We didn’t know, entering the 2023 NFL season, that Aaron Rodgers would play just four snaps for the New York Jets, that Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers' offense would take time to adjust to a new coordinator, or that the Cleveland Browns’ defense was far superior to its offense.
But we knew already in training camp the AFC was far more crowded with seemingly contending teams than the NFC. We knew the AFC was piling top-end quarterbacks like the Miami Dolphins piled points against the Denver Broncos. And thus we knew that front offices around the league perceived this to be the year for NFC contenders to strike.
Freedom from Tom Brady and Rodgers has that effect on a conference.
Eight weeks into the NFL season, that difference rings true. So it’s logical that the biggest splashes leading up to Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline came from the two scariest teams in the NFC: the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Their routes to a conference championship are the clearest. The likelihood they face an elite quarterback in the Super Bowl is also high. So they are wise to each lean into win-now, buyer mode.
With that context, the 49ers dealt a third-round draft pick to the Washington Commanders to acquire defensive end Chase Young on Tuesday. Last week, the Eagles acquired All-Pro safety Kevin Byard from the Tennessee Titans in exchange for safety Terrell Edmunds, a 2024 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-rounder.
Young, the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, struggled to return to form and health after tearing his ACL and rupturing his patellar tendon in 2021. But he’s played a career-high 84% of defensive snaps this season, recording five sacks, 15 tackles and nine quarterback hits in seven games. Young’s 25% pass-rush win rate ranks 11th-best in the league, per ESPN — and should only strengthen as opponents hustle to account for a line that’s also fronting Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave. As long as Young can stay healthy, the advantage at the line of scrimmage should only deepen for the 49ers, who are mired in a three-game losing streak but have powered late-season success to the past two NFC title games.
Byard is two seasons removed from his second All-Pro recognition in eight seasons with Tennessee. The savvy veteran has intercepted 27 passes, deflected 63 total and recorded 681 tackles since the Titans selected him in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. And while this season has started more slowly for Byard (PFF ranks him the 33rd-best safety this year), PFF has graded him as a top-10 safety in the league four different years, including the past two seasons. As impressive: Byard’s impeccable availability, never missing a game in eight years. The Eagles’ secondary desperately needs durability now and into the postseason, when Byard will be needed most and by then will have had time to acclimate.
Will the trade deadline make a difference between the AFC defending its Super Bowl title and the NFC swooping in? It’s too soon to say. But the Eagles and 49ers gave it their best chance. And they picked a good year to take swings.
Here are more Yahoo Sports winners and losers from the trade deadline:
Trade deadline winners
Leonard Williams’ playoff hopes
Congratulations to the veteran defensive lineman for upgrading from a 2-6 New York Giants team to the 5-2 Seattle Seahawks. In nine full seasons with the New York Jets and then Giants, Williams’ teams wallowed outside of postseason contention for eight years and below .500 in seven. The Giants are well on track to both distinctions again. So Williams, a California native and USC alum, gets to return to the West Coast with a contender. The Seahawks add a versatile lineman who has the 13th-best pass-rush win rate among defensive tackles, per ESPN, while the Giants collect a 2024 second-round draft pick and 2025 fifth-rounder in part to offset the roughly $10 million salary cap they’ll reportedly continue to take on.
49ers’ front-office pipeline
The NFL awards compensatory third-round draft picks to teams from which a head coach or general manager of color is hired. The 49ers accomplished both last offseason when the Titans hired general manager Ran Carthon and the Houston Texans hired head coach DeMeco Ryans. San Francisco dipped into that cushioned compensatory draft haul to reunite Young with Bosa, his former Ohio State pass-rushing partner-in-crime.
Will Levis’ development
It’d be fair to view the rookie quarterback breaking out the week after Byard left as reason to pity the Titans. But realistically, the Titans’ top priority shouldn’t be winning a Super Bowl this season. They should angle toward developing and evaluating Levis this year, with a chance to contend more meaningfully in the years to come. Holding onto running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is a huge win for Levis, as he looks to build off his four-touchdown debut that included 128 yards and three touchdowns to Hopkins, while Henry raced to 122 yards from scrimmage. A capable quarterback on a rookie contract is one of the best market inefficiencies an NFL team can exploit. Solidifying the Titans’ offense is a smart way to capitalize on that dynamic.
