would have a realistic chance at making the postseason. With him in town, the Broncos could kick youngster Garett Bolles to right tackle and kick Menelik Watson to the curb—a move that would save Denver almost $6 million against the cap if he's designated a post-June 1 cut.
To say that would upgrade Denver's O-line would be an understatement.
Why It Won't Happen
There are two major stumbling blocks.
The first is that this "all-in" approach only makes sense if the Broncos acquire Cousins. The hefty price tag involved in doing so (Denver's 71st overall pick is probably as low as the Browns would go) only makes sense if Denver has a chance at making a run in 2018.
The second is Thomas himself. If winning was supremely important to him, one would think he could have forced his way out of Northern Ohio years ago. Thomas would have to sign off on the deal and commit to redoing his contract in a manner that gets the Broncos both some cap relief and a commitment of more than a single season.
Browns Trade Fourth Overall Pick to Cardinals
Fourth Pick in 2018 to Arizona Cardinals for 15th Pick in 2018 and First-Round Pick in 2019
As the result of all the wheeling and dealing the Cleveland Browns did in 2016, the team has two picks in each of the first two rounds of the 2018 draft.
And thanks to the struggles of both the Browns and the Houston Texans in 2017, both of those picks are in the top five.
The Browns have any number of holes on the roster to fill, most importantly at quarterback. But those holes shouldn't preclude the team from giving serious consideration to repeating last year's dealmaking and flipping one of those first-rounders.
By virtue of Carson Palmer's retirement, the Arizona Cardinals find themselves among the teams looking to add a quarterback in 2018. The only person looking to start the Blaine Gabbert era in the desert is Blaine Gabbert.
There's little chance any of this year's top quarterbacks make it to the Cardinals at 15. In fact, looking at the draft board, it's possible that UCLA's Josh Rosen, USC's Sam Darnold, Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield could all be off the board by the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pick at seven.
If the Cardinals want a quarterback, the team is going to have to trade up. A move to four would leave Arizona behind Cleveland and the New York Giants but vault it ahead of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. In theory, at least two of the "Big Four" should still be there.
For the Browns, it would be a win-win. Cleveland could still have its pick of the litter with the first overall choice and add a potential impact player at 15, all while picking up a second first-rounder in 2019 that could easily fall inside the top 10.
Why It Won't Happen
This theoretical draft-day blockbuster hinges on one major sticking point: a quarterback falling to four who the Cardinals like enough to offer up a first-rounder in 2019.
Houston's move last year appeared to pay off with Deshaun Watson, and we'll know soon enough whether Kansas City's similar trade-up did with Patrick Mahomes. But until we get a bit farther into draft season, the pecking order under center remains up in the air.
Bills Trade QB Tyrod Taylor to Browns
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland Browns for Fourth-Round Pick in 2018
OK, just one more trade involving the Browns.
If there's one position it appears the Cleveland Browns absolutely must address in free agency or the draft in 2018, it's at quarterback. There's been more than a little buzz about the team pursuing Kirk Cousins given Cleveland's $110 million in cap space.
But the Browns won't be the only team offering Cousins a megadeal, and a number of other clubs also offer Cousins a much better chance to win in 2018.
If the team's pursuit of Cousins comes up short, the odds of the Browns taking a quarterback first overall will skyrocket. But as DeShone Kizer's first year in Cleveland showed, throwing a rookie signal-caller to the wolves can be an ill-advised course of action.
As such, the Browns may find themselves in the market for a "bridge" starter in 2018, and Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor could be a solid stopgap.
Taylor may have just led the Bills to their first playoff berth since 1999, but he was benched midseason for Nathan Peterman, and there's been more than a little speculation that the Bills could move on from Taylor and his $18 million cap hit this year.
That speculation only grew when Taylor made it clear to the Buffalo News, per Nick Shook of NFL.com, that he has zero interest in restructuring his contract for a second straight season.
"Definitely not part of my mindset," Taylor said. "I've done that before. I don't think there's a need to do that again. That's definitely not part of my mindset."
Taylor is no world-beater, but he'd be the best quarterback on the roster the moment he moved down the Erie shore. He's the epitome of a bridge guy—an experienced veteran who won't make the bone-headed mistakes that lose games.
The Browns also have more than enough cap space to absorb Taylor's salary.
Buffalo, meanwhile, would receive the first pick of Day 3. While that might not seem like a great return, it beats what the team would receive if it released Taylor.
