Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Closely at the McCoy-Alonso Trade

NFL fans are abuzz about the first major move of the 2015 offseason, in which the Buffalo Bills acquired running back LeSean McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Fans are familiar with McCoy, considered one of the best running backs in the NFL.

Alonso was a second-round pick in 2013 and had a great rookie season, but missed his second season because of a torn ACL. Alonso also happens to be a University of Oregon graduate, so he has immediate connections with Chip Kelly.

It's easy to "read and react" to a trade such as this. Any fantasy football player knows how coveted primary backs are, so naturally they will think the Bills came out ahead and the Eagles made a bad move. Meanwhile, there will be those who will point to how the Bills just traded a young, talented defensive player who won't even paid $1 million next season, and how foolish the Bills look for giving away such a talent.

"Read and react" doesn't really get to the heart of why each team made the move it made. Each team has a potential reward coming out of the trade, but does take some risk. Let's look at each team's situation and the rewards and risks that can result from the trade.

Bills team situation: The Bills finished 9-7 last year, thanks to one of the best defenses in the NFL. However, they enter the offseason with some major holes to fill on the offensive side of the ball. They need a quarterback, a tight end, and upgrades on the offensive line. They also needed a running back, because C.J. Spiller is a free agent and likely won't be back, and Fred Jackson has played well but turns 32. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills have a glut of linebackers, as they got quality play out of rookie Preston Brown and third-year player Nigel Bradham.

Bills reward: The trade makes sense from the Bills' perspective, because they are trading away a player at a position at which they have depth, to acquire a player at a position of need. It is true that Alonso was terrific as a rookie, and that Bills fans loved him, but given that they have two quality linebackers already, it makes sense to put Alonso on the trading block. And given that the pickings among free agent QBs and rookie QBs are slim, it makes sense for the Bills to take a chance on a running back who has the reputation as a game changer. Since all the Bills are giving up in the trade is a player at a position in which they already have capable starters, they aren't taking that much risk.

Additionally, McCoy has shown that he can be a productive player. If he can bounce back after a disappointing 2014 season, he could give the Bills a new dimension to the offense and take pressure off whoever will be the quarterback. That might allow the Bills to make another playoff run, and then the team might be in better position next year to find a quarterback who can put them over the top.

Bills risk: Obviously, some people will point to past trades for running backs, in which one team gave up something significant to get the back, and the team who dealt the back came out ahead. The most recent example, of course, is Trent Richardson, who proved to be worth nowhere near the first-round pick that the Colts gave up to acquire him from the Browns.  One that happened 11 years ago was the trade in which the Broncos sent Clinton Portis to Washington for cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick. I had several people who told me at the time that you just couldn't find backs like Portis, but although Portis had a fine career, he never put Washington over the top. Meanwhile, Bailey had more seasons of productivity for the Broncos and ensured himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. None of this means that the Bills are destined for a similar outcome, but it certainly is something to keep in mind.

The real risk for the Bills comes in the form of the salary cap hit. The pro-rated signing bonus from McCoy's contract he originally signed with Philly will only apply to Philly's cap, but he is still due a $9.75 million base salary (of which $1 million is guaranteed) and $500,000 in bonuses. That accounts for a $10.25 million cap hit for Buffalo, which means the Bills will only have about $20 million in cap space left. The cap hit for McCoy is second highest among running backs, and backs who are just as productive, such as Marshawn Lynch ($8.5 million cap hit) and Jamaal Charles ($7.9 million cap hit), have more manageable contracts. The Bills will likely work out an extension for McCoy to free up cap space, but must be careful in structuring the contract so they can get out of it if McCoy doesn't produce as expected.

And while the Bills weren't necessarily going to be big spenders in free agency, the fact the Bills see themselves as just a couple of players away from making that final push to the playoffs, means they need to acquire some free agents. Even with McCoy, they were need of a quarterback, and now they just acquired Matt Cassel, who carries risk at this point. (Note: Blog post has been updated to recognize the trade announced the morning of March 4.) They will need to upgrade their offensive line, and while there are quality guards available in free agency, they won't come cheap. Finally, they will need to find a defensive end who can replace Jerry Hughes, who appears likely to sign with another team. It is understandable that the Bills do not want to overpay for Hughes, but his departure means the Bills must either sign or draft a replacement.

