Please return your seat and tray-tables to their upright position, because the NFL preseason has begun its final descent. The regular season is two weeks away from today, and that means teams around the league are strapped with not only reducing their roster count to an 80-man tally this week, but down to 53 players before the month of August waves goodbye. Not every move will be a direct release, however, because trades are usually another prevalent tool used by clubs to shape their roster just ahead of the kickoff in September.
And when it comes to trades, there are plenty to consider -- with the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots setting things off by moving former first-round pick Sony Michel out west -- but some possibilities are more intriguing than others. The list of five below simply make a ton of sense for both clubs mentioned, and while they include some headline names, they're absent the usual outlandishness you often witness around this time of year.
If the respective teams pull the triggers below, it's hard to believe they'd do anything but improve ahead of Week 1.
Cowboys send Jaylon Smith (LB) to the Raiders for Brandon Parker (OT) + late-round pick
It's no secret that Smith was up against it heading into 2021 training camp. After all, following another questionable season by the former second-round pick in 2020, the Cowboys decided to select Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in the first and fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, respectively, and that was after signing safety Keanu Neal as a linebacker to reunite him with Dan Quinn and make for a more robust competition at LB. For Smith, things get more challenging by the sheer fact Leighton Vander Esch isn't only 100 percent healthy, but the former first-round pick has Quinn singing his his praises heading into the season and is motivated by the fact he's entering a contract year in Dallas. And with other , the Cowboys better have both ears open as the days/weeks roll along.
Releasing Smith would be borderline financial malpractice, considering they'd break even with no gain (or loss) as a post-June 1 move but would have to eat $9.8 million in dead money for the right to have a one less capable LB on the roster; and in a season where the defense absolutely has to impress. If they were to trade him, however, the dead money hit cascades to only $2.6 million and they'd net $7.2 million in savings.
OK, now we're talking. But who/what to trade him for? Look no further than the Las Vegas Raiders.
It's key to note general manager Mike Mayock was very high on Smith during the draft process in 2016, and so was Rod Marinelli -- the latter having gone on to coach Smith for multiple seasons before joining the Raiders. The two teams have quite the wormhole established as far as the Raiders having interest in current and former Cowboys players/coaches. And given the Raiders need at linebacker, in combination with what I just noted, they should call Dallas with an offer that includes backup tackle Brandon Parker to help the Cowboys with their dire need behind Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. The return of Smith and Collins is tremendous for the Cowboys, but Smith hasn't played a full season since 2015, and there's now 17 regular season games to be played -- not 16. Smith looks to be in fantastic shape, but ignoring recent history dooms you to repeat it, so don't.
Ty Nsekhe is battling a knee injury and was playing poorly this preseason (and in camp) before that ailment. Brandon Knight has unexpectedly regressed in a major way and Terence Steele is Terence Steele. Parker allowed only one sack in 345 offensive snaps last season, and with only three penalties all season, plus has 19 NFL starts in his young three-year career. This is a trade that would benefit both teams, and the Cowboys would also pocket more than $7 million that can rollover into 2022 free agency (toward LVE?).
Packers send second-round pick to Patriots for Stephon Gilmore
We all know what Jaire Alexander is: one of the best cornerbacks in the entire NFL. But other than Alexander, what can you honestly say positively about the cornerback depth chart in Green Bay -- that would even remotely match what Gilmore provides. Don't kid yourself here, Gilmore playing opposite Alexander would consistently delete the opposing team's top two receivers from being any sort of factor on the outcome of games. It's what the Packers hoped they gained when drafting Kevin King, but Tom Brady took aim at King in the postseason and turned him inside-out on a world stage. To King's credit, he did enough to at least warrant the Packers granting him a new deal this offseason, but it's a one-year deal for a very good reason.
King hasn't consistently been able to perform to the best of his abilities, but Gilmore is worth the price of admission, and yes, it'll be pricey -- from a contractual standpoint. Any team trading for him will likely have to also rework his deal, because that's the thorn in his side currently with the Patriots. Gilmore believes he deserves a pay increase, and you can argue he does, but the Patriots have yet to budge on granting him one. The Packers would have to be willing to do it, and have some wiggle room at the moment to the tune of roughly $13 million in cap space after reworking the deal on Aaron Rodgers.
Granted, it's now time to try to nail down Davante Adams, but multitasking is key here for general manager Brian Gutekunst -- who didn't have the best offseason from a PR perspective.
Ironing things out with a future first-ballot Hall of Famer is a great parry for this offseason's drama, along with reuniting with Randall Cobb, and striking a deal that would send a second-round pick to Bill Belichick might make Rodgers think a bit harder about potentially wanting out in 2022.
Saints send Michael Thomas (WR) to the Jaguars for C.J. Henderson (CB)
It feels sort of like a telenovela in New Orleans, when considering the drama and plot twists emerging frequently in the Michael Thomas saga. In 2020, the record-setting wideout battled injury that cost him a chunk of the season and combined with rumors of an alleged rift with the Saints -- both their front office and head coach Sean Payton -- and the Saints were supposedly open to trading him, but that didn't materialize. Fast forward to 2021 and things have worsened in a major way, with Thomas opting to wait until June to undergo offseason ankle surgery and the Saints being publicly angry at the decision. That was followed by reports of Thomas having ghosted the Saints all offseason before going under the knife, ignoring calls from the team and Payton altogether.
It appears there's at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon though, with Thomas and Payton attempting to smooth things out, but until Thomas is back on the field and performing for the Saints, trade rumors will persist from now to the end of October. And if the rocky marriage to Thomas does appear set to end, it only makes sense they'd get in bed with the Jaguars, who are having their own set of issues in determining what to do with former first-round (read: top-10) pick C.J. Henderson. Newly-installed head coach Urban Meyer doesn't seem too enthralled with Henderson and, as such, signed Shaquill Griffin before going on to draft cornerback Tyson Campbell in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
That said, here's the skinny: the Saints have a strong need at cornerback opposite Marshon Lattimore and the Jaguars would love nothing more than to give first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence a weapon like Thomas, but that's not the only angle here. Thomas would reunite with Meyer, his former head coach at Ohio State. So if anyone can understand the mercurial Thomas, it's Meyer, and that angle could go a long way in this type of trade negotiation.
If Meyer can convince the Jaguars to soften the cap blow for the Saints to make this happen, he should, and the Saints should be willing to at least listen to what Jacksonville has to say -- in a move that would also ship Thomas to the other conference.
Cardinals send Chandler Jones (EDGE) to the Jets for Marcus Maye (S)
if it feels like deja vu in New York, that's fair, considering the team opted to move on from one of the league's best safeties in Jamal Adams last season -- after Adams became disgruntled when contract talks became fractured. One season later, it's Marcus Maye looking for his payday and, like Adams before him, talks with the Jets have broken down. But while Maye is seemingly content to revisit the matter in 2022, the Jets may not have that luxury when considering they just lost Carl Lawson for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. There's currently no one on the roster who can instantly do for the Jets in 2021 what Lawson was set to do, after signing a three-year, $45 million contract this offseason.
Enter Jones, who can actually best Lawson in all manner of rushing the passer, and who is currently very open to packing his bags and leaving the Cardinals -- contract talks having stalled in the desert as well. Of course, this wasn't what the Cardinals had planned when they signed J.J. Watt to play opposite Jones (who's returning from a season-ending injury in 2021), but sometimes you have to adapt to the cards on the table. Because if they don't want to ante up and pay Jones, and if the Jets don't want to give Maye the bag he deserves, it could serve both well to make this swap.
Maye playing in tandem with Budda Baker would be lethal, and Jones taking his 97 career sacks (six double-digit sack seasons in 121 starts) to New York would make Robert Saleh -- who is very familiar with Jones from his time as 49ers defensive coordinator -- drool noticeably into his protein shake.
Rams send backup iOL to the Giants for Ryan Santoso (K)
UPDATE: Giants send Santoso to Panthers on Thursday
Kickers matter, period. It's easy for the casual NFL fan to overlook their importance, that is until a potential game-winning kick goes sailing wide of the uprights. The Rams are in a dealing mood in 2021, having already shipped out Jared Goff to ship in Matthew Stafford and then sending defensive end Michael Brockers to join the former in Detroit. Not quite done ahead of the regular season, they've now struck a deal with the New England Patriots to acquire former first-round pick Sony Michel after losing running back Cam Akers to a torn Achilles. And since they're next to the phone, it would behoove them to call the New York Giants to see what the asking price is for Santoso -- a player who has no roster fit in New York but enough potential to warrant making an offer on.
The contract extension on team-favorite Graham Gano leaves Santoso out in the dark, and the Giants are reportedly shopping him for a potential trade. The Rams can't afford to not make an attempt at grabbing him, because their kicking woes could roll into the regular season and cost them a game or more. And in the gauntlet of the NFC West, a single win or loss can often be the difference between winning the division or not making the playoffs at all.
A late-round pick should be sufficient to get this deal done, but the Giants might (and should) prefer a backup interior lineman -- having lost Joe Looney to retirement only four days after signing him. And unless the Rams want to risk close games on the inconsistent boot of Matt Gay, who currently has no competition in camp and has already stumbled in the preseason, they should pick the most viable one and send him to the northeast.
Gay is a former fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was jettisoned after mustering a FG accuracy rate of just 77.1 percent in 16 games -- also missing three extra points that season (sound familiar, LA?). If they want Santoso, they should move quickly, considering the Cleveland Browns just released Cody Parkey after placing him on IR, increasing demand for a quality kicker.