Why It Won't Happen
For all the talk about Buffalo moving on from Taylor, it's far from a sure thing, especially after Peterman's lone start last year was a five-interception catastrophe.
Even if the Bills are ready to pull the trigger, Buffalo may think Taylor is worth more than a Day 3 pick. It's a price the Browns could be unwilling to pay if the team thinks it can wait the Bills out and get Taylor without ponying up anything but cash.
Raiders Trade WR Michael Crabtree to Bears
WR Michael Crabtree to Chicago Bears for a Conditional Fifth-Round Pick in 2018
The 2017 NFL season was a massive disappointment for the Oakland Raiders, who entered as a Super Bowl contender but finished 6-10.
That disappointment cost head coach Jack Del Rio his job, and with Jon Gruden at the helm, some big changes could be coming for the Silver and Black. One of those changes could involve veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who is set to make about $7.75 million in 2018. There's been speculation that the 30-year-old could be a cap casualty in the offseason.
If the Raiders are set to move on from Crabtree, the team might as well see if it can get anything for him before shoving him out the door. And there's one team that stands out as having both the cap space to easily absorb Crabtree's deal and a massive need at the position: the Chicago Bears.
It's hard to evaluate how Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky played in 2018, partly because his receivers were hot garbage. The Bears' leading wide receiver, Kendall Wright, had all of 614 receiving yards in 2017. No Bears wide receiver caught more than one touchdown pass.
On the other hand, Crabtree had 618 receiving yards in a down 2017—and eight touchdowns. He found the end zone at least that many times in all three years he was with the Raiders. And Crabtree topped 1,000 receiving yards as recently as 2016.
Add in that Crabtree is under contract until 2020 and that the Bears have over $41 million in salary-cap space, and you have an acquisition that would upgrade Trubisky's targets without breaking the bank.
Why It Won't Happen
There are a couple of reasons why this deal wouldn't make it past the theoretical stage. The first is simple: The smoke surrounding Crabtree's release might be just that. The Raiders don't have a lot of depth behind him and Amari Cooper, and Crabtree's 2018 cap number isn't exorbitant.
There's also the possibility the Bears could be turned off by Crabtree's attitude. He's had his share of dust-ups over his nine seasons, including a brouhaha with Aqib Talib that earned Crabtree a one-game suspension.
Still, Kendall Wright. All we are saying is give Mitch a chance.
Steelers Trade RB Le'Veon Bell to 49ers
RB Le'Veon Bell to San Francisco 49ers for a Second-Round Pick in 2018
Might as well wrap up this exercise in trades that probably won't happen with a doozy—one borne of a hunch I've had for most of the past season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers never really intended to bring back Le'Veon Bell in 2018, and that's why the team was OK with Bell handling the ball an eye-popping 406 times in the regular season alone.
Assuming that's the case and Bell hits free agency, he's going to command one whopper of a contract...unless the Steelers were to tag him and trade him to a team that just so happened to have cap space out the wazoo and a need at running back.
Enter the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners are in position to be the most aggressive team in the offseason. San Francisco possesses a staggering $113.5 million in cap space, the most in the NFL. The 49ers also have nine picks in the 2018 draft, including an extra third-rounder compliments of last year's Trubisky trade with the Chicago Bears.
With Carlos Hyde set to hit free agency this spring, the 49ers also could have a large hole in the offense behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The notion of filling that hole with a tailback as dynamic, talented and versatile as Bell would do more than just make 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan smile.
Thinking of what he could do with that talent offensively would probably give him the vapors.
The Steelers get a high draft pick for a player they were going to let hit free agency anyway. The Niners avoid a bidding war and receive one of the best offensive threats in football.
And before anyone asks, no, the Steelers probably aren't doing any better than a second for Bell. Not in a situation like this. A third-rounder might even do it.
Add Bell to that offense, add a few pieces defensively, and the 49ers could find themselves right back in the hunt—a lot sooner than most expected.
Why It Won't Happen
Too many moving parts.
The Steelers would have to tag and trade Bell, who the Niners would then want to extend given the pick it would take to get him. It also assumes the 49ers are comfortable enough with Bell's injury history and 2017 workload to sign him long term and not comfortable with just rolling the dice they could win out on the open market with that giant war chest.
Plus, there's always the chance the Steelers have no intention of letting Bell go anywhere.