2020 NFL trade deadline grades: Assessing five notable moves
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NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful … or the most misunderstood.

This week, in the wake of Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline, I’m assessing some notable moves. How does each traded veteran project on his new roster? Is the fit worth the price of the deal?

Keep in mind, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is quite unique, with NFL revenue shortfall in 2020 poised to lower the salary cap in 2021. Thus, trade calculations were different from years past. This means there could be a bigger gap than normal between salary forecasts by teams and the forward-looking expectations from players.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there’s a stat/trend you’d like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

The trade: The Los Angeles Chargers sent King to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The skinny: Tennessee allows the second-most passing yards per game on third down (77.9) and yields the highest third-down conversion rate by a wide margin (61.9 percent, with Carolina ranked 31st at 54.2). The Titans are also tied for the fourth-most passing touchdowns allowed (17). King is a versatile defensive back, but he particularly excels at defending the slot, where Pro Football Focus ranks him as the third-best cover man since 2018. In that same time span, my computer vision shows that slot receivers in King’s coverage have earned about 20 percent fewer first downs than they have against the average slot defender (31.6 percent for King vs. a 52 percent average). Adding King increases the Titans’ odds of winning at least one playoff game by 5.5 percent: 50.6 to 56.1 percent. With cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (knee) still not playing, this is some much-needed 2020 help, with King highly incentivized to perform, given that he’s headed for free agency in the offseason.

The bottom line: Renting King for the price of a sixth-rounder is an excellent move for the Titans, who needed to shore up their pass defense. The Chargers are a team in transition, and if King’s not a part of their future, getting anything for his services is at least a return on investment.

THE GRADES — Titans: A | Chargers: C

The trade: The San Francisco 49ers sent Alexander to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for LB Kiko Alonso and a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft.

The skinny: The middle of New Orleans’ defense has been an area of weakness this season, especially at critical times. On third down, the Saints have allowed the second-most yards per play (7.0) and fourth-highest passer rating (74.4). For New Orleans, first downs yielded on passes to the middle of the field — where Alexander will roam — are up about three per game from the first eight weeks of last season (18 in 2020, 15.2 in 2019). Alexander hasn’t played since Week 5 due to an ankle injury; however, PFF still credits him with 10 defensive stops — only one fewer than Saints star Demario Davis. Trading Alexander for Alonso actually nets the Saints a small cap gain for the season.

The bottom line: If Alexander can return to good health — which, obviously, the Saints think he can — he gives this defense a very nice running mate for Davis on the second level. Both linebackers are versatile, sideline-to-sideline playmakers. And with Drew Brees not getting any younger, the Saints are clearly all in on this season. On the other hand, the Niners have to be happy getting out from under Alexander’s contract (a four-year, $54 million deal he signed in March of 2019). Alexander’s only started 13 of 24 regular-season games since inking the deal, and second-year linebacker Dre Greenlaw has already proven to be a viable alternative. Meanwhile, Alonso’s off the books after this season.

THE GRADES — Saints: B+ | 49ers: A-

The trade: The New York Jets sent Williamson and a 2022 seventh-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for a 2022 fifth-rounder.

The skinny: The Steelers are bona fide Super Bowl contenders. But defensive injuries — most notably, Devin Bush’s season-ending ACL tear — are concerning, especially considering Pittsburgh’s D currently leads the NFL in win shares added (4.4). Williamson’s Jets data from this season has been better against the run than the pass, but he does have three passes defensed and one interception. And honestly, it’s hard to project Williamson’s value to Pittsburgh using his data from this season in New York, as the two teams and schemes have encountered (and will face) vastly different scenarios. For example, the 0-8 Jets have only led at halftime once this entire season (against the Bills in Week 7).

The bottom line: The Steelers needed to bolster the ILB position now — like right now, as this has the makings of a special season, with Pittsburgh the last remaining undefeated at 7-0. Williamson is due to hit free agency in the new year, so the incentives are aligned for performance. The winless Jets were obviously sellers, looking past this current season, so collecting future draft equity gives them more flexibility to maneuver.

THE GRADES — Steelers: A- | Jets: B

The trade: The Miami Dolphins sent Ford to the New England Patriots in exchange for a conditional sixth-round pick in the 2022 draft.

The skinny: Prior to this deal, the 2017 seventh-rounder had the fourth-most catches on the Dolphins (18, on 29 targets), but he led the team in third-down grabs (six, all of which earned first downs, on nine targets). The slot was an area of need for these depleted Pats, and Ford’s cheap price tag — he signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with Miami in April — was what New England could afford.

The bottom line: The former Virginia Tech star could fill a big need at the right price for New England. Meanwhile, Miami needed to make room on their roster for a running back (see below).

THE GRADES — Patriots: B+ | Dolphins: C

The trade: The Kansas City Chiefs sent Washington and a conditional 2021 seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a conditional 2021 sixth-rounder.

The skinny: The value of a reliable running back (and overall rushing production) for a rookie quarterback with a sub-par offensive line is key to Miami’s development and long-term success. Especially given that the Dolphins’ defense has been increasingly efficient — in fact, the unit’s currently allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL (18.6). Myles Gaskin’s MCL sprain — which reportedly could force him to miss three games — hit hard. So giving up a conditional 2021 sixth-rounder to acquire Washington (a 2016 fifth-round pick) and a conditional 2021 seventh-rounder makes sense. Minimal downside, some upside … why not? The former Raider has shown to be an efficient pass-catching threat out of the backfield, and he forced a respectable 17 missed tackles in 2019, per PFF.

The bottom line: Helping Tua Tagovailoa grow is an extremely important strategy, and replacing injuries has to be a priority. This low-cost option helps reinforce that principle. The Chiefs had more use for Washington on their practice squad than active roster, so why not add to their draft equity?

THE GRADES — Dolphins: B | Chiefs: B

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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