If the New England Patriots want to retain free-agent quarterback Tom Brady, then they might need to swing for the fences by agreeing to trade for a pass catcher before the start of the NFL’s new year.
The Patriots reportedly are “sniffing around” the trade market for wide receivers and tight ends. They’re primed to have three third-round picks in his year’s NFL draft and are strapped for salary cap room, so acquiring a player via trade might be smarter than breaking the bank for a player like Amari Cooper, Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry in free agency.
There are many, many, many wide receivers and tight ends out there in the NFL. So, where do we start looking for trade candidates? Some names already have been thrown around. The Cleveland Browns could be looking to shop wide receiver Odell Beckham one year after acquiring him via trade. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs constantly seems to be on the trade block. The Baltimore Ravens appear willing to shop tight end Hayden Hurst. San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Marquise Goodwin reportedly is available. And writers from The Athletic mentioned Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller, Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald as players who could be tradeable.
But the real place to look is the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Teams must make the decision whether to pick up those players’ fifth-year options by May 30. The Patriots have acquired a number of players previously selected with first-round picks via trade over the years with Brandin Cooks, Jonathan Cooper, Phillip Dorsett and Danny Shelton all being notable examples. If a team is having a hard time deciding if they should pick up a player’s option, then it might be best to trade them a year early, pick up some compensation and force that decision on someone else.
Here are all of the wide receivers and tight ends drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft:
WR Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans
Davis has never lived up to his first-round billing, though he started to show signs of a breakout in 2018 when he caught 65 passes for 891 yards with four touchdowns. He regressed in 2019 after rookie wideout A.J. Brown passed him on the Titans’ receiver pecking order. Davis caught 43 passes for 601 yards with two touchdowns last season.
He’s had two very good games against the Patriots, catching seven passes for 125 yards with a touchdown in 2018 and five passes for 63 yards with two touchdowns in a 2017 postseason game. Davis also has great size at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds.
The biggest question here is why the Titans would be willing to part with Davis. His cap hit is $8 million in 2020, which is pretty high for an underperforming first-round pick. The Titans could save $3.9 million in cap room by trading Davis. That also would be Davis’ cap hit with the Patriots.
Davis wouldn’t be the splashiest addition, but we don’t hate this idea if the Patriots are looking for a big outside target who could still have some upside.
WR Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
Williams is coming off of his first 1,000-yard season. He hauled in 49 passes on 90 targets for 1,001 yards with two touchdowns in 2019. He had 43 catches on 66 targets for 664 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2018.
He’s had an interesting, if inconsistent, career through three seasons with the Chargers but did appear to be coming into his own as a big-play threat last season, registering almost half of his receiving yards on deep catches. Williams has great size at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. He’ll cost the Chargers $6.3 million in cap room next season. The Chargers could save $3.2 million in cap space by trading him.
Williams will cost significantly more money in 2021 if the Chargers pick up his fifth-year option. They might essentially have to decide between keeping Williams or re-signing Keenan Allen as a free agent in 2021. We’d personally pick Allen. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Chargers are looking to unload Williams a year early, however.
WR John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
Ross had his best season last year, picking up 28 catches for 506 yards with three touchdowns in eight games. He caught 21 passes for 210 yards with seven touchdowns in 2018 after being held catchless in three games during his rookie season.
Ross will count $5.4 million against the cap in 2020, and the Bengals could save $2.8 million by trading him, which they should absolutely consider since cutting him would save no cap space thanks to a guaranteed salary.
Ross is certainly the most tradeable option on this list. But the Patriots would basically be acquiring a less dependable Phillip Dorsett with slightly higher upside. The Patriots need a player with Ross’ speed. He ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash. But there’s no real indication that he can be a Tyreek Hill-like option in an offense.
We’d make the move, but the Patriots couldn’t stop acquiring offensive weapons there.
TE O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It feels like Howard is being wasted in Tampa Bay. He caught just 34 passes for 459 yards with one touchdown in 2019 after showing promise in his second season. He has 94 catches for 1,459 yards with 12 touchdowns in three seasons. Howard would count just $2 million against the salary cap for a new team. His 2020 cap hit would be a still affordable $3.5 million in Tampa.
The Patriots would be smart to add him, but the Bucs seem unwilling to deal him, and his cap hit is far from prohibitive for Tampa. At the same time, the Buccaneers probably shouldn’t pick up his fifth-year option since he’s being underutilized, and they could add a draft pick by letting him go a year early.
TE Evan Engram, New York Giants
ESPN’s Matthew Berry floated out Engram as a trade candidate after the NFL Scouting Combine. Engram’s cap hit is $3.4 million with the Giants. A new team would acquire him on a $1.9 million cap hit.
Engram is more of a big receiver than tight end, but he has 153 catches for 1,766 yards with 12 touchdowns in three seasons. He’s an unbelievable athlete and should be a matchup problem if he can stay healthy.
Some of Engram’s closest wide receiver comps based on his pre-draft measurables are Quincy Enunwa, Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Brown and Josh Gordon.
Engram played just eight games last season but still caught 44 passes for 467 yards with three touchdowns.
He’d be an injury risk, but the upside might outweigh it.
TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Njoku is an obvious trade candidate after managing just five catches for 41 yards in four games last season. He previously caught 56 passes for 639 yards with four touchdowns in 2018. Njoku would cost just $1.3 million against the cap for a team interested in acquiring him. It probably wouldn’t require much draft capital to acquire him.
We don’t necessarily hate the idea of trading for any of these six players. They’d all be useful in the Patriots’ offense. Williams would undoubtedly cost the most trade compensation. Acquiring a tight end like Engram, taking a flier on a receiver like Ross or Davis while also picking up a piece or two in the draft would go a long way towards improving the Patriots’ offense.