The NFL Trading Deadline: Who Is the Next Percy Harvin?

One of the disappointing things about covering the NFL as opposed to one of the other major professional sports is the lack of in-season trades. Baseball, basketball, and hockey all have active trade deadlines with months of rumors leading up to a flurry of swaps, and it’s a ton of fun. In football, obviously, there are a variety of reasons those trades are less likely to happen: An earlier trade deadline (relative to the length of the season), punitive salary-cap rules, higher attrition rate, and the longer period of time needed to learn a football team’s playbook all contribute to making big trades in the NFL an offseason pursuit.

Because of that, as fun as they are to think about, I don’t write very many articles during the season about NFL trade possibilities. After Friday’s Percy Harvin trade, though, I’m opening up the floodgates.

There are a number of situations similar to the one Harvin was in with the Seahawks. Harvin was a recently acquired talent who had struggled to make the impact his team had expected, and his contract represented a future financial burden the Seahawks were happier to unload than they were to pay. There are many players like that around the league, and while some of them would be tough to deal, others would basically be out the door in a heartbeat under the right circumstances. I don’t know that any of them actually will be traded by October 28, when the NFL’s trade window shuts for the remainder of the season, but it’s a group of guys who might at least muster some consideration as possible Harvin-ing candidates.

Andy Levitre, Tennessee Titans

After quietly growing into one of the best two-way guards in football during his four years in Buffalo, Levitre hit the free-agent market in 2012 and was blown away by an offer from the Titans, who had made a serious commitment to improving the interior of their offensive line. Levitre got a six-year, $46.8 million deal to join Tennessee, which surely hoped to slot him alongside 2013 first-round pick Chance Warmack for years to come.

It simply hasn’t worked out. Levitre underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in the summer of 2013 before ever playing a game for the Titans, and he hasn’t looked above-average since then. He was up and down during an inconsistent 2013 season for the entire Tennessee line, but Levitre has been one of the worst offensive linemen in football this year. He has already committed six penalties for 50 yards and been responsible for five blown blocks that led to sacks, per Stats LLC, figures that would come close to matching his worst full-season performances in each category. There was plenty of chatter that the Titans would bench him for 2014 first-rounder Taylor Lewan, nominally a tackle, but Lewan had to fill in at left tackle after Michael Roos went down with a season-ending injury.

The Titans aren’t going anywhere this year, and given how bad Levitre has been, it would be a stretch to imagine he’ll be on the roster in 2015. That would seem to open up a window for a possible trade, preferably to a zone-blocking team that played a scheme similar to the one Levitre excelled in as a member of the Bills. The move would save the Titans $3.8 million on this year’s cap, and while they would save only $200,000 on their cap next year by virtue of a $6.3 million dead-money charge, it would get them out of the massive Levitre mistake by 2016.

Any team acquiring Levitre would basically be paying cash for a limited trial, just as the Jets are with Harvin. None of Levitre’s base salaries are guaranteed, so the acquiring team could cut him whenever it wanted without incurring any cap charges. As it is, a team trading for Levitre would pay that $3.8 million this year and basically get him on a four-year, $25.3 million deal with team options before each season. That’s an average of $6.3 million per year, which would still probably overpay Levitre, but it could be an opportunity for some team to buy low given Levitre’s previous stock.

Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers

Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars

These were a pair of moves for running backs that simply didn’t work out. Both Brown and Gerhart received three-year, $10.5 million contracts this offseason, with Gerhart’s deal having a slightly larger guarantee. Both teams could reasonably justify moving on from their offseason addition already.

The Chargers had their top two running backs get hurt, which opened up an opportunity for Brown, but he averaged an abysmal 2.1 yards per carry before suffering a concussion, which opened up the door for Branden Oliver to take over as San Diego’s primary back. Brown is still struggling to overcome his concussion, so a trade would be unlikely, but even when he comes back, he would be a third option behind Oliver and Ryan Mathews.

Gerhart was marginally better, averaging 2.6 yards per carry while showing little burst or vision. The Jags appear to have stumbled onto a starter in Denard Robinson, who had the first 100-yard game for a Jaguars back in 2014 with a 22-carry, 127-yard performance against the Browns on Sunday. They’ll also mess around with seventh-round pick Storm Johnson, but the Gerhart move always looked like a shortsighted one; it was a low-upside move to acquire a relatively known quantity at a position where it’s far easier to find high-upside prospects.

Both teams can erase their mistakes this offseason, but if there’s a trade market, they would be right to consider possible swap options. The Jags owe Gerhart a $500,000 bonus next year, but would otherwise send a two-year, $5.5 million deal to another team. The Chargers would save only about $335,000 by moving on from Brown before 2016, but it might behoove them to see his 2015 cap figure as a sunk cost and try to get a draft pick from a running-back-desperate team. They likely wouldn’t deal him to the division-rival Broncos, but could that be a landing spot for Gerhart? Could Brown, if he gets clearance after his concussion, be a logical option for the suddenly halfback-needy Bills?

Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins

The largest cap hit for any receiver is $17,250,000, and it belongs to Wallace, whom the Dolphins acquired in the Last Days of Ireland. Now-deposed Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland gave Wallace a five-year, $60 million contract during the 2012 offseason, guaranteeing him $30 million but presenting a structure that made sense for the Dolphins in the short term. Wallace’s contract had a cap hit of just $3.25 million in 2013 before loading up a massive raise in 2014 to $17.25 million, thanks to a leap of $14 million in base salary. That’s nice.

