The NFL is a copycat league.
You’ve heard the cliché before, and you’ll undoubtedly hear it again. That cliché is never more true than learning lessons from the teams still standing at the end of the season.
The lesson from the Rams is simple: Be aggressive and never settle. That applies to every avenue of talent acquisition, but there’s one in particular which stands out.
Nobody trades more picks for players than the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams acquired at least one player in 12 separate trades (!!!) since Sean McVay was hired in 2017. Those deals included the likes of Sammy Watkins, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford and Von Miller.
The Rams aim high, and they’re completely unafraid of selling the farm to win it all.
The Rams have only made one selection in the top 50 of the NFL Draft since 2017. Instead, they’ve made a living on day two where they’ve drafted the likes of Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Taylor Rapp, Darrell Henderson, David Long, Cam Akers, Van Jefferson and Ernest Jones. The trades steal the headlines, but their ability to add cheap, cost-controlled talent through the draft is what keeps them afloat.
Other franchises often shy away from the eyebrow-raising deals general manager Les Snead has made. The Rams model is risky. If it works, you’re popping bottles at the end of a grueling season. If it doesn’t, everyone involved could find themselves looking for a new job. Get it right or get fired. It’s a high-stakes league, and the price of poker is only going up.
The Chiefs are no stranger to these kinds of deals. Chiefs GM Brett Veach has been more than happy to wheel and deal to upgrade the roster in the past.
This offseason should be no different.
In fact, this offseason is the perfect opportunity to steal a page from the Rams’ playbook. There’s a cap crunch hitting several teams around the league. Teams had grown accustomed to the cap rising by at least $10 million per year before the pandemic. COVID-19 had other plans. The business side of the NFL took a beating during the 2020 season, and the salary cap actually decreased from $198 million in 2020 to $182 million for the 2021 season. Most teams were nimble enough to adjust. Many put the bill on a credit card.
That bill is coming due for some teams, and they’re seeing a whole lot of red on their respective balance sheets. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have managed their cap well. They have more than enough flexibility to create another $50 million in cap space if they need it.
Players are about to become available — good players. The Chiefs are a perennial contender with an all-world quarterback, a tremendous coach and cap space to boot. This is an appealing situation for players potentially on the chopping block.
Let’s take a closer look at five players who could be in play if the Chiefs are ready to make a move similar to those which put the Rams over the top.
Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Skinny: The Cowboys are more than $20 million over the projected salary cap, with multiple starters slated to hit free agency. Dallas’ flexibility to restructure contracts is limited, and it’s looking more likely than not Cooper will find himself on a new team by next season. The Cowboys would save $16 million if Cooper is traded before June 1. Cooper’s contract has three years and $60 million remaining, all of which would transfer to his new team.
The Pros: Cooper is a tremendous player who fits the role the Chiefs should be looking for. He’s a possession receiver with the requisite skills to beat man coverage off the line of scrimmage. Cooper is still young at just 27 years old, and he’s posted an average of 80 receptions for 1,050 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over the past four seasons. This is a legitimate number one weapon on one of the best offenses in the league. The only reason he’s potentially available is because the Cowboys are in a tight cap situation. Dallas gave up a first-round pick to add Cooper back in 2018. I would think a second-round pick should be able to get the deal done this time around.
The Cons: Would it surprise you to learn Cooper has only missed four games in his seven-year NFL career? It surprised the heck out of me. It seems like Cooper is always banged up. He plays through injury, which is excellent, but you never know when he’s going to be at his peak performance. Do the Chiefs feel comfortable taking on another receiver with injury questions after the Sammy Watkins experience, especially one with a $20 million salary? Do they want another receiver making that kind of coin when Tyreek Hill’s contract is coming up soon?
Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons
The Skinny: The Falcons aren’t particularly good, but at least they have cap issues! Atlanta enters the offseason more than $6 million over the salary cap. I’m still not sure how that’s possible, given the lack of talent on the roster.
Calvin Ridley’s contract is impossible to cut (it’s fully guaranteed), but it’s easy to trade. The former first-round pick is slated to earn $11 million this season on his fifth-year option, all of which would transfer to his new team’s cap sheet in the event Ridley is traded this offseason.
