NFL executives regrade the 2022 offseason’s biggest trades
NFL executives regrade the 2022 offseason’s biggest trades
The NFL’s trade machine never goes unplugged. Blockbuster moves are commonplace now. Young general managers are hungry to deal and eager to cut losses on a bad fit, dead money be damned. Only a few players — Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen come to mind — are truly untouchable in trade talks.
Teams that used to horde draft picks are now treating them like Oprah giving out cars, in pursuit of a blue-chip player to fill a void.
That happened several times this offseason, when storied franchises altered their trajectories — for better or worse — thanks to a few phone calls.
This was, undoubtedly, the year of the wide receiver, with teams not only trading big capital to acquire a marquee pass-catcher but paying them $25 million to $30 million per year to put on their uniform.
Rarely do top-shelf quarterbacks hit the open market, but that’s what happened in March when Seattle and Denver got together for an unforgettable trade — or one Denver might like to forget, at least this year. Explosive pass-rushers were on the move, too.
But trades are not won or lost at the time of execution. The games must be played in new uniforms first, and newly acquired draft picks must be chosen skillfully. Twelve weeks into the 2022 season, some deals that once looked like win-wins for both sides are looking rough for one side, or both. Others have held up as a positive for both franchises and their general managers.
We went back to reassess and regrade five of the offseason’s biggest trades, with help from nearly a dozen NFL executives and scouts. The perspective on some of these deals might surprise you.
Russell Wilson | Davante Adams | Tyreek Hill
A.J. Brown | Khalil Mack
The deal: The Seattle Seahawks sent nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos in exchange for two first-round picks (No. 9 overall in 2022 and another in 2023), second-round picks in 2022 (No. 40 overall) and 2023, a 2022 fifth-round pick, defensive lineman Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant and quarterback Drew Lock
Grade for Broncos: C-
Grade for Seahawks: A-
Most people around the league are sensible: When a franchise starved for good quarterbacking for over a decade can secure a top-10 passer, trading heavy capital for that player is justifiable.
“I still think many teams would have made the same trade, at the time,” an AFC executive said. “Despite some of [Wilson’s] small signs of decline on the field.”
And that’s where Wilson’s legacy becomes complicated. His 10 seasons with Seattle placed him on a Hall of Fame trajectory thanks to his consistency, flair and clutch playmaking. Just two years ago, Wilson ranked No. 2 in our QB polling of league execs, scouts, coaches and players — sandwiched between Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers.
Denver and GM George Paton, in his second year on the job, eyed long-term stability at the position. But evaluators whose teams looked at quarterback options this offseason say Wilson’s mobility — which made him so dangerous for years — appeared to be declining, which is a problem for a 5-foot-11 quarterback who’s not known as a precision pocket passer.
Tension bubbled under the surface in Seattle, which explored the idea of trading Wilson for years. As one NFL general manager told me as those rumors were swirling, ‘I just think they aren’t sold on the guy.’ It didn’t help that several ex-teammates had thrown shade at him either on social media or in interviews or podcasts.
Fast forward to Week 13 of 2022 and Wilson is playing the worst football of his career. After a decade of averaging nearly 30 passing touchdowns per year, Wilson is pacing for 12 passing scores this year. Not passes longer than 40 yards or interceptions — that number is for touchdowns.
His five-year, $242 million extension signed with Denver before the season makes Wilson virtually untradeable, with $107 million in 2023 dead money.
Meanwhile, Seattle is enjoying success with Wilson’s backup, Geno Smith, while using picks from the Denver trade to rebuild its offensive line and defense.
Multiple league execs are still convinced that Rodgers was the team’s first choice, before the four-time MVP re-signed with Green Bay.
“Aaron Rodgers, I could understand giving up that sort of package, but not Russell,” said a high-ranking NFC exec about all that Denver gave up in the Wilson deal. “Denver didn’t have any familiarity with the player or his fit in the system, and he’s declining as an aging, smaller quarterback.”
To be sure, Denver isn’t doing Wilson many favors. While Seattle emphasized the running game around Wilson, Denver’s ground attack ranks 26th in yards (1,026) and tied for 28th in yards per attempt (3.9). His receivers appear off on their timing with the quarterback. Four of his top five skill players — Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, Javonte Williams, KJ Hamler — have missed time to injury. He’s been beat up for much of the year, playing through lat and hamstring injuries. Several key offensive linemen have missed significant time, including left tackle Garett Bolles.
But Wilson ranks 30th in QBR (32.2), behind Zach Wilson and Carson Wentz, ahead of Baker Mayfield and Davis Mills. His 27th-ranked passer rating of 82.3 is 10 points lower than his lowest Seattle clip (92.6).
