We are less one week out from the NFL trade deadline, with Thursday’s deal sending Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for multiple draft picks perhaps launching what will be an active trade period. Which struggling teams will look to make key additions, and which will unload key players with an eye toward next season and beyond? ESPN’s NFL Insiders Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler consider those questions below, and share everything else they’re hearing as the deadline nears.
But there’s more, as Graz and Fowler offer a longer-lens look at the McCaffrey trade’s impact on the Niners, size up the second-half prospects for the struggling Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and offer their requisite upset picks and fantasy football tips for a week that includes Sunday’s Broncos/Jaguars game from London, to be seen exclusively on ESPN+ at 9:30 a.m. ET:
Trade deadline buzz | Packers trades?
Bucs’ struggles | CMC impact | Upsets
Fantasy start/sit | Everything we’re hearing
We’re less than a week out from the trade deadline: What have you heard on players who could get dealt?
Graziano: Jeremy, it sounds to me like a lot of people are watching the Broncos closely, with players such as Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Bradley Chubb and Melvin Gordon III drawing various levels of interest. It’s possible the Broncos are waiting to see what happens with their game Sunday in London before deciding whether to trade away players, because things are already fragile there for first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett and a give-up move would portend bad things for him. But if the Broncos lose to the Jaguars this week, next Monday and Tuesday could be very interesting around there.
Fowler: No doubt about it, Dan. Teams are circling Denver, believing GM George Paton is willing to part with multiple players. Jeudy is considered available, and the Broncos have heavy depth at tight end, which brings Albert Okwuegbunam’s future into focus. Several key defenders — Dre’Mont Jones and Chubb come to mind — are balling out in contract years yet remain unpaid, while Russell Wilson takes up a quarter of the salary cap and ranks 29th in QBR. They have every right to be frustrated, which could drive some movement. I’ve earmarked several 2-5 teams as potentially active over the next week, Dan, including the Browns, Steelers and, of course, the Panthers. Which one jumps into the fray first?
Graziano: Well, the answer is already the Panthers, who traded Robbie Anderson and Christian McCaffrey last week. The Steelers seem to be pretty stubborn about committing to a rebuild, though I wonder if someone offers enough for someone such as Chase Claypool to blow them away. The Browns have Deshaun Watson coming back in four weeks to play QB, so I think they’re incentivized to try to hang in the race if they can. I wonder if this weekend’s results will change teams’ opinions of themselves on whether they’re buyers or sellers. Funny you mention Okwuegbunam, though, because someone told me Monday not to be surprised if the Packers’ solution at receiver ended up being a tight end. My first thought was Mike Gesicki, but if he’s not a fit in Mike McDaniel’s offense in Miami, he probably isn’t a fit in Matt LaFleur’s in Green Bay. Of course, I guess you could say the same about Okwuegbunam vis-a-vis LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett.
Anyway, I’m fascinated to see whether the Packers go outside of their comfort zone and make a move for a pass catcher. I think injuries to Christian Watson, Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard might make it more likely. One interesting name I heard for them was A.J. Green, who doesn’t seem to be a factor for Arizona and would bring a veteran presence the Green Bay WR room doesn’t have right now.
Fowler: Yeah, A.J. Green could be a low-cost add for a team that doesn’t want to relinquish, but he’s 34 and most likely viewed as a depressed asset. It’s clear Green Bay is taking a hard look at its options and could end up with a new playmaker by Tuesday. Cleveland is firmly on my radar. The Browns are low-key unhappy with the performance of several key players. Teams I’ve talked to believe Kareem Hunt is available for a fourth-round pick. Hunt’s $1.35-million salary is attractive; his $200,000 per-game roster bonuses are not. But the Browns could always restructure those bonuses into a signing bonus to make him more trade friendly. Cleveland has received multiple calls on cornerback Greedy Williams, but nothing is imminent there. So, while I expect Cleveland to be thoughtful and calculated in what it does, there’s also a feeling that trading away a few veteran players might not be so bad. The schedule doesn’t get much easier with Cincinnati, Miami and Buffalo on the slate. The Rams are lurking on the pass-rush market, I’m told. They were in heavy on Brian Burns. Could Les Snead strike again?
Ryan Clark breaks down why the Packers’ championship hopes are over.
