The NFL Trade Wheel: Making Sense of Who Went Where

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Free agency wasn’t enough, apparently. With the 2015 NFL league year about to open after a weekend full of reports of free-agent signings, football decided to foist three stunning trades on us in a whirlwind half-hour. You can hear Robert Mays’s and my own stunned real-time reactions to the trades on a frantic Grantland NFL Podcast, but now that we’ve had some time to measure the details surrounding each deal, let’s put them into context and understand how and why everything went down.

Grahambandon Ship

The first swap of the three involved the most high-profile player of the bunch. With virtually no warning that they were even shopping their star tight end, the Saints sent Jimmy Graham and their fourth-round pick in this year’s draft to the Seahawks for center Max Unger and Seattle’s first-round pick, the 31st overall selection in this year’s draft.

Using the Draft Pick Value Calculator generated by Chase Stuart at Football Perspective, we can estimate the difference in value between the two draft picks. We also have to guess where New Orleans’s draft pick will land, since compensatory picks have yet to be handed out, but it should come within one or two slots of the 110th overall pick. Using those figures, the balance of what the Seahawks sent amounts to the equivalent of the 65th pick in the draft — the first pick of the third round. That certainly sounds a lot less dramatic than dealing a first-round pick for a fourth-rounder.

It’s not the first time the Seahawks have used their first-round pick in a move to acquire a weapon for Russell Wilson, which is one of the many reasons this deal is so fascinating. Seattle sent a first-round pick to Minnesota two years ago (along with a seventh-round pick in that draft and a third-round pick in 2014) to acquire Percy Harvin in a deal that proved to be a rare misstep for general manager John Schneider, with Harvin missing virtually all of his first season in Seattle with injuries, before being dealt away to the Jets for what ended up being a sixth-round pick.

Harvin struggled both on and off the field during his time in Seattle, reportedly fighting then-teammate Golden Tate while failing to find a steady path into Darrell Bevell’s offense. The Seattle offensive coordinator seemed comfortable with packages deliberately designed to get the ball to Harvin on jet sweeps and screens, but Harvin was never integrated into many of Seattle’s downfield passing plays and rarely found his way into passing lanes during Wilson’s frequent scrambles out of the pocket. For all the success Bevell had with him when the two were together in Minnesota, Harvin simply wasn’t the same player in Seattle.

That shouldn’t be quite as much of a problem with Graham. While his background is obviously unconventional, the Seahawks don’t need to do anything extraordinary to get Graham involved. They’re going to throw the same sort of seam passes that Wilson would throw to Zach Miller and Luke Willson in the past, just more often and with more success. Graham is going to be a nightmare for teams that try to push a safety in the box to stop Marshawn Lynch, because there are only about a dozen players on the planet who can cover Graham one-on-one, and two of them happen to play for his new team.

As dangerous as Graham can be in the red zone, I don’t know that he’ll be a dramatic upgrade for the Seahawks when they get near pay dirt, if only because they’ve already been effective throwing the football there. Seattle ranked ninth in red zone passing DVOA in 2014, and while it was 21st in 2013, it was fourth in 2012. New Orleans had the best red zone passing DVOA that year, but it was 11th in 2013 and 15th a year ago. Every weapon counts, of course, but Seattle is still going to be a run-first team inside the 20-yard line, where it was the league’s best rushing attack in 2014.

The part that doesn’t click for me is Seattle adding salary while still owing Wilson and Bobby Wagner new deals. While the Seahawks took cash off their cap in the Harvin deal, they still owe $7.2 million in dead money for Harvin in 2015. The recent contract extension for Lynch gave him $12 million guaranteed, all of which gets paid this season; he has base salaries of $9 million and $7 million in 2016 and 2017, respectively, but the Seahawks could cut him and save $4 million in 2016 or $4.5 million in 2017.