His track record says he should improve. And have you seen Denver’s quarterback roster over the past decade? It could probably be worse. Evaluators have questioned Wilson’s fit in a Nathaniel Hackett offense that often has the quarterback in straight drop-back plays instead of getting him on the move.
“His accuracy was just OK over the years, but he was so good moving around and making plays and providing legitimate rushing production that you didn’t have to keep him in the pocket all the time,” said an AFC executive about how Seattle handled him. “If he can’t do that part as well anymore, the rest of his game can suffer. And with questions about how his personality, whether he could galvanize a group is a question that now looks magnified.”
Seattle moved on from what was perceived as a sure bet, which comes with risk, but league execs like what the Seahawks did with the new capital. Seattle used the No. 9 pick on left tackle Charles Cross, who looks like a star, and the 40th pick on pass-rusher Boye Mafe, who’s in the rotation with two sacks. Fant and Harris are key contributors.
“[The Seahawks] have a lot to work with now, with two first-round picks they can use to get a quarterback, or they can roll with Geno,” an NFL personnel director said. “That’s a good haul for them.”
The deal: The Green Bay Packers sent All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for first- and second-round selections (22nd and 53rd overall) in the 2022 NFL draft
Grade for Packers: C+
Grade for Raiders: B
The league’s understanding of Green Bay’s decision to trade Adams is now clear — the Packers didn’t initially give him the top-of-market contract he coveted, and once they came around and were willing to match the money Las Vegas was offering, it was too late. So, Green Bay decided to cut the loss and recoup draft capital.
The Packers used the Raiders’ first-round pick on linebacker Quay Walker, who’s a player, and they moved higher into the second round to select Christian Watson, who started slow but posted six touchdowns in Weeks 10-12, providing hope as a long-term Adams successor.
But that’s the optimistic view of Green Bay’s trade.
“For the Packers, that did not work,” an NFL personnel exec. “For Rodgers’ peace of mind, you keep [Adams]. Green Bay perhaps didn’t realize what their identity was, which is Rodgers to Davante. That was the offense when they needed a play.”
Added an NFC personnel man: “I was a huge Christian Watson fan, and even I was saying he’s going to take some time.”
A lack of weapons, coupled with Rodgers’ uncharacteristic accuracy issues (due in part to a broken thumb on his throwing hand), has Rodgers sitting at 27th in QBR (41.3), a shocking number compared to his No. 1 ranking in 2020 (79.8) and 2021 (74.1). Rodgers looked like himself in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia before injuring his ribs.
“Bringing Adams back just feels like something Green Bay should have worked out, though Rodgers’ indecision about his future must have played a factor for the team and maybe even Adams,” an NFC scouting exec.
Meanwhile, Adams has validated the hype for Las Vegas, ranking fourth in the NFL yards (999) and second in touchdowns (10). Derek Carr goes to him in big moments, and he delivers.
Any skepticism on the Vegas side comes from the Raiders’ roster-building direction. Las Vegas has tried to remain all-in while cleansing the roster from the previous regime, releasing former first-round picks Alex Leatherwood and Johnathan Abram.
“Davante is still a win for the Raiders because you can’t look at it in a vacuum — Adams has held up his end of the bargain. He’s a pro,” an NFC exec said. “But they have bigger issues than him, most notably the offensive line.’
As an NFL scouting director noted, the Raiders really could have used those top two picks to improve that offensive line. The Raiders gave big money to aging veterans Chandler Jones (32), who has 0.5 sacks, and tight end Darren Waller (30), who has missed seven games.
“The Raiders probably figured, ‘We made the playoffs last year, let’s up the ante,'” the scouting director said. “That’s not how it works every time. They must have thought they were closer than they were.”
The deal: The Kansas City Chiefs sent three-time All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for first-, second- and fourth-round selections (No. 29, No. 50, No. 121) in 2022 and fourth- and sixth-rounders in 2023.
Grade for Chiefs: A-
Grade for Dolphins: A
It’s always helpful when the player you just traded five picks to acquire goes off for a season for the ages in Year 1. Hill has been everything Miami could have hoped, making a compelling case for NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors with 1,233 yards through the first 11 games. He has catalyzed the Dolphins’ new offensive attack. What head coach Mike McDaniel and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa are doing together is impressive, but the plan doesn’t work without Hill snapping cornerbacks off.
“Massive win for Miami in every way,” an NFL scouting director said. “He’s always open. No player has helped their young quarterback more than Tyreek has Tua.”
An instant splash play, Hill has 21 catches of 20-plus yards. And Hill turns 29 in March, so there’s little reason his speed won’t persist for the next few years. Hill’s four-year, $120 million extension with the team makes him hard to cut or trade for the next three years, but because he’s still in his prime, Miami has no problem with the contractual risks involved.
While maybe it’s naïve to call the Chiefs’ offense better without a playmaker such as Hill, the trade was a sensible one for the Chiefs, who led the NFL in total offense (430 yards per game) and scoring offense (29.6 points per game) through the first 12 weeks, both up from last year (396.8 yards and 28.2 points per game).
Kansas City wanted nothing to do with the salary-cap strain a contract extension for Hill would bring. Tight against the cap, the Chiefs used this opportunity to rebuild their financial structure and bolster the defensive backfield with draft picks Trent McDuffie and Bryan Cook.
“Credit to KC — when you have Patrick Mahomes, you figure you’ll take the hit and he’ll adjust, and he has,” the scouting director said.
“And Andy Reid is the game’s best playcaller. They’ve discovered their running game and their secondary and put the emphasis on other players — everything runs smoothly through Travis Kelce, and they knew that. And with several different receivers, they’ve replaced Hill in the aggregate.”
The deal: The Tennessee Titans sent Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for first-round (No. 18) and third-round (No. 101) selections in the 2022 draft.
Grade for Titans: B-
Grade for Eagles: B+
Tennessee made the cleanest calculation of any team on this list: giving away a top-shelf receiver for a rookie option whose contract costs $20-plus million per year less but is not guaranteed to be as good.
Brown wanted $25 million per year and got it as part of the Eagles’ trade, landing a four-year, $100 million pact on draft night. The Titans used that 18th pick from Philly to take Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, hoping he can help fill the void left by Brown.
Tennessee sits at 7-4, but its 31st-ranked passing game could use Brown on third downs. No Titans receiver surpassed 400 yards through 11 games as the Titans have leaned even more on Derrick Henry, who turns 29 in January and is approaching 1,700 career carries.
Here’s where Burks comes in: After missing time because of a toe injury, he has 181 yards in his past two games. The Burks-Darius Slay matchup this weekend against Philly will be fun to track for Burks’ growth.
“[The Titans] run the ball so much that you could argue they don’t need to pay a receiver that much,” an NFC executive said. “But some of the struggles in the passing game suggest they miss him. He’s probably worth what he got, and it’s not a crazy deal and one that Tennessee could have paid. When the Titans get behind, they don’t have A.J. Brown to throw to. If they have to pass, it’s harder on them now. Burks is a good player, though, so let’s see how far he comes along.”
The Titans traded back from the 101st spot and added more offensive playmakers — running back Hassan Haskins, tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo — on Day 3 of the draft.
One AFC executive likes Philly’s side of the trade because Brown — who has 49 catches for 785 yards and six touchdowns — can take over a game. DeVonta Smith is widely regarded as a good receiver but not the same physical, imposing player as Brown, who will need to clean up his fumbles in back-to-back games.
“I don’t really believe in Jalen Hurts like some others do — are you getting a full return on Brown considering the quarterback they have?” an NFC executive said. “That’s a legitimate question.”
The deal: The Chicago Bears sent former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers for a second-round selection (No. 48) in the 2022 draft and a sixth-round pick in 2023.
Grade for Bears: B
Grade for Chargers: C+
The Chargers’ deal for Mack was predicated on having a healthy Joey Bosa. Their plan was to have two dominant pass-rushers taking turns in the backfield, similar to the Raiders’ plan with Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones.
The Raiders’ plan hasn’t worked because of lack of production (Jones has 0.5 sacks). The Chargers’ plan hasn’t worked because Bosa has missed most of the year with a groin injury.
Mack, 31, has done his part, with seven sacks, two forced fumbles and a 76.3 Pro Football Focus rating.
“He can still play, but he’s not the guy who can be on an island all of the time,” an NFC executive said. “That trade looks a lot better if Bosa doesn’t get hurt, because good edge rushers opposite a dominant guy are hard to find and when they are playing off each other can look like their old self. Now, you could argue that Mack is still worth the trade because, without Bosa, they need pedigree, and Mack provides that.”
The Chargers reworked Mack’s contract to knock his salary down to $4.05 million and his cap hit to $8.75. Next year, his cap hit balloons to $27.4 million, though with $9 million in dead money, the Chargers easily could escape the deal. Surely they didn’t give up hefty draft capital for one year of Mack, though.
Overall, execs thought the Bears’ ask for Mack was “pretty fair” for both sides. Mack’s age made commanding a first-round pick difficult. The Bears used the pick to draft safety Jaquan Brisker, who looks like a player.
“With the Bears rebuilding and shedding money, it’s a pretty good deal,” an AFC exec said. “This was the first sign that Chicago was all-in on the rebuild.”
Chicago is now armed with $100-plus million in 2023 cap space and five future picks — two second-rounders, a fourth-, a fifth- and a sixth-rounder — as part of the Mack, Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith trades.
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