What’s a trade the Packers could make in the next week to help Aaron Rodgers?
Fowler: Jerry Jeudy for a third-round pick. Getting a vertical threat is attainable. Offer Denver a Day 2 pick — or a package of multiple, later picks — and make the Broncos say no. Jeudy is on the third year of his rookie deal, so cost isn’t a major issue. Houston’s Brandin Cooks would be an ideal fit, too. Houston appears ready to go younger (again), and though Cooks is due $18 million in guaranteed money next year, things are dire in Green Bay.
Graziano: I kind of talked about it above, but the Packers really don’t make these kinds of moves. They dip their toe in the water every year about this time but ultimately resist the urge to trade picks for rental players. I’m curious whether they change that up this year, given how dire their situation is, and if they can’t get the vertical threat you’re talking about, Jeremy, I wonder if they look for a veteran like A.J. Green to bring some experience to their group. If I had to bet one way or the other, I’d still bet they DON’T make a trade for a veteran, because it seems they never do. But this year’s circumstances definitely feel different.
Stephen A. Smith says he doesn’t expect to see Tom Brady on a football field after this season.
The Bucs are going to win the NFC South … right? What’s going on in Tampa?
Graziano: I think they will, because I don’t know who else can. But I don’t like anything about what’s going on down there right now. The defense has been disappointing, and the offense is brutally one-dimensional behind a beaten-up line that Tom Brady clearly doesn’t trust. This week’s conversation would be completely different if Mike Evans had just caught that long, would-be touchdown pass early in Sunday’s game, but what REALLY alarmed me is what Evans said after the game. He said, “I saw the light go out of us” after the drop. I mean, that can’t happen. Not in the first quarter for a team with these kinds of aspirations and veteran leadership.
Fowler: What’s shocking is how Tampa looks checked out right now, Dan, like they can’t wait for the offseason. Talking to a few scouts, they see a combination of bad offensive line play, Brady not trusting that offensive line, lack of continuity with new receivers (Julio Jones is always hurt, and Russell Gage hasn’t quite hit it off with Brady yet) and … they desperately miss Rob Gronkowski. That’s why it wouldn’t shock to see Tampa look at the tight end trade market. The defense has been good for a while and should recover from a bad few weeks. But as one NFC exec told me … after eight months of relentless Brady headlines, that has to permeate your locker room, right?
Christian McCaffrey speaks following the 49ers’ 44-23 defeat to the Chiefs.
Fill in the blank: With Christian McCaffrey, the 49ers are the NFC’s ____-best team
Fowler: They are the fifth-best team, somewhere behind Philly, Dallas, Minnesota and maybe one other. It feels like anything can happen in the NFC, with the past two Super Bowl winners (Rams and Bucs) sitting on three wins, alongside the Packers and 49ers. This is a cluster that must be sorted out. And I’m bullish on Seattle, which has improved its defense the past two weeks. So, San Francisco has a lot to overcome, and it has been depleted injury-wise, but no team has more star power.
Graziano: “Fifth” was the answer I was going with here, too. I’m sorry, but they’re still very average at the most important position, and no matter how much talent you put around Jimmy Garoppolo, you’re still going to have times when you need him to elevate his play beyond where he can. You can’t go through a whole season and never find yourself in a position where he’s going to get you beaten with a crummy throw, or by holding the ball too long and getting sacked out of field goal range. Kyle Shanahan’s tenure in San Francisco so far has been all about finding a way to build a team that can overcome its own quarterback, and with Trey Lance hurt he’s right back to where he always has been. They are a good-not-great team.
What’s your top upset pick for Week 8?
Graziano: Giants (+3) over Seahawks. Dude, I am in on the Giants. I went through about a three-year stretch when my one hard-and-fast rule in my weekly picks was “Never pick the Giants.” I’m off that. I’ve picked them to win a couple of times this year, including last week in Jacksonville, and I like them to go to Seattle and find a way this week. The Seahawks are allowing the third-most rushing yards per game of any team in the league, which plays right into the way the Giants want to operate their offense. I’m looking for another big day for Daniel Jones as a runner and for the Giants to find a way in the fourth quarter the way they’ve been finding a way all year. No idea how long they can sustain this, but for this week at least, I have the Giants to get to 7-1.