Graham is not cheap for Seattle, even with the Saints eating his $12 million signing bonus. The Seahawks will owe him $8 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016, and $10 million in 2017, assuming they keep the $5 million roster bonus Graham is due Thursday without converting it to a signing bonus. Converting the bonus would free up more cap space in 2015, but would cost the Seahawks if they decided down the line they wanted to move on, so it doesn’t seem like a logical move.

None of the 2016 or 2017 money is guaranteed or would result in dead cap if the Seahawks decide to move on, so this can be anything from a one-year rental to a three-year deal. Given that the Seahawks will likely sign Wilson and Wagner to new deals during the 2015 season, the base salaries owed Graham will be difficult to swallow in the years to come. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Seahawks forced to choose between Graham and Lynch in 2016, and if Graham wins, Seattle will likely offer him an extension to free up cap space in 2017.

The megadeals to come are also likely why the Seahawks moved on from Unger. A Pro Bowl–caliber center who has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, the 28-year-old Unger was just about due for a new deal. He was entering the third year of a four-year, $26 million extension that has relatively docile cap hits of $4.5 million in both 2015 and 2016. After that, a healthy Unger would have likely expected to see his cap hit double, pointing to the Alex Mack deal as a comparable contract. Seattle couldn’t afford to give Unger that much money, and in trading him now, it was able to get a serious asset who upgraded them at a more meaningful position.

For the Saints, this is a serious repudiation of their all-in philosophy from a year ago and the quality of the team Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis thought they had built. I wrote about their cap woes in December, and while I pointed out the accounting method that would enable them to overcome their $27 million nightmare and get underneath the hard cap, there wasn’t going to be much space to reshape their franchise.

New Orleans had already cut Curtis Lofton and Pierre Thomas this offseason, but to make serious changes to its roster in the years to come, it was going to have to carve one or two of the top salaries off the books. One of those players, apparently, was Graham. While the Saints get $19 million in cap relief over 2016 and 2017, they don’t actually save any money in 2015. With the dead money on his deal, Graham’s cap hold actually rises from $8 million to $9 million. The Saints then add the $4.5 million on Unger’s deal to their 2015 cap, and they’ll also owe an extra $750,000 or so for the salary difference between the draft picks they just traded.

After battling so hard to get underneath the cap of $143 million, New Orleans is already nearly $3 million over the cap. Loomis suggested after the trade that he made the deal to improve New Orleans’s defense, which certainly makes it strange that he traded Graham for a center and not a defensive player.

The next logical step for the Saints would be to cut aging guard Jahri Evans and lop $6 million more off their cap, but he may come in handy for the plan they’re executing. Whether it’s driven by finances or not, it seems like the Saints are moving toward a more balanced offensive attack. They’ve now traded Graham, acquired an excellent center in Unger, cut a receiving back in Thomas, and locked up bruising between-the-tackles halfback Mark Ingram this offseason. While they still have jack-of-all-trades Brandin Cooks, the Saints are looking at a receiving corps built around Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Josh Hill, nominally the replacement for Graham. And if they’re moving to a run-first approach, they might be better off cutting Colston than Evans.

And that, of course, calls the entire enterprise into question. What’s the point of devoting the league’s second-largest cap hit ($26.4 million) to Drew Brees if you’re not going to run the offense around his skills? While there was speculation that the Saints could move on from Brees, it’s just not possible; they would owe $7 million more on their cap by trading him, and even if they cut him as a post–June 1 release, they would save only $250,000. In 2016, though, the Saints could save $20 million by cutting or trading Brees before his base salary becomes guaranteed. It seems likely they’ll either give Brees an extension to create cap space or move on from their longtime star after this season.

To say the Saints players aren’t taking this well might be an understatement. Brees noted afterward that he was shocked by the trade and ” … loved [Graham].” Cornerback Keenan Lewis publicly said he wanted the remaining three years of his contract guaranteed or wanted to be released, which ranks right up there with “Operation Shutdown” as far as hollow, leverage-less threats go. The Saints brought in Tramon Williams for a visit last night, but they’ll have to convince him to work with a very strict, player-unfriendly contract structure to come to New Orleans. They’ll also have to convince him he isn’t coming to a team that’s falling apart.

