The NFL draft is several weeks behind us, and training camps are still two months away. But as “tight end” Tim Tebow joins the Jaguars, who also recently did a cornerback swap with the Eagles (Josiah Scott for Jameson Houston), we’re reminded anew that the league’s teams are constantly tweaking their rosters in bids to improve … even if signing a 33-year-old failed quarterback switching his position is an unorthodox way to go about it.
Further targets of opportunity could present themselves next week, June 1 a waypoint on the NFL calendar after which clubs can spread out salary cap hits when they release or trade a player – especially an expensive one like, say, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers or Falcons WR Julio Jones. Both superstars have been the subject of rampant rumors recently, and each has a contract that made any deal prohibitive … before June 1 anyway.
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But with that date fast approaching, more significant moves could be coming. Here are eight trades that might make a lot of sense as rosters continue to be fine-tuned heading into the summer:
Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones for Indianapolis Colts RB Marlon Mack and draft compensation
On one hand, Jones might be the greatest player in Falcons history and is still highly productive – when healthy – given his NFL career record of 95.5 receiving yards per game. Plus, why trade a player after Atlanta signaled in the draft it would be moving forward with 36-year-old QB Matt Ryan, who recently said of Jones: “He’s my guy.” Perhaps because no team remains in a more precarious salary cap situation, the Falcons still needing to sign their nine-man rookie class; Jones is 32 and just played his fewest games in a season (9) since 2013; trading him after June 1 would allow the team to split his $23.25 million cap hit over two seasons while adding his $15.3 million base salary back to the coffers in 2021; the presence of Jones, WR Calvin Ridley (Atlanta’s leading receiver in 2020) and first-round TE Kyle Pitts means Ryan would have lots of mouths to feed … and, maybe above all else, Jones expressed to “Undisputed” on Monday that “I’m out of there” when asked about his future in the ATL.
Solidly as the Colts are constructed, they seem to be an impact player or two away from serious Super Bowl contention even if newly acquired QB Carson Wentz returns to form. But Indy GM Chris Ballard isn’t afraid to prudently spend his copious cap and draft assets for a difference-maker – Wentz, All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner and LT Eric Fisher among recent examples – and the Colts are among the few teams in position to absorb Jones’ salary and have a future Round 1 selection to offer that at least one logical suitor, the San Francisco 49ers, doesn’t. Packaging Mack, who’s on a one-year deal with a $1 million base salary, and a high draft pick seems like a solution that could readily benefit both teams. Atlanta requires the financial relief and needs to be in a forward-thinking posture, yet adding Mack – he averaged 77 rushing yards per game over the 2018 and ’19 seasons before tearing an Achilles last September – would round out a running back room that’s currently betting heavily on Mike Davis even though new coach Arthur Smith was reliant on RB Derrick Henry when he orchestrated Tennessee’s offense the past two years.
New England Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore to Seattle Seahawks
The 2019 defensive player of the year, Gilmore’s play declined in 2020 amid knee issues and a bout with COVID-19 even though he earned a fourth Pro Bowl nod. And with the Pats resetting under center and in good shape at corner with younger players like Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson, who needs an extension, this might be the time to move Gilmore and the $7 million-plus he’s owed in 2021 given he’s also in a walk year and will be 31 in September. The Seahawks could use another corner after losing Shaquill Griffin in free agency and likely need to make a bold move if they’re to mount another Super Bowl charge for however much longer the Russell Wilson era lasts.
Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz to Jacksonville Jaguars
Tebow’s Duval County homecoming is a heartwarming story – or very likely an infuriating one, depending on your perspective. But if the Jags want to give QB Trevor Lawrence a legitimate tight end receiving threat to help him through his rookie season, why not take Ertz off Philly’s hands? The three-time Pro Bowler is heading into the final year of his contract and has been at odds with management for some time. The cap-strapped Eagles could recoup his $8.5 million base salary by dealing him, and a fourth-round pick seems like a reasonable price for a guy who averaged 86 catches and 914 yards a year over the five seasons preceding an injury-marred 2020.
