NFL

Inside the Carson Wentz trade, Von Miller and J.J. Watt latest and more

The Indianapolis Colts landed Carson Wentz on Thursday in a trade from the Philadelphia Eagles. Instantly, he becomes the AFC’s biggest wild card.

Carson Wentz got his wish. The Indianapolis Colts got their quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles got two draft picks, future cap space and a litany of uncertainty.

Those three sentences sum up the second major offseason trade involving a quarterback. After seeing the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams swap signal-callers (while Detroit also gained two first-round and a third-round choice), the Eagles dealt Wentz to the Colts for a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in ’22.

The trade becomes official at the start of the new league year on March 17.

According to a source, the Eagles traded Wentz to his preferred destination, albeit because Indianapolis offered the most. Additionally, Philadelphia likes second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts but isn’t ready to anoint him the future. The Eagles hold the No. 6 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and aren’t ruling out using it to select a quarterback.

The result is Philadelphia carrying an obscene $33.8 million cap hit for Wentz this season, but cleared his deal from its books afterwards. The Eagles also start fresh, allowing for first-year head coach Nick Sirianni to work with either Hurts or a rookie quarterback without the looming distraction of Wentz.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis provides an answer to its quarterback question. The Colts had the cap space to absorb Wentz’s number and still retain money to upgrade the roster around him. With Philip Rivers’ retirement and Jacoby Brissett hitting free agency, general manager Chris Ballard needed to find a replacement for his 11-5 outfit. Wentz is that man, for better or worse.

Indy’s big bet is Wentz finding his old form. The gamble is rooted in head coach Frank Reich, who served as Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator when Wentz was the MVP frontrunner in 2017 before tearing his ACL in December against the Rams. Before the injury, Wentz threw for 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 13 games. Since, he’s trending sharply downwards.

If Wentz does rebound to his best days, the Colts become an intriguing AFC team.

Indianapolis has one of the league’s best offensive lines, even with the retirement of left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The defense is a top-10 unit, led by linebacker Darius Leonard and pass-rusher DeForest Buckner. However, Ballard does have important free agents in receiver T.Y. Hilton, edge rusher Justin Houston and running back Marlon Mack. Who, if any, return?

With better than $30 million in projected space, the Colts must find a few playmakers to compliment second-year running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Michael Pittman. The defense could also use an upgrade in the secondary, even with the underrated, steady play of safety Khari Willis helping to anchor the unit.

Of course, none of it matters if Wentz doesn’t bounce back. The Colts need Wentz and Reich to recreate the artistry they had in Philadelphia during the Super Bowl run, which was largely dependent on an absurd third and fourth-down performance by Wentz in’ 17.

Frankly, smart money says Wentz isn’t the tire fire of 2020, but likely doesn’t become an MVP candidate for Indy. The Colts are a better team than the one which surrounded him over the final few years in Philadelphia, but it’s currently a limited cast of weapons with questions abound.

Ultimately, the Eagles got rid of their problem and the Colts potentially got their long-term answer at quarterback. A big risk, but for Ballard, one worth taking.

Power rankings

Top 10 receivers hitting unrestricted free agency (2020 stats)

1. Allen Robinson, 27, Chicago Bears (102 receptions, 1,250 yards, 6 TDs)
2. Chris Godwin, 24, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (65 receptions, 840 yards, 7 TDs)
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster, 24, Pittsburgh Steelers (97 receptions, 831, yards, 9 TDs)
4. Corey Davis, 26, Tennessee Titans (65 receptions, 984 yards, 5 TDs)
5. Kenny Golladay, 27, Detroit Lions (20 receptions, 338 yards, 2 TDs)
6. Will Fuller, 26, Houston Texans (53 receptions, 879 yards, 8 TDs)
7. Marvin Jones, 30, Detroit Lions (76 receptions, 978 yards, 9 TDs)
8. Nelson Agholor, 27, Las Vegas Raiders (48 receptions, 896 yards, 8 TDs)
9. Antonio Brown, 32, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (45 receptions, 483 yards, 4 TDs)
10. T.Y. Hilton, 31, Indianapolis Colts (56 receptions, 762 yards, 5 TDs)

Quotable

“As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

– Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger moving forward

Colbert had plenty to say last week during a press conference about his 39-year-old quarterback and what lies ahead. Roethlisberger, who struggled throwing deep throughout 2020, is slated to make $41 million against the cap in 2021. For Pittsburgh, a team in dire need of cap space, this is a glaring issue.