Bradford the Schuylkill

Not to be outdone, the Rams and Eagles completed an unexpected swap of quarterbacks that was judged differently depending on which trade details you believed. The players involved were clear: Nick Foles went to St. Louis, and Sam Bradford finally ended his run with the Rams and made his way to Philadelphia.

At first, the trade seemed to weigh heavily in Philadelphia’s favor. While the teams would swap late-round picks, initial reports said the Eagles would also receive a second-round pick from the Rams. Then, the compensation was reported to include a swap of first-round picks, which would move the Eagles up from the 20th pick to the 10th selection. That seemed to foretell a second move that would serve as a trade for Marcus Mariota, with the Eagles sending Bradford and the 10th pick as part of the package.

Instead, when the dust settled, the actual return was shockingly disappointing for Eagles fans, especially after their hopes had been raised by the initial reports. The Eagles will send their fourth-round pick in this year’s draft and a second-rounder in 2016 to St. Louis, while the Rams will give up a fifth-round pick and a conditional pick in 2016 if Bradford doesn’t play at all (a third-rounder) or if he takes less than half of Philadelphia’s offensive snaps (fourth-rounder).

Using estimates1 of where those picks will land after compensatory selections have been handed out and assuming that the two teams are valuing the second-rounder in 2016 as the 49th pick, the value of the total draft picks suggest the Eagles are sending Foles and the equivalent of the 39th pick to the Rams for Bradford.

Eagles fans might very well have preferred Foles to Bradford in a vacuum, and while I’m not the biggest Foles fan by any means, I can’t say that is an outlandish opinion. That’s a pretty stunning return for a player the Rams might realistically have considered cutting loose for nothing this offseason, after Bradford went on injured reserve with a torn ACL in each of the last two seasons.

To start, the difference in salaries alone makes this deal questionable. Bradford will occupy almost $13 million in cap space for the Eagles in 2015, the final year of his gargantuan rookie contract. Foles, meanwhile, will cost the Rams just $1.4 million in the final year of his rookie deal. The Rams do have to eat $3.6 million in dead money for the final year of Bradford’s deal, but they create just more than $8 million in cap space by making this trade, while the Eagles add $11.8 million to their 2015 cap. Part of the value from last week’s LeSean McCoy trade was the $8.6 million it freed up on Philadelphia’s cap; who knew it was going to go, of all people, to Bradford?

The obvious link between Bradford and the Eagles is Pat Shurmur, the Philadelphia offensive coordinator who held that same role for St. Louis in 2010, Bradford’s rookie season. That was probably Bradford’s high-water mark as a pro in terms of promise, although Stuart wrote a convincing piece at the time that Bradford’s statistics were far less impressive than they seemed. Given Shurmur’s struggles to develop Colt McCoy or Brandon Weeden in Cleveland and that the credit for whatever Foles has done mostly goes to Chip Kelly, Bradford remains the former TYFNC Award winner’s most successful pupil.

You can crib together pieces of an argument that Bradford might be a good fit for Kelly and the Philadelphia offense. Bradford ran a high-tempo spread offense in college at Oklahoma, although the last meaningful tape of him in that attack dates back to 2008. He’s posted a relatively low 2.2 percent interception rate as a pro, including a 14-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his abbreviated 2013 season. Bradford has all the physical characteristics you would hope for from a franchise quarterback, although it’s also worth remembering he’s torn both of those ACLs since the last time we saw him getting meaningful action against an NFL pass rush.

The easiest argument against Bradford is the one I laid out last August. Take a look at the 2013 pass maps Kirk Goldsberry generated for Bradford (in his last active season) and Foles (during his otherworldly campaign):



Foles was incredible throwing deep that season, doing so effectively and on a frequent basis. Bradford didn’t throw deep at all, and when he did, he posted a dismal QBR. In his career, 9.9 percent of his passes have traveled 20 yards or more in the air, which ranks 24th out of 29 qualifying passers over that time frame. His QBR on those throws was also 24th out of 29. And his average pass has traveled just 7.5 yards in the air; only Alex Smith has managed to be worse.

