Nothing about the 2020 NFL season is normal because of the pandemic, and that may include the upcoming trade deadline.
Bill Belichick recently noted that player movement has been more restricted this year as teams value their own depth and don’t know what the future will hold.
“There certainly are a lot of unknowns going forward, not just this year but even in the next year relative to team building and salary cap,” Belichick said this month. “I think that may have everybody with a little less ability to really plan things out the way they want to do them, and that may be causing some hesitation, as well.”
But after Sunday’s games, the trade deadline will be just nine days — Nov. 3 at 4 p.m. — and already the NFL is seeing some movement. This past week, the Jets traded defensive tackle Steve McLendon (Buccaneers) and defensive end Jordan Willis (49ers), and the Vikings traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (Ravens).
Let’s take a look at which other teams could be sellers, and which players could be available:
▪ Texans — The NFL’s most expensive team is also its most disappointing, with the high-spending Texans sitting at 1-5 and already firing their coach. The biggest rumors are swirling around defensive end J.J. Watt, who perhaps doesn’t make sense for a rebuilding team and could be one of those “final puzzle pieces” for a contender. Watt also doesn’t have any dead salary-cap money, making it easy for the Texans to move him. But trading for Watt is a risky commitment for the acquiring team. Watt is 31, has $9.1 million left in salary this year, $17.5 million next year, and has only played a full season once out of the previous four years.
The Texans should make everyone else available, however: pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, receivers Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee, and cornerback Bradley Roby, among others.
▪ Vikings — The NFL’s second-most disappointing team at 1-5, the Vikings signaled to the world that they are deadline sellers by trading Ngakoue. The Vikings traded a high second-round pick to the Jaguars for Ngakoue this offseason and only got a low third-rounder back from the Ravens, but they saved $5 million in cash, and at least cut their losses and salvaged some value. I wouldn’t expect a fire sale, but teams that need defensive help should check in on safety Anthony Harris, playing on a one-year franchise tag that still has $6.73 million left for the season. The Vikings may also be willing to part with struggling tight end Kyle Rudolph, who costs $4.13 million for the rest of the year but has no more guaranteed money after this season.
▪ Falcons — The 1-5 Falcons have already fired their coach and GM and should try to clear a few veterans off the books and collect draft picks for next year. The one name everyone has circled is Julio Jones, still one of the NFL’s top receivers.
But I’m not so sure he’ll be on the move. Trading for Jones is a significant financial commitment from the acquiring team. He is owed $6.6 million for the rest of this season and has a fully guaranteed salary of $15.3 million next year, when he’ll be approaching 33. From the Falcons' perspective, trading Jones only makes sense if the team wants to save money — they save all the cash he is owed, but Jones will have a $23 million cap hit for the Falcons next year whether he is on the team or traded. Plus, he’s the team’s most popular player.
More realistically, the Falcons could trade veterans with no dead salary-cap money: Safety Keanu Neal, who is playing on a fifth-year option and is owed $3.8 million for the rest of the year, or tight end Hayden Hurst, who is owed less than $900,000 for this season.
▪ Jets — They already traded McLendon and Willis, plus released Le’Veon Bell. Receiver Jamison Crowder, the one productive player on offense, has $5 million left this year and could be a valuable chip. Defensive end Henry Anderson is a little expensive (owed $4.1 million) and hasn’t done much this year, but he’s at least a veteran body. Safety Marcus Maye is in the last year of his deal and could perhaps fetch a mid-round pick.
▪ Bengals — The big name to watch is receiver A.J. Green, who is on a one-year franchise tag and is probably not long for Cincinnati. But Green carries a lot of risk for an acquiring team. He’s 32, missed last season with a foot injury, isn’t signed past this year, and is owed $10.6 million for the rest of this season. Two other big names to watch are both on defense: tackle Geno Atkins, owed $6.5 million for the rest of this year and signed for two more seasons, and end Carlos Dunlap, owed $4.6 million this year and signed through 2021.
