The 2019 NFL season is a month away, but that doesn’t mean this year’s opening day rosters are anywhere close to set. Teams will spend the next several weeks analyzing their strengths and weaknesses before coming up with the 53-man combination they hope will be Super Bowl-worthy come February.
While most of the moves that lead up to Week 1 will be relatively minor, a few landscape-changing trades could be on the way. Contract holdouts this summer have turned impact players like Melvin Gordon, Trent Williams, and Jadeveon Clowney into potential August trade bait.
These megadeals don’t happen often, but when they do it can change the outlook of the league. Khalil Mack turned his quest for a record-setting deal in Oakland into a division title with the Bears after being traded last September. Two years ago, the Bills sent Sammy Watkins to LA, where he led the resurgent Rams in touchdown receptions. In 2016, the Vikings gave up a first-round pick for a revitalized Sam Bradford following Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury.
Sometimes these moves fuel a playoff run. Other times they end up being a relative waste of draft assets. But if we were given omnipotent NFL general manager powers this preseason, here are the moves that would be on the top of our wish lists.
Washington OT Trent Williams to the Browns
General manager John Dorsey pushed his chips to the center of the table this offseason, sacrificing assets and cap space to bring expensive veterans like Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, and Sheldon Richardson to northeast Ohio. Adding one more would shore up one of his team’s biggest weaknesses. While Greg Robinson has provided a nice redemption story after washing out with the Rams and Lions, he’s still a shaky option to protect Baker Mayfield’s blindside at left tackle.
Williams would be an immediate upgrade. The seven-time Pro Bowler has consistently been a sunbeam bursting through the never-ending tempest of Washington football. He’s currently looking for a new deal that pays him like one of the league’s top tackles (he is) and is also reportedly untrusting of Washington management and its training staff. He’s ripe to be freed.
There will be several bidders for his services — Houston and Minnesota are also in need of a franchise pocket protector — but another bold move would be right up Dorsey’s alley. Losing Mayfield due to injury would be an especially Browns way to derail their momentum. Dorsey needs to take as many drastic steps as he needs to keep that from happening. — Christian D’Andrea
This is a trade that could benefit both teams. We all know that the Texans desperately need help along the offensive line — remember, Deshaun Watson got sacked 62 times last year and the Texans used their first-round pick on a project tackle who may end up playing guard.
Collins isn’t an elite offensive lineman, but he could pretty easily be the best one Houston has. Plus, his contract expires after the season and the Texans are projected to have a boatload of cap space in 2020 to extend him.
It could also help the Cowboys in the long-term as well. They’re still working on extensions for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott. That’s going to create a sticky cap situation to navigate for the next few years, so acquiring more cheap contracts through the draft is something that would be beneficial for them.
Letting go of Collins for the 2019 season would sting for Dallas, but in the grand scheme of things it might make life a little easier for them in the coming years. (Please don’t attack me Cowboys fans I’m just thinking out loud.) — Charles McDonald
Texans Edge Jadeveon Clowney to the Panthers
Houston’s in a tough spot with Clowney. He has the potential and elite athleticism to be one of the game’s most disruptive pass rushers, though he has yet to hit that ceiling. Is that worth a nine-figure contract extension for a team that already features two highly paid cornerstones (J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins) and is slated to give Deshaun Watson a huge new deal in the next two years?
Given Clowney’s steady improvement and recent health, it probably is — but let’s look at the other side of that coin. The versatile defensive end/linebacker would be a boon for a Carolina team with the punishing interior pass-rushing duo of Kawann Short and Gerald McCoy but limited support on the edges of the pocket. The Panthers ranked 25th in the league in sack rate last season and were even worse in blitz downs.