New York Giants WR Sterling Shepard for Kansas City Chiefs G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
With the arrival of big-ticket free agent Kenny Golladay and first-rounder Kadarius Toney, Shepard is no better than the No. 3 option in the Giants’ passing game – maybe not even that given the presence of more explosive WRs Darius Slayton and John Ross III along with TEs Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have been steadily upgrading QB Patrick Mahomes’ supporting cast (especially on the offensive line) but could still use a steadier option behind All-Pro targets Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Shepard has three years remaining on a four-year, $41 million extension, and New York could save $7 million by trading him this year – though GM Dave Gettleman might have to agree to eat some of that money to unload a player who seems increasingly superfluous in the Big Apple. Or Gettleman could take on the remaining $2.8 million of Duvernay-Tardif’s contract. A solid blocker who could bolster the Giants’ porous interior, Duvernay-Tardif is nevertheless hardly a lock to reclaim his starting post in Kansas City a year after opting out of the 2020 season to help fight COVID-19 as a frontline medical worker in his native Quebec.
Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch to Green Bay Packers
A Pro Bowler during his 2018 rookie season – a time when Vander Esch looked like a longtime defensive cornerstone for America’s Team – he’s played 19 games since, short-circuited by injuries and Dallas’ 2020 schematic issues. And this year, the Cowboys have declined his fifth-year option while drafting LBs Micah Parsons (12th overall) and Jabril Cox (fourth round). With Parsons and veteran Jaylon Smith likely to get most of the snaps in new coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense, offloading Vander Esch and the $2.1 million he’s due this year only makes sense – especially since that level of investment should entice a contending team like the Packers, despite their cap crunch, to consider such a low-risk, high-reward move.
Arizona Cardinals WR Christian Kirk to New Orleans Saints
This offseason, the Cards signed veteran (but fading) WR A.J. Green before drafting Purdue WR Rondale Moore in the second round. With DeAndre Hopkins established as QB Kyler Murray’s primary target, doesn’t appear to be much meat left on the bone for former second-rounders like Andy Isabella and Kirk, who’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. Yet a player who’s averaged 53 catches for 640 yards and four TDs in three seasons – and still has the sub-4.5 speed to get deep – might be a perfect fit in New Orleans, where RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas can’t be asked to catch everything. Even for a team as consistently overspent as the Saints are, making room for Kirk’s $2.4 million salary shouldn’t be all that difficult.
Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew II to Giants
Heading into his third season, the 2019 sixth-rounder has passed for 5,530 yards, 37 TDs and 11 INTs (93.1 passer rating) in 23 games for the Jags. New York QB Daniel Jones, the No. 6 pick in 2019 (172 spots before Minshew), has thrown for 5,970 yards, 35 TDs and 22 INTs (84.1 passer rating) in 27 appearances. Jones is 4 inches taller than Minshew and has superior physical gifts, and the Giants have also expressed what seems like unwavering commitment to him heading into Year 3. However if he remains inconsistent or gets hurt, the fallback plans for a team that should contend in the NFC East are currently Mike Glennon, who was outplayed by Minshew in Jacksonville, and Clayton Thorson. Given dealing for Minshew would have negligible financial ramifications, why wouldn’t the Giants want a better backup plan (at minimum), or just maybe a prospect who outperforms Jones if called upon to do so?
Patriots QB Cam Newton for Chicago Bears QB Andy Dalton
Think about it. From a fiscal perspective, both veteran passers are on one-year deals and have collected their bonuses – and dealing them for one another now would basically be a financial wash. But more germanely, does it make much sense for New England to prepare first-round QB Mac Jones to play while tuning the offense to Newton’s abilities? Conversely, why wouldn’t the Bears want to tailor their attack around first-round QB Justin Fields even if he’s not ready to play in Week 1? Sitting Fields behind multi-dimensional Newton and Jones behind pocket-bound Dalton sure seems to make a lot more sense for both clubs schematically while making life easier for the rest of the players on each offense should either team have to toggle between established veteran and hotshot rookie.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.