Several NFL teams make the leap each season from the outhouse of non-playoff teams to the penthouse of postseason participants. In 2022, there were seven new playoff teams and four new division champs (Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, and Jacksonville Jaguars) compared to the previous season.
Jacksonville increased its win total by six during the regular season while the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings were five wins better.
Back in 1999, the St. Louis Rams went from a 4-12, last-place team to Super Bowl champions when they beat my Tennessee Titans team that had improved from 8-8 to AFC champs.
All of those examples prove that NFL teams can make the leap from a broken team to a playoff team in one year with astute moves in free agency, the draft, and through trades.
Looking at the last of those three methods, here are my trade ideas to help four teams make this major jump and begin turning the corner this offseason.
Raiders Acquire Rodgers
The mercurial Aaron Rodgers has emerged from his “darkness retreat” and surely will not retire, which would result in giving up his guaranteed $59 million option bonus this year, along with forcing him to share the Hall of Fame spotlight with Tom Brady in five years.
I originally thought the Green Bay Packers would want to hang on to Rodgers for one more year given the huge dead-money hit to their salary cap ($40.3 million if he’s traded before June 1, or it would be split over 2023 and 2024 if he’s dealt after June 1). With Jordan Love performing well in his relief appearance last season against the Eagles and Green Bay missing the playoffs, I think it’s become a distinct possibility that the Packers and Rodgers mutually will agree it’s time for him to move on.
>> READ: Rodgers Leaves Darkness Retreat
In this scenario, there will be plenty of competition for Rodgers. He does not have a no-trade clause, but the Packers have hinted they would take his wishes into account. They certainly would want to send him to an AFC team if the trade offers are fairly equal. The Las Vegas Raiders and New York Jets seem to be the most likely destinations for Rodgers, with Las Vegas having a much better salary cap position ($46 million in cap room) to absorb Rodgers’ $31.6 million cap hit in 2023, which can be lowered through a restructure.
Additionally, Rodgers would relish a reunion with Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams, and the Raiders’ offensive line allowed seven fewer sacks than the Jets’ last season. The Raiders are coming off a 6-11 season and owner Mark Davis, GM Dave Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels can dream of Rodgers being the catalyst to lead the team to next year’s Super Bowl, which will be played in their Allegiant Stadium. McDaniels also needs a turnaround in his second season for job security.
For an asking price, the Packers will point to the recent trades of Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams and Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos that brought multiple No. 1 draft picks in return, along with other picks and players. Rodgers is 39 years old while Stafford and Wilson were both 33 when traded. But the Packers will use Tom Brady as an example of how an elite QB can win a Super Bowl, as Brady did in 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 43.
The Raiders will want to keep their No. 7 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and I propose they trade their second-rounder in 2023 (No. 38 overall), a fourth-round pick this year, and a No. 1 pick in 2024 for Rodgers. The Packers also likely would ask for tight end Darren Waller or wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, especially if they want to wait until after June 1 to make the deal. In that event, the trade could involve one of those players and the Raiders’ first- and second-round picks in 2024.
Titans Trade for Hopkins
There were three major trades involving wide receivers before the draft last year, with Adams, Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown moving. The Titans were less potent offensively without Brown, who had a Pro Bowl season in Philadelphia.
If Tennessee can pull off a trade for five-time Pro Bowl pick DeAndre Hopkins, it would give them an excellent veteran receiver — if Hopkins can stay healthy — to pair with last year’s top pick, Treylon Burks. The Titans have a need at receiver after releasing veteran Robert Woods.
The Arizona Cardinals have a new coach in Jonathan Gannon and a new GM in Monti Ossenfort, who may be looking to rebuild the roster with young draftees in a season when quarterback Kyler Murray is expected to miss several games as he recovers from his ACL injury.
There are indications that the Cardinals may be willing to deal Hopkins, who turns 31 in June and missed 15 games over the past two seasons due to injury and a six-game PED suspension. He was productive when he played, with 64 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns in nine games last season. By trading Hopkins, the Cardinals would gain $8 million in salary cap room to help fortify the roster through free agency.
