For all of the excitement generated by free agency in the NFL, I've been most intrigued by the clever utilization of trades by executives around the league this offseason. Teams are increasingly willing to deal away established playmakers for unproven assets or future picks, or simply to create some salary-cap room. A desire to retool and rebuild has resulted in several quality players landing with new teams.
The news last week that the Philadelphia Eagleswould ship All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for young linebacker Kiko Alonso sent shockwaves throughout the NFL. As it turned out, that was only the first of many huge moves to shake the league in the days to come.
With the trade market humming at an unprecedented level, I thought now would be a good time to review the trades that made waves at the start of the new league year and discuss the ramifications for the teams involved in each deal. I already explained last week why I think the Bills were the winners of the McCoy-Alonso swap; here, you'll find my breakdown of five of the biggest deals that went down.
It's uncommon to land a player regarded as one of the top two talents at his position in a trade, but that's what the Seahawks did by snaring Graham, who is arguably the best tight end in the NFL. Not only is he a Pro Bowler with 51 touchdowns in 78 games, but he is the ultimate matchup nightmare on the perimeter. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound former basketball player overwhelms linebackers and defensive backs with his size, length and athleticism. He can essentially serve as a true WR1 on the perimeter, opening up the field for complementary playmakers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Graham will also form a devastating 1-2 punch with running back Marshawn Lynch. Defensive coordinators around the NFL are surely already getting headaches thinking about creative ways to stop a more diverse Seahawks offense.
New Orleans is clearly in rebuilding mode after jettisoning its most explosive offensive weapon. Graham was Drew Brees' No. 1 target in the passing game; he set the table for the offense with his unique skills as a hybrid playmaker on the perimeter. Unger will fill a big void along the offensive line, but the lack of threats outside could usher in a new offensive philosophy for the Saints. And then there's the woeful defense, the improvement of which general manager Mickey Loomis cited as the impetus for doing this deal. The team now has two first-round picks (No. 13 and No. 31) to use on a pass rusher or a cornerback, to help eliminate its problems against the pass. The Saints are unlikely to find a playmaker capable of matching Graham's production or overall impact, but adding another top pick gives them a chance to reshape their roster into a defensively oriented squad that is better equipped to deal with the bullies of the NFC.
The Seahawks walk away as the clear winners, due to Graham's immediate impact on their offense. Considering Seattle made it to back-to-back Super Bowls with a pedestrian attack, the addition of Graham and the sizzle he'll bring has to make the 'Hawks favorites in the NFC. Yes, losing Unger creates a hole along an offensive line that has struggled from time to time, but it's easier to replace a pivot in the draft than it is to find a proven difference-maker like Graham.
A mass exodus of offensive playmakers (DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin) has taken place in Philadelphia over the past two years, but acquiring Bradford (and subsequently snagging DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews) could help coach Chip Kelly field the offense he envisioned when he took the job in 2013. Bradford is an accurate, quick-rhythm passer with a high football IQ. He excels at delivering the ball on time within the strike zone, allowing his pass catchers to create big plays on RAC (run after catch) chances on the perimeter. Injuries -- an ACL tear limited him to seven games in 2013, while another ACL tear last August kept him out for all of 2014 -- have prevented Bradford from showcasing his skills as a former No. 1 overall pick. But it's important to note that he played his best under current Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was Bradford's coordinator in St. Louis during his 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Bradford could be a better overall fit in Kelly's "connect the dots" system and help make up for some of the loss in talent with his efficient approach from the pocket.
After finally pulling the plug on the injury-plagued Sam Bradford era, St. Louis moves forward with Foles managing a run-centric offense that will lean heavy on a solid rotation of backs (Tre Mason, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham) and a cast of energetic playmakers (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens) on the outside. Foles has certainly played at a high level in a managerial role in the past, but he was surrounded by some of the NFL's most explosive players. While Mason, Austin and Givens have shown glimpses of big-time playmaking ability, the pressure is on Foles and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to find ways to consistently get the ball into their hands on the perimeter. If the Rams' new play caller can find more ways to get his young playmakers involved, the loss of Bradford will not be a talking point in 2015.
This is a rare "win-win." The Eagles acquired a former No. 1 overall pick with the tools to excel in Kelly's system, while the Rams get a chance to reboot their offense behind an efficient game manager in Foles. While the transaction will not push either team closer to title contention, it does allow the Eagles and Rams to continue building units that fit the visions of their respective head coaches.
