Earlier today, I listed six players that are worthwhile for the Atlanta Falcons to consider acquiring ahead of this afternoon’s 4 p.m. Eastern NFL trading deadline. In all six cases, I suggested that the Falcons exchange a middle-round pick to acquire each player.
Now, I’m going to suggest trades that will send three current Falcons elsewhere. And I won’t suggest that the Falcons make these moves in order to add draft picks, but instead to get other players that could potentially contribute to the roster before the 2014 season is up.
None of these moves will dramatically shift the Falcons’ 2014 fortunes, but could swap out currently underachieving players for others that could make larger contributions for the remainder of the season.
Paul Soliai to the Green Bay Packers for Mike Neal
The jewel of the Falcons 2014 free-agent class has certainly been a disappointment in the first half of his only season in Atlanta. The Falcons shelled out a massive five-year, $32 million deal with $14 million in guaranteed money to add Soliai in order to beef up their run defense. Soliai’s impact has yet to be felt, as Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons run defense at 28th in their DVOA efficiency stats.
While Soliai has been far from terrible, he just hasn’t had the impact expected. His abiilty to absorb double teams and free up the Falcons linebackers to make plays just hasn’t been apparent on the field despite the notions of assistant coach Bryan Cox. But it hasn’t helped that the Falcons have often utilized Soliai in a lot of four-man fronts, rather than the three-man fronts he consistently excelled in over the years in Miami.
The Green Bay Packers have had to make due at nose tackle in their 3-4 defense this year with Letroy Guion. Expected starter B.J. Raji tore his biceps at the end of camp, and Guion has been a decent stopgap. But the Packers are set to make a playoff run this season, and upgrading that nose tackle position could help them on their way to solidifying that spot. The Packers defensive coordinator is Dom Capers, who also coordinated the Dolphins defense in 2007 when they selected Soliai in the fourth round that year’s draft.
Despite his lofty contract, Soliai is tradable. It would be a move similar to the Philadelphia Eagles signing Isaac Sopoaga to a three-year contract in 2013, but shipping him to New England midway through that season. In that deal, the Patriots took on the dead money hit in terms of the remaining guaranteed money on Sopoaga’s contract. Further details of that move are explained at OvertheCap.com.
It’s not quite the same as the case with Sopoaga since a large part of Soliai’s guaranteed money comes in the form of a signing bonus: $7 million to be exact. Thus, if Soliai is traded, the Falcons would have to absorb $5.6 million in unamortized signing bonus money as dead money next year. However, the Falcons do have the cap space next year to absorb that large hit. OvertheCap’s current projections for next year slate the Falcons to have over $25 million in cap space.
In exchange for dumping Soliai’s contract, the Falcons get a player in Mike Neal that could help fill what was a bigger priority this past offseason: their pass rush. Neal was a capable starter for the Packers last season at outside linebacker, but was buried on the depth chart once the Packers added Julius Peppers this past offseason. Neal’s production has dipped this year, but he still has the ability to provide heat off the edge, something the Falcons sorely need.
Neal could slide into Osi Umenyiora’s role as a situational edge-rusher in the team’s subpackages or potentially replace Kroy Biermann as a starter at outside linebacker. Either way, the Falcons dump a large contract and get a much-needed playmaker that could actually make a difference for the defense moving forward. Neal is not the type of player that is destined to become a top-level pass-rusher, but certainly capable of being a solid starter at best and a quality situational guy at worst.
Replacing Soliai would not be as problematic as many might suspect. It would allow the Falcons to finally elevate Travian Robertson from the practice squad and get him the reps he definitely deserves after a very promising training camp. Robertson could split reps with Corey Peters, who already does that with Soliai. It would also give the Falcons the opportunity to employ Ra’Shede Hageman at the nose in certain situations to see if he is potentially a long-term option there. And frankly, given the lack of production in the run defense, even if those options are not upgrades to Soliai, it’s not as if a decline in the Falcons run defense is going to make a substantial difference this season.
Jacquizz Rodgers to the Buffalo Bills for Chris Hairston
The Bills recently lost running backs C.J. Spiller to a collarbone injury and Fred Jackson to a groin injury. Spiller is on the team’s injured reserve/designated for return, but if he does return in 2014, it won’t be until Week 16. Jackson is expected to miss at least three more weeks with his injury. That has left the Bills with some question marks at running back, as Bryce Brown and Anthony “Boobie” Dixon, neither of whom have proven themselves capable as third-down options.
Rodgers would be exactly that for the Bills until a time in which either Spiller or Jackson return to the lineup. But additionally, Rodgers gives the Bills an insurance policy in case they cannot negotiate a long-term deal with Spiller this offseason. Spiller can void the final year of his rookie contract next spring and become a free agent. The Bills just gave Jackson an extension this past summer, keeping him in the fold through 2015. But Jackson turns 34 in February, and there can’t be too much left in the tank.
Rodgers also is playing out the final weeks of his rookie contract, and would get the opportunity to earn a long-term deal from the Bills over the final eight games of this season.
In exchange, the Falcons would pick up a right tackle in the form of Chris Hairston. Right tackle has been a problematic position for the Falcons throughout 2014, and Hairston would give the team another option at the position in case Ryan Schraeder doesn’t work out in the foreseeable future. Hairston is also set to hit the open market next offseason as a free agent, but could potentially earn an opportunity to overtake an injured Lamar Holmes as the preferred long-term option at right tackle. Hairston also gives the Falcons added depth at left tackle given the ankle problems of rookie Jake Matthews. Hairston started 10 games over his first two seasons in Buffalo at the position. The addition of Hairston adds another body for the Falcons on the offensive line, an area that could certainly use the help. And frankly, Hairston has been a much more effective player over his career in Buffalo than either current Falcons backup tackles Jonathan Scott and Cameron Bradfield have been in recent years.
While losing Rodgers would be a significant blow to the Falcons running back depth, they should be able to absorb it given the presences of Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith and Steven Jackson. Freeman would be the player most likely to be asked to step up into the role as the Falcons top option on third downs, but Jackson is also a solid insurance policy given his experience. The presence of Freeman makes the probability that the Falcons would re-sign Rodgers next spring dubious at best, and thus getting something in the form of compensation for him, even a potential backup offensive linemen in Hairston is potentially worthwhile.
Javier Arenas to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Dekoda Watson
Right now, Arenas is contributing little in Atlanta since he has been inactive for every game this season. He could do a lot more in Jacksonville due to the fact that they just lost their nickel cornerback Will Blackmon for an indefinite period with a broken finger. Arenas is an experienced slot corner that could step right into the nickel role vacated by Blackmon. Arenas’ experience on special team could also provide a boost for an underwhelming Jaguars return game.
Arenas is essentially expendable to the Falcons due to the presences of Josh Wilson and Robert McClain as the team’s third and fourth cornerbacks, as well as Ricardo Allen’s presence on the practice squad. The Falcons could easily elevate Allen to the active roster just for the sake of deactivating a fifth corner every Sunday.
But instead, the Falcons could also be smart to swap Arenas for one of the Jaguars backups that is being underused in linebacker Dekoda Watson. Watson has never really found a home in the NFL since entering the league as a seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010. He spent four years mostly as a reserve with the Bucs, with his primary role being a situational pass-rusher.
The reason why Watson hasn’t found his footing is because he’s a natural 3-4 outside linebacker with 4-3 size. While an effective situational pass-rusher for the Bucs over the years, their defensive scheme never fully maximized his potential. He signed a three-year deal worth $6.5 million this past offseason with the Jaguars and was expected to play in a scheme that would be better able to utilize his skills. Yet thus far in 2014, Watson has only played 68 snaps, and only 10 of them have featured him rushing the quarterback.
In a hybrid 3-4 scheme like that the Falcons employ, Watson’s edge speed should be better utilized. Watson is only 26 and gives the Falcons a younger, alternative option at outside linebacker instead of Biermann. Not to mention Watson also cut his teeth on special teams over the years, meaning that even if he’s buried on the Falcons depth chart, he still has the ability to contribute in some way. But frankly, there is only upside for the Falcons with Watson instead of Arenas. Since Arenas has yet to play a single snap even on special teams, even the smallest contribution that Watson provides this year is a step in the right direction.