Game Theory

NFL trade grades: Assessing six moves made ahead of the 2021 deadline

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for their personnel, their opponents and their evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

This week we're taking a look at six trades that closed prior to the Nov. 2 deadline, with grades provided for both teams involved in each deal. I know the focus here will be on the difference between the teams' grades. Perhaps some organizations value things that weren't measured in this exercise or maybe some teams just lost the trade compared to their trade partner. That's for you to decide.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Broncos trade Von Miller to Rams

  • Broncos receive: 2022 second- and third-round picks
  • Rams receive: OLB Von Miller

Broncos grade: A-

Rams grade: B+

This deal falls in complete alignment with the Rams' recent strategy of acquiring veteran players to maximize wins in the near-term and forgoing the uncertainty of the NFL draft. The last time they drafted in the first round was 2016 (Jared Goff), and they currently are without first-round selections in 2022 and '23 (sent to Detroit in the Matthew Stafford trade). This latest deal is certainly a shrewd one for 2021 (and perhaps beyond), but it creates some questions about the roster long-term, given that the Rams are currently holding only one pick in the first four rounds of next year's draft.

As for the immediate future, pairing Aaron Donald with Miller creates a fruitful cycle for both. Their pressure rates and sack potential forecast to increase as offenses contend with the challenge of creating protections that can account for both of them (and Leonard Floyd, too). No player has been double- or triple-teamed more than Donald since the beginning of 2016 and yet no one has as many pressures as Donald over that time frame, per computer vision.

From the Broncos' perspective, they reportedly paid $9 million of Miller's remaining salary and acquired an additional second-round pick and a third-rounder that is guaranteed to be better than the 2023 compensatory selection they would have received had Miller stayed in Denver for the remainder this season and then left in free agency. It appears the Broncos are maximizing their flexibility for next year's draft, with five picks in the first three rounds alone. While losing Miller, the NFL's sack leader since 2011 (110.5 sacks), reduces their remaining projected win total for this season by 0.54 games, they might be setting themselves up for brighter days in 2022 and beyond should they spend their earned equity the right way.

Steelers trade Melvin Ingram to Chiefs

  • Chiefs receive: DE Melvin Ingram
  • Steelers receive: 2022 sixth-round pick

Chiefs grade: B

Steelers grade: B-

From the Steelers' standpoint, this move seems to boil down to two main factors. One is that they believe in Alex Highsmith as the complement to T.J. Watt off the edge. The other is that they are willing to pivot quickly when things aren't working, which is evidenced by, among other things, Ingram's playing time dropping to just 17 snaps in Week 6 and his low pressure rate (9.8%) with only one sack on the season.

The Chiefs' side of this is a bit more complicated. They rank 22nd in the league in QB pressures (71) and are tied for the second-fewest sacks (11). The addition of Ingram, along with Chris Jones' improved health, could boost those numbers quickly if Ingram can stay on the field and Kansas City can put offenses in more third-and-long situations. On first and second downs, the Chiefs have been giving opposing QBs 2.74 seconds to throw (ranks 20th) and allowing the third-highest passer rating (110.3). On third downs, the Chiefs give opposing QBs the second-most time to throw (3.18 seconds), but they have a top-eight pressure rate (41%) and a top-eight passer rating allowed (71.2).

Perhaps Ingram's presence will allow Jones to play more snaps from the interior. Such a move projects to decrease the time QBs have to throw, which would certainly help the team's defensive backs.

Chiefs trade Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to Jets

Chiefs grade: C+

Jets grade: A-

Duvernay-Tardif, who started 57 games from 2015-2019, hasn't played a snap since the end of the 2019 season. He opted out of the 2020 season and was inactive in all but one game this season after breaking a bone in his hand this past August. With the 30-year-old being an impending free agent, it seems fair to assume a soft market developed for his services, reflecting the uncertainty of his current and future value. The Chiefs should have a better idea than anyone else when it comes to what Duvernay-Tardif can offer right now, and they're obviously comfortable with rookie Trey Smith, who has started every game at Duvernay-Tardif's old right guard spot.

However, this is still a very keen move for the Jets, who need to keep fortifying their offensive line to protect their investment in Zach Wilson, the second overall pick in this year's draft. For the price of Dan Brown, the Jets' 2020 snaps leader on special teams (335; saw just 28 offensive snaps), they acquired a right guard with a Super Bowl ring. New York has the rest of the season to evaluate whether it should invest in him beyond this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Duvernay-Tardif allowed four sacks total from 2017-2019 and had no more than six penalties in any of those seasons.

Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore to Panthers

  • Patriots receive: 2023 sixth-round pick
  • Panthers receive: CB Stephon Gilmore

Patriots grade: C-

Panthers grade: A

The Patriots are reportedly saving $5.8 million in salary-cap space by trading Gilmore away -- but the cost for them would have also involved paying the veteran CB enough to satisfy his desire for a new contract. Clearly, the Patriots didn't want to allocate the resources necessary to get the deal done.

The Panthers, on the other hand, crushed this trade, which carries the best win-share increase and long-term potential while coming with the smallest cost of any trade this season. And Gilmore made an impact right away: Per PFF, in his first four targets as a Panther, he allowed just two catches for 19 yards while snagging an interception that iced the game with under two minutes left. Setting aside the time he missed this season in New England, Gilmore's recent history is stellar. He produced top-five-or-better win-share results over the previous two seasons, with a solid 64.3 percent completion rate allowed (96.7 passer rating) in 2020 and a jaw-dropping 49 percent completion rate allowed (47.4 passer rating), per PFF, in his Defensive Player of the Year season in 2019. The Panthers are getting that kind of production in exchange for a 2023 sixth-rounder, which no doubt helps take the sting out of losing first-round pick Jaycee Horn to injury. Plus, Carolina should have a leg up on keeping him around for the long term, should both sides be happy with the fit.

Eagles trade Zach Ertz to Cardinals

Eagles grade: C-

Cardinals grade: B

Ertz's usage has not changed much in Arizona -- per NGS, in six games with the Eagles, he ran 129 routes (21.5 per game) while being targeted on 24 percent of routes (eighth-highest among tight ends), and in two games with the Cardinals, he's run 42 routes (21 per) while being targeted on 21.4 percent. The main difference here is the value of the OTHER pass-catchers in Arizona, which is much higher than the value of those in Philly. Ertz's off-ball metric helps improve the off-ball metrics of DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore, and their off-ball metrics help improve his. The creation of space increases the odds of making a catch as well as the odds that there will be busted coverages. The Eagles still believe in targeting the tight end position, and they still have Dallas Goedert, but they are rebuilding while the Cards are gearing up for a potentially deep postseason run.

Texans trade Mark Ingram to Saints

  • Texans receive: 2024 seventh-round pick
  • Saints receive: RB Mark Ingram

Texans grade: D

Saints grade: B

The shortened learning curve Ingram faces in this system, having spent the first eight seasons of his NFL career with Sean Payton in New Orleans, adds to his value here. We've already seen improvement from him in his one game back: after posting a yards over expectation of -14 (-0.15 per carry) in Houston, per Next Gen Stats, he bumped that mark up to +2 (+0.32 per carry) with New Orleans in Week 8. For the modest cost of a 2024 seventh-rounder, the Saints added a reliable component to an offense that will continue to redefine itself without QB Jameis Winston and WR Michael Thomas.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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