Rams fans complained after the article that it somehow wasn’t Bradford’s fault — that, through all the offensive coordinators and draft picks and free-agent dollars spent on receivers and linemen, it was everybody else and not their quarterback. But last year, we got a full season of the Rams offense without Bradford. And what do you know? They suddenly somehow found a way to throw downfield! The combination of Austin Davis and Shaun Hill, hardly superstar quarterbacks, threw passes 20 yards or more on 13.4 percent of their passes, the eighth-highest rate in the league. Their QBR on those passes was 93.6, which was 12th among NFL teams. Either Kenny Britt is the greatest downfield weapon the league has ever seen, or Bradford is not a good downfield passer. You pick.

The combination of Foles and Mark Sanchez continued to throw deep in Philadelphia last year, but they weren’t quite as effective. They went 20 yards or more in the air on 13.7 percent of their throws, the sixth-highest rate in the league, but their QBR on those passes was just 20th. It’s not a surprise the Eagles weren’t as effective on downfield passes with DeSean Jackson moving to Washington, but unless Shurmur and Kelly are going to spend some Madden coins to unlock Bradford’s downfield passing ability, this seems like a bad fit of player and scheme.

Foles should be a better fit in St. Louis than Bradford is in Philly, but I’d worry about Foles leaving the coaching cocoon he enjoyed in his old digs. Foles couldn’t have asked for a better pair of quarterback-friendly coaches at the beginning of his career than the ones he had in Andy Reid and Kelly, and while the Rams have thankfully moved on from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, they replaced him with former quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti, who didn’t exactly do overwhelming work with Bradford.

Injuries remain a key concern with Foles. While it’s close to impossible to be hurt as much as Bradford was over the last two seasons, Foles has suffered injuries that cost him games during each of his first three pro seasons, including a broken hand in 2012, a concussion in 2013, and last year’s fractured collarbone. Foles is tough, but he doesn’t have great pocket awareness, and his one great season came behind a healthy, dominant offensive line in 2013. The St. Louis offensive line is neither of those things, and after cutting Jake Long and Scott Wells, it also consists mostly of question marks.

As far as the rest of their roster issues go, the Rams can use the money they saved to go after a cornerback, and that’s where this becomes even more puzzling for Philly. The Eagles are incurring the opportunity cost of not being able to use that $11.8 million elsewhere on their roster by trading for Bradford, a problem given the holes at receiver and in the secondary. Even if Bradford succeeds and has an impressive season, it’s the last year of his contract, so the Eagles would need to pay close to market value and/or pay a franchise tender in the $19 million range to a guy with one big season in six.

Maybe, as in New Orleans, this is all part of a scheme change for the Eagles. They lost Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City one year after dumping Jackson. They traded McCoy to Buffalo and tried to sign Frank Gore, who bailed for Indianapolis. Maybe Kelly wants to trade some explosiveness for reliability and thinks he can use Bradford’s short-to-intermediate accuracy at the pivot of an offense that looks more like what Tom Brady does in New England. There could be a master plan here.

That master plan doesn’t appear to involve Mariota. It’s hard to imagine the Eagles would trade a key draft pick to acquire Bradford when they could have used that same pick in a package for Mariota. It’s even harder to imagine they would still trade for Mariota, given that they have Bradford on a one-year deal and just signed Sanchez to a two-year deal. They would have to find a trading partner in need of a quarterback to take Bradford. While you could point to Tennessee as a team that might be interested in Bradford and didn’t have a quarterback to send back to St. Louis, if the Eagles really planned on flipping Bradford, why wouldn’t they have traded him to Tennessee immediately or made it a three-team deal?