▪ Jaguars — Other than linebacker Myles Jack, who is only 25 and likely isn’t going anywhere, the Jaguars' unwieldy veteran contracts are all on the offensive line. Guard Andrew Norwell, owed more than $5 million for the rest of this season, has not lived up to the big contract he signed in 2018, but he could be useful for a team that needs offensive line help. Same with center Brandon Linder and guard A.J. Cann. And receiver Keelan Cole is in the last year of his contract and could net a decent draft pick.
▪ Giants — The 1-6 Giants should be sellers, though it could also mean big trouble for general manager Dave Gettleman. But the Giants could probably get decent returns on veteran receiver Golden Tate, cornerback Logan Ryan, or defensive end Leonard Williams, playing this year on a franchise tag.
▪ Washington — Any team that needs pass-rushing help should check in with Washington about Ryan Kerrigan. He’s 32, in the last year of his deal, and still owed $6.8 million this year, so Washington should try to move him to a contender.
MESS IN MIAMI
Dolphins really botched handoff
The Dolphins had the perfect setup at quarterback. With Ryan Fitzpatrick leading the way, the Dolphins could be as patient as they needed to be in developing Tua Tagovailoa, and could wait until the perfect moment to hand the team to him.
Instead, the Dolphins bungled the situation, turning what should have been a celebratory occasion into a big mess.
First, the Dolphins couldn’t control their own news, as it leaked to the media Tuesday night before Brian Flores could address his players, which infuriated the coach.
“I’m not happy about that at all,” Flores said Wednesday. “I will apologize to the team that they had to find out through social media. I don’t think that’s fair to them.”
The decision crushed Fitzpatrick, the team’s leader the past two seasons and arguably the most popular player in the locker room. Fitzpatrick couldn’t contain his disappointment when speaking with the media.
“This was kind of the first place other than Buffalo where I just felt fully committed and invested and felt like it was my team,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that’s a lot of the reason my heart was so heavy yesterday.”
And the timing of the decision is certainly controversial. The Dolphins are finally starting to win, having won three of their last four games. They are right in the thick of the AFC playoff race at 3-3. Fitzpatrick is playing fairly well, with eight touchdown passes against four interceptions in his last four games. And after this week’s bye, the Dolphins face two of the NFL’s five stingiest defenses, the Rams and Cardinals.
Tagovailoa didn’t get his first NFL snaps until last week, getting five in garbage time against the Jets. Now suddenly, he’s the starter, set to face Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey in two weeks. Even his father didn’t believe it at first.
“He’s like, ‘After two plays, after two throws, they want to put you in now?’ ” Tagovailoa said.
Flores said, “We just felt like it was the best move for the team right now,” acknowledging that GM Chris Grier and others helped make the decision. It’s possible that the Dolphins had always planned to play Tagovailoa after their bye week, and stuck to it even after it recently got moved from Week 11 to Week 7. It’s also possible that owner Stephen Ross is tired of seeing his shiny new toy sit on the bench.
But the way this was handled will leave the Dolphins open to a Grand Canyon’s worth of second-guessing. Flores risks losing his locker room with the benching of the popular Fitzpatrick. It places a tremendous amount of pressure on Tagovailoa to play well right away. And if Tagovailoa doesn’t, the Dolphins will be tested — is this season about winning the most games or about developing the franchise QB? It’s not like they can bench Tagovailoa once they install him as the starter.
The Dolphins had the perfect succession plan at quarterback, but like this team often does, turned it into a mess.
Time at facilities likely limited
As the season progresses and the pandemic likely grows worse, expect to see NFL teams spend less time at their practice facilities. The Patriots were one of at least 10 teams to be in the “intensive protocols” the past few weeks, which puts stricter limits on human interactions at the facility. That not only meant more masks and all virtual meetings, but as Bill Belichick mentioned Friday, “players dressing in a bubble and driving home and having to shower and things like that.”
On Thursday, I asked NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills if the league would consider requiring all meetings to be virtual for the rest of the year. In-person meetings seem to be an unnecessary risk for spreading the virus.
“That’s something that we certainly have continued to discuss. We have some teams that are almost to that point at present,” Sills said. “I think you’re seeing a substantial change over the league in terms of how meetings are conducted, where they are conducted, even when teams aren’t in the intensive protocol.”
Sills noted that many teams are having players conduct their meetings on-site, but with each player given his own room or club suite in the stadium. Dawn Aponte, NFL chief administrator of football operations, said, “We’ve had a number of clubs who have actually adjusted their schedule to accommodate it so they can get their players out of the building and do those meetings virtually.”
Revisiting the Tuck Rule
The Buccaneers are facing the Raiders Sunday (or are supposed to, at least), and by law, the Tuck Rule must be discussed any time Tom Brady and Jon Gruden are on the same field.
“I’ve only been around him a few times — not too often — but it gets brought up every time we are around one another,” Brady said this past week. “I could see why he hasn’t gotten over it. One of my ex-teammates [from college], Charles Woodson, we’ve been together probably more than that, and he and I have hashed it out.”
Brady called the ruling “a fluke call,” but isn’t apologizing.
“I still see it today and it’s a great part of my football history and it’s probably a very sour part of their football history, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “We had that in ’07 when we played against the Giants in the Super Bowl, and in ’11 and in ’17 — one team wins and one team loses. It’s a fluke call, one ball bounces your way or one goes the opposite way. I’ll always feel I have some type of strong feeling or emotion toward the Raiders.”
They meet again
Kyle Shanahan will face Belichick as a head coach for the first time on Sunday, but Shanahan has squared off against Belichick three times as an offensive coordinator. The scores of the game were 34-27 (a Texans win in Week 17 of 2009), 34-27 (a Patriots win over Washington in 2011), and 34-28 (a Patriots win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI).
Though he is 1-2, Shanahan had success putting yards and points on the board against Belichick. In the three games, Shanahan’s offenses gained 1,246 yards and scored 10 touchdowns against four turnovers.
Brady urged the Buccaneers to trade for Rob Gronkowski this offseason, and now Brady gets his way again with the signing of Antonio Brown late Friday evening. Russell Wilson was stumping this past week for the Seahawks to sign Brown, but instead Brown will be reuniting with Brady, whom he played one game with last season in New England. There’s no question that Brown will be on the shortest of leashes, but if he can keep his head straight — and that is a major if — the Bucs could be unstoppable. Their defense is No. 1 in total yards, and an excellent receiving cast of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Gronkowski, and Scotty Miller gets even better with the addition of Brown, who is suspended through Week 8 but could be ready to play the Week 9 game against the Saints. It’s a little strange that Brady has been so supportive of Brown, and has hitched his wagon to someone with so many character flaws. But Brady wants a seventh Super Bowl ring, and Brown can certainly help him achieve it … Washington team president Jason Wright told WJLA-TV that there is a “pretty good chance” the team will be named Washington Football Team in 2021, too. Changing the name for next year “is fast because of how the brand has to come together through uniforms, through approval processes through the league,” he said … Teams have converted 29 of 58 2-point conversion attempts this year, on pace for 81, which would obliterate the record of 66 set in 2018. The Vikings are 6 for 8, the Eagles are 4 for 7, the Dolphins are 3 for 3, and the Cowboys are 3 for 5. The Ravens, Bengals, Colts, Raiders, and Saints are the only teams not to attempt one … This is also a banner year for kickers. The league-wide field goal success rate of 84.9 percent would be the second best in history (86.5 percent in 2013). Kickers are making 81.1 percent of kicks from 40-49 yards, which would be a record … The next touchdown pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski will be their 92nd (including postseason), and will vault them past Steve Young and Jerry Rice for second-most productive duo in NFL history, behind Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114) … Giants quarterback Daniel Jones may have committed an all-time blooper on Thursday night, but he has some wheels. Per Next Gen Stats, Jones reached 21.23 miles per hour on his run, the fastest top speed of any quarterback over the last three years — faster even than Lamar Jackson.