Colbert stated the team told Roethlisberger they “have to look at this current situation” in regards to his contract, which expires after the upcoming campaign. Frankly, it’s hard to see Big Ben coming back for an 18th year in black and gold barring a significant pay cut. Even then, do Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin believe they can do better either with a rookie or backup Mason Rudolph?

It’s a fascinating story to watch as free agency, which begins on March 17, approaches.

Podcast

Random stat

Jimmy Johnson has the fewest wins of any Hall of Fame coach, totaling 80 with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. The second and third men on the list?

Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi. Walsh coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl victories but notched just 92 victories, while Lombardi, who helmed five title runs with the Green Bay Packers, amassed a combined 96 in Titletown and Washington.

Info learned this week

1. J.J. Watt’s priorities significantly limit teams for his services

Quarterback. Winning. Money. These are the three things Watt reportedly wants in a team.

Makes sense for a 32-year-old star winding down his career, looking for a chance to finally compete for a championship. Since being released by the Houston Texans on Feb. 12, Watt has been linked to having mutual interest with the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, although no serious talks have been made public.

Looking at his top two requirements for a new team, the list is short: Buffalo, Cleveland, Baltimore, Tennessee, Kansas City, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arizona.

Of those 11 teams, the Browns, Ravens, Buccaneers, 49ers, Cardinals and Seahawks are under the cap. Realistically, Cleveland and Seattle have the biggest needs on the defensive line of this group.

Does that mean Watt is going to either of those teams? Of course not, the other general managers can create space and perhaps Watt already has a firm idea of his landing spot.

If winning and quarterback significantly outweighs the paycheck, Kansas City is the place. The Chiefs just went to their second consecutive Super Bowl and are losing defensive ends Alex Okafor, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Taco Charlton to free agency. They can also easily create cap room with a simple restructure of Patrick Mahomes’ deal and an expected extension for Tyrann Mathieu.

However, Watt has only played 16 games twice in the past five years and reached the Pro Bowl once in that stretch, doing so in 2018. Will a team pay more on name than recent production, hoping for a rejuvenated, healthy force off the edge?

2. Von Miller, Broncos potential split makes sense

A decade is a long time. Maybe it’s enough for Von Miller and the Denver Broncos.

Last week, ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported the two sides are likely to part ways after 10 seasons in the Mile High City. Miller missed all of 2020 with torn ankle ligaments and is due $22.1 million against the cap. If Denver releases Miller, it recoups $18 million in cap space.

Miller, 32, has notched 106 sacks in his career while being an eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and Super Bowl 50 MVP. Should he hit the open market, there will be interest despite only having eight sacks in 15 games during the 2019 season before missing last year.

It stands to reason Miller could be seeking a one-year deal to prove his value before cashing in once more. From a team standpoint, a two-year deal makes sense where 2022 is essentially a team option with little dead money.

If Miller is released, he leaves the Broncos as arguably the greatest defensive player in franchise history.

3. As franchise tag season approaches, candidates are many

Angst over the franchise tag. It’s an annual tradition.

This year, there are a litany of candidates to keep an eye on. However, with the cap currently expected to go down (although as you can read below, that’s subject to change), it’ll be harder for franchises to fit outsized one-year salaries under the threshold.

With all that in mind, here are the guys who could be snagged by the tag:

  • Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson
  • Broncos safety Justin Simmons
  • Buccaneers edge rusher Shaquil Barrett
  • Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin
  • Chargers tight end Hunter Henry
  • Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
  • Giants defensive linemen Leonard Williams
  • Lions receiver Kenny Golladay
  • Panthers right tackle Taylor Moton
  • Ravens edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue
  • Seahawks corner Shaquill Griffin
  • Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff

While it’s highly-unlikely all of the aforementioned dozen are tagged, it’s a good bet more than half won’t see the open market either due to a long-term deal or the tag.

4. Packers’ cuts help situation, but more work ahead for Green Bay

Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner were always getting cut after 2020. That much was clear when they signed two-year deals last offseason with little guaranteed money in 2021.

While their departures save $10 million in cap space, general manager Brian Gutekunst still faces a daunting proposition of getting under current cap floor of $180 million while remaining competitive in the open market.

Per Over the Cap, Green Bay is $11.5 million above the threshold. The Packers have options to become compliant, including an extension for star receiver Davante Adams or a post-June 1 release of Preston Smith, clearing $12 million.

While Gutekunst could replace running back Aaron Jones with last year’s second-round pick, A.J. Dillon, the potential loss of All-Pro center Corey Lindsley is more problematic. The Packers also need to add cornerbacks in free agency and/or the draft.

