Browns and Texans break new ground in the NFL trade game

It’s official: Brock Osweiler is the anti-quarterback. So pitiful was his level of play last year after signing a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed that the Texans and Browns worked out a fairly ground-breaking trade.

There are a few draft picks involved but, basically, it amounts to this: Houston gave Cleveland a second-round pick in this year’s draft in exchange for the Browns taking on Osweiler’s gargantuan contract. In a way, this is a win-win for both parties. The Arizona State product’s $16 million salary for next season is fully guaranteed, but Cleveland doesn’t care. It has so much cap room that it can afford to absorb the cap hit from Osweiler’s release. (Cleveland will… ahem… attempt to trade Osweiler, and will release him if they can’t find any suitors. Now that’s what I call leverage!) The Browns don’t care for or about Osweiler, which given their QB situation, is sadly revealing about the extent to which the Oz has turned off the rest of the NFL with his 2016 performance. What Cleveland really wanted was that second-round pick, and they basically got it for free, given that they have more cap room than they could possibly hope to use on free agents and draft picks.

Denver Broncos vs. Houston Texans, NFL Week 7

Meanwhile, Houston gains significant cap flexibility and probably can make a move for Tony Romo without having to convince him to play for a discount (which Denver will have to do). Injury-prone or not, the soon-to-be former Cowboy will command top dollar in a league where Mike Glennon can make $15 million for a team that willingly released Jay Cutler.

Houston’s new-found cap room should now make them the favourite in the race to acquire Romo, unless he’s really hellbent on playing for Denver. The Broncos and Texans are remarkably similar: they have an interesting set of skill positions players but serious problems on the offensive line; they each have one of league’s two best defensive players anchoring a really good defensive unit; and they’ll both try to keep Romo’s contractual demands in check by arguing that they’re completely OK moving forward with the young quarterback they already have on their roster. To this argument, Romo’s people will correctly respond something along the lines of, “if that were completely true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

If I’m Romo, the Texans have a slight edge for two reasons. First, they can afford to pay him better. Denver’s approach has been to present the opportunity to play for them as a favour, and to say that they’d welcome Romo if he’ll agree to play for a discount in exchange for a better shot at winning. But is it actually a better shot? Denver had run defence issues last year, and they missed the playoffs because they play in what was suddenly a brutally competitive AFC West, which reminds me… Second, the Texans play in the AFC South. The Colts have a lot of money tied up with quarterback Andrew Luck and a lot more owed to average starters they painfully overrated at the time when they signed them. The Titans showed promise last season, but still have to take that next step. Meanwhile, of course, the Jaguars are a complete dumpster fire, and represent two Ws on the schedule before the season even begins. All this to say that, for a healthy Romo, playing for the Texans is a much easier road to home-field advantage in the playoffs than running through the Oakland-L.A-KC gauntlet twice.

Of course, Romo is the last quarterback you want to have on a team with a subpar offensive line, and so Houston might find itself wishing it still had that second-round pick it giftwrapped for the Browns to convince them to take the Osweiler contract off their books. This sort of trade might also become a semi-regular occurrence in the NFL, but for now, the Texans look bad for having to compete with the team from which they “pried away” Brock Osweiler a year ago in order to acquire his replacement.

While we’re here, I wish to take a moment to make fun of the first two truly awful contracts of this year’s free agency period. What makes them even funnier is that they were both given away by the same team. I’m looking at you, Miami Dolphins!!!

Kenny Stills was their third wideout last year, and he caught a career-high nine touchdowns. If that was their justification for giving him a $32-million contract with 20 of these millions guaranteed, I’d like to offer my services to be their next general manager. Who do they think they have on their hands, here? Emmanuel Sanders? All the advanced stats suggest Stills is in line for a regression next year, and the Dolphins traded three picks during the 2016 draft to come up and select Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo in the second round. Have they already labelled Carroo a bust?

Now, they’ve frozenhim out of any playing time barring injuries, and they’ll pay DeSean Jackson money for Stills, who’s unlikely to give them an appreciable return on their investment. And their bad judgement doesn’t stop there.

With the catastrophic failure of Mario Williams, their marquee free agent defensive lineman from last season, the Phins made sure they wouldn’t lose defensive end Andre Branch, who posted an honest 5.5 sacks in rotational duty last season. To keep Branch, they gave him a three-year, $27 million contract, which seems like a terrific move if you’ve had a head injury.

Now, the exact figures of the contract have yet to come out, and so the less guaranteed money, the less risky the deal. However, we’re talking nine million per year, a comically large sum, for a player who was a bust for the Jaguars before posting decent-but-not-great statistics playing next to Hall-of-Fame talents Ndamokung Suh and Cameron Wake.

Moreover, if the Dolphins plan on making Branch a starter next season, they’ll be reminded that he’s brutally undersized when it comes to holding up against the run, and that having to do so may wear him down and make him less effective on his pass rush.

These moves truly make you question what kind of team Mike Tannenbaum thinks he has here. Yes, the Dolphins made the playoffs, but it wasn’t because they were extremely good. They got a wild card spot no one else seemed to want, and they did so by going a striking 8-2 in one-score games. Sure, because that’s happening again…

Whatever you do, Miami, please don’t change! You are an endless source of entertainment.


NFL Draft Top 10 storyline overview, or an exercise in overthinking

The 2016 NFL draft is in 10 days and, as usual, the storylines are legion. Taking up most of the spotlight are the Rams, who have acquired the first overall pick in a blockbuster trade with the Titans that had people thinking back to 2012, when the Rams traded out of the second overall pick and allowed Washington to grab Robert Griffin.

We should be thankful that we’ve heard the last of the Rams telling us they’re confident in their ability to win with Case Keenum at quarterback. They are taking a signal caller with the first pick. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t picked the best season to swing for the fences on a QB. Their choice is between North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and California’s Jared Goff.

In an ideal world, both of them would sit next year, although we all know that’s never going to happen. Conventional wisdom suggests a significant adjustment period awaits the two of them. Wentz played FCS football, so we can imagine the speed of the game will be another universe for him. However, the system he played at NDSU is recognized by most as rather similar to what he’ll be asked to do in the NFL. Meanwhile, Goff has faced top competition in the Pac-12 Conference, but comes from an Air Raid offence that features very different reads from those he’ll have to make at the NFL level.

Ultimately, there are two lenses through which to view the Goff/Wentz debate. The first is about upside. Here, most people agree the nod goes to Wentz. Goff has terrific pocket presence, a quick release, and a good arm. However, Wentz has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles because of his large build, big arm, and sneaky running ability. Some have even made parallels between Wentz and Cam Newton (a strong exaggeration, at least in terms of running ability).

The second is about the aforementioned learning curve. For some, playing in the Pac-12 has prepared Goff to deal with the speed of the NFL. Moreover, the beating he took during three years of bad O-Line play at Cal while still making great throws is an enticing prospect for teams looking to stick him into a bad lineup. On the other hand, Wentz backers care more about the adjustment to an NFL system, which they say, favours the NDSU product. It’s fairly clear Wentz would be the uncontested no.1 in the eyes of most people had he played in the FBS, so how much does the level of competition really matter if Wentz checks out all other boxes? If the passing concepts, the reads, and the audible systems are similar to what he’ll see in the NFL, does the jump in level of play become somewhat overstated?

The information coming out of L.A. seems to indicate it’s going to be Goff. Given that Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams’ head coach and GM, are trying to save their jobs, picking Goff makes sense if we accept that the Cal pivot is the most pro-ready of the two top quarterbacks. However, smokescreens are key during draft season, and this is just my gut, but I can’t help but think there is an appeal to an all-ball guy like Wentz to someone like Jeff Fisher. As they say on television, to be continued…

The two best players

Meanwhile, the trade at the top of the draft also creates some uncertainty for the draft’s top offensive lineman and my second-rated prospect, Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil. He is the best blend of size, strength, and athleticism to enter the NFL at the tackle position in several years. Before the trade, draft experts were almost unanimous in their belief that Tennessee would take him first overall. Now, it’s a virtual certainty the Rams haven’t traded up to get him, and Cleveland – who owns the second overall pick – isn’t in the market for an offensive tackle unless they trade Joe Thomas.

That leaves the Chargers, holders of the third overall pick, as the likeliest team to pick Tunsil, but it’s not a given. They could very well go in the direction of my favourite player in the draft, Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey. I’m not saying this just because I’m an FSU diehard. Ramsey’s ability to play at a high level at both cornerback and safety means that the only potential limit for him will be his defensive coordinator’s creativity. As Charles Woodson retires, Ramsey could become the new Woodson: a guy who redefines how NFL defensive backs are used.

The Chargers are tough to read on the Ramsey front, though, because they have Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett at cornerback, they’ve brought in Casey Heyward as a potential nickel and they have Dwight Lowery at free safety. Stick Ramsey anywhere in there, and he’s an upgrade. Yet, whether San Diego decides to go with him or not depends what the plan for him would be, which is what makes evaluating Ramsey’s draft prospects so hard. Meanwhile, Tunsil would serve as an upgrade over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap’s improvement during his NFL career has been nothing short of spectacular, but he still struggles a bit with the league’s elite edge rushers. If the Chargers go with Tunsil, Dunlap would be an improvement, athletically at least, over Joseph Barksdale at right tackle.

Dallas doesn’t need Tunsil at all, but is a strong suitor for Ramsey given their need for help in the secondary. If they were to go in another direction, Jacksonville would surely have a hard time passing on a player who could help revitalize a secondary that was subpar at best last season. With the release of Sergio Brown, the Jags are likely buyers in the defensive back market. They couldn’t find a better one than Ramsey. However, they are far from certain to get him at five.

The Jags’ fifth pick becomes a real point of interest for the neutral fans (and a point of depression for Jags’ fans) if Ramsey is gone but Tunsil is still there. This situation would force the Jags to think long and hard about their confidence in Luke Joeckel as their starting left tackle. After being picked second overall in 2013, Joeckel struggled mightily early in his career, but has looked increasingly competent ever since. His lack of upper-echelon athleticism will likely prevent him from becoming the force he once was projected to be, but if the Jags think they can win with Joeckel at left tackle, they’re getting into coin-flip territory in terms of whom they pick. Do you go for the draft’s other versatile defensive dynamo, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who’s coming off a season-ending injury, or bring in even more D-Line help with Joey Bosa? Or do you trade down a few picks with someone who wants to leapfrog Baltimore for Tunsil and try to grab Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the bottom half of the top 10? (Note: If Laremy Tunsil falls to Baltimore at six, Ozzie Newsome is doing celebratory backflips in the Ravens’ war room.)

The interesting case of Dallas

Dallas sits at four. They need Ramsey… something fierce. Their secondary is atrocious, and if he’s when Dallas pick, it has to be Ramsey.


Do we know, and I mean KNOW, that Dallas ISN’T in the market for a quarterback in the first round? We know Jerry Jones has said so, but again… draft and smokescreens, brother and sister… The quarterback is such a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ current predicament. With a high draft pick, an ageing-and-injury-prone-but-not-yet-washed-up quarterback, and a roster that’s better than their pick in the draft would indicate, especially on offence, you couldn’t find a better scenario to pick a quarterback that would benefit from sitting out a year or two. Avoiding a dropoff because they’ve prepared Tony Romo’s successor before Romo retires has to be on the cards for Dallas.

One big problem, though: St.Louis trading up, coupled with the increasingly widespread rumour that Cleveland is looking to trade down, is a paradigm changer for Dallas. When Tennessee was picking first, there was no way Goff and Wentz were going one and two. Suddenly, that scenario becomes a probability. Therefore, if Dallas wants the quarterback the Rams don’t take, they very well may have to become Cleveland’s trading partner at two. If you’re Jerry Jones, do you pull the trigger on that trade given your (many) needs on defence?

Besides, that quarterback could be a guy like Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Hackenberg’s case is especially interesting. The physical tools are outstanding, but mentally, whichever team takes him will have to rebuild him from the ground up. Dallas may decide they can afford to go defence in the first round and groom a player like Hackenberg behind Romo.

However, the risk with a guy like the former Penn State star is far greater than with Wentz or Goff, both A+ personalities. Some talented college players go through rough patches and never recover, and there’s something about Hackenberg that emits that sort of vibe. As for Cook, there’s no guarantee he’s a better player than Kirk Cousins. I can’t say I’m a fan.

If Cook/Hackenberg doesn’t work out, that means you’re going back to the drawing board and drafting a rookie to start, and we all know the perils of that situation. Take Jacksonville as an example. The Jags were encouraged by the improvement of Blake Bortles last season, but he still made too many mistakes for them to be a playoff contender, and let us avoid reminiscing about his god-awful rookie year. Besides, if Dallas were to put a rookie in Romo’s place two years from now, that rookie may learn on a similar curve to that of Bortles, but he could also be the new Blaine Gabbert.

If they go defence, Dallas could also opt for Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, although the risks of that proposition have been listed by yours truly in a previous post. If neither Baltimore nor Dallas takes Bosa, it could set up the former Buckeye for a mini-fall.


Baltimore is the ultimate best-available-player team, so the only question is, what does their draft board actually look like? Oregon’s DeForest Buckner makes a lot of sense for them, given their lack of both depth and quality on the defensive line, but projections like this one can go out the window if a player like Ramsey or Tunsil slips to six.

Baltimore could also accelerate the run on offensive tackles (there is a big dropoff after the top four at the position) if they take Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley at six. Tennessee not picking first overall (and likely drafting Tunsil) would seem to hurt the chances of it happening, but if the Ravens do pick the Notre Dame standout, we’re probably looking at Michigan State’s Jack Conklin slipping into the Top 10. That would leave Ohio State’s Taylor Decker as the only tackle worth taking in the teens with several teams picking in that range who could use him. Lots of interesting trade prospects there at that point.

So, 1,800 words later, all I can think of is Stewie Griffin tapping Brian on the leg repeatedly, and shouting, “Oh, this is fun!” I’ll see you in a few days with my mock draft, dear readers.



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