7 Realistic Trades to Fill NFL Contenders' Biggest Holes
In the NFL, the right move at the right time can insert the last piece into a championship-contending puzzle. As we drift into the summer, with free agency and the draft long in the rearview mirror, the trade market is often the best remaining avenue to plug roster holes.
Teams know what they have and what they need with offseason training programs now over. Prior to training camp, general managers will poke around to see what deals are possible and how they can vault their team more comfortably into the NFL's top tier.
Not every potential trade is a blockbuster. Quieter moves sometimes propel an already strong team to another level. For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers could give their loaded offense a more established tight end by kicking the tires on Zach Miller. Or the Kansas City Chiefs could add cornerback depth behind Marcus Peters by taking a flier on someone like Darqueze Dennard, a highly drafted defender who might rekindle that promise under a new coaching staff.
Let's explore those trade possibilities and more, beginning with a slowly fading veteran linebacker who could still be useful for the defending champs.
Brian Cushing to the New England Patriots
Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing feels forever tied to his current franchise. That tends to happen when any core player spends eight seasons with the same team after being a first-round pick.
There's something uniquely absurd about Cushing, a guy who once head-butted an opposing player without his own helmet on, which makes it hard to picture his lack of regard for his body in any other uniform. However, the Texans may be best served to consider a life without their longtime middle linebacker.
They could capitalize on what value the oft-injured soon-to-be 30-year-old has left and move Cushing to a team needing either an upgrade or better depth at linebacker. A team like the New England Patriots.
Numerous knee injuries have drained Cushing's effectiveness and burst to the ball, including a torn ACL in 2012 and a partially torn MCL in 2016. Over the past five years, he's played only one full 16-game season.
The injury risk is clear with Cushing, which should keep his trade cost affordable. But if he does manage to stay healthy in 2017, there's still a high-energy linebacker waiting to break free from his broken-down body. Cushing is only one year removed from a solid 2015 season with 110 tackles.
The Patriots are known for squeezing the best out of aging veterans during their twilight years. They could do so again by rotating Cushing with Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts, which would strengthen the depth alongside middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
The Texans can easily move on from Cushing after drafting his successor, Zach Cunningham, with their second-round pick in 2017. Cunningham ended his college career at Vanderbilt with an SEC-leading 125 tackles in 2016, including 16.5 for a loss. He also finished fourth in run-stop percentage in 2016 among all FBS linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots did just take a flier Wednesday on 33-year-old former Jets linebacker David Harris, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. But there's no guarantee he makes the final 53-man roster, so Cushing could still be a viable option.
Trade Cost: Mid-round pick
Vance McDonald to the Dallas Cowboys
It's tough to picture a world where tight end Jason Witten isn't on the Dallas Cowboys. But that future might be approaching fast, as the 10-time Pro Bowler is fading.
Witten, who has been around since 2003, is a future Hall of Famer who currently sits second all-time in receiving yards among tight ends. But he has also lost a step or three at the age of 35, and his yearly production has suffered because of it.
Though Witten is still contributing annually to the Cowboys offense, he's no longer a feared weapon that needs to be accounted for at all times. Over a six-season period between 2007 and 2012, he averaged 1,018 receiving yards per year. That average has since dropped to 735 yards per season since 2013.
In 2017, the Cowboys will try to contend for an NFC East title through the strength of their offense alone. That means they can't have any significant weak area, so they need better support for Witten if he fades further.
Luckily, the San Francisco 49ers are rebuilding, and a new regime there finds itself with a surplus of tight ends.
The 49ers just used a fifth-round pick on George Kittle out of Iowa. He's rising fast for a late-round pick and received most of the first-team reps at minicamp, according to Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The new coaching staff led by Kyle Shanahan thus could be ready to move on from Vance McDonald. He'd be an ideal veteran boost for the Cowboys' tight end depth behind Witten.
McDonald is fully capable of stretching the seam, and he finished the 2016 season with 391 receiving yards on only 24 catches (16.3 yards per catch). He did that while playing for the league's 31st-ranked offense.
