5 Trades NFL Teams Should Try to Execute Before the 2021 Draft
As the NFL draft nears, there's no shortage of speculation about potential trades on draft day. More than a few teams are looking to make a push up the board to grab a young prospect they covet. Others are interested in dropping back and adding picks.
We've already seen a fair amount of movement in that regard. The San Francisco 49ers paid a huge price to move up to the third overall pick, ostensibly to draft a successor to Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. The Miami Dolphins moved from No. 3 to No. 12 and then back up to No. 6 in a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.
There have also been several trades involving players. Four quarterbacks who started games in 2020 have switched uniforms, beginning with the trade that sent Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles and landed Jared Goff in Detroit. The Las Vegas Raiders dealt away three starters along the offensive line.
Some of those deals bordered on larceny. Some appear to have been ill-advised. And some could be viewed as a "win" for both sides.
It's that last category we're going to focus on. There will no doubt be a number of trades between now and the end of the draft on May 1. The potential deals listed here involve everything from another starting quarterback to a Defensive Player of the Year and a couple of picks in the top five.
And all have appeal for both buyer and seller.
Teddy Bridgewater to Denver Broncos
The Carolina Panthers have been one of the more active teams in free agency, and the highlight of all that moving and shaking was the trade with the New York Jets that brought young quarterback Sam Darnold to Charlotte.
The flip side of that deal is that after one mediocre season with the team, it's clear that Teddy Bridgewater is no longer in the team's plans. As Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported, the Panthers are "open" to Bridgewater returning in 2021, but the team has given the 28-year-old (and his $23 million cap hit) permission to seek a trade.
Enter the Denver Broncos.
Bridgewater admittedly struggled in 2020, throwing just 15 touchdown passes and going 4-11 as the starter for the Panthers. But Broncos starter Drew Lock was even worse—whether it was completion percentage, passing yards per game, interception percentage or passer rating, you would be hard-pressed to find a statistical category where Bridgewater didn't post better numbers.
Lock's miserable second season led Denver to be a popular landing spot for one of this year's top quarterback prospects with the ninth overall pick. But even that has become a potential issue for the team. After the Jets traded Darnold and the San Francisco 49ers mortgaged their future to move up to No. 3 overall, there is zero doubt the first three picks in 2021 will all be quarterbacks. Some mock drafts have gone so far as to forecast that five signal-callers could be off the board before the Broncos are even on the clock.
It puts the Broncos in a tough spot as far as grabbing a rookie QB is concerned. But with the second-most cap space in the league, per Over The Cap, Denver has the financial wiggle room to swing a deal for Bridgewater, who would likely welcome a move to one of the few teams for which he'd have a legitimate chance to start.
The cost for the Broncos in terms of draft picks would be minimal: A Day 3 pick would likely get it done. Even if Denver didn't restructure Bridgewater's deal (which it would), his contract contains an "out" of sorts after this season.
It's not an ideal plan under center in the Mile High City. But given how things have unfolded this offseason, it's the best Denver's got.
Atlanta Falcons Trade Down in 2021 Draft
The Denver Broncos aren't the only team that is feeling the sting from this year's quarterback frenzy.
Fresh off a 4-12 season that cost both head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff their jobs, there has been no shortage of speculation that Atlanta could look to draft a successor to Matt Ryan with the fourth overall pick. ESPN's Chris Mortensen recently reported (via Evan Birchfield of the Falcoholic) that new Atlanta GM Terry Fontenot wants to take a signal-caller in that spot.
"What I’m hearing is that [Terry] Fontenot is more focused on quarterback, and Arthur Smith believes that Matt Ryan does have two or more years left," Mortensen said. "He has no real medical history, he hasn’t missed many games in his career and there hasn’t been a big drop off in his play."
In just about any other draft, the team would be in a great position to do so.
But this is 2021. Trevor Lawrence is going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The New York Jets traded Sam Darnold and are certainly taking a quarterback at No. 2. Ditto for the San Francisco 49ers, who didn't trade three first-rounders to take a wide receiver.
That means the Falcons can either be the fourth team to hit the QB well on April 29 or they can flip that pick to a team that's even more desperate for help at the position.
The Falcons have more than one problem, but the reality is that quarterback isn't especially high on that list. Yes, Matt Ryan is 35. And he has a hefty salary. But he's hardly ancient by quarterback standards, and there's a reason he makes the money he does. It's not like Ryan's level of play has free-fallen or something—he completed 65 percent of his passes last year for over 4,500 yards and had over twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions.
According to Mortensen, new head coach Arthur Smith believes Ryan has at least two quality years left. That's not a reach.
Swinging a deal with a team like Denver or the Detroit Lions would keep the Falcons in the top 10 (where Atlanta could still get a desperately needed edge-rusher or cornerback) while adding additional picks to the team's draft arsenal. Move back even further in a deal with a team like the New England Patriots, and Atlanta could gain an additional first-rounder.
Adding draft capital to fix the issues the Falcons do have makes more sense than addressing a "problem" they don't.
Stephon Gilmore to Cleveland Browns
Life comes at you fast in the NFL—just ask New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Two years ago, Gilmore sat on top of the mountain among defensive players. After piling up six interceptions and 20 passes defensed while allowing a 50.5 completion percentage with a passer rating against of just 44.1, Gilmore was named the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
Fast-forward to the present (or at least a month ago), and Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that the consensus is the 30-year-old's days in Beantown are numbered.
"Most GMs have considered it a foregone conclusion that the Patriots would trade top corner Stephon Gilmore this offseason and I haven't heard anything about a contract extension, so a trade still seems like an eventuality," La Canfora wrote.
Gilmore is headed into the final year of the five-year, $65 million pact he signed with the Pats in 2017. As La Canfora reported, there's been nothing to indicate the Patriots intend to extend the four-time Pro Bowler. It's essentially a matter of shedding salary while adding some draft picks the team can use to address the needs that have seemingly multiplied since Tom Brady's exodus to Tampa.
Gilmore didn't perform at that DPOY level last year, and headed into the last year of his contract, it's all but certain he's not going to net the Pats a first-round pick. But Gilmore was still one of the league's better cover men in 2020; he allowed just over 57 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed and had a highly respectable passer rating against of 75.7.
What the Patriots need is a trade partner that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender and needs an upgrade on the back end.
A team like the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns already made substantial improvements in the secondary with the addition of cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson III. However, the boundary slot opposite Denzel Ward is a question mark after Greedy Williams' lost 2020 season to a shoulder injury.
The Browns have the cap flexibility to fit Gilmore's deal on the payroll along with nine picks in the 2021 draft, including an extra pick on Day 2.
Package that spare third-rounder with another middle-round pick in 2021 or 2022, and it's a deal that makes considerable sense for both teams.
Chicago Bears Trade Up in 2021 NFL Draft
This potential trade carries with it a sizable caveat. But we'll get to that in due time.
The Chicago Bears have advanced to the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. In spite of that success, there has been no shortage of speculation that head coach Matt Nagy (and general manager Ryan Pace) could be on the hot seat in 2021.
Nothing that has happened this offseason has cooled those chairs off.
The Bears reportedly tried (and failed) to swing a megadeal for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in an effort to upgrade under center. The team's fallback plan was signing veteran Andy Dalton—a move that is less than inspiring given that Dalton's last winning season was all the way back in 2015.
The reality is that Dalton doesn't make the Bears any better than the 8-8 squad that backed into the postseason last year with Mitchell Trubisky leading the huddle. And at best, the 33-year-old Dalton is a short-term fix.
Given what happened last time the Bears traded up to select a quarterback, fans of the team may not relish sacrificing draft capital for a top draft slot. But the Bears aren't getting a high-end prospect with the 20th overall pick, and while Chicago isn't a great team, it isn't a terrible one, either.
This is a team that could hover around .500 and miss out on elite QB prospects for years.
Here's where that caveat comes in. In order to get into position to draft one of the top five passers in this class, it's going to take a move into the top 10. That's not happening without the team's 2022 first-rounder. And as I wrote following his pro day at Alabama, Mac Jones doesn't have the ceiling to justify that investment.
But if Chicago can get into position to draft Justin Fields of Ohio State or North Dakota State's Trey Lance (two young quarterbacks with sky-high potential), then this bold move is worth the price—especially if you believe Chicago will pick in approximately the same slot in 2022.
Dalton isn't a sunk cost, though. As "bridge" starters go, a team could do worse.
Orlando Brown Jr. to Cincinnati Bengals
This last one has a few moving parts. But if pulled off correctly, it could be a windfall for both teams involved.
The Cincinnati Bengals used the first overall pick in 2020 on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, and while Burrow's rookie season ended in disappointing fashion, he showed real promise. However, the Bengals badly need to upgrade the offensive line in front of him.
Cincinnati's line was the league's third-worst in 2020, per Pro Football Focus, and while Cincinnati signed Riley Reiff to man right tackle and hopes Jonah Williams can shake off the injury woes that have plagued his NFL career to date, there's a lot of "maybe" protecting Cincy's savior. Burrow was sacked 32 times in 10 games as a rookie.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens have a Pro Bowl offensive tackle who wants out of town. With Ronnie Stanley healthy, the Ravens asked Orlando Brown Jr. to go back to playing on the right side—and the 24-year-old wants no part of it.
"It's a situation where Baltimore knows my plan isn't to play right tackle," Brown said, per Mike Garafalo of NFL Network. "I feel more comfortable on the left side. That's where I had played my whole life [before joining the Ravens]. I'm a better left tackle than right tackle."
The Ravens have given Brown permission to seek a trade, and a high-end tackle just entering his prime should command a hefty return. There's also the matter of a contract extension for Brown, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
With the fourth-most cap space in the NFL ($23.4 million, per Over The Cap), the Bengals can afford to add Brown's salary. There's also a way the Bengals can offer the Ravens a highly attractive pick—without surrendering too much in the process.
With the run on quarterbacks that is absolutely coming in the 2021 draft, Cincinnati's fifth overall pick is even more valuable. If the Atlanta Falcons do not trade the fourth overall pick and pass on becoming the fourth team to select a signal-caller, teams will undoubtedly call the Bengals about a pick swap.
That swap is Step 1. Move back in the first round while adding extra draft picks. Perhaps even another first-rounder.
Then, ship that later pick to the Ravens for Brown. Throw in another, say, fourth-rounder if that's what it takes.
Cincinnati gets its tackle—and extra draft capital. Baltimore gets a hefty return for Brown. He gets to keep playing on the left side.