Although the off-season hasn’t even officially started yet, this past month has gone from what is usually the NFL’s “dead period” to an unprecedented feeding frenzy on the trade market. It began on January 30th, when the Kansas City Chiefs agreed to deal veteran starting quarterback and reigning passer rating champion Alex Smith to Washington for a 3rd-round pick and Kendall Fuller, an up-and-coming slot corner.
Then, three weeks later, the Chiefs struck again, trading All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters and a 6th-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for 2nd- and 4th-round selections. For the Chiefs, this was seen as a move to establish a new locker room culture, considering that Peters was suspended by the Chiefs last season, in part due to a falling out with a coach. For the Rams, meanwhile, that trade was an attempt to narrow the gap with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Now, the Rams-Eagles rivalry has only heated up. Just a day after the Eagles agreed to a trade for long-time Seattle Seahawks pressure machine defensive end Michael Bennett to tighten the Eagles’ stronghold over the NFL, Rams’ general manager, “Trader Les” Snead, has once again countered by bolstering the Los Angeles secondary. Although signing veteran free agent cornerback Sam Shields early Thursday afternoon added valuable depth, the big-ticket item came later that same night, when the Rams traded a 5th-round pick to the Denver Broncos for 2016 All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib.
On the surface, the Rams seem like indisputable winners. Talib is a dominant physical presence that has consistently been a force in press-man coverage. He has recorded an interception in each of his ten seasons in the NFL, and this past year posted a top-15 coverage grade according to Pro Football Focus, in spite of his advanced age. So, Talib could end up being a major boon as a match-up corner for a Rams defense that is slated to lose both Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman in free agency.
However, looking beyond simply Talib’s performance, there are numerous factors that even the trade out for both teams involved. Primarily, there is the issue of Talib’s age and contract. Currently 32, and set to become a free agent in 2020, one cannot realistically expect Talib to be anything more than a two-year rental. Considering the reports that Talib initially preferred to be released, citing a desire to sign with either the Rams or the New England Patriots, it can be inferred that Talib senses that the end of his star-studded career is fast approaching and wants to go out on a high note: playing for a contender under a familiar coach.
– Alex Smith to WSH for Kendall Fuller & a 3
– Marcus Peters to LAR for a 4 & '19 2nd.
– Robert Quinn & a 6 to MIA for a 4 & 6
– Michael Bennett & a 7 to PHI for a 5 & Marcus Johnson
– Alec Ogeltree and a 7 to NYG for a 4 & 6
– Aqib Talib to LAR for a 5
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) March 9, 2018
Although Talib will now be reunited with long-time Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, at Talib’s age there comes another, more insidious factor: declining performance. Although Talib was still dominant last season, his straight-line speed is nowhere near where it used to be, which could hurt when it comes to accelerating to run down receivers from behind or make plays on the ball. Furthermore, Talib’s 2017 campaign may have been the worst statistically of his career, as he posted career-lows in both interceptions (1) and pass breakups (7). Granted, cornerback stats without context are to be taken with a grain of salt, but if this becomes a trend, it could indicate that the Rams may not get what they paid for in Talib.
Speaking of pay, the other concern with Talib is his hefty cap hit, which is slated to be $12 million in 2018. Although the Broncos have to cover the final $1 million in signing bonus, this move still frees up a substantial amount. If the Broncos then decide to proceed with subsequent pay cuts, such as releasing running back C.J. Anderson and his $4.5 million price tag, Denver’s cap space would balloon to over $40 million, putting them in prime position to take a shot at a top free agent quarterback — something the team desperately needs. For the Rams, meanwhile, the cap hit is largely a non-factor.
While it may seem like a tough pill to swallow considering the Rams’ recent trades of linebacker Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants and edge rusher Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins, the Rams will still have more than enough cash to not only accommodate Talib, but also to look to re-sign defensive tackle Aaron Donald and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Furthermore, there are no long-term implications in Talib’s salary, as he can now be cut at any time with no dead money.
So it is difficult to declare a concrete winner or loser in this trade, as both teams seem to have gotten what they wanted. For the Rams, it was a ferocious match-up corner to neutralize the dynamic passing offenses of rival teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, and potentially make a Super Bowl push in the next couple years. For the Broncos, who are still several pieces away from truly contending, it was valuable cap space to chase a quarterback, as well as a late-round pick that has the potential to turn into key depth piece.
With that said, the trade should still have ringing implications throughout the league. For instance, it almost guarantees that the Broncos are able to walk away with one of the top free agent quarterbacks. While the dreams of winning the Kirk Cousins lottery — and all the perks that come with the able-minded touch passer — are reportedly dwindling, Case Keenum is still on the table, and the Broncos may be willing and able to pay. This would cause a shakeup at the position for the Minnesota Vikings, Keenum’s old team, and could also cause a subsequent domino effect if the Broncos decide to then trade incumbent signal callers Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. With the Atlanta Falcons supposedly interested in Siemian, such a trade could bring another late-round draft pick to Denver, potentially throwing more young depth into the Broncos’ pool.
This trade also likely removes the Rams entirely from the secondary market. Considering that high-profile defensive backs Richard Sherman and Tyrann Mathieu may both be cut in the coming days by the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals respectively, the acquisition of Talib all but guarantees landing spots elsewhere. One destination to watch for Mathieu in particular is the Cleveland Browns, who are in desperate need of both a high safety and a fluid slot defender — two roles that the Honey Badger can safely fill.