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Titanic trades shake up NFL on first day of free agency

Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks Tuesday. (Bill Haber/Associated Press)
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The opening of the NFL’s free agent market and trading period erupted Tuesday afternoon not with free agent signings, but with a flurry of trades involving big-name players that could shift the sport’s balance of power.

The New Orleans Saints sent tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks, who fortified their offense for a run at a possible third straight Super Bowl appearance. The Baltimore Ravens dealt Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions, who wasted no time landing a replacement at defensive tackle for just-departed free agent Ndamukong Suh. The Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams swapped quarterbacks, with the talented but often-injured Sam Bradford going to Philadelphia while former Eagles starter Nick Foles landed in St. Louis.

The NFL once was known as a no-trade league, with teams focusing on the NFL draft and occasional forays into free agency for their roster construction. That, apparently, is no longer the case.

“I guess you can’t say that any more,” a front office executive from one NFL team said during a brief afternoon telephone conversation. “That’s the old-school way, I guess.”

Several significant trades already had been reported before Tuesday, including the Eagles sending tailback LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, and the Chicago Bears dealing wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets.

But news of the Graham, Ngata and Bradford-Foles deals sent shockwaves throughout the sport when they became public in rapid-fire succession right around the 4 p.m. ET opening of the market.

As with most trades in today’s NFL, economic considerations were significant. Graham was one season into a four-year, $40 million contract with the Saints. The Saints, facing a salary cap crunch this offseason, cleared about $2 million in cap space with the trade, and gained added room to maneuver beneath the cap in the future. The Saints received center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice from Seattle, and sent a fourth-round pick to the Seahawks along with Graham.

The Seahawks relied on their defense and a run-first offense in reaching the last two Super Bowls, beating the Denver Broncos in one and then losing to the New England Patriots to cap last season. Now they’ve given quarterback Russell Wilson a reliable pass-catching tight end and a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, at least when Graham is healthy. He had at least 85 catches in each of the last four seasons for the Saints, and topped 1,200 receiving yards in two seasons during that four-year span. Graham totaled 46 touchdown catches over those four seasons.

The Ravens sent Ngata and a seventh-round draft selection to the Lions for fourth- and fifth-round picks. The Ravens apparently tried but failed to negotiate a reworked contract with Ngata, who was to count $16 million against their salary cap next season. He is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and the Lions can plug him into their defensive line in place of Suh, who reportedly lined up a $19 million-a-year deal over the weekend with the Miami Dolphins.

“Haloti has been an outstanding player for us for many years,” Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said in a written statement released by the team announcing the trade. “He consistently showed tremendous leadership in our locker room and on the field. At times, he was one of the NFL’s most dominant players.”

Coach Chip Kelly’s makeover of the Eagles continued with his decision to send Foles to St. Louis for Bradford. The trade was announced by both teams later Tuesday. The Eagles announced they are sending a fourth-round draft pick this year and a second-round choice next year to the Rams along with Foles, and receiving a fifth-round selection this year from the Rams along with Bradford. There were also reports that the Eagles will potentially receive a conditional pick next year from the Rams, either a third- or fourth-rounder, depending on Bradford’s playing time.

The Eagles released wideout DeSean Jackson last offseason on the heels of a 1,300-yard receiving season. They traded McCoy to the Bills after a 1,300-yard rushing performance last season, and they’re losing free agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to the Kansas City Chiefs following a 1,300-yard receiving season. Now they’re adding Bradford, who is attempting to work his way back from a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Bradford has one season and $13 million left on the six-year, $78 million contract he signed with the Rams after being chosen with the top overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft. He received the last mega-contract for a top overall draft pick before the NFL put a rookie compensation system in effect with the ratification of the 2011 labor deal between the league and players’ union.

He has shown promise as an NFL passer when healthy and in the lineup. That simply has not been often enough. Bradford has played in only 49 of the Rams’ 80 games since they drafted him. Coach Jeff Fisher had said this offseason that Bradford would be the Rams’ starter next season. He’d also vowed to have another option on hand.

Instead, that other option will replace Bradford. Foles had a magnificent second NFL season with the Eagles in 2013, throwing 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Last season was more of a struggle. Foles threw 10 interceptions to go with 13 touchdown passes in eight games, and was sidelined by a broken collarbone.

Mark Sanchez, who took over as the Eagles’ starter when Foles was hurt last season, was re-signed by Philadelphia in free agency. It’s not clear if the trade for Bradford will eliminate the possibility of the Eagles dealing up in the first-round NFL draft order to attempt to land Kelly’s former quarterback at Oregon, Marcus Mariota.

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