The Cardinals can’t expect to receive the multiple high draft picks (including first-rounders) that were involved in the Adams, Hill, and Brown deals. All three were healthier players, and much younger in the case of the 25-year-old Brown, for whom the Titans received first- and third-round picks last year.
Ossenfort most recently was the Titans’ director of player personnel, and he can help his old and new teams by sending Hopkins to Music City. The package should include a third-round pick in 2023 and another third-rounder in 2024 that can be upgraded to a second-round pick if Hopkins plays in 13 or more games and has at least 70 receptions, which he accomplished in his seven seasons from 2014-2020.
The Titans can restructure Hopkins’ contract to lower the $21.7 million cap hit from his base salary and roster bonus to help their salary cap. After their disastrous 7-10 finish last season that closed with seven consecutive losses to hand the AFC South to the Jaguars, the Titans need to make a bold move to gain some positive momentum, and acquiring Hopkins would be energizing for coach Mike Vrabel’s team.
Bears Trade Back, Stockpile Picks
The Houston Texans did the Chicago Bears a huge favor when they beat the Indianapolis Colts in the season finale, giving Chicago the top pick in the draft after an awful 3-14 season that ended with 10 straight losses.
I think the Bears will wisely keep a rising star in quarterback Justin Fields, whom they traded up to draft No. 11 overall in 2021, giving up their No. 1 picks in 2021 and 2022 as part of the deal with the Giants.
With a much better supporting cast (especially at wide receiver), I believe Fields can be a Pro Bowl quarterback, and the opportunity is there for Bears GM Ryan Poles to gain several high draft picks by dealing the No. 1 overall pick.
The Bears can address their big needs at wide receiver and pass rusher (after a league-worst 20 sacks last season) by gaining extra picks and also tapping into a league-most $101 million in salary cap space.
>> READ: Bears-Colts Trade in Latest Mock Draft
Poles will not want to fall too far in the first round unless he receives an offer involving veteran players and multiple first-, second- and third-round picks, as the Rams gave the Titans in 2016 when they moved from No. 15 to No. 1 and selected Jared Goff. I think the Bears want to stay in the top four where, after possibly three quarterbacks are taken, they almost certainly would be able to draft one of the top two defensive players in this year’s draft — either Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter or Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr..
I think the Bears should make a trade with the Colts to move down to No. 4 and receive the Colts’ first-round pick (No. 4 overall), a high second-round pick this year (No. 35 overall), Indianapolis’ fourth-round pick this year, and the Colts’ first-round pick in 2024. This brings us to …
Colts Move Up to No. 1, Draft QB
The Colts have a great track record with the last two quarterbacks they drafted with the top pick: Peyton Manning in 1998 and Andrew Luck in 2012. Since Luck’s early retirement in 2019, it’s been a revolving door at QB, with Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and Matt Ryan among the starters there.
GM Chris Ballard has seen enough quarterback instability after last season’s ugly 4-12-1 finish. He said recently he would “ do whatever it takes” to move up to the No. 1 overall pick “if we thought there’s a player we’re driven to get.”
>>READ: Do Colts Have Favorite QB in Mind?
We don’t know if any of the consensus top-three quarterbacks in the draft — Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, or Kentucky’s Will Levis — fit the bill for Ballard and new coach Shane Steichen, but I think one of them will drive a trade up to No. 1. However, if Ballard has the top three QBs rated fairly even and would be happy with any of them, then it makes sense for him to trade with Arizona and only move up one spot, which would be a lot less costly in terms of draft capital.
It’s more likely there will be one guy the Colts covet above the others, which should motivate a big move to No. 1. And if that quarterback is of the game-changing, Pro Bowl-caliber of Manning or Luck, it’s worth giving up several picks for a player at the game’s most important position who can lead this broken franchise back to playoff status.
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.