Fowler: Steelers (+11) over Eagles. This is a massive over to cover, but the Steelers have shown signs of life the past two weeks, and Kenny Pickett looked better than the 10-point outing in Sunday night’s loss to Miami indicates. He can play. He’s a gamer. Cut the careless interceptions and the Steelers should be in just about every game. Just can’t see Pittsburgh falling to 2-6. So the Steelers’ defense will tighten up and clog rushing lanes for Jalen Hurts and the running game.
What’s your fantasy football call of the week?
Fowler: Play Ravens RB Gus Edwards. Edwards looked spry after a 13-month absence due to a torn ACL, registering 66 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries against Cleveland. He must prove reliable on back-to-back weeks but looks like an upgrade over Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill. And Baltimore always finds a way to run the ball efficiently in Greg Roman’s system.
Graziano: Carolina WR DJ Moore has another big game. The Falcons are giving up the most fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers. They’re banged up in the secondary, they just got absolutely dominated by the Bengals’ wideouts, and it’s clear Carolina wants the ball in Moore’s hands. Just because Baker Mayfield couldn’t get it there reliably doesn’t mean Moore stopped being a part of the game plan. I think last week was the start of a hot streak, and that this week could be even hotter.
Let’s empty your notebooks. What else are you hearing this week?
Things are already feeling sticky in Denver for first-year coach Hackett. There’s even chatter in some league circles that his job could be on the line with this Sunday’s game against the Jaguars in London (which can be seen exclusively on ESPN+, by the way). I’m not sure I fully buy that Sunday is a make-or-break game for Hackett, because it would be absolutely bizarre for a non-Urban Meyer head coach to be fired at the midway point of his first season. But things haven’t gone well there, and if the Broncos fall to 2-6, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some sort of action, like a call for some changes on the staff or a rearranging of responsibilities. Hackett already has added a game management consultant to the staff since the season started; could he do something like cede playcalling to another coach on the staff so he can focus more on head-coaching responsibilities? Hackett has had his struggles for sure, but the overall situation in Denver feels like a mess, with a ridiculous run of injuries and the unfortunate coincidence that four of the Broncos’ first six games happened to be prime-time, standalone games that intensified the spotlight on their issues. The Broncos’ new ownership group wasn’t in place when Hackett was hired in January, which lends some legitimacy to the speculation about his status. And the fact quarterback Russell Wilson signed a five-year contract extension right before the season started (even though there were still two years left on his previous deal) sort of insulates him against blame and consequence. It might not be fair for Hackett to take the fall for everything that has gone wrong in Denver in such a short period of time, but these things don’t always get determined by what is or isn’t fair. Again, I am not saying Hackett is in danger of losing his job this week or even before the end of the season. But I don’t think it’s out of the question, and at this point it seems as if things would have to turn around for the Broncos in the win/loss department if he wants to be back for a second season in 2023.
Things also are ugly behind the scenes in Indianapolis, where the big news of the week was obviously the benching of veteran QB Matt Ryan for untested Sam Ehlinger. No one is going to come out to say this decision was driven by team owner Jim Irsay, but it sounds, based on the conversations I’ve had, that Irsay had a very strong influence here. Sources have said for weeks now that Irsay is very upset about the way this season has begun for the Colts, especially on the heels of last year’s late-season flameout, and that there have been several high-level meetings that have involved Irsay, GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich. In those meetings, sources said, Irsay has suggested a look at Ehlinger as a potential solution, given his mobility and the suddenly suspect state of the Colts’ offensive line. My sense is that, if the team hadn’t scored 34 points in a victory over Jacksonville in Week 6, Ehlinger might have even started this past week’s game against Tennessee. But after the second flop in four weeks against the division-rival Titans, the decision was made to switch quarterbacks. Don’t expect to see Ryan play for the Colts again this season, either. He has a $12 million salary guarantee for next year and an additional $17 million guaranteed against injury. Putting him back into a game and risking a season-ending injury would put the Colts at risk of owing Ryan $29 million next year instead of “just” the $12 million they already do.
Last week in this space, we were asked the question of whether we thought Daniel Jones would be back as the Giants’ quarterback in 2023. I said probably not, because it’s going to be tempting for new GM Joe Schoen to reset the contract clock with a rookie rather than figure out the right contract for Jones off one good year. But here’s a potential solution, assuming Jones gets through this year healthy and the Giants end up winning too many games to secure a high draft pick: the transition tag. Franchising Jones probably would cost the Giants something in the neighborhood of $32 million next year and give them a July 15 deadline for negotiating a long-term deal. But the transition tag for QBs should be only around $27 million to $28 million, or about $5 million more than his fifth-year option (which they declined) would have cost. The transition tag also does NOT carry the same July 15 deadline the franchise tag carries, which means the Giants would have all season to talk with Jones about a contract extension and work something out if he continued to play well. Designating someone a transition player allows him to solicit offer sheets from other teams and gives the team the right to match that offer sheet to keep him. The downside is there’s no draft pick compensation if the team decide not to match when the player signs elsewhere, but I’m not sure there’s another team in the league that’d be a threat to sign Jones to a contract that’s better than the Giants would be willing to give him. The transition tag could be a good short-term compromise if the Giants come out of this season high enough on Jones to give him another shot but not quite convinced enough to sign him long term.
Dan, the Matt Ryan side of the Colts’ QB chaos can’t go underplayed; there’s a real possibility Ryan is done. I’m told Ryan, upon agreeing to the Indy trade, had considered the dynamics that, if this were his last stop and proved to be a one-and-done, then he essentially has a $12-million pension waiting for him in 2023 (the guarantee you mention above). Quasi-retirement will be an option I expect Ryan, 37, to at least consider. Scouts have lamented Ryan’s physical deterioration for a few years now. And surely Indy considered those additional injury guarantees of $17 million if Ryan got hurt playing extended snaps and couldn’t pass a physical at the new league year. I don’t think that was the sole catalyst for the benching, but guaranteed money is almost always a factor, especially at the ownership level. Also, Indy does believe Ehlinger is ready for the moment and carries himself like an NFL quarterback. Can he make the throws in live action? They honestly don’t know. But they are willing to find out, in part because of Ryan’s penchant for losing the ball (nine interceptions, 11 fumbles). The Colts believe their defense will keep them in every game if they can trim the turnover total. Privately, the Colts are feeling the losses of left tackle Anthony Castonzo (retirement in 2021) and right guard Mark Glowinski (signed with Giants in free agency). Those two spots have been problematic all year and let Ryan down in a big way.
The Eagles are always a factor at the trade deadline. GM Howie Roseman is on the attack this time of year, looking for bargains. Teams say the Eagles are looking for pass-rush help after the loss of Derek Barnett to injury. The top pass-rusher implicated in trade deals is Burns, but the Panthers have turned down massive offers, which is their way of saying they’re keeping him. (One GM told me the minimum trade package for Burns is two first-rounders, which is wild — and good for Burns’ contract extension projections). Chicago’s Robert Quinn could be a good midrange option to consider here. But it’s noteworthy that Chicago made clear privately as of late last week that it wasn’t moving Quinn. Then, the Bears went ahead and rocked New England 33-14 to climb to 3-4. So, perhaps Chicago stays put on him. An Eagles player that still has trade interest is left tackle Andre Dillard. Teams I’ve talked to believe the Eagles would move him but need a good pick to do so, most likely a third-rounder. … In other NFC East trade news, Commanders DT Daron Payne’s name has circulated, but I continue to hear Washington does not have plans to trade him.
A few injury updates: Seattle doesn’t have a firm timetable on DK Metcalf’s return from a patellar tendon injury, but he could miss this week. As one team source noted, it’s all about how Metcalf’s body heals, and because Metcalf is “built like Superman,” he could return sooner than others would. And the fact it’s not a structural issue or torn ligament is a positive. Look for Marquise Goodwin, building off his two-touchdown performance in Week 7, to help offset the loss of Metcalf in the red zone. … The Jets aren’t hard-pressed to make a trade for an offensive lineman after losing yet another starter, Alijah Vera-Tucker. They are expecting George Fant back soon, and eventually Max Mitchell, who acquitted himself well through the first four games, will also be back from IR. The Jets have been pleased with recent addition Mike Remmers, too. So, they could swing a trade if they find good value but aren’t clamoring to do so.