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The NFL offseason is about to be in full swing with free agency starting early next week and teams already making major decisions in regards to releases, franchise tags and other transactional moves. Many trades are also about to take place as clubs look to shed salary or acquire talent to improve their rosters for a potential Super Bowl run.
The 2021 offseason will be no different and may even see more deals than usual go down after the salary cap dipped significantly instead of rising by $10 or more million as it had in each of the last seven years. That will put several organizations in a financial bind.
Coupled with a handful of disgruntled franchise quarterbacks wishing for a change of scenery, that sets the stage for a frenzied start to the new league year.
With all that in mind, here’s a look at some blockbuster trades that could rock the NFL this spring.
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Cleveland Browns get: 2021 fourth-round pick (No. 131 via LAR)
Jacksonville Jaguars get: TE David Njoku
The Browns are at a crossroads this offseason and must put together a strong free agency in order to build on their first postseason appearance in almost two decades. Gathering more weapons for quarterback Baker Mayfield will be a top priority, but letting some players who haven’t panned out go should also be on the to-do list.
David Njoku just hasn’t worked out in Cleveland, failing to live up to the expectations that made him a 2017 first-round pick. The tight end has struggled to stay on the field in the last two years, playing in just 17 regular-season games, and had just 19 catches for 213 yards and a pair of scores in 13 appearances last year.
It is clearly time for a change of scenery, and the Browns should be willing to listen to offers for the 24-year-old with one year and $6 million left on his rookie deal. The Jaguars, with a litany of needs this offseason, could kick the tires on him to improve their offense.
Jacksonville declined incumbent tight end Tyler Eifert’s option this offseason, opening snaps for whichever player it decides to acquire prior to the 2021 campaign. While it could opt to ink Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith on the open market, those players will be highly coveted by several other organizations.
Tight end is a notoriously difficult position to find immediate success at after being drafted, so that option probably isn’t too palatable for the Jaguars, either. If they can’t come to terms with one of the veteran free agents, coughing up a mid-round pick and rehabilitating Njoku’s career could be the best option.
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New Orleans Saints get: 2021 sixth-round pick (No. 205 via TEN)
Los Angeles Chargers get: RB Latavius Murray
The Saints had one of the best running back situations in the NFL last year with Latavius Murray backing up superstar Alvin Kamara, but they likely won’t be able to afford that combo in 2021. They need to shed an estimated $30 million to get compliant for the upcoming campaign.
One way they could dump some money is by trading Murray, who is due to make almost $9 million across the last two seasons of his current deal.
Murray proved he can still play a big role in 2020, rushing for a respectable 656 yards and four touchdowns on just 146 totes. He also showed his value as a receiver, hauling in 23 of his 26 targets for an additional 176 yards and another score.
The 31-year-old may not be an every-down, starting-caliber back at this stage of his career, but a team could complement a quality starter by trading for him. The Chargers are an ideal partner as they have all the pieces in place for him to succeed.
They could offer a late-round pick and provide New Orleans the cap relief it needs. Combining Murray and Austin Ekeler would give the Bolts one of the best one-two backfield punches in football and help take the heat off second-year quarterback Justin Herbert as he continues to develop.
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Philadelphia Eagles get: 2021 seventh-round pick (No. 257)
Green Bay Packers get: TE Zach Ertz
The Packers have been shuffling through veteran tight ends over the last few years, recently getting mileage out of Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook before the ascension of Robert Tonyan.
Tonyan, an undrafted free agent the team picked up in 2017, broke out in 2020 with a 52-catch, 586-yard, 11-touchdown campaign just in time to hit restricted free agency this spring. He made just $570,000 last year and is eligible for multiple tenders, but the Packers, currently $8.3 million above the salary cap, may not wish to tie up the $3.4 million it would take to put a second-round tender on him after one strong campaign.
If Green Bay decides to let Tonyan walk without matching the multiyear deal he’s likely to command, it could instead opt to acquire a proven veteran at the position. Zach Ertz fits the bill as the longtime Eagles star is being openly shopped to shed salary as part of a roster overhaul.
