Just Trade Me: Promising NFL Youngsters Who Need a Fresh Start
The NFL is a world of uncertainty. Someone can look like a perfect prospect or a promising player one day and then be considered a disappointment the next. Likewise, a change of scenery can turn a perceived bust into a star.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a prime example of the latter scenario. Largely viewed as an average signal-caller with the Miami Dolphins, Tannehill was traded to the Tennessee Titans in the offseason, posted a league-leading 117.5 passer rating in the regular season and will be starting in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Ideally, though, it won't take until a player's seventh season to break out, as it did with Tannehill.
Here, we'll examine young players who could greatly benefit from a change of scenery this offseason. We'll be looking specifically at players on rookie contracts who have flashed some potential at the pro level but have also struggled because of poor fit, competing depth, a lack of surrounding talent or just a plain bad situation.
TE O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard has probably had more success than anyone else on this list. In three seasons, he has caught 94 passes for 1,456 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, he might be a legitimately elite tight end on another roster.
The issues for Howard are twofold. For one, he regularly shares reps with fellow tight end Cameron Brate. That works for the Buccaneers offense, but it has limited Howard's production. Secondly, Howard seems to have lost the confidence of head coach Bruce Arians.
"He's a talented, talented guy, but it's not showing up on Sundays," Arians said, per Eduardo A. Encina of the Tampa Bay Times.
Howard would benefit from being with a franchise that will utilize him as the go-to tight end and has the faith in him to do so. The New England Patriots, who have been looking for a top-tier tight end since losing Rob Gronkowski to retirement, would provide an ideal home.
Best Fits: New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys
TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Though he hasn't been as productive as Howard, Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku did appear to be a player on the rise in 2018. He played in all 16 games that year and finished with 56 receptions, 639 yards and four touchdowns.
Injuries and a lack of trust from head coach Freddie Kitchens, however, limited Njoku to a mere four games and five receptions this past season. Njoku spent much of the season on injured reserve but was often a healthy scratch even after his return. He even said he wasn't sure he'd be back with the Browns in 2020 if Kitchens was.
Kitchens was fired, and Njoku may find new life with the man replacing Kitchens, Kevin Stefanski. However, Njoku will likely be just a small piece of an offensive pie that also includes Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt—if Hunt is tendered as a restricted free agent.
As is the case with Howard, Njoku would fare better in an offense where he is one of the primary targets. The Patriots are an obvious choice, but he might also be an intriguing addition for the Chicago Bears, who have gotten next to nothing out of 2018 acquisition Trey Burton.
Best Fits: Chicago Bears, New England Patriots
DE Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals
As a rookie in 2017, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson looked like he could become a prominent pass-rusher at the pro level. The former Auburn star racked up 8.5 sacks on a situational basis in his first year—and then he largely fell off the proverbial map.
Lawson has just six sacks in 19 games since his promising debut campaign.
Part of the problem has been the Cincinnati depth chart, which has Lawson behind players like Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard. Perhaps a bigger issue is the Bengals' lack of scoring prowess and need for a situational pass-rusher. Cincinnati rarely played with a lead in 2019.
A trade to a team with a more prolific offense could do wonders for Lawson's career, even if he remains a situational player. Teams that regularly play with the lead or in shootout situations would make the most sense for him.
The Baltimore Ravens would be an ideal home for Lawson, given his familiarity with the division, though Cincinnati may not be eager to deal him to an AFC North rival. The Houston Texans, who need to compensate for an underwhelming secondary, would also make sense.
Best Fits: Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans
RB Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
Injury has largely been the villain of Derrius Guice's young NFL career. A torn ACL robbed the LSU product of his rookie season, and injuries limited him to five games this past season. However, Guice did showcase his talent in limited opportunities in 2019—most notably, a 129-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Carolina Panthers in Week 13.
If finally healthy, Guice could be a breakout candidate in 2020, though he could struggle to do so with the Redskins. For one, he could again share the backfield with veteran Adrian Peterson, who has a club option year for 2020. Secondly, Guice isn't going to benefit from having an experienced quarterback backing off opposing defenses.
Presumably, Washington will be rolling with Dwayne Haskins again next season. While Haskins should improve in Year 2, it's going to be a process. The Redskins could benefit greatly from having an experienced back next to Haskins, which could keep Guice buried on the depth chart even if Peterson doesn't return.
With backs like Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon III and Carlos Hyde expected to hit the open market, Guice could again find himself a bit player on an underwhelming offense. At this point, a trade might be the only way to jump-start his pro career.
What Guice needs is an experienced quarterback and an established team—preferably one with a need for a young, versatile runner. The Kansas City Chiefs might just be the ideal destination.
Best Fits: Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles
QB Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins
It's fair to say that Miami Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen hasn't gotten a fair shake as a pro. Taken in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, he wound up on perhaps the worst roster in the NFL—as evidenced by Arizona's league-worst 3-13 record. He was traded to Miami this past offseason after the Cardinals drafted Kyler Murray No. 1 overall, but that left him on an equally talent-starved roster.
The Dolphins managed to win five games this past season, but Rosen was only given a three-game audition before being pulled for journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.
With Fitzpatrick under contract for 2020 and with the Dolphins possibly taking another quarterback with one of their three first-round draft picks, Rosen may already be out of chances in Miami. A change of scenery would at least give the former UCLA star a legitimate chance to prove himself.
Rosen actually flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, though he was statistically unimpressive. He was poised in the pocket despite having few weapons and frequently being under pressure—he was sacked 45 times in 14 games. He also showed the touch, accuracy and anticipation that made him a top-10 pick in the first place.
A trade to a more talented team could give Rosen what he needs to succeed. The Patriots, who are searching for Tom Brady's successor, could be one option. The Panthers, who are potentially in the same boat with Cam Newton, could be another.
Best Fits: New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers
TE Hayden Hurst, Baltimore Ravens
A solid schematic fit for the Baltimore Ravens, tight end Hayden Hurst is a victim of circumstance. He was Baltimore's first selection in the 2018 draft—yes, even the Ravens passed on Lamar Jackson once—but he quickly fell behind 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews.
Andrews has flourished as Jackson's go-to target in the passing game. In just two seasons, he has caught 98 passes for 1,404 yards and 13 touchdowns. Hurst, meanwhile, has been relegated to the role of complementary tight end.
In his two seasons, Hurst has 43 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns.
Hurst has flashed a fair amount of big-play potential as a pro—he had three receptions for 73 yards and a score against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14—and he would likely be a full-time starter on several other rosters.
The Dallas Cowboys, who could use a younger replacement for aged veteran Jason Witten, would benefit greatly from a tight end with Hurst's skill set.
Best Fits: Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys
CB Josh Jackson, Green Bay Packers
As is the case with Hurst, Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Jackson has had his role limited by other players on the roster. The 2018 second-round pick started 10 games as a rookie and produced an impressive 10 passes defended to go with 49 total tackles. However, he has been pushed down the depth chart this year by players like Jaire Alexander and Kevin King.
Missing much of training camp also caused Jackson to fall behind some lesser-known players with special teams value.
"Will Redmond and Chandon [Sullivan] both have played a lot of reps and gotten their own little niche in what they’re doing," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine explained after Jackson was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career back in November.
Having Jackson as a depth player is great for Green Bay, but a change of scenery could give him the chance to be a quality NFL starter. Teams looking for help at the cornerback position, like the Philadelphia Eagles, would make sense. The Cowboys are another potential option.
New Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy coached Jackson for much of the 2018 season, and the team is set to potentially lose Byron Jones in free agency.
Best Fits: Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys