NFL News & Analysis

12 potential AFC trades ahead of the 2021 NFL trade deadline

Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks (13) makes a reception for a touchdown as Tennessee Titans free safety Kevin Byard (31) defends during the third quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL trade deadline a mere two weeks away — it's set for Tuesday, Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. ET — PFF has provided a comprehensive list of the many players who could be on the move.

We'll start with the AFC and take a look at 18 players who could be traded to teams in a position to make a deal.

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WR Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans

Hypothetical Trade: Brandin CooksCleveland Browns for a 2022 second-round pick, 2023 fifth-round pick

2021 Dead money: $2,500,000
2022 Dead money: $7,500,000
Cap savings: $1,741,825
Contract with acquiring team: Two years, $15,418,296

Cooks gets traded, shows up in a new city and immediately produces. That's just what he does. The veteran pass-catcher is one of just two wide receivers in NFL history with a 1,000-yard season with four different franchises, and he can go for a fifth with the Browns in 2022.

Cooks was dominant out of the gate in Houston with Tyrod Taylor as the starting quarterback, ranking second in the NFL with 23 receptions through three weeks. He didn't drop a single pass and hauled in four contested catches, all while generating a 13.8-yard average depth of target. 

Another angle on this trade: The Browns can save $15 million by cutting either wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry after this season, and Cooks can step right in as he always seems to be able to. A report from The Athletic’s Jeff Howe suggests this may be Beckham's final season in Cleveland. That's all the more reason for the Browns to make a push to maximize the 2021 season before decisions are necessary on a handful of key players, including quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Edge Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans

Hypothetical Trade: Whitney MercilusLos Angeles Chargers for a 2022 sixth-round pick (via Baltimore Ravens), 2023 sixth-round pick

Dead money: $3,500,000
Cap savings: $3,117,647
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $3,117,647

Before the 2021 season began, the Houston Texans and Whitney Mercilus agreed to convert his 2022 and 2023 contract years into void years, making him a free agent after the year. They also converted a substantial portion of Mercilus’ 2021 salary into a bonus, making him more affordable to any interested suitors. 

However, this also means that Mercilus is not a compensatory free agent, so Houston will get nothing for him if/when he signs elsewhere in free agency after the season. That's all the more reason for Houston to aggressively pursue a trade if possible.

New Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has brought the 3-4 defense with him to Los Angeles, which has been an adjustment for edge rusher Joey Bosa and others. In the reverse, new Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith runs a 4-3 now in Houston, a big change for Mercilus. This move gets Mercilus back playing more as an outside linebacker and gives him an opportunity to contend. 

Chargers edge rusher Kyler Fackrell has gotten off to a fast start in 2021, with his 16.9% pass-rush win rate ranking 38th among all edge rushers, but Los Angeles could certainly use another body on the edge opposite Bosa to command the defense's attention.

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CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Houston Texans

Hypothetical Trade: Vernon Hargreaves, 2023 seventh-round pick → Washington Football Team for a 2023 sixth-round pick

Dead money: $200,000
Cap savings: $1,196,732
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $1,196,732

One of the biggest storylines of the 2021 NFL season so far has been the lackluster Washington Football Team defense. Through Week 5, Washington’s 0.202 expected points added (EPA) allowed per dropback ranks sixth-worst in the NFL a year after the unit finished third-best. However, it has been a tale of two groups when it comes to defending the pass. 

Washington has the second-best team pass-rush grade — its 65.7% pass-rush win rate is tied for the best mark in the league — but the 30th-ranked coverage unit. The defensive back with the best coverage grade thus far is the versatile Kendall Fuller (63.3). However, his coverage grade playing on the outside in Weeks 1, 4 and 5 was 55.9 compared to 71.6 primarily in the slot in Weeks 2-3. 

Hargreaves was recently benched by the Houston Texans as they continue to shuffle around their secondary. Hargreaves and Football Team quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick crossed paths in Tampa Bay and battled in practice, so perhaps there’s a connection there. While third-round rookie Benjamin St-Juste has shown steady improvement so far on the outside, Hargreaves provides another chess piece on the back end. 

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RBs Rex Burkhead, David Johnson & Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans

Hypothetical Trade: Rex BurkheadKansas City Chiefs for a 2022 seventh-round pick

Dead money: $125,000
Cap savings: $670,000
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $544,117

The Chiefs will be without 2020 first-round pick running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire for a stretch following a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. Burkhead, currently not seeing a ton of touches in a committee in Houston, could be a perfect addition for Kansas City in the interim.