With those items in mind, perhaps the Packers move quickly on an Adams extension to lower his ’21 cap hit and then consider a move with Smith, who is a good player with a large cap hit.

5. Putting a pin in Deshaun Watson to Broncos?

For the past two months, we’ve had endless speculation around Deshaun Watson with little answers. Maybe we have one.

On KOA radio in Denver last week, longtime Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain unequivocally said Watson would not be traded to the Broncos. This after buzz had circulated about the potential for the 25-year-old star quarterback could share a division with Patrick Mahomes.

Normally, this space doesn’t put a ton of stock into reporters speaking in absolutes. It’s simply a fool’s errand in the world of professional sports. However, nobody is more plugged in to a city and team than McClain is to Houston and the Texans. If he’s willing to guarantee Watson won’t be in Denver, it’s noteworthy.

For the Broncos, their interest in Watson is obvious considering the struggles of second-year quarterback Drew Lock. It also makes one wonder if new general manager George Paton is looking to upgrade in the draft as well, with Denver holding the No. 9 overall selection. With five quarterbacks likely to go off the board in the first round, the Broncos will have options.

Two cents

Last week, NBC Sports columnist and NFL insider Peter King reported the NFL was close to new TV contracts, perhaps within a month. The news went largely unnoticed by fans. It shouldn’t have.

Should the league secure a mammoth television deal, the salary cap situation could end up being a non-story come free agency. While the cap floor is reportedly $180 million — representing an $18 million drop from the current number — TV money could keep things flat.

If the NFL and NFLPA can agree, there’s a scenario where the two sides jointly borrow money from future years to essentially cover the lost revenue from COVID. By doing this, the cap doesn’t sharply spike in 2022 but instead rises steadily, and does so without an ugly downturn this offseason.

While getting the league and union to see things similarly is always dicey, this should be easy common ground. The union doesn’t want a bevy of its players on the market searching for one-year deals, and teams don’t enjoy the thought of having to slash payroll only to see the cap balloon in 12 months.

Of course, all this is contingent on a TV deal coming in. In the meantime, general managers and agents around the league are in something of a holding pattern, waiting to see if an influx of cash could save the day.

Inside the league

We’re still two months from the 2021 NFL Draft, but here’s the latest inside a few high-ranking sources:

The offensive linemen are a deep, excellent class. While Oregon’s Penei Sewell is almost universally seen as the top tackle available, Alabama predictably has a few studs in ankle Alex Leatherwood and center Landon Dickerson. Beyond that trio, there’s legitimately another dozen linemen who could be top-50 picks, headlined by tackles Rashawn Slater of Northwestern and USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker.

One source I spoke to also highlighted the perimeter positions of receiver and cornerback. Another source specifically agreed on the receivers, believing this class could be better than the 2020 group which was much-ballyhooed. The star power is certainly coming from the SEC with LSU’s JaMarr Chase projected to be a top-five selection, while Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith of the Crimson Tide are top-15 worthy.

Conversely, one of the sources says it’s a poor time to need a tight end. Outside of Florida’s Kyle Pitts — the SEC really is absurd — the class is quite underwhelming. With free agency also being light on tight ends beyond Hunter Henry, it’s a bad year to need an upgrade there.

History lesson

Former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley has one of the strangest, most misunderstood careers in NFL history.

Riley played from 1969-83 and recorded 65 interceptions, second-most of any pure cornerback ever behind only Dick “Night Train” Lane, who notched 68 with the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions.

Yet Riley wasn’t named to a single Pro Bowl and was never a Hall of Fame finalist. Explain that.

Parting shot

Watching the New Orleans Saints get beneath the salary cap will be something to behold.

General manager Mickey Loomis is projected to be $69.5 million above the threshold, a comical $26 million more than the next-worst situation. Somehow, New Orleans not only has to shave enough money off to be compliant by March 17, but is also stuck with Taysom Hill replacing Drew Brees on the tidy cap hit of $16.1 million.

Looking at New Orleans’ finances, what’s the best path forward? Let’s take a shot.

The easy cuts include linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive lineman Malcom Brown. Tack on a post-June 1 designation for receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and the Saints chop off $32 million.

Additionally, Loomis needs to extend cornerback Marshon Lattimore and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, which could open up another $10-12 million. This would theoretically leave New Orleans approximately $25 million above the cap. From there, restructure the contracts of receiver Michael Thomas, defensive end Cam Jordan and one other big-name player. Compliance, finally.

In short, the Saints have a long, tough offseason ahead.