Right now, the NFL isn’t a place for standing pat. You witnessed it early in the offseason, when the Cleveland Browns traded for Odell Beckham Jr. and proceeded to build a star-studded roster. You witnessed it during the Brown debacle. You witnessed it during a series of trades as the regular season began, the kind of blockbuster moves that seldom happen so close to show time.
So with the Oct. 29 trade deadline approaching, you should expect the movement to continue. It would be disappointing if it doesn’t. There are still plenty of disgruntled players, and the first third of the season has presented the best kind of parity, with a clear line separating a large group of contenders from the teams that can’t even pretend to have hope. It sets up an intriguing last call to improve, on multiple levels.
The teams that have a chance can ponder adding impact players in a quality market that could include big names such as Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Washington left tackle Trent Williams and Minnesota wide receiver Stefon Diggs. And the hopeless — there are four winless teams and four with a single victory through five weeks — can be motivated sellers at a time when they could receive good returns for players they need to consider trading to rebuild.
If teams are cooperative and don’t outsmart themselves, the conditions are favorable for a trade deadline that could be as close as the NFL can get to resembling the in-season transactions of the NBA or Major League Baseball.
Of course, it is always more difficult to make trades in the NFL because of its hard salary cap, which is why trade deadline activity will never truly rival those other leagues. But teams are managing the cap more creatively than in the past, and almost all of them focus on maintaining the flexibility to make big moves when they’re available.
Plenty of teams should be thinking they are one big move from doing something special. The start of this season has been interesting. The AFC remains top heavy, with New England (5-0) and Kansas City (4-1) looking like the only true championship contenders. But there are teams that appear on the rise (Buffalo, Baltimore and Cleveland chief among them), and if they were to add talent, it wouldn’t have to be a win-now Hail Mary. They can play for now and later, and that’s when giving up significant draft assets makes sense in a trade.
On the other hand, the NFC is wide open. New Orleans (4-1) has been the most impressive team because of its resilience in winning without Drew Brees and the depth and balance it has shown. Seattle and Green Bay are somewhat surprising at 4-1. San Francisco (4-0) is improving right on schedule. Dallas and Philadelphia are 3-2, and while they have shown some warts, they remain dangerous. And we have yet to talk about the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams or the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings, both recent playoff teams with imposing defenses.
If there is a frenzy at the trade deadline, the NFC probably will make the most noise. There are 10 teams in the conference that have shown some playoff chops, and you could make an argument for a few more. But how many of them could win it all? How do they match up against the Patriots, who have outscored opponents 155-34? How do they match up against the Chiefs, who are capable of putting up 40 points in any game?
Most of the NFC contenders could use one more star to feel really good about themselves. Imagine if Philadelphia, Green Bay or Seattle could convince Jacksonville to trade the unhappy Ramsey. Or if the Vikings went hard after Williams to protect Kirk Cousins’s blind side again.
Considering Minnesota’s renewed dedication to a run-based approach, it wouldn’t be outlandish if it explored a rare star-for-star swap and included Diggs, a Maryland native, in a deal for Williams. Diggs isn’t going to be a 100-catch receiver again in Minnesota’s new system. Despite being terrible, Washington has foolishly shown no interest in trading Williams, who would be a great fit in Minnesota whether the Vikings are running or passing, for a draft pick.
The Vikings would rather add talent than remix it, but they need a big change. And their current direction suggests that, if forced to choose, an elite offensive lineman would serve them better.
In general, it’s still best to build through the draft. But teams should take calculated risks on occasion. This is one of those times when the market is great and the competitive balance is ideal. You have to know when to strike, and everything about NFL business in 2019 indicates there are significant benefits to being aggressive.
As long as the risk doesn’t involve signing Antonio Brown, it’s okay to take a chance.
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