Ertz is coming off an ugly 2020 in which he put up his worst statistics since his rookie year in 2013, but he’s only a year removed from three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. The veteran is a prime candidate for a bounce-back year, especially if he’s playing with reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. He could also come cheap, probably costing no more than a seventh-round pick.
If the Packers can free up the cap space to take on Ertz’s contract, they’d get a proven player who can help them win games at a great price.
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New England Patriots get: 2021 second-round pick (No. 59)
Cleveland Browns get: CB Stephon Gilmore
The Patriots have never been afraid to move on from a player a year early during the Bill Belichick era, and it appears they will stick to that ethos again this offseason by trading cornerback Stephon Gilmore just a season after he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore is coming off an injury-plagued 2020 campaign and didn’t produce at the same level during the 11 games in which he appeared. Still, the 30-year-old appears to have something left in the tank, though he likely won’t finish his career in New England.
After declining to extend his contract during the season, the Pats are now shopping him, although it is highly unlikely they get the first-round pick and player they reportedly sought last offseason and at the trade deadline.
Because Gilmore suffered a season-ending quad injury, suitors are allegedly leery about paying a high price for his services. Still, a second-round pick, likely from a cap-flush organization that can afford to extend him, would likely be enough to entice New England.
The Browns are a perfect landing spot as they have plenty of cap space—an estimated $24.4 million—and a need for another defensive back with both Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell hitting free agency.
Cleveland could have one of the most feared secondaries in the league next season if it can swing a deal for Gilmore, pairing him with Denzel Ward and a healthy Greedy Williams to make up a three-man cornerback corps that would rank among the NFL’s best.
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Seattle Seahawks get: 2021 1st-round picks (No. 20 overall), 2022 1st-round pick, 2022 2nd-round pick, QB Nick Foles, OLB Robert Quinn
Chicago Bears get: QB Russell Wilson
If the Seahawks are willing to trade Wilson, the Bears could make one of the best offers.
Wilson must waive his no-trade clause for any deal to go down, which effectively gives him the leverage to choose his next team. According to Schefter, they’re among the four teams that he’d accept a trade to, along with the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Las Vegas Raiders.
Wilson would thrive with the Bears, who have a better offensive line than Seattle’s. According to The Ringer’s Kaelen Jones, Wilson has been sacked an average of 43.8 times per season over the last nine years, the most since the 1970 merger. He would likely get some input in the organization’s decision-making process, something he has reportedly lacked in Seattle, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
On paper, this marriage makes perfect sense. Wilson would instantly elevate the Bears to a serious contender and Chicago is desperate enough to offer Seattle almost any player on its roster.
The Bears are reportedly prepared to offer the Seahawks a “boatload” of picks to facilitate a deal, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora. A potential package could include the No. 20 overall pick, a bridge quarterback in Nick Foles, defensive players such as Robert Quinn, Kyle Fuller or even Khalil Mack, and a smattering of future early-round picks.
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Carolina Panthers get: QB Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans get: 2021 1st-round pick (No. 8 overall), 2022 1st-round pick, 2022 2nd-round pick, RB Christian McCaffrey, QB Teddy Bridgewater
The Panthers appear desperate to find a franchise quarterback this offseason.
They offered the No. 8 overall pick, Teddy Bridgewater and a fifth-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, before the Lions agreed to send Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. They should not let another opportunity to get a superstar signal-caller slip away, so they should go all-in to pry Deshaun Watson away from the Houston Texans.
While Watson will not come cheap, the Panthers have enough assets to throw Houston’s way to make a deal happen. Carolina could offer a package centered on star running back Christian McCaffrey and a handful of Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks, as well as serviceable veterans like Robby Anderson and Teddy Bridgewater and promising young talents such as Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn.
Watson’s four-year, $156 million extension that runs through the 2025 season may complicate negotiations considering how much a team will have to give up in both the trade itself and salary-cap space. Still, teams have proved they can contend with an elite quarterback anchoring a roster of bargain-bin veterans and young players on their rookie deals.
The Panthers have plenty of the latter, especially on defense, and Carolina would become a far more desirable destination for free agents with Watson under center. While the Panthers would still have some major holes on their roster, having a star quarterback to build around would result in more sustained success than trying to craft a good lineup around a mediocre signal-caller.
Salary-cap figures courtesy of Spotrac.