This NFL offseason is long on salary-cap space and short on quality free agents. As a result, a tsunami of trades could be forming in the coming months.
It's a shift in player-personnel trends that is overdue. In a copycat league, opposing front offices have surely noticed that no team made more trades for veterans over the last two seasons than the New England Patriots. The world champion Eagles, who rank with the Patriots as one of the two most active trading teams of the decade, deployed three key contributors in the Super Bowl acquired through trades: cornerback Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and running back Jay Ajayi. Acquiring veteran talent via trade might just be the new market inefficiency.
Extra cap room makes trading veteran contracts easier. Twenty teams currently have more than $20 million in cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, with 12 teams over $40 million. Most squads also still have a lot more room to create through roster cuts. With so few difference-makers available in free agency, there's an argument that teams have been too fiscally responsible in recent years. Salary-cap space is overrated if nearly every team has enough of it.
To put it another way: NFL teams are smarter than they were a decade ago. Franchises like the Cowboys, which routinely needed to perform economic voodoo to get under the cap, now have room to maneuver. There are fewer terrible contracts with guaranteed money past two to three years. One-year deals were all the rage last free-agency period, a trend that is likely to continue. With the salary cap exploding and most young key contributors re-signing early -- the current rookie pay scale is a big factor here, keeping initial contracts low and motivating players to re-sign early -- it's incumbent upon teams to get more creative finding talent from outside the organization. That's one reason why we could see an uptick in veteran trades this offseason, with Alex Smith's move to Washington being the first of many headline-grabbers.
Smith's trade was instructive. It required the Redskins to have their own house in order with ample cap space to make a commitment to Smith in this season and beyond. The Vikings needed a lot of room when they acquired Sam Bradford just before the start of the 2016 season. The Jaguars weren't worried about cap space when they picked up defensive tackle Marcell Dareus before the trade deadline last season, just like the Seahawks were able to fit tackle Duane Brown on their roster at midseason. Top-of-the-market contracts like Dareus' and Brown's were once albatrosses for organizations that wanted to move on. Now the contracts can double as tradable assets.
So many veteran trades are fueled by finances. Baltimore dealt Jernigan to the Eagles in large part because the Ravens determined they weren't going to pay the impending free agent what he wanted in the future, so why not get some value for him? The Eagles picked up Jernigan on the cheap last April, liked what they saw and wound up giving Jernigan the long-term deal he desired in November.
The NFL will likely never be as trade-happy as the NBA or MLB, where trade machines roam the land and trade deadlines double as national holidays. But tasty trade momentum has steadily gained in pro football since March of 2015, when Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford, Nick Foles, Max Unger and Haloti Ngatawere all dealt in three separate moves occurring within 10 minutes of each other.
Below are some names that could be mentioned in trade talks over the next few weeks, with the obvious caveat that these are just logical names to watch. It's worth noting that many of the biggest trades over the last five years came out nowhere, so the best players dealt over the next two months could be the ones no one sees coming.
Speculation has already begun that the Dolphins will listen to trade offers, just like they reportedly did with Landry before last season. Remember that Miami used the transition tag on both tight end Charles Clay and defensive end Olivier Vernon and didn't wind up keeping either one of them. The organization could view this franchise tag as the first step toward a possible trade worked out in the back rooms of an Indy steak house.
Vinny Curry, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: The defending Super Bowl champions are the only organization currently in the red cap-wise, according to OverTheCap.com. While they can make some cost-saving moves like cutting Torrey Smith and possibly Brent Celek, the Eagles might be the only team forced to say goodbye to quality veterans this offseason to save some money. General manager Howie Roseman's good problem is that he has too many reasonable contracts on the books.
Curry is still a very effective pass rusher who played a big role in the team's playoff success, but he's due $9 million at a deep position for the team. With so few pass rushers available in free agency, it's not a stretch to think Curry's contract would be attractive to another team.
"Don't rule it out," Garafolo concluded on Tuesday's "Up to the Minute" on NFL Network, which sounds like what gets reported when a team is open to listening to offers, but doesn't want to put a "for sale" sign up around the player just yet. (After all, what if no one wants to pay market value?)
Perhaps the Chiefs already realize they won't make Peters one of the highest-paid defenders in football when the time comes, so they are curious about what he could attract with his value peaking. Due just $1.7 million in 2018 with a club fifth-year option for 2019, any team interested in Peters wouldn't necessarily need to work on a contract extension for him right away. He's an incredible bargain at those prices.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos: The Denver Post wrote that Sanders could be on the trade block after what was one of his lesser seasons, and executive John Elway was noncommittal when asked about the future of his highly paid wide receiver duo (Sanders and Demaryius Thomas). This feels like an offseason where everything is considered in Denver, with Elway looking down every avenue possible to attempt to improve his team.
Trevor Siemian, QB, Denver Broncos: Despite some erratic play in 2017, Siemian put out enough positive tape to interest another team. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday that Siemian is expected to be available in a trade, with 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch likely to stay in town alongside a Broncos quarterback acquisition to be named later.
Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, DB, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks openly discussed dealing Sherman last offseason, so it can't be ruled out this offseason. Seattle might not get an offer that makes moving on from its star cornerback worth it, but making safety Earl Thomas available could inspire different results. NFL Network's Michael Silver reported that Thomas could seek a raise this offseason. If the Seahawks choose to blow up their championship defense, this would be the time to maximize a trade haul for perhaps the best safety of this decade.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Foles is about as unlikely as any player on this list to get traded. The Eagles have a Super Bowl MVP insurance plan under contract for $7 million, which is a bargain. Philly isn't likely to be a motivated seller here, but I'd never rule out another team getting stupid-aggressive in search for a quarterback.
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals: No player suited up for more snaps than the Honey Badger in 2017, a remarkable achievement after he returned from his second torn ACL. That would seemingly assure his spot on the 2018 Cardinals roster, especially after an uptick in his play late in the season. But his contract and the departure of coach Bruce Arians make it a complicated decision.
Mathieu gets $19 million guaranteed over the next two years if he's on the roster on March 14. That could inspire the Cardinals to renegotiate his contract or potentially examine the trade market for him, especially with talented safety Budda Baker waiting in the wings. I would recommend just paying Mathieu his money. Bank on him continuing to recover his explosive play another year removed from surgery. Mathieu isn't a player who is easily replaced.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills: This is another example of how cap space could facilitate a trade. The Bills have enough room under their cap to hold on to Taylor's $18 million cap figure into March, survey the market, and see if another team will give up a draft pick or veteran player in exchange for him. If not, the Bills could wind up just releasing him.
Su'a Cravens, S, Washington Redskins: Cravens was recently reinstated off the reserve/left squad list, but the Redskins might decide to let the 2016 second-round pick start over elsewhere.