The Bills will have to be especially careful with their draft selections, considering they have just six at this point, with none in the first round or fourth round -- and that's not counting whatever pick they may have sent to the Vikings in the Cassel trade. They will likely gain a compensatory selection, but those picks cannot be traded. The Bills will be in a tough situation, because their first selection comes midway through the second round and they won't have many draft picks to make a move up the board.

Eagles team situation: Philadelphia finished 10-6, despite multiple injuries to offensive linemen and a defense that ranked in the bottom third among all NFL teams in points and yards allowed. The Eagles definitely see themselves as a playoff contender, despite questions marks at the quarterback position. Along with deciding whether or not Nick Foles is truly the answer at QB, they need defensive backs and linebackers, and will likely be seeking depth on the defensive line.

Eagles reward: Everyone who wants to admonish the Eagles for trading such a great running back needs to look at what the Eagles got in return: A player at a position of need. Acquiring a young talent such as Alonso, who will get a salary of less than $1 million, is an excellent move for Philly. It is true that Alonso is coming off an ACL injury, but given the salary and the fact that he enters his third season, the risk is extremely low, while the reward is very high, especially given how well Alonso played as a rookie. If Alonso doesn't prove to be a quality starter, he could still be a good backup, and a salary and cap hit of less than $1 million (keep in mind the Bills will eat the cap hit for the signing bonus) is still good value for a backup player.

By trading McCoy, the Eagles free up $7.5 million in cap space, which will give them nearly $40 million in cap space going into the offseason. The Eagles are now right up there with the Colts as a playoff contender who has the cap space available to make big moves in free agency. The Eagles now have to be considered a major player for Devin McCourty, who would provide an upgrade at safety. If they don't land McCourty, they could focus on a cornerback, a position at which there are plenty of good options available. Kareem Jackson is a possibility for the Eagles, and so is Brandon Flowers. The Eagles might even consider available linebackers.

But what about the hole left with McCoy's absence? First of all, the running back class in the 2015 draft is deep. The Eagles could easily find their replacement for McCoy in the second round of the draft, and teams in recent seasons have found great value in second-round backs. The Eagles did just that when they drafted McCoy. More recent examples are LeVeon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Giovanni Bernard.

Another possibility is to give a free agent back a one-year deal with no guaranteed money. The only free agent RB likely to get a top-dollar contract is DeMarco Murray, while most everyone else will likely have to settle for less money. Most teams just aren't committing top dollars to running backs any longer, so the Eagles can afford to be patient and find the right back in free agency or the draft. 

There is the question concerning Nick Foles, but he will have just a $1.67 million cap hit. It does make sense for the Eagles to give him one more year to see if he can be the long-term answer at quarterback. There is no urgency for the Eagles to sign him to an extension at this point. They can afford to let Foles start, require that he prove himself, and if he does, then they can talk about an extension. If he's not up to the task, the Eagles haven't lost that much in return, because it cost them a cap hit of less than $2 million, which is about what you would expect to commit toward a backup QB, and that hit comes off the books in 2016.

Eagles risk: The risk the Eagles are taking has less to do with McCoy than it has to do with how they handle free agency and the draft. Eagles fans no doubt remember the "Dream Team" that was built in free agency a couple of season ago and how it backfired, so there will certainly be skepticism if the Eagles go "all in" on too many free agents. Even if the Eagles are prudent with those free agents, the question remains whether or not those free agents will be the right fits. Additionally, if they choose to retain any of their pending FAs, they will need to be careful with those deals.

The same also applies to the draft. The Eagles will have eight picks, two in the fourth round, and will need to not only find the right running back to replace McCoy, but find players who can help the defense and with depth.

It is worth noting, though, that the real risks to the Eagles are the ones they take in finding the players they need. They are in a better position than the Bills to address those needs, but they will still need to play it smart. Given that Chip Kelly appears to have more input in personnel now, he will need to demonstrate he can make the right moves and keep the Eagles a playoff contender in the coming seasons. 

In short, it's understandable why the Bills made this trade, but the Bills take on a little more risk than the Eagles do. The Eagles are not without any risk, but it's not as much as people think, and has more to do with other personnel decisions they make to improve their team, rather than the perceived gaping hole from trading away a player whose popularity has as much to do with fantasy football as it does with his play in general.

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