Key players to watch at NFL trade deadline

Getty Images

A few notes on why the trade deadline matters this year, and why I think teams will pursue deals hard:

First, a little history. The NFL trade deadline was a snoozer a few years ago, even after it was pushed back two weeks (in 2012, from Week 6 to Week 8) to encourage movement. Trades by season within two weeks of the deadline, with impact players dealt in parentheses:

2012: 2 (none)
2013: 2 (none)
2014: 4 (none)
2015: 1 (none)
2016: 5 (Kyle Van NoyJamie Collins)
2017: 7 (Jimmy Garoppolo, Duane Brown)
2018: 9 (Amari Cooper)
2019: 12 (Jalen RamseyMarcus Peters)

COVID has accelerated the trade deadline from Nov. 3 to this Thursday, for many teams. When Yannick Ngakoue went from Minnesota to Baltimore for a third-round pick and a conditional fifth, Baltimore insisted on the deal getting done so Ngakoue would be in Maryland by last Thursday night. Why was this so important? Because under the current COVID rules, a player needs to test negative five straight days and be bubbled in his new city before he can take part fully in team activities. The Ravens, who were on their bye over the weekend, wanted Ngakoue to have a full week of participation and practice before they faced division rival Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead next Sunday. So the deal got done Thursday, Ngakoue flew to Baltimore that night, and he had his first COVID test Friday. Test four is today, test five Tuesday, and if he passes all tests, he could walk into the Ravens facility for the first time Wednesday morning and be part of the game plan for the big Steeler game next Sunday.

As for how this affects the other 31 teams: The trade deadline is Nov. 3. But if a team wants a player to get in a full week of work and be available to play in Week 9, the deadline is really Oct. 29—this Thursday. That would give a hustling team time to get the player his five consecutive daily COVID tests and be with the new team for a full practice week before the game in Week 9.

The 2021 salary cap will play a part in deals. Let’s use Ngakoue as an example for how a team improves its cap situation in what could be a dire year for the cap in 2021. The cap has been increasing about $10 million a year for the past several seasons, and teams have had built-in expectations to plan future salaries. This year’s cap is $198.2 million. But the league and players association agreed this year, because league revenues will be down significantly in the COVID economy, that the cap could drop to $175 million for 2021. That, of course, would be a shock to lots of teams’ bottom lines. The Saints and Eagles, per the Over The Cap, are on the books each for about $260 million in 2021 cap spending; major surgery on their caps was already on the agenda after this season, and now it’ll be tougher for them.

Back to the Ngakoue deal. As of last Monday, Ngakoue was due $5.2 million in salary for the rest of the 2020 season. By offloading that $5.2 million to the Ravens, the Vikings can add that to their 2021 cap, thus giving them $5.2 million more to spend. A word of caution: It’s not certain the league will have a $175-million cap in 2021, or whether it will change if, say, the league decides that a $23-million collapse of the cap will be too much of a hardship for teams, or if there’s a sudden windfall of cash the league might not have seen coming. Whatever, the Vikings will have $5 million more to work with in 2021 because of this deal. “That’s why I think you could see a lot of trades,” one GM told me the other day. “If you can find a team to take salary, that becomes much more of a motivator than in a normal year.”

Julio Jones very likely won’t be moved. Source close to the situation told me, “Forget it.” Though his next 3.5 years have manageable salaries ($6.58 million to finish this year, then $15.3 million, $11.5 million, $11.5 million), dealing Jones would sink the 2021 cap. According to Over The Cap, dealing Jones would cause $23.3 million in dead money to hit the 2021 cap—offset slightly by the $6.6 million they’d save in 2020 salary by dealing him. All a moot point.

Who will be? In calls around the league, the toughest commodity to buy this trading season is tackle. The position is so important, with so few playing at a high level who might  be available. The best one: Minnesota’s Riley Reiff, who would cost an acquiring team $3.5 million for the rest of this season with one more year left on his contract at a reasonable $11.7 million in 2021

• Guards can be had for a price: Kevin Zeitler of the Giants would cost $5.9 million for the rest of 2020.

• Tight ends (David NjokuEvan Engram) at reasonable prices are out there.

• Best player/best value who I’d pursue if I were the pass-rush-needy Seahawks or Niners or Patriots: Washington outside ’backer Ryan Kerrigan, due $6.8 million for the last 10 weeks of his contract, averages 9.9 sacks a year in his career, always available (four games missed due to injury in 10 seasons), great team guy. A perfect stretch-run add for a contender.

• As for Saints wideout Michael Thomas, I’d watch that situation. Doesn’t seem he took his one-game ban for punching a teammate well, and now he’s got a hamstring issue. Problem is, even if the Saints would listen, the cost would be at least a first-round pick. But four years at $62 million for a player of his caliber? Reasonable.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.