Trade Cost: Late-round pick
Aaron Lynch to the Atlanta Falcons
We're not stopping there with roster pieces new 49ers management might be ready to discard. Next up on the list is outside linebacker Aaron Lynch.
Which lines up perfectly with what the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons still need.
Lynch is an intriguing though inconsistent pass-rusher who recorded 12.5 sacks over his first two NFL seasons after being a fifth-round pick in 2014. He did that in a limited rotational role, too, having gotten on the field for only 69.7 percent of the Niners' defensive snaps in 2015.
But then he missed four games because of a violation of the substance abuse policy in 2016 and was either sidelined or slowed by a high-ankle sprain for the rest of the season. As a result, he played only 222 snaps all year. Then, during a time when he couldn't afford another misstep. Lynch reported to OTAs about 20 pounds overweight, according to Cohn.
Combine all of that with the 49ers drafting defensive end Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick, and a change in scenery would probably be best for Lynch. The Falcons are an ideal landing spot given their continued need for more depth to support defensive end Vic Beasley.
The Falcons used their first-round pick to select defensive end Takkarist McKinley. But while he has promising talent and explodes off the edge, McKinley was a bit of a one-year wonder in college, with 10 of his 16 sacks at UCLA having come in 2016. There's a need for insurance around him and more high-upside young talent to boost Atlanta's 16th-ranked pass rush.
There's also the matter of the Falcons' pass-rusher injuries, prompting the need for healthy and fully functioning bodies in the event of a recovery setback. McKinley can't practice yet while rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and fellow defensive end Adrian Clayborn is also still recovering from a torn biceps.
Trade Cost: Late-round pick
Mark Ingram to the Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers can't afford to waste another prime year of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career. He's a generational talent at one of the most physically and mentally complex positions in any sport, but he'll also turn 34 toward the end of the 2017 regular season.
Over nine seasons with Rodgers as its starting quarterback, Green Bay has won only one championship, even while making the playoffs eight straight years.
Rodgers can push the Packers to the playoffs again on his own. He's done it before, but earning more Super Bowl jewelry becomes much easier if he has the proper supporting cast assembled around him. That includes the backfield, which is still an area of uncertainty for the Packers.
Ty Montgomery was a pleasant surprise in 2016, as he churned out 5.9 yards per carry after injuries forced him to transition from wide receiver to running back. While the Packers hope his emergence can continue into 2017, he has never gone through the weekly pummeling that's standard for an NFL running back. Although there's intrigue in the three rookies behind him on the depth chart, projecting anything confidently with rookies is difficult.
Uncertainty is toxic for a contending team. That's why the Packers should pursue an established veteran, even though it'll come at a price.
The ideal trade target is New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram. The Saints have a crowded backfield after signing future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, who may be aging at 32 years old, but teammates have been gushing about his speed and power during offseason workouts.
Peterson might take some early-down snaps away from Ingram, and rookie Alvin Kamara has the skill set to become head coach Sean Payton's next Darren Sproles in the passing game. As a result, New Orleans could view Ingram as expendable, so it might be wise to capitalize on his career-high 1,043 rushing yards in 2016.
Though Ingram has dealt with injuries in the past, the Packers should consider paying the price to acquire him.
Trade Cost: Mid-round pick
Zach Miller to the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has enough fireworks to power your upcoming neighborhood July 4 celebration and then go on to roast the league all season.
But there is one area where the crackling kaboom isn't quite as loud: tight end.
Jesse James started to develop a connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger toward the end of 2016. The fifth-round pick in 2015 caught 10 passes for 131 yards over the Steelers' final two playoff games. He's still unproven, though, with only 394 career regular-season receiving yards.
The Steelers could use a more established seam stretcher to complement all of the other firecracker downfield weapons available to Roethlisberger. Specifically, they could use Zach Miller.