Wallace hasn’t been the same guy in Miami that he once looked like in Pittsburgh. While he did catch a key touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Sunday’s victory over the Bears, he has struggled to get on the same page with the former Texas A&M star during his time in Florida. Wallace’s line in Miami, prorated to a 16-game season, has him catching 75 passes for 937 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s functional, but hardly worth the highest positional cap hit in football.

The Dolphins will have to consider getting out of Wallace’s contract as early as 2015, a move that would be made easier if Jarvis Landry continues to show flashes of being a viable future weapon in the Miami offense. Just $3 million of Wallace’s base salary is guaranteed after this season, and if the Dolphins traded Wallace before the trade deadline or during the 2015 offseason, they would save $3.3 million on their 2015 cap and be free of the contract afterward.

It would be a hefty bag of cash for another team to pony up, at least in the short term. A trade would require the acquiring team to pay $8.9 million in base salary to Wallace over the remainder of the season, a figure that would come off Miami’s cap. After that, though, Wallace would have a relatively friendly deal, with a three-year, $32.8 million contract that had just the $3 million in 2015 guaranteed. A lot of teams could find that sort of cash for a 28-year-old who was one of the best deep threats in football with a better quarterback.

Because of that hefty base salary in 2014, though, a Wallace move would almost surely have to wait until the offseason.

Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams

Cook has been a perennial breakout tease, thanks to his freakish athleticism and a bevy of bad quarterbacks throwing him the football. No, really: As an NFL player, Cook has been thrown passes by Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Rusty Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Shaun Hill, and now Austin Davis. Cook’s most memorable act as a pro this year is shoving Davis on the sideline after dropping a pass in the end zone. Maybe it was Cook’s own turn to endure the disappointing year from Jared Cook in fantasy football.

The Rams will clear out a ton of cap space if they move on from Sam Bradford this offseason, but trading the underwhelming Cook would allow them to absorb some of the massive hit from the new Robert Quinn extension. Cook’s $7 million base salary for 2015 includes $5 million that is guaranteed, and the Rams would actually owe Cook just as much money to stay on the roster in 2015 as they would to release him. If they traded him, the Rams would be responsible for just $3 million in dead money on the 2015 cap.

So, then, a trade would make the most sense. A team dealing for Cook before the deadline would basically be picking him up on a two-year deal worth $8.8 million with $6.8 million of that guaranteed. That’s not a lot for a player with Cook’s potential, even if it looks he probably won’t ever deliver. Then, if he succeeds, the new team would have him on an unguaranteed two-year, $14 million deal. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a team like the Jaguars to see that as a worthwhile flyer on a possible red zone weapon and top target for Blake Bortles, even while Clay Harbor has served as a useful security blanket for the young starter.

Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After years of flirting with a big-money deal, Goldson finally got his wish in 2013 when the Bucs gave him a five-year, $41.3 million deal with $18 million guaranteed to come over from the 49ers. He has been among the worst safeties in football since he made the move. Goldson had so many illegal hits last year that he was suspended by the NFL and had to hire a personal tackling coach during the offseason. In 2014, he came back and looked out of sorts in missing tackles and showing little of his former self before suffering an ankle injury that kept him out for Tampa Bay’s last two games.

He’s another player with very little guaranteed money in his future. The Buccaneers have only $3 million of his $7.5 million base salary in 2015 guaranteed, and would be done with his contract altogether with a trade.

The flip side: If you’re a team struggling with your run defense in need of a big-hitting safety in or around the box, would you give Goldson the remaining $3.5 million in guaranteed money from his 2014 base salary and be willing to guarantee him at least $3 million of that $7.5 million base in 2015? That would be a bargain-basement price for the old Goldson. This new version, though, might not be worth half those figures. It would be awfully brave to try to buy low on Goldson right now, because there still might be a lot of low left to come.

Brandon Browner, New England Patriots

It would still be very premature to give up on Browner right now, given that he has played only one game with the Patriots, but the early reports aren’t exactly glowing. After serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Browner was left on the inactive list upon his return because he reportedly was struggling to learn the playbook. Browner made his Patriots debut against the Jets on Thursday night and started, but he committed two holding penalties and got beat at times by the Jets’ receivers, which isn’t exactly something you would want to put on your résumé.

Let’s suppose, just for a second, that the Patriots were discouraged with what they had seen from Browner and would at least consider the possibility of moving on. There’s a natural landing spot: his former stomping grounds in Seattle, where the Seahawks have struggled mightily on defense, including one flash point at the cornerback spot across from Richard Sherman.

The Seahawks could even use some of the cap space they cleared out by virtue of the Harvin deal to fit Browner into the lineup. Browner is signed to a three-year deal that mostly consists of large per-game roster bonuses that he would only receive if he were on the active roster. He would get a $2 million roster bonus if he’s on the roster on the first day of the 2015 season, so the Seahawks could trade for Browner and use him as a rental who already knows the scheme for the remainder of the 2014 season before reconvening about his long-term future with the team during the offseason. It seems unlikely, but then again, is it really any crazier than the Harvin trade?

There are other players who could fit under similar circumstances; the likes of Greg Jennings and Shaun Phillips could move teams if their current organizations wanted to cut bait and acquire a late-round draft pick, either before the trade deadline or during the 2015 offseason. None of these trades would really be superstar acquisitions, as most of the talents involved are former stars who look like mediocre role players nowadays, but sometimes, a change of scenery is all you need to succeed.

Filed Under: NFL, Andy Levitre, Tennessee Titans, Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers, Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars, Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins, Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams, Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brandon Browner, New England Patriots

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell