Key players to watch at NFL trade deadline

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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.

NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column