Burkhead has an 82.8 receiving grade and a 70.4 pass-blocking grade since 2017, with his 1.81 yards per route run since 2017 ranking tied for sixth among running backs with at least 25 targets over the span. His 12.9 yards after the catch per reception on screen passes ranks 13th over the span, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ 0.179 EPA per play on screen passes is double that of every other team in the NFL since 2017 except the Los Angeles Rams at 0.096.

This is a perfect match of talent and team need for a cheap flier.

CB Xavier Rhodes, Indianapolis Colts

Hypothetical Trade: Xavier RhodesDallas Cowboys for a 2023 fifth-round pick

Dead money: $0
Cap savings: $3,063,333
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $3,063,333

Here we have yet another AFC cornerback headed to an NFC team — this time, the red-hot Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys used second- and third-round picks in this year’s draft on cornerbacks, but the duo has combined to play just five snaps thus far, and No. 44 overall pick Kelvin Joseph is out with a groin injury. Perhaps Joseph can provide a much-needed boost to this secondary upon his return, but adding another veteran for a playoff push could go a long way. 

The signing of former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes as a free agent in 2020 was one of the success stories of last offseason, but Round 2 has gotten off to a bit of a shaky start with the Colts now 1-4. Rhodes earned a 77.5 coverage grade in 2020, as he and the Indianapolis defense both converted from playing primarily two-high safety coverages (Cover 2 and quarters) to instead playing a lot of single-high Cover 3 concepts. 

New Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is from the Cover 3 tree and could use another long, rangy cornerback like Rhodes in this young secondary. The Cowboys have left a receiver open on 56.6% of opposing dropbacks, the ninth-worst rate in the NFL so far this season. Dallas’ league-leading 10 interceptions — only three other teams have more than five interceptions through Week 5 — has so far hidden a secondary that at times can be picked apart.

RBs Marlon Mack & Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts

Hypothetical Trade: Marlon Mack, 2023 seventh-round pick → San Francisco 49ers for a 2023 sixth-round pick

Dead money: $1,000,000
Cap savings: $555,555
Contract with acquiring team: $555,555

The injury bug has once again hit the 49ers, particularly in their running back room.

Mack tore his Achilles in the 2020 season opener and signed a one-year, $2 million deal to remain with the Colts this offseason. With 2020 second-round pick Jonathan Taylor and recently extended Nyheim Hines commanding all of the backfield work, Mack is hoping to land elsewhere to show the league he’s still got it before he hits free agency healthy this time around.

Mack has requested a trade, per NFL Media’s Tom Pelissero, and the Colts have agreed to work to find a fit. Mack had over 1,000 rushing yards in a workhorse role in 2019, with almost 700 of those yards coming after contact which ranked 12th in the NFL. He has primarily been used as an inside zone runner in Indianapolis but would figure to adjust fine to Kyle Shanahan’s wide zone scheme. 

While Mack doesn’t bring much to the table as a receiver, the 49ers target wide receiver Deebo Samuel behind the line of scrimmage more often than any team does a wide receiver and find other creative ways to get playmakers in space shortly after the snap, relying less on running back screens. 

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Edge Kemoko Turay & Edge Tyquan Lewis, Indianapolis Colts

Hypothetical Trade: Kemoko TurayMinnesota Vikings for a 2022 sixth-round pick

Dead money: $468,801
Cap savings: $662,000
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $662,000

The young duo of edge defenders taken eight picks apart in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft have underwhelmed thus far in Indianapolis, and the Colts in many ways have looked to move on. They drafted edge defenders with their first two picks in the 2021 Draft, adding Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo

Paye got injured early in Week 3 but posted a 74.2 overall grade through two-plus games, and Odeyingbo was drafted while rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered while training for the 2021 NFL Draft. Nevertheless, they are the future on the edge for the Colts.

The three picks prior to Turay and Lewis in the Colts' 2018 draft class were guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard and tackle Braden Smith. Leonard and Smith signed top-of-market deals, and Nelson is expected to do the same next offseason. Nyheim Hines — the draft pick after Lewis — also signed a very respectable three-year, $18.6 million extension. 

Turay has played sparingly over three seasons and through Week 5 this year, with his career-high (383) coming as a rookie, but he has a career pressure rate of 14% and registered two sacks against the Miami Dolphins in Week 4. An ankle injury has limited Turay throughout his young career, but he flashes when healthy and excels at one very valuable skill: getting after the quarterback. 

Minnesota Vikings edge defender Danielle Hunter has 18 quarterback hurries through Week 5, while the rest of the Minnesota Vikings edge rushers have 19 combined. Turay provides another presence to deploy off the edge in obvious passing situations as Minnesota works to climb back into the NFC playoff hunt.

T Cam Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

Hypothetical Trade: Cam RobinsonCarolina Panthers for a 2022 fifth-round pick, 2023 fifth-round pick

Dead money: $0
Cap savings: $7,641,111
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $7,641,111

Robinson was the most surprising recipient of the franchise tag prior to the 2021 season, and the Jacksonville Jaguars may have tipped their hand that they still plan to move on from him after selecting Stanford left tackle Walker Little with the No. 45 overall pick in this year’s draft. 

For the fifth season in a row, Robinson is grading between 53.0 and 63.4 overall, including pass-blocking grades between 60.0 and 69.0 and run-blocking grades below 55.0.

With Little not having played competitive football in almost two years due to injuries and COVID-19, it made sense to keep a known entity in Robinson who has a floor in pass protection you’re comfortable with as you bring in Trevor Lawrence. Now, maybe the Jaguars look to turn the page and save some money to spend in free agency. 

The Panthers have already been extremely aggressive in trading for cornerbacks C.J. Henderson from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots as they look to turn their defense into one of the league’s elite units. Nevertheless, they still sit at fourth in 2021 cap space remaining and have some room on their books going forward. 

Cap space isn’t the only issue, as Carolina has already traded away its 2022 second-, third- and fourth-round picks. The valuation here on a potential rental is simple. If Carolina were to not retain Robinson after the 2021 season, he would hit free agency as a compensatory free agent. He would likely sign a contract with a fourth-round compensatory value for 2023. A 2022 fifth-round pick is treated as equal to a 2023 fourth, and then Carolina throws in a future fifth as well to sweeten the deal.

With all of that said, Carolina needs a solution at left tackle, and moving Taylor Moton over is likely not the best answer. Moton had his lowest-graded game of the season in Week 5 at left tackle, and rookie Brady Christensen — who played left tackle at BYU — is a bit undersized and has allowed six pressures at right tackle. Quarterback Sam Darnold has eight turnover-worthy plays so far this season, and six occurred when pressured. The Panthers have also allowed the fifth-most pressures in the NFL (77).

The move could make sense in the long term as well if Carolina does want to retain Robinson. With Taylor Moton being a top-five paid right tackle, the Panthers could balance that out by signing Robinson to a mid-tier deal at left tackle. Christensen could continue to get work at guard and be another valuable asset as a lineman who can kick outside to right tackle if needed. 

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WR Marvin Jones Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Hypothetical Trade: Marvin Jones Jr.Kansas City Chiefs for 2022 fourth-round pick, 2023 seventh-round pick

2021 Dead money: $2,712,500
2022 Dead money: $2,712,500
Cap savings: $1,238,399
Contract with acquiring team: Two years, $6,738,399

The Chiefs did recently sign wide receiver Josh Gordon, but the lack of a third weapon in the passing game has long been a thorn in Kansas City’s side.

PFF’s Eric Eager illustrated in several ways how a WR3's performance can be most closely correlated with expected points added per dropback, and the effect is magnified in the playoffs. 

Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill have commanded 847 regular-season targets since 2018, over 100 more than the next highest duo over the span. Kelce ranks fourth in the NFL with 449 targets, and Hill is ninth with 398. 

Many of Kansas City’s NFC foes — if they reach the Super Bowl for the third year in a row — are loaded with tertiary receiving weapons. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals all have four receiving weapons with a better receiving grade thus far in 2021 than the Chiefs’ third-highest graded receiver (Mecole Hardman at 66.9). 

Jones departed from the bumpy Matt Patricia era in Detroit and landed in the smooth-sailing Urban Meyer operation down in Jacksonville, but perhaps he wants to contend for a title before he calls it a career. Jones has been incredibly consistent, grading between 71.0 and 76.0 in each of his past six seasons. While he’s still a capable outside wide receiver, he has also lined up in the slot on 29.1% of receiving snaps since 2018, which could perhaps make him more attractive to head coach Andy Reid as a versatile weapon.

Jones has great hands downfield, with the ninth-most contested catches among wide receivers since 2018 (44) and the eighth-best rate of converting contested targets into receptions (59.5%).

Jones’ 13.8-yard average depth of target is a top-20 mark among wide receivers with at least 100 targets since 2018. He brings a different skill set to the table than Hill and Kelce and could be the perfect third receiving option. Importantly to Kansas City, Jacksonville signed Jones to a phenomenal value two-year deal that extends through 2022.

C Ted Karras, New England Patriots

Hypothetical Trade: Ted KarrasCincinnati Bengals for a 2022 seventh-round pick

Dead money: $1,000,000
Cap savings: $833,333
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $833,333

Bill Belichick maintained a dynasty for two decades largely on the understanding that it’s better to be early than late on a personnel move. The New England Patriots made the tough decision to move on from 2019 Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Stephon Gilmore after the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on an extension, and here they continue to make small moves to prepare for another important offseason in 2022. 

Karras ending up in New England this season after a stint with the Miami Dolphins was a strange circumstance, with New England Patriots incumbent starting center David Andrews also being a free agent. The belief in league circles was that one of Andrews or Karras would sign with the Miami Dolphins and Brian Flores. Instead, both landed in New England.

Although it comes on a small sample size, Karras has the eighth-best pass-blocking grade among interior offensive linemen through Week 5 — an 81.3 grade on 57 pass-blocking snaps — after splitting time at left and right guard. 

Frankly, Karras is too good to not be starting somewhere. The Bengals robbed the New York Giants blind in trading away 2018 first-round pick center Billy Price, but starter Trey Hopkins tore his ACL in Week 17 of 2020 and may need some more time to get back to 100%. Hopkins has a 31.9 pass-blocking grade through Week 5 in 2021, over thirty points lower than any season in his career since 2016.

The downside is minimal if anything, as Karras can also serve as a quality reserve interior offensive lineman. Cincinnati acquired a conditional seventh-round pick from the Giants in the Price trade, so the team could end up with interior defensive lineman B.J. Hill and interior offensive lineman Ted Karras for a swap of seventh-rounders. If the Bengals want to keep quarterback Joe Burrow upright and healthy and make a serious playoff push, beefing up their interior could be the key.

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S Terrell Edmunds & CB Joe Haden, Pittsburgh Steelers

Hypothetical Trade: Joe Haden, 2022 seventh-round pick → Green Bay Packers for a 2022 fifth-round pick

Dead money: $8,575,000
Cap savings: $3,888,889
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $3,888,889

The Green Bay Packers were reportedly the preferred destination of new Carolina Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but the Panthers were able to step up and take on Gilmore’s full $5.8 remaining 2021 compensation.

Haden isn’t owed much less, at roughly $3.9 million, but perhaps Green Bay can convince Pittsburgh to retain some of Haden’s salary, much like they did with the Houston Texans in the Randall Cobb trade. 

Green Bay was in the cornerback market even before their star Jaire Alexander landed on injured reserve with a shoulder issue that has the potential to knock him out for the season if surgery is ultimately necessary. The Packers did invest their first-round pick in former Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, but if they’re serious about a deep playoff push for the #LastDance, an addition may be necessary to contain the NFC playoff contenders loaded with receiving weapons. 

Haden has a solid 64.0 coverage grade in his 12th NFL season, but after seeking an extension this offseason that Pittsburgh declined to offer, perhaps both sides can get a jumpstart on their 2022 offseason. The Steelers traded for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who has barely seen the field, and they also have some young players in the fold like 2020 UDFA James Pierre, who has earned a 71.4 coverage grade so far in 2021.

WR James Washington & TE Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers

Hypothetical Trade: Eric EbronSan Francisco 49ers for a 2023 fifth-round pick

2021 Dead money: $3,476,000
2022 Dead money: $3,904,000
Cap savings: $622,222
Contract with acquiring team: One year, $622,222

For the second season in a row, 49ers star tight end George Kittle has landed on injured reserve. In 2020, San Francisco had Jordan Reed in the fold, and the veteran was productive when called upon, earning a 70.0 receiving grade and adding another dimension lining up in the slot almost twice as often as Kittle (65.8% to 37.1%). When Ebron was with the Colts in 2018-19 and much more productive, he lined up in the slot around 60% of the time. 

Ebron’s 2021 has been a rough go, with his 42.0 receiving grade the worst of his career by almost 15 points. Second-round rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth out of Penn State is already out-targeting Ebron and has made a lot more of his opportunities with 158 receiving yards to Ebron’s 47. 

The loss of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will in theory mean more targets over the middle headed Ebron’s way, but Ben Roethlisberger has largely avoided throwing over the middle of the field all season. Ebron would perhaps get to start for a stretch while Kittle is on the mend and then eventually be the second tight end in two tight end sets as a pass-catcher with nowhere near the blocking ability of Kittle. 

This scenario would allow the 49ers to keep pace with the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals, who recently made a big move for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz


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