The NFL’s trade deadline hits this afternoon at 4 p.m. Eastern. While I would bet against the Atlanta Falcons pulling the trigger on any moves giving the proclivities of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, one can easily argue that some moves might be necessary if the team is going to climb its way out of the hole it currently finds itself in.
However, it’s unlikely that the Falcons can or will be able to make any significant moves at the trade deadline that will really make a whole lot of difference in 2014. Instead, the Falcons need to be focused on their long-term future since there is likely to be a good deal of rebuilding after this season.
Yet, I’ve come up with a list of six players that I believe not only can go towards elevating the lacking talent of the Falcons roster in 2015 and beyond, but also give the team somewhat of a boost for the remainder of 2014. None of these players are saviors, but all are certainly capable of making significant contributions down the stretch that should at least make the Falcons more competitive than they currently are.
RB Doug Martin, Buccaneers
While in-division trades have little to no chance of being completed, I do think Martin is a name worth mentioning. Falcons veteran running back Steven Jackson is likely playing in his final year in Atlanta. Jackson has one year left on his contract beyond 2014, and will turn 32 next July. The Falcons will be able to save nearly $4 million in 2015 cap space by cutting Jackson next offseason. Jackson is on pace to finish this season with less than 700 yards rushing. Unless Jackson really sees a sharp increase in production over the second half of the season, it appears inevitable that the Falcons will part ways with this offseason.
While the Falcons have high hopes for the future of rookie Devonta Freeman, the probability that a new coaching staff is patrolling Atlanta’s sidelines in 2015 is pretty high and puts Freeman’s future in doubt. That next coaching staff might envision Freeman as little more than a quality third-down back long-term. It’s certainly possible that adding a starting running back to replace Jackson will be a priority of the Falcons next offseason.
Martin, who at least at one point in time showed that he could be a feature back in this league, might be a move to get Jackson’s replacement sooner rather than later. In 2012, Martin ranked second in the NFL with 1,926 yards from scrimmage, showing that he could be an every-down workhorse. In 11 games since his rookie year however, Martin’s production has dropped sharply. It’s possible that Martin is a one-year wonder and he’ll turn age 26 in January. Typically, running backs begin to decline around age 27 or 28. That means that Martin isn’t a true long-term option as the Falcons may only be able to net one or two more peak-caliber years from him. But it’s also reasonable that all Martin needs is a change of scenery to get back to his 2012 form.
Suggested compensation: Third-round pick. It was only two years ago that Martin was selected with a first-round pick. But given the position he plays, his injury history and subpar production in 2014, the Bucs can’t realistically be expecting to get that level of compensation back for him. This isn’t going to be a Trent Richardson-esque trade.
TE Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
The Falcons did not adequately replace Tony Gonzalez this past offseason. Their decision to stand pat on Levine Toilolo as their starter has clearly been a mistake. Toilolo had several critical drops two weeks against the Chicago Bears, but more problematic has been his subpar blocking throughout the year. Frankly, Toilolo should never have been expected to be a starter this season. The Falcons saw the signs of that throughout the preseason, yet stood pat at the position. Toilolo can still add value as a reserve tight end since his potential to make plays in red zone is still a valuable asset off the bench.
However, the Falcons should look for someone else to take over as the starter. Cincinnati’s Gresham could be one option. Gresham is slated to hit the open market as a free agent next offseason, and given the first-round pick the Bengals invested into Tyler Eifert in 2013, it signals that they won’t be that interested in giving him a long-term market-level contract. The Bengals could certainly seek to move Gresham now and get something in return.
Himself a former first-round pick, Gresham never lived up to expectations as a receiver over the past five years with the Bengals. A player blessed with rare athletic traits, Gresham never blossomed into a reliable go-to option for the Bengals. While capable of being able to make plays every now and then Gresham is essentially more an athletic specimen than a natural, pass-catcher. But one area where Gresham has never been lacking is as a blocker. He has consistently given the Bengals value with his ability to line up against defensive ends and move guys off the ball.