Joshua Dobbs’ opportunity
The Arizona Cardinals lost seven of Dobbs’ eight games this season. But the veteran journeyman who arrived in Arizona from Cleveland on Aug. 24 sparked a competitive fire and persistence in the Cardinals that earned him the opportunity he now has in Minnesota. The Vikings acquired Dobbs and a seventh-round pick for a Cardinals’ sixth, giving Minnesota a more reliable option to replace Kirk Cousins than rookie fifth-rounder Jaren Hall while Arizona parts with insurance that the looming return of starter Kyler Murray should make unnecessary. Now, Dobbs arrives to a team with firepower the caliber of Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson — and an offensive mind in head coach Kevin O’Connell who can steer him in ways the Cardinals’ Jonathan Gannon wouldn’t. Dobbs has the chance to ramp up his production this season; and if that goes well, Minnesota is not the only team who could use his services moving forward.
Howie Roseman being Howie Roseman
Reading about Howie Roseman winning the trade deadline is about as interesting and fresh as reading about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady winning another Super Bowl a few years ago. But the Eagles general manager deserves the credit. He pulled the trigger on acquiring a talented, if not at his peak, safety whose availability gives the Eagles wise insurance for the playoff pursuit they’re steadily building toward. And Roseman’s decision to make a move is the exact intentional aggressiveness that has landed his team in two Super Bowls in the past six years, each with a different head coach and quarterback. The NFL is too good at creating a league of parity to hope for the best (and for health) and win. Roseman takes calculated chances that pay off.
Trade deadline losers
Jonathan Allen’s happiness
Allen wasn’t the Commanders defensive lineman with the most tradeable contract. But he was the most publicly frustrated of the bunch, railing after a recent loss that “f*** yes” he’s tired of this “bull****” and it’s been “seven f***ing years of this s***.” Unfortunately for Allen, the losses and mediocrity are only more likely to continue after Washington dealt edge rushers Young and Montez Sweat both on Tuesday. The Commanders likely needed to activate rebuild mode under their new ownership, but that won’t make it any more fun for a player like Allen.
Carolina Panthers’ rebuild
Sure, the Panthers probably still have nightmares about trading Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers last year. McCaffrey is currently on a tear in which he has scored in 17 straight games (including playoffs), tying an NFL record. But Carolina got the draft capital that positioned it to select quarterback Bryce Young first overall this spring. And they’d have benefited from flipping one more prime piece — pass rusher Brian Burns — for capital before his price tag skyrockets at the end of this season.
Jaylon Johnson’s short-term future
The Bears reportedly gave their star cornerback a chance to seek a trade around midnight entering Tuesday. Was that posturing, knowing the timeline was nearing unrealistic to complete terms? Was that just a peace offering, like the Indianapolis Colts seemed to make when they granted running back Jonathan Taylor permission to seek a trade during training camp … before ultimately extending him in early October? PFF’s No. 3-ranked corner won’t get a chance to play for a consistently competitive team yet. But as he continues to ball out — he already has two interceptions, a touchdown, a forced fumble and 18 tackles in six games — he will have the opportunity to keep driving up his value when his contract expires this offseason. Whether in Chicago or elsewhere, Johnson should have a handsome payday this spring. But leaving on his own terms, likely with terms of a contract extension, would have been far sweeter in the short term.
Cowboys’ competitive edge
In fairness, the Dallas Cowboys did trade for receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the spring. Their 2023 will still be more aggressive on balance than most recent years. Nonetheless, if team owner and general manager Jerry Jones believes his team has contending talent, he also can’t deny that their biggest barriers to reaching their first conference championship since the 1995 season got better. How competitive does Jones want to be in the NFC? This weekend’s Cowboys at Eagles matchup will better measure the talent gap between the two teams.
Lovers of chaos
All reports suggested the Las Vegas Raiders weren’t trading Davante Adams. It’s probably in part because he knew he had no exit route that the star receiver was so fiery Monday night, as the Raiders fell to 3-5 and Adams caught just one of seven targets. Adams already lost the quarterback in Derek Carr he wanted to play with, plus a winning team like he had in Green Bay, and now he’s lost even consistency in his opportunities. So while an Adams trade seemed unlikely, all NFL lovers of chaos had to root for another chapter to this story. Then again, if the Raiders continue to unravel, maybe chaos will continue to unfold right in Vegas where it belongs.