The Chicago Bears are dismantling and rebuilding, and as such, they need every extra draft pick they can get their hands on. Clinging to a 32-year old isn't the best path forward for them at tight end, especially after they just used a second-round pick on high-ceiling prospect Adam Shaheen.
Miller is injury-prone and has missed seven games over just the past two years, including six in 2016 because of a Lisfranc fracture. His age and brittle nature should lower the trade price from the Bears, but when healthy, Miller can still be a threat while streaking down the middle. He scored nine times over the past two seasons and logged 925 receiving yards even with that missed time.
Trade Cost: Late-round pick
Darqueze Dennard to the Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have one cornerback who steals airborne footballs with stunning frequency. That's Marcus Peters, who has recorded 14 interceptions over 31 career regular-season games.
Inevitably, when there's such a ball-swarming threat on one side of the field, opposing offenses will shift their attention in the other direction. That's where a problem arises for the Chiefs.
Supporting Peters' efforts with an even adequate complementary cornerback on the other side has been a challenge.
Phillip Gaines has struggled through injuries during the first three years of his career while missing 21 games. When healthy, he hasn't exactly been reliable, either. Gaines was PFF's second-lowest-rated cornerback in coverage during the 2016 season.
Elsewhere on the depth chart, Terrance Mitchell is a blossoming young talent who had six passes defensed in 2016. Although the Chiefs may have unearthed a gem in Mitchell, he needs to be approached with some caution. When a 25-year-old player has already been released by four teams, there's a reason that keeps happening. Steven Nelson has shown some promise as well, but he's primarily deployed in the slot.
As such, the Chiefs don't need to cannonball into the trade market to solve their issue opposite Peters. They just need another option to explore—a cornerback they can get cheaply—that still adds intrigue to their roster. Kansas City has only $11.7 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.
Any player who was a high draft pick and is now flirting with bust status fits that description. Which is why the Chiefs would be wise to ask the Cincinnati Bengals about Darqueze Dennard.
Dennard has been buried on the Bengals' depth chart, starting only four games over three NFL seasons. But somewhere inside him is a cornerback worthy of being the 24th overall pick in 2014, the same cornerback who recorded 10 interceptions at Michigan State.
Under a new coaching staff, perhaps that player will finally surface in the NFL. It might be worth paying the low trade price of a late draft pick to find out.
Trade Cost: Late-round pick
Sheldon Richardson to the Oakland Raiders
It feels like every other day, the New York Jets ship out someone who could help them win at least one game in 2017.
The two most recent deck chairs to be heaved off their sinking vessel belonged to wide receiver Eric Decker and linebacker David Harris. The Jets are playing for April 2018 and not any postseason game happening in January 2018. Or really, any game happening in 2017, for that matter.
That's why one eyebrow raises at Sheldon Richardson's continued presence on their roster.
The burly defensive end has been the subject of trade chatter for some time, mostly because of the aforementioned roster gutting, but Richardson's off-field issues are also pushing him out the door. In late April, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News cited a source who said there's a 50-50 chance New York deals Richardson sometime over the summer.
Richardson was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, a season when he recorded 3.5 sacks and 78 tackles. He followed that up in 2014 with eight sacks and 67 tackles, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. But across 2015 and 2016, he sat out five games because of suspensions—four games because of a substance abuse policy violation and one game for charges connected to a high-speed police chase.
Patience has worn thin with Richardson in New York, and he's entering a walk year anyway. That's why a contending team should trade for him. That team should be the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders totaled a league-low 25 sacks in 2016, which is staggering for a team with defensive end Khalil Mack on its roster. Mack did his part while accounting for 11 of those sacks. But the Raiders need sustained pressure from more sources to help a growing and young secondary.
Richardson won't come cheap in more ways than one. He has quality play on his not-so-distant career resume, which will make the Jets want a high draft pick in return. He's also owed $8.1 million in 2017.
But as a contending team, the Raiders can afford to pay the trade cost, and they have $31.5 million in cap room.
Trade Cost: Early pick
Snap counts via Pro Football Reference.