While Gresham certainly would be an upgrade over Toilolo in the receiving department, it’s really his blocking potential that would go a long way to improving the Falcons offense. Employing Gresham and Toilolo as a pair of blocking tight ends would add a different element to the Falcons offense rather than being compelled to rely on the four wide receiver sets as they have been so far this season. Toilolo has been functioned much more effectively when being employed as an H-back that can block on the move rather than as a true inline blocker. Gresham is the opposite, more than capable of putting his hand in the dirt and mixing it up with the big boys. Adding Gresham immediately gives the Falcons the play they hoped they were getting in Toilolo this year, and also potentially makes Toilolo more effective since he’ll be employed in a more natural role in the offense.
Suggested Compensation: Fourth-Round pick. Gresham is a bonafide starter, but at given the fact that he’s not one of the more prolific receiving tight ends in the league, a middle-round pick is more than enough compensation for a tight end whose primary value is as an inline blocker.
TE Jared Cook, Rams
Similarly to Gresham, there aren’t many tight ends that bring a comparable package of size, speed and athleticism as Cook does. Yet, Cook has never quite lived up to his upside. The Rams bet on their ability to unlock that potential when they signed him to a $35 million contract in 2013 after four lackluster years in Tennessee.
However over the past two years, Cook has certainly flashed potential but still has yet to blossom into the dominant receiver that his potential suggests he can be. And if traded to Atlanta, it’s unlikely that would change. However, it’s certainly possible that the Falcons can get more out of Cook than either the Titans or Rams have. After all, Cook is more than capable of playing the same role that Gonzalez once did when he was in Atlanta, as a “move” tight end. But unlike Gonzalez, Cook has the potential to be a more dynamic vertical threat and playmaker after the catch. Essentially, the trade off between the two is that Gonzalez is the reliable guy that can make the grab in clutch situations, while Cook is the more dynamic and movable chess piece that will make the splash plays every now and then.
In Tennessee, Cook was often flexed out and used as little more than a slot receiver. Yet, he never quite was a reliable weapon because of questionable effort and ability as a blocker, particularly in the run-first offense the Titans had. In St. Louis, erratic quarterback play could be blamed for some of his limited production. Playing with a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber would help Cook go a long way.
Cook is signed through 2017 and his current contract has him slated to count $8 million against the Rams cap next year. Even though Cook currently leads the Rams with 27 receptions, they might be unwilling to pay such a lofty salary next year and might seek to part ways with him sooner rather than later. The Falcons could be more willing to take on that deal in the hopes of adding another weapon to Ryan’s arsenal.
Suggested Compensation: Fifth-Round pick. All things being equal, Cook would be worth more in terms of draft-pick compensation, but his contract means that the Rams would not be able to get premium compensation. Instead, for opportunity to dump salary, a fifth-round pick is more than worthwhile.
WR Cecil Shorts, Jaguars
Outside Julio Jones, the Falcons have a group of older, declining wide receivers. Roddy White turns 33 in a week and Devin Hester turns 32 a few days after. 2015 marks the final year of Harry Douglas’ contract, and he’ll be 31 when that season kicks off. The Falcons could certainly use an infusion of youth at the position.
In contrast, Shorts turns 27 in December. He will be a free agent this upcoming offseason and given the level of investment that the Jaguars made this past year with draft picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson and the emergence of undrafted rookie Allen Hurns, it’s unlikely that the Jaguars will be too keen on paying Shorts a market-level deal.
Shorts’ production in 2014 has been limited due to hamstring problems plaguing him this season. But as he showed in 2012 and 2013, he’s capable of quality production despite playing with subpar quarterbacks like Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville. Imagine what he could do if he was catching passes from Ryan?
It’s not that hard to imagine since it would likely mirror what White has done in Atlanta over the years. Shorts is not blessed with great size or speed, but possesses enough both coupled with good hands and ball skills. The key for Shorts moving forward will becoming a more polished route-runner, and taking lessons directly from White would do wonders for his continued growth and development as an NFL receiver.
Shorts could give the team a much better No. 3 wide receiver than either Hester or Douglas are capable of, and be groomed as the heir apparent for White in 2015 and beyond to play second fiddle to Jones for years to come.