With free agency robbinglast season's second-best defense of its most important player, it was imperative for Lions GM Martin Mayhew to find a replacement for Ndamukong Suh who could help keep the unit among the NFL's elite. As a massive disruptive force in the middle, Ngata certainly fits the bill. The five-time Pro Bowler remains one of the top run stuffers in the game; his ability to wreak havoc at the point will enable him to set the table for the rest of the defense. In addition, Ngata's unique versatility (he played nose tackle and defensive end in the Ravens' 3-4) will allow the Lions to utilize some odd-man fronts. Given defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's familiarity with Ngata from their time together in Baltimore, acquiring the big man should keep the Lions in contention in the NFC.
Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome and his staff are among the best in the business at understanding when to allow older players to walk. Despite Ngata's status as one of the premier defenders in football, the Ravens elected to part with him due to his age (31) and whopping cap number. While the move is certainly risky in the short term, the emergence of Brandon Williams and Tim Jernigan should help offset the loss in the lineup. With both players appearing ready for significant playing time in 2015, based on the impressive flashes they showed last season, it made sense to part ways with a veteran likely on the verge of decline. Moreover, the two additional Day 2 selections will give the team a chance to fortify the bottom third of its roster with intriguing developmental prospects.
The Lions come away as the victors, because adding Ngata gives them a chance to stay atop the defensive ranks despite losing Suh. While the Ravens get an opportunity to supplement their roster with some developmental prospects down the road, the Lions landed a proven commodity who can help spark another run at the NFC North title.
For all of the criticism lobbed at the Jets' quarterbacks for their ineptitude, it's hard to lay too much blame at their feet, given the lack of proven playmakers on the perimeter. Marshall is a dominant WR1 with seven 1,000-yard seasons and five 100-catch campaigns over the past eight years. He'll immediately become the focal point of the Jets' passing game, allowing Eric Decker and tight end Jace Amaro to assume ideal roles as complementary players. Marshall's strong personality must be kept in check, but there is no denying the positive impact he can have on an offense as one of the premier big-bodied pass catchers in the league. He'll expand the strike zone for quarterback Geno Smith with his size and length, leading to more efficient play from the third-year pro. New coordinator Chan Gailey will be looking to improve New York's moribund offense with a diversified approach, and the presence of Marshall on the perimeter gives the unit an elite receiver to build the passing game around.
Chicago's willingness to trade away a premier receiver signals a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy under John Fox. The wily new head coach prefers a run-oriented approach with an emphasis on ball control and winning the time-of-possession battle. Marshall was apparently viewed as an expendable piece, given his salary and the emergence of youngster Alshon Jeffery as a potential WR1. Yes, the Bears are unlikely to select a player capable of matching Marshall's overall impact, but the decision to move the Pro Bowler was about setting the tone for the team's approach going forward.
The Jets are the clear winners in this deal due to Marshall's ability to take on that WR1 role in Gailey's offense. He gives Smith an elite receiver to target on the perimeter while alleviating the burden on Decker to anchor the passing game. Todd Bowles must manage Marshall's cantankerous personality, but the fact that the Jets' new head coach has previously worked with the Pro Bowler (in Miami in 2010 and 2011) could help him get positive results in New York.
Even after Buffalo landed McCoy, a huge question mark at the quarterback position threatened to keep the Bills from maximizing their potential. Cassel is certainly not regarded as an elite quarterback in league circles, but he is capable of playing at a high level when surrounded by dynamic weapons on the perimeter. He demonstrated that ability while filling in for an injured Tom Brady in New England in 2008 (3,693 yards and a 21:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 15 starts); he showed it again as the director of the Kansas City Chiefs' offense in 2010 (3,116 yards and 27 scoring tosses against seven picks, plus a playoff berth). With McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and possibly Charles Clay in Buffalo's lineup, Cassel could be the ideal game manager to help end the Bills' 15-year playoff drought.
Teddy Bridgewater's rapid development into a starter made Cassel, who would've been an expensive backup for Minnesota in 2015, expendable. Cassel offered more value to the Vikings as a bargaining chip in the offseason. Minnesota was able to dump salary and obtain a couple of late-round picks with which to add some developmental prospects over the next two seasons -- and all it cost was a veteran quarterback who was unlikely to play for them this year, barring injury.