The Pros: Ridley is the exact type of receiver the Chiefs need to add this offseason. He’s a superb route-runner with the ability to win at every level. His first two years were spent as the clear No. 2 option behind Julio Jones, but his most impressive work was done in 2020 when he took on a starring role with Julio Jones sidelined for half of the season.
Ridley would also be quite the help in the red zone for the Chiefs. Ridley has had more red-zone touchdowns since he entered the league than D.K. Metcalf, Michael Thomas, A.J. Brown, Amari Cooper or Jarvis Landry. He only has four fewer red-zone touchdowns in that stretch than Tyreek Hill despite playing 11 fewer games. Which brings us to...
The Cons: So, about that elephant in the room. Ridley only played five games last season before stepping away to focus on his mental wellbeing. Both Ridley and the Falcons have been pretty hush-hush on what led to his decision to step away. That’s going to be the question for any team considering a trade to acquire the former first-round pick.
Is he ready to return? Will he be able to contribute for the full 17 weeks next year if he’s in a new situation? It’s impossible to know. If Ridley says he’s ready and the Chiefs are comfortable with his situation, he’s the ideal wide receiver addition this offseason to add another weapon to the Chiefs offense.
James Bradberry, CB, New York Giants
The Skinny: James Bradberry is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He’s also starting to cost a whole lot of money, accounting for a $22 million cap hit in 2022. A trade would save the Giants more than $12 million against the cap, and Bradberry’s new team would take on $13.5 million for the final year of his deal.
Would the Giants really move Bradberry? It’s tough to say, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility. Bradberry is a 28-year-old cornerback entering a contract year after back-to-back stellar seasons. Is he going to stay in New York? Are the Giants really in ‘win-now’ mode? If the answer to both of those questions is a resounding no, then now might be the right time to make a move and acquire valuable assets for one of the league’s premier cornerbacks.
The Pros: The Chiefs haven’t invested heavily in the cornerback position since Steve Spagnuolo took over as the defensive coordinator. This would be the investment Chiefs fans have been waiting for. Bradberry is a verified star at the position. He’s big, he’s physical, and he would go a long way in shutting down opposing No. 1 receivers, allowing L’Jarius Sneed to thrive in the slot.
The Chiefs are slated to play the following No. 1 wide receivers in 2022: DeAndre Hopkins, Courtland Sutton, Michael Pittman Jr., Keenan Allen, A.J. Brown, Cooper Kupp, D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Ja’Marr Chase, Stefon Diggs and Mike Evans. Charvarius Ward, Mike Hughes, Tyrann Mathieu and Armani Watts are hitting free agency. The Chiefs are essentially starting over in the secondary. If ever there was a time to invest in the position, it’s now.
The Cons: Can the Chiefs afford him? It could be tough. Bradberry won’t come cheap, and that applies to both the trade assets necessary and the contract he’ll almost certainly command after any deal is consummated. There are very few questions about Bradberry’s on-field abilities. It’s all a matter of cost-benefit analysis... And the whole question of whether or not the Chiefs value cornerbacks as highly as the rest of the league.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns
The Skinny: The Browns don’t have significant cap issues, but it might be time for a change-of-scenery for Landry. The five-time Pro Bowler is entering the final year of his contract, making it easy for Cleveland to move on from Landry in a trade or an outright release. The Browns would save $15 million of Landry’s $16.4 million cap hit in such a move.
The Pros: Landry certainly fits the role of a possession receiver; he’s been used for the vast majority of his career as an extension of the running game out of the slot. He’s not going to wow you with his explosiveness or his big-play ability, but he’s as consistent as they come, and he would add another target for Patrick Mahomes — especially on third down.
The Cons: Landry is probably the least appealing of the wide receiver trade options this offseason. He’s a quality player, but he comes with a $14 million base salary, and he clogs up the slot where the Chiefs like to utilize both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. He wouldn’t be a bad addition; the fit just isn’t as clean as some of the other options available via trade, the draft or free agency.