Suggested Compensation: Third-Round pick. Considering that Shorts was originally a fourth-round pick in 2011, receiving a third-round pick in exchange for him would be a small coup for a rebuilding Jaguars organization. Shorts is a starting-caliber receiver, yet isn’t blessed with the unique physical traits that make him a potential No. 1 option. But for a receiver more than capable of achieving 1,000 yards on an annual basis in Atlanta, a third-round picks is well worth the price.
DE Brandon Graham, Eagles
Graham has been a player long-rumored to be on the trade block. Talks of his being dealt existed back in April prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. They did not abate when the Eagles wound up using their top draft selection on outside linebacker Marcus Smith this past May. While Smith hasn’t lived up to early expectations, Graham continues to be a highly productive situational rusher.
In fact, the Eagles refusal to start Graham has been somewhat a head-scratcher over the years. As a former first-round pick in 2010, Graham has more career sacks (13.5) than starts (12). Premium website Pro Football Focus has graded Graham out positively as a pass-rusher in every season he’s played besides his injury-marred 2011 campaign. In fact, his pass-rushing grade for 2012 was the sixth highest grade of any defensive player in the league that season. Yet despite that, the Eagles added free agent outside linebacker Connor Barwin in 2013 alongside veteran Trent Cole, both of whom are earning the bulk of the snaps.
Graham wouldn’t solve the Falcons’ pass-rush crisis, but could go a long way to helping it. Graham is ideally suited to play the same role in Atlanta that he does in Philadelphia, which is as a situational pass-rusher. Currently, the Falcons employ Osi Umenyiora in that role. Umenyiora is a free agent after this season and almost certainly will be allowed to walk after two disappointing seasons in Atlanta. Graham not only can provide an immediate upgrade in that role and give the team another edge-rusher besides Jonathan Massaquoi to pressure quarterbacks in 2014, it will also give the Falcons another option in 2015 and beyond.
It’s a safe bet that finding a quality pass-rusher will be a high priority in next year’s draft, but adding Graham to the roster now could give the Falcons some necessary flexibility, making it less of a priority.
Suggested Compensation: Third-Round pick. One could speculate that with more playing time, Graham is capable of being a double-digit sack artist, which would be cause for the Eagles to get more in return via trade. But given that Graham is just a backup in Philadelphia, the Eagles cannot be expected too high a premium for his services.
ILB Arthur Brown, Ravens
The Falcons suspected that inside linebacker was going to be a problem area in 2014 with they spent most of the summer looking at or signing veterans at the position such as Will Witherspoon, Tim Dobbins, Nick Barnett and Pat Angerer. Yet despite that, the Falcons exited the preseason believing that some combination of Paul Worrilow, Prince Shembo and Joplo Bartu would be enough to get them through the season.
Through the first half of 2014, that belief has proven to have been a mistake. Worrilow grades out among the league’s worst inside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus, and Bartu has been no better when he’s been on the field. While rookie Prince Shembo has flashed ability, he’s still learning a new position.
Brown was a highly touted inside linebacker prospect in the 2013 draft class, but has been stuck behind C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith in Baltimore’s inside linebacker rotation. In fact, Brown has been inactive for every game the Ravens have played this season. But that’s not because Brown has been an ineffective player, it’s just a testament to how strong the Ravens are at the position. Reports surfaced in September that that Ravens might be willing to part ways with Brown for the right price.
Again, Brown’s lack of playing time is not an indictment that the 2013 second-round pick is not capable of playing at a high level in this league. Pro Football Focus graded him as a top five run-defender this past preseason. Brown isn’t blessed with great size, but plays more physical than his 6-foot, 235-pound frame suggests. He’s also got the sort of athleticism and fluid hips that should make him more than capable of being an every-down linebacker. Coming out of Kansas State last season, Brown reminded me a lot of Jon Beason, when he was playing in Carolina.
Suggested Compensation: Third-Round pick. As a former second-rounder that hardly plays, the Ravens could not expect to get the same compensation back for him. But because of Brown’s upside to be a quality starter, he’d be worth a third-round pick.