Convincing the Texans to give up a prized part of their potent defense would go a long way toward fixing that. And even though Carolina has less cap space in 2020 than Houston, the potential retirement of Greg Olsen and release of Dontari Poe would free up approximately $25 million in room next spring to retain Clowney via expensive extension. Throwing a Clowney, Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, and rookie first-rounder Brian Burns defensive end rotation around the middle of a defense led by Short, McCoy, and linebacker Luke Kuechly would made the Panthers an intimidating out against any opponent in 2019.
The Texans have the cap space to keep Clowney around on a market-resetting deal if need be. The question is whether they’ll want to make that move knowing it could eat into the resources needed to reinforce an offensive line with the structural integrity of a bread bowl. If Houston decides Clowney’s not worth a long-term investment, there’s some logic behind trading him while he can still fetch value in return — not a lot of logic, granted, but it’s still a consideration. Should the Texans part ways with the former No. 1 overall pick, the NFC South could be waiting. — Christian D’Andrea
Chargers RB Melvin Gordon to the Bills
For a brief moment in the weird Antonio Brown-Steelers divorce saga, the football world thought the receiver was being traded to Buffalo. There was a lot of pointing and laughing at Brown, who — according to Ian Rapoport — was about to be jettisoned to NFL Siberia in Upstate New York. He was set to play for an offense that was dead last in passing touchdowns. Alas, it didn’t come to be, although one could definitely argue getting traded to the Raiders isn’t much better.
All that to say, Gordon getting traded to Buffalo would probably be received the same way. After requesting a trade from the Chargers, it’d look like a giant middle finger to the running back if he were sent from a contender to the Bills — no matter how bullish you are on the young roster’s upside.
Here’s why Gordon would have reason to be happy about it, though: The Bills could give him the contract he wants.
Buffalo has over $22 million in cap space for the 2019 season and is currently projected to have about $60 million available in 2020. One reason for all that freed up space is that LeSean McCoy — who counts $9.05 million against the cap this year — is set to hit free agency next year.
The Chargers are reportedly holding firm to an offer of $10 million per year for Gordon. That’s a little insulting to the two-time Pro Bowl running back when Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, and David Johnson all have deals that average at least $13 million. The Bills could easily give Gordon a deal that averages about $13 million and still have more room to build.
Buffalo could use the help too. McCoy is 31 now and averaged a career-worst 3.2 yards per carry in 2018. Chris Ivory didn’t fare much better with 3.3 yards per attempt. Maybe Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon will help in 2019, but neither is the future for the Bills at running back.
Gordon could be that — and give Josh Allen a reliable threat in and out of the backfield for years to come. — Adam Stites
Browns RB Duke Johnson to the Jaguars
Update, Aug. 8: The Browns traded Johnson, but to a different AFC South team. He landed with the Texans for a 2020 fourth-round draft pick that could become a third-rounder.
Johnson’s status in Cleveland is up in the air. Although the Browns want the versatile tailback on the roster to serve as a valuable receiver out of the backfield, Johnson is unhappy with his spot on the roster after the offseason signing of Kareem Hunt and has requested a trade to search for bigger opportunities elsewhere.
One place he’d be able to shine is Jacksonville. Johnson’s receiving chops would give him the chance to immediately fill the void left behind by T.J. Yeldon, who had 55 catches one year ago but is now in Buffalo. Johnson would almost certainly see more targets in Florida than he did in Ohio, too. The Jags’ wide receiver and tight end depth charts are pretty grim.
New quarterback Nick Foles will spend his debut season in Duval County searching for playmaking targets who can move the chains. Foles hasn’t been prolific when it comes to finding runners on screens or wheel routes — only 18.3 percent of his targets the past two seasons went to running backs, per Pro Football Reference — but that could change in an instant given the lack of talent he’s facing downfield.
Johnson would also have the ability to showcase his skills as a runner on a team that’s still focused on making Leonard Fournette — he of the career 3.7 yards per carry average — happen. If Johnson wants a role beyond just third-down back and third man up on a roster that includes Hunt and Nick Chubb, Jacksonville may be the perfect place for it. — Christian D’Andrea