Za’Darius Smith, DE, Green Bay Packers
The Skinny: The Packers have the second-worst cap situation in the NFL behind only the New Orleans Saints. Green Bay is projected to be $50 million over the 2022 salary cap, and that’s before any decision has been made on Aaron Rodgers’ future or Davante Adams potential franchise tag. Za’Darius Smith is probably the most likely trade or cut candidate on this list. He has a bloated $27.6 million cap hit for the Packers, but they would save more than $15 million if he’s cut or traded before June 1. Any team making a trade for Smith would inherit the final year of his contract at $14.5 million.
The Pros: Smith certainly fits the mold of a typical Steve Spagnuolo defensive end. He’s listed at 6 feet 4 and weighs more than 270 pounds. He’s been a productive player when healthy, racking up 34.5 sacks, 40 tackles for loss and 85 quarterback hits between 2018-2020. Smith plays a grown man game, winning with speed to power around the edge. He would pick up where Frank Clark left off, but possibly with more production.
The Cons: The “when healthy” part is an important caveat to Smith’s story. He missed almost the entire 2021 season after he underwent back surgery following the first game of the season. It’s rare to hear someone say they “had” a bad back, especially a player of Smith’s size.
Are the Chiefs comfortable giving up an asset and spending more than $10 million on a defensive end with a bad back? Maybe not. Smith might be a better buy-low candidate if he hits free agency.
Other players worth keeping an eye on:
Trey Flowers, DE, Detroit Lions
The Skinny: The Lions don’t have cap issues, but sometimes a player just doesn’t live up to his contract. This is a very similar situation to Frank Clark. Flowers was brought in on a megadeal to fix the Lions’ pass rush issues, and that just hasn’t happened. He has just 9.5 sacks in the last three seasons, and each of the previous two years has been cut short due to injury.
Flowers has the type of position versatility and ability against the run that should appeal to Spagnuolo. He also played for Chiefs linebackers coach Brendan Daly when Daly was the Patriots defensive line coach from 2015-18. There’s plenty of familiarity there, and the Chiefs might believe they can get more out of Flowers than the Lions did. That said, something would have to be done with his contract. His current deal has a $16 million salary each of the next two years. He’s simply not worth that kind of money at this point in his career. If Flowers is willing to take a pay cut, he’s the kind of low-risk/high-reward player who makes a lot of sense for the Chiefs defensive line.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys
The Skinny: I mentioned earlier the Cowboys are in a bind when it comes to their cap situation. It’s possible — even if unlikely — the problem is so bleak it means moving on from “Tank” Lawrence. Lawrence’s $25 million cap hit is the largest on the Cowboys’ books for 2022. Cutting or trading him prior to June 1 saves the team $8 million, but a post-June 1 cut or trade would free up $19 million. A team trading for Lawrence would take on his $19 million salary this season and $21 million salary in 2023.
Lawrence is a very good player. If the Cowboys’ cap situation remains in flux and the Chiefs strike out on other defensive end options, this is a deal that could make sense for both sides.
Khalil Mack or Robert Quinn, DE, Chicago Bears
The Skinny: OK. I’m going to be honest — neither of these deals is likely. But they’ve both been mentioned as potential trade candidates, so it’s at least worth monitoring.
Quinn and Mack would both be pure upside plays if the Bears decide to enter a rebuild. Here’s the catch: It doesn’t make sense for the Bears financially to trade either player before June 1. So if this were to happen — similar to the Lawrence trade — it would likely take place as we get closer to training camp.
The Chiefs would inherit the remaining three years and $40 million on Quinn’s deal. That’s not too shabby for a player who finished last season with 18.5 sacks, good enough for a second-team All-Pro bid.
Mack would come with a three-year deal worth $64 million. His cap hit would be $17.5 million next season and $23 million each of the next two seasons.
Is either deal likely? Probably not. But it’s fun to consider. Spagnuolo drafted Quinn when he was the head coach of the Rams in 2011, and I’m not sure there’s a more prototypical defensive end for his system than Mack.