It looks like big bets will come to define the era of Chip Kelly as Philadelphia’s top personnel executive. Coaches tend to do this when they get control. They fall in love with players and struggle to contextualize the market around them. It’s fine to want Byron Maxwell, but giving him $25 million guaranteed is paying for the player they want him to be, not the player he is. Bradford’s trade value should have basically been nil given his contract and recent injury history, and the Eagles gave up a pick and a far cheaper asset to get him. Kelly is a brilliant coach. The jury is definitely still out on whether he’s a brilliant personnel man.

Baltimore Ravens v Denver BroncosSteve Dykes/Getty Images

Ngata Ravens

The simplest trade of the three, by far, was the salary dump that sent Haloti Ngata to the Lions. The Ravens sent a seventh-round pick along with Ngata to Detroit in exchange for Detroit’s fourth- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft. Using the Football Perspective draft value chart and the midpoint selection of each round as an estimate of each pick’s value, the Ravens are getting what amounts to the 82nd selection — roughly an average third-rounder — from a typical draft.

Ravens fans are furious about this trade because Ngata, in a vacuum, should be worth more than a third-rounder. Your typical third-rounder will not have Ngata’s impact. The problem is that the Ravens aren’t operating in a vacuum. They were within $2 million or so of the salary cap in the minutes before the 2014 league year ended, left without even the $4.1 million in cap space they’ll need to sign their seven assigned picks in this year’s draft, a figure that doesn’t even include their compensatory picks.

They had to clear out cap space to take some semblance of a stab at improving their secondary, and even after letting Pernell McPhee and Torrey Smith leave without a meaningful offer, that meant attempting to restructure Ngata’s deal. Ngata, in the final year of a five-year, $61 million contract, had a $16 million cap hit in Baltimore with an $8.5 million base salary. Baltimore will save that $8.5 million by trading Ngata to the Lions, leaving $7.5 million in dead money on its 2015 cap.

Reports suggest the Ravens wanted Ngata to restructure his deal, but there’s no way to restructure a deal with one year remaining; the Ravens would have had to give Ngata a contract extension to provide any cap relief. Baltimore, which saw a previous extension offer turned down by Ngata last April, likely offered Ngata a deal stretching into the future with base salaries in seasons he was never likely to see. Given the spending spree we’ve seen over the past 48 hours, Ngata likely thinks he can get one more lucrative long-term deal from a team in free agency next offseason.

For the Lions, this is basically a gift from the defensive lineman fairy. Bereft at defensive tackle after seeing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley become free agents, Detroit was likely going to shop for help in the middle of the marketplace and pursue a defensive tackle in the draft, places that were never going to deliver a player with the impact of a force like Suh or Fairley. Ngata can be that player, and the Lions will pay just $8.5 million — less than one-third of what they would have shelled out to franchise Suh for 2015 — to see what Ngata can do on a one-year deal.

Having played in a 3-4 for the vast majority of his career, Ngata will move back to a 4-3 for the Lions and be unleashed in Suh’s role as an interior disruptor. Sacks were a terrible way to judge Ngata’s impact as a Ravens player, especially during the years when he was playing as a pure nose tackle, but he should show up more frequently with big plays as a penetrating, one-gap tackle in Detroit. He’s not Suh, but Ngata is just about the best consolation prize the Lions could have hoped for. They’ll also likely get one of those picks back as a compensatory selection if Ngata leaves in free agency.

Even knowing all of that, it’s hard to fault Ozzie Newsome for this trade. He was stuck in an untenable cap situation and Ngata was really the only way to clear out space. It’s easy to blame Joe Flacco’s mammoth contract for creating those cap woes, but there’s another contract squeezing Baltimore’s cap space. The Ravens have $9.5 million in dead money for Ray Rice on their cap this season, because they cut Rice shortly after the 2014 season began and had to account for the majority of the bonuses owed the disgraced running back on their 2015 cap. Baltimore will finish their Rice accounting after this year. With Flacco’s base salary about to jump from $4 million to $18 million in 2016, though, Ngata may not be the last longtime Ravens player to be forced out of town in the years to come.

Filed Under: NFL, Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles, Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, Haloti Ngata, 2015 NFL Free Agency


Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell