Business as (Sort of) Usual: The NFL in Wake of Coronavirus
This was a strange week.
There’s no skipping over where we are as a country right now. For me—I’m sitting in my house in Massachusetts, my kids are out of school until at least April 8, I’m banned from gathering with more 25 people at one time in one place, and the restaurants and bars around us can stay open, but until April 17 they can only to serve takeout and deliver food.
We all got word of this just after 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. Less than two hours later, the Center for Disease control issued a recommendation that all gatherings in this country should be limited to 50 people over the next eight weeks, which would take us into mid-May.
I have no idea what’s next, or what might’ve happened before you read this—especially considering that less than five days ago the NCAA tournament was still going to be held. And that’s why I take even the news that the NFL is going full steam ahead with its plan to start free agency this week with a bucket full of salt. I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and noon, let alone now and 4 p.m. Wednesday. You don’t either.
That’s where we’re starting this week, before we get to the football, because there’s nowhere else to start. It’s the rare story that affects every American directly.
I thought of that while talking to Dr. Allen Sills (we were discussing the league’s handling of the last four days) on Sunday afternoon. And as we wrapped up, I figured I’d do everyone the service of asking the NFL’s chief medical officer—a professor at Vanderbilt—what advice he’d have for people as they adjust to this new normal.
“The best advice would be to have a balanced approach,” Sills said. “I think that we have to take very seriously the public health recommendations that are coming out about social distancing and about changing our day-to-day affairs to try to minimize the spread of the virus. But I think, at the same time, we should continue the optimism that has always been a trademark of our society, which is that we will find a way to persevere and conquer this and get through it. And we will get back to what we perceived as a more normal state.
“But what’s key right now is for people to remain calm, to remain educated with the facts from reputable sources and for everyone to just ask the question, ‘What’s my part here? What can I do to reduce the spread of this virus, to use health care services in an appropriate manner?’ And to really, again, emphasize that what we’re doing. We’re making a choice. As a society, we’re making a choice to temporarily restrict movement at a lot of the organizations and interactions we would normally have.
“It’s important that everyone pulls together in the same direction, and with an understanding that panic is not part of the solution. It will be temporary. We will be able to get back to a better place.”
I hope he’s right. But the world’s going to be a really different place for a little while, and I’ll be interested to see football’s place in it.
And yes, in the football corner of the world, there’s still a lot going on. This week, we’ll cover…
- The NFL’s decision-making process in handling the coronavirus.
- The new CBA.
- Ryan Tannehill’s new contract.
- A free agent awaiting his payday.
- The shortened draft season’s big winners.
Stay safe, everyone, and let’s get to the football.
For most NFL people, the last week amounted to a cyclone of change. At its beginning, NFL coaches and scouts dotted the country on the pro day circuit, while others were hunkered down at team facilities working the trade market and preparing for the start of free agency. By the end, that pro day circuit was shut down altogether, and some teams had closed their facilities to everybody but essential workers.
Everyone, it seemed, went from a well-worn path to uncharted territory like that.
But while we all just seemed to wind up there, Sills and his team have been scouting the terrain that the coronavirus created for a while. In fact, the league’s medical people have been working with their counterparts from the NBA, NHL and MLB for weeks now.
In the time in between, Sills has been holding daily calls with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his executive vice presidents, and remained in constant contact with NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer, as well as officials from the CDC and DICON (the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network). And Sills tapped into his colleagues at Vanderbilt, in trying to get as much information as he possibly could to help the NFL prepare for a fight.
“We have seen various pandemics of different infectious diseases over the course of my medical career,” he said. “But this one has spread much more rapidly. And we’re on a worldwide basis with no treatment options—no direct treatment and no vaccination—so that makes it somewhat unique in this medical realm.”
So that was the backdrop, and preparation for what was to come intensified around the time of the combine three weeks ago, where Sills and others began having regular conversations with infection control advisors. And by the time the Rudy Gobert incident happened—the Jazz forward tested positive on Wednesday, abruptly causing the NBA to cancel Utah’s game in Oklahoma City and set off an explosion of cancellations across the sports world—Sills and his NBA, NHL and MLB counterparts saw such a thing as inevitable.
Still, as much as he and others were prepared, it’s pretty tough to be totally ready for something that’s never happened before. And Sills tried to keep in mind the responsibility he had as a doctor, which was something he and the medical chiefs from the other sports had discussed.
“We’re blessed that we don’t have to make those decisions in isolation,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to lead and to demonstrate, once again, in times like this, that health and safety for us doesn’t only mean the health and safety of our players. It’s the health and safety of our entire NFL community and all the communities in which we have franchises. And so, we have a larger obligation to society and to those communities and we want to take that obligation very seriously.
“And look at this, again, as not an event to the NFL, but really as an event to our entire country. And ask, ‘What is the role that we have to play and how can we best play it?’ So, we see this as being part of the solution to a public health crisis that’s been identified and working together collaboratively in our communities and across our league to address that.”
Was everything perfect? It was not. I know some teams were furious that the league didn’t pull the plug on the pro day circuit earlier—leaving whether to travel up to each individual team, as the rest of the sports world shut down, for more than 24 hours. By the time the NFL decided to prohibit pre-draft trips for both teams and prospects, more than 20 clubs had taken their coaches and scouts off the road.
And then there’s the decision to go forward with the start of the league year.
That’s another one I’m uneasy about, though we won’t truly be able to assess it until we see what the next few days hold. In a vacuum, it seems at least a little tone deaf that the NFL is pressing the play button as the rest of the country collectively reaches to push pause. At worst, it’s a ratings play, one designed to take advantage of a sports-starved public (which, to be fair, will probably lap it up on its own).
“Irresponsible!!!!!!” responded one AFC GM, when I asked for his feelings on it.
But taking all that into account, there is a flip side to this, and that’s that none of us have been through something like this before, or at least most of us haven’t, so there’s no real road map to follow anyone.
I just think it’s safe to say there will be more bumps to come.
INSIDE THE NEW CBA
We covered the CBA pretty thoroughly in a Sunday morning column, and outgoing union president Eric Winston gave his thoughts on the deal in Thursday’s GamePlan.
In a nutshell, the players wound up with a better cut of the revenue (at least 48%, starting in 2021, vs. 47% now), less contact in training camp (16 padded practices vs. 28 in the old deal), improved benefits and pension, increased care for former players, significantly raised minimums and a more lenient policy on recreational drugs. They gave in on 17 games, and the owners maintain most mechanisms for player control (tags, etc.).
In essence, as I wrote in Sunday’s column, the deal was an incremental improvement over the 2011 CBA. If the goal was to keep making money, it was fine. If the target was a game-changer—in exchange for the 17th game and giving the owners the chance to get to the broadcast negotiations sooner—then this wasn’t that. Now, we’ll have to wait and see how it ages, with new TV deals and gambling monetization on the horizon.
And while we’re there, here are a few interesting nuggets on how it all went down.
- The NFLPA has the data, and will go through it, but the feeling is that there was a push on the “no” side in the early stages of the vote. Considering how close the final margin was—only 60 votes (1019-959)—that’s notable.
- On Monday, as the union discussed extending the deadline to vote from Thursday night to Saturday night, Jets LB Brandon Copeland advocated for giving all players a side-by-side chart that executive committee members and player reps were presented with at the Super Bowl, comparing the 2011 and 2020 CBAs. The union believes the added time and information helped in getting the deal passed.
- The coronavirus wasn’t a non-factor. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith repeatedly told players that a strong economy was one reason why the owners were so willing to deal, and what the pandemic did to the economy, for some players, really drove the drove the point home. “For everyone who needed proof that we should insulate ourselves from the craziness,” one source said, “that was probably a holy s— moment.”
- The 17th game wasn’t easy for anyone to swallow. Winston said to me last week, “You’re never OK with it,” but emphasized it was a condition to the owners doing a deal early. And the union did put in some safeguards. One mandate is that the league and union convene a committee before a 17th game is added to discuss if any other work-rules changes are necessary.
- And of course, the 17th game can’t go in until 2021, and likely won’t happen until the new broadcast deals are in place. Whenever it does happen, the NFLPA’s media kickers come into play. One easily attainable one will push the players’ share of all revenue from 48% to 48.5%, with a chance for the number to move even more, depending on how much the NFL makes from the networks.
- The aforementioned committee will eventually discuss it, but the expectation is there will be just one bye, not two, built into the 17-game schedule, mostly because that’s the way the networks want it.
And the other benefit to the players will be fairly immediate. Wiping the Final League Year rules built into the old CBA off the books—the 30 Percent Rule made managing the cap and paying players more challenging for teams, and each team having two tags wasn’t great for the guys either—is a pretty big win too.
So the deal wasn’t all bad or all good. For now, the union, under new president J.C. Tretter, probably slides back out of the public’s consciousness for a while. Tretter, for his part, has plenty of work to do in trying to bring a fractured group of guys together again. The league, likewise, can start on what’s next, and that’s managing its ranks through the pandemic, before getting going with the TV people.
And no matter what you think of the deal, this much is true: The fact that we won’t be where we were in 2011 again for a while is an undeniably good thing.
WHAT TO MAKE OF TANNEHILL’S DEAL
I tried to tell you guys last week: The Titans were negotiating with Ryan Tannehill and were serious about getting him signed to a long-term deal, even with the implication that it’d take the team out of the Tom Brady sweepstakes. And really, what we found Sunday is that Tennessee might not have had nearly as much interest in Brady as many (and I’ll raise my hand here) thought they would.
Want more proof of that? As we detail the deal, you’ll figure it out.
- The first serious contact on a new deal actually began with the Titans reaching out to Tannehill’s new agent, Brian Ayrault, in early February. They had an initial set of talks before the combine, then Ayrault met with GM Jon Robinson in Indy. Those two wound up doing the bulk of this negotiation one-on-one.
- And the Titans did get the idea that Tannehill might be the guy long-term well before then. But when they first signed him, it really was a flyer. The team saw a former first-rounder with the athleticism to fit an offense that new coordinator Arthur Smith was building for Marcus Mariota. That was pretty much it.
- That perception flipped when Robinson and Mike Vrabel finally got to see Tannehill in game action midway through the year. His leadership was better than they thought it’d be, as was his communication with both Smith and his teammates. And the staff also loved Tannehill’s knack for getting himself out of trouble with his feet, and how his accuracy improved into December and January.
- Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper, and doing that showed the Titans all the tumult Tannehill dealt with in Miami—and how he came out of it as levelheaded as he went in. So when Robinson and Co. were putting together the total picture on the quarterback, they saw a guy who played exceptionally well in 10 games and the playoffs for the Titans, and had seemingly learned through a trying time in Miami.
- The deal was close last week, but the CBA had to be done before Tannehill and the Titans could push this one over the goal line, mostly because of the Final League Year rules.
- I couldn’t ascertain the Titans’ level of interest in Brady, but clearly it was tepid enough to keep their focus was on Tannehill for most of the last month or so. And doing this deal now frees up the franchise tag for Derrick Henry, should Tennessee find a way to keep him.
Here, then, are the final numbers …
2020: $20M to sign, $17.5M base (fully guaranteed)
2021: $24.5M base (fully guaranteed)
2022: $29M base (fully guaranteed in March ’21)
2023: $27M base
Functionally, it’s a three-year, $91 million deal, with what amounts to a $27 million team option for 2023 in Year 4. The $62 million in the first two years are fully guaranteed. And to avoid paying the $29 million in 2022, the team would need to eat that $62 million for a single year (since they have to walk away next March) and absorb a $39.5 million cap hit for 2021 with Tannehill on the roster, all of which isn’t happening.
In the end, Tannehill wound up cashing out big-time here. His three-year cash take of $91 million is fourth most in NFL history, behind Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, and his overall APY (average per year) ranks seventh in the league, which makes this one hell of a comeback story.
So what about Brady? My sense is the Chargers and Bucs are still planning hard runs at him, with the Raiders lurking. As we confirmed on Saturday (Chris Simms of NBC Sports had it initially), the Niners aren’t planning on making a play for him. And the Patriots are still there, now freed a little financially to keep him, if they so choose to up the ante. Though I’m not convinced they will.
A MAN (MAYBE) ON THE MOVE
Beyond the quarterbacks, there are lots of interesting free agents out there. One is Saints safety Vonn Bell, who’s grown from a valuable reserve into one of the most versatile safeties in football—and someone who could command eight figures per year on a new deal somewhere.
Where is that somewhere? Carolina needs safety help, and Cleveland does, too. Bell knows he’ll have more suitors than just those two, which will help drive his price up. We decided to bring the old Ohio State All-American aboard for a few questions.
MMQB: So what does this feel like, to be on the doorstep of life-changing money?
VB: It’s a surreal moment. It’s every kid’s dream. I’ve been thinking of this ever since I was playing ball in the backyard. Playing with your dad. Playing with your cousin. Playing with your brother. All of your relatives. And just going out there and playing the game that you love—it’s a blessing for sure.
MMQB: Did having all that at stake make you nervous, injury-wise, last year?
VB: Nah, man. You can’t go out there playing scared. You pray every time you walk out on the field, and you pray before you walk out on the practice field. And, man, you just let God handle his thing. Just go out there and let loose and just have fun. And trust in Him.
MMQB: How’s the anticipation been the last couple weeks?
VB: I’m very optimistic. I feel like my journey has prepared me for anything. I’ve just been in the weight room everyday, excited. There are so many emotions. I’m just a guy who loves football, loves to play the game and just loves to have an opportunity. I’m very eager to see what happens. And I’m very excited. This is an exciting time for me and my family. We’re just going to see what happens.
MMQB: Most important thing in finding a new team?
VB: Good culture.
MMQB: Have you done your homework on other teams?
VB: Yeah, a lot. I do a lot of studying. In the season, I study my opponents. In the offseason, I study the league and just see what I could get better at. You study coordinators, you study head coaches, you study the game. It’s just an ongoing process that never stops.
MMQB: Anyone you’re leaning on for advice?
VB: Oh yeah, my mom, for sure. She’s always sending me devotions every day, and always lifting my spirits every day. My family of course, they’ve been a huge support system. My old teammates like Kurt Coleman. All my older veterans. And, man, they always reach out to see how I’m doing. I’m very optimistic.
MMQB: Would you be sad to leave New Orleans?
VB: You never know what’ll happen. I’m open to all options. Like I said, I’m very optimistic. First and foremost, I love that I’ve been playing here for four years. And I made it a home. But, yeah, certainly I’m very open. And I’m ready to see all options. The big man takes care of me.
MMQB: Is it weird not know where you’re gonna live in a few weeks?
VB: It kind of is, but you got to be spontaneous at the same time. There’s a lot to the business. And we don’t take business personal. You appreciate everything that you’ve been through. Appreciate the team that you have to choose. And appreciate that you get to be in this league.
MMQB: Were you ever worried you might not make it through to the big second contract?
VB: Always had that confidence, but you know in the first two years it was a rocky road situation, but God puts us in trying times because He wants to prepare us for the moment.
MMQB: Where was the road rocky?
VB: Becoming a professional. Learning the defense, making the right play on the field—because the safety is a field general. Film study. Your study habits, your time management. Everything—it comes, but it requires work. And that’s what young guys coming into the league need. Getting into a routine, working out. People just see the big picture of an athlete, but they don’t see what’s behind the scenes. It takes a lot that goes into the process.
DRAFT PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
Now that all pro days, pre-draft visits and private workouts have been called off, most of the work for the hundreds of kids entering the NFL in late April is done. Some—like Penn State receiver K.J. Hamler, a burner who was waiting for his pro day to run—sure could’ve benefited from more time. But there are others who are fine, guys who’ve crushed step after step since the college season ended.
And so, considering these circumstances, I figured we’d bring in an expert to ID those types. First, though, I wanted that expert, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, to explain how much, in his opinion, a player can actually help himself in the pre-draft run up.
“There are a couple things there,” said Nagy, a former Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks scout. “The small-school kids can help themselves dramatically. It’s guys like [Hobart alum] Ali Marpet a few years ago, or Ben Bartch from St. John’s this year, the D-III players. You played with D-III guys in high school, right? I went to high school with D-III guys, I almost played D-III. Well, on tape, these guys are playing against guys that look like us.
“If I put a sixth-round grade on a guy when I was with the Patriots, presenting a D-III guy with a draftable grade, I was putting myself out there. And you’d never put a fourth- or a fifth-round grade on one. But Bartch comes to the Senior Bowl, and now I’m hearing he won’t make it out of Day 2. … It’s almost impossible to stick a grade on a guy like that, who’s that dominant against [D-III competition]. You have to see him against better players.”
So the all-star games afford the smaller-school guys that, and the big-school guys can help themselves too. Sometimes, it’s something simple, like a receiver showing he can get off press coverage. Sometimes, it’s more complex. Nagy raised the example of Jarran Reed. Coming out of Alabama, Reed had a checkered reputation. But the process, from start to finish, allowed Nagy to get a full explanation of Reed’s missteps, and find out how important football was to him: “He’s a junkyard dog.”
Seattle took Reed in the third round in 2016. In 2018, he had 10.5 sacks for Pete Carroll.
And there are stories like these each year, from every team. So without further ado, here are some for 2020, as Nagy wrote them up for us…
Baylor WR Denzel Mims. A strong case can be made that no player has helped himself as much during the pre-draft process as Mims. The buzz began in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, where Mims proved he can beat press coverage, run every route and make plays at all three levels. At the combine, he ran a blazing 4.38 in the 40 and showed his explosiveness with a 38.5” vertical jump and 10’ 11” broad jump. Maybe most impressive was his combine-best 6.66 three-cone time, which is a rare change of direction, particularly for someone with an angular 6’ 3” frame. Most NFL teams had Mims in the third round after the season but now it will not be surprising if he sneaks into the late first round.
Oregon QB Justin Herbert. Herbert did everything he could possibly do in Mobile to answer any questions teams might have about him—both on and off the field. Some players start out shaky and improve over the course of Senior Bowl week, but Herbert was impressive from the jump on Tuesday, earning both Overall Practice Player of the Week and Game MVP honors. The Cincinnati Bengals’ pro-style system showcased his elite physical tools, and he silenced any questions teams might have about his leadership by taking command vocally in the huddle and connecting with teammates behind the scenes. At the combine, he ran an impressive 4.68 and his deep ball stuff was as good as any QB in recent memory. Heading into the process there was a chance Herbert would get drafted in the 10–15 range, but now he is a lock top-5 pick.
Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs. There seems to be a consensus of who the top four offensive tackle prospects are in this year’s draft, and they are all juniors: Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, and Wirfs. While there is probably still some variance on the order of how NFL teams have them stacked, Wirfs separated himself from an athletic standpoint at the combine by posting all-time OL bests in both the vertical jump (36.5”) and broad jump (10’ 1”). Wirfs has more rawness to him than the typical polished NFL-ready Iowa OL prospect. However, his smaller-man movement skills and explosive testing numbers should be enough to get him drafted in the top half of Round 1.
South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw. Auburn’s Derrick Brown, the prohibitive top interior DL in this year’s draft heading into the pre-draft process, was one of only three players to decline an invite to this year’s Senior Bowl, and Kinlaw took advantage with an impressive showing in Mobile. While Brown still might be positioned atop most NFL draft boards, Kinlaw definitely closed the gap. Most general managers do not get the opportunity to attend many live games during the fall, so seeing Kinlaw’s raw explosion and athleticism up-close made an impact on decision-makers. Although he was forced to pull out from the Senior Bowl after only two practices (with bi-lateral quad tendonitis), Kinlaw did enough to possibly secure a spot in the top 10.
Kansas OL Hakeem Adeniji. This is a thin year on the interior offensive line, and no player has helped himself more the past two months than Adeniji. The KU product started all 48 career games at tackle for the Jayhawks but he lined up exclusively at guard and center during Senior Bowl week, proving to NFL teams that he can legitimately play inside. The game happens faster inside, and it did not look too fast for him in Mobile. It also takes a stouter player to hold up inside, and Adeniji answered those questions as well, holding his own against some of the most powerful DTs in this year’s draft, like Ohio State’s Davon Hamilton. Adeniji then went to the combine and posted some of the best testing numbers (34” vertical jump, 9’ 6” broad jump, 1.78 10-yard, 26 bench reps) among the OL group. With five-position versatility and starter-level ability, Adeniji has likely jumped from the fourth round to the second round.
Mississippi State LB Willie Gay. There was not a player with more riding on this year’s combine than Gay, and he came away a big winner. Gay had to answer some tough questions after missing eight games as a senior due to violation of team rules, and team officials we’ve spoken with said he handled the interview process well. Testing-wise, he ran 4.46 at 243 pounds and posted elite numbers across the board, including a 39.5” vertical jump, 11’ 4” broad jump, and 7.08 three-cone. Perhaps the most impressive thing was his on-field workout. He looked like the twitchiest player, regardless of position, at this year’s combine during LB drills.
Memphis RB/WR Antonio Gibson. A year ago, Gibson’s former Memphis teammate and current Cowboys RB Tony Pollard received a huge boost from the Senior Bowl after showing off his Swiss Army knife skill-set. Pollard went from being a late Day 3 pick-up to the fourth round, and Gibson’s rise will be even sharper. After playing mostly WR in college, Gibson worked exclusively at RB during Senior Bowl week, and he looked natural at the position. The combine placed him in the WR group during the week in Indianapolis so his 4.39 forty time (at 228 pounds!) was lost among a pack of 4.3 wideouts. There would have been much more buzz had he been listed at RB because he would have been tied with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor as the combine’s fastest back. Smart-drafting NFL teams value physical traits and versatility, and Gibson is among the best in this year’s draft in both areas.
Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts. Hurts went from one of the faces of college football the past four years to NFL draft underdog the minute Oklahoma’s season ended in the national semis. Hurts progressed as a passer during his time in Tuscaloosa and Norman, but he has looked different in the first two stages of the pre-draft process. Hurts was under siege against constant pressure during the Senior Bowl, but he threw a TD on a perfectly placed vertical route at the end of fourth quarter and followed up a solid overall week in Mobile with a very impressive throwing session at the combine. I have seen Hurts play many times in person over the years, and he’s never thrown the ball with the confidence or command that he did in Indy. Hurts started the pre-draft process as a fourth-rounder on most teams’ boards, and there’s a chance now that he goes in the late second. The Dak Prescott comparisons are real.
UCLA CB Darnay Holmes. Few players capitalized on the all-star and combine circuit as much as Holmes. After getting NFL scouts’ attention as a sophomore, Holmes struggled through an injury-plagued junior year for the Bruins, so it surprised the scouting community when he announced he was leaving school early. Holmes bet on himself, and that now looks like a smart decision. He competed his tail off and made a bunch of plays during Senior Bowl practices and ran a respectable 4.49 at the combine. NFL teams were all over the board on Holmes’ draft grades when we called around back in November, ranging anywhere from Round 3 to Round 7. Safe to say he’s closer to the third round now.
Small-Schoolers. The Senior Bowl is always a huge proving ground for small-school players, and this year’s group that included Dayton TE Adam Trautman (FCS), St. John’s OL Ben Bartch (Division III), Lenior-Rhyne DB Kyle Dugger (Division II), and Southern Illinois DB Jeremy Chinn (FCS) answered any questions NFL teams might have about the level of competition they faced. All four proved they belonged among the best of the best in Mobile, and each is now expected to be picked on Day 2 of the draft.
With free agency on deck, we’re going to highlight a priority for each team. Let’s go…
The 49ers had two former first-round picks, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward, in contract years in 2019—Armstead on his fifth-year option, Ward on a one-year, prove-it deal. Both crushed it, finally delivering on their potential, and now San Francisco needs to figure out where to go with each. Armstead could get tagged, and perhaps traded. Ward is probably gone. Should they lose both, filling those holes will be big.
The Bears probably aren’t throwing Mitch Trubisky out the door. But they could well try to generate a situation like the Titans had last year, where a team is giving a franchise quarterback (Marcus Mariota, in that case) one last shot, while protecting themselves with an experienced starting-level backup (Tannehill). Along these lines, trading for Andy Dalton makes sense. Especially since his old coordinator, Bill Lazor, is the Bears’ new offensive coordinator.
The Bengals’ move here will likely be to franchise tag A.J. Green. And then the real intrigue will be whether they see Green again between now and July.
The offseason plan for the Bills comes with a specific mandate: Score more points. They’re doing their homework on the draft’s top receivers, like CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy. And certainly, they have a ton of cap space to supplement what’s around Josh Allen on offense.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio could use a strong leader for the middle of his defense, which is why a return to Denver might’ve been on the table for Danny Trevathan before he re-upped with the Bears last week. So keep an eye on rising young ’backer Nick Kwiatkoski, who played more this year for the Bears (interestingly enough, at times in place of Trevathan), and whom Fangio knows well.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Kevin Stefanski bring over some familiar faces from Minnesota as he tries to put his stamp on the Browns. And with Damarious Randall up, safety might be second on the Cleveland’s list of needs—making rising Vikings star Anthony Harris a very sensible target to man the back end of new DC Joe Wood’s unit. As for the tackles on the market, Jack Conklin is another vet who’d fit in well.
This is obvious: The Buccaneers need a quarterback. They’ve made very little effort to hang on to Jameis Winston. You may have heard Tom Brady’s a free agent. GM Jason Licht is an ex-Patriots exec. Licht’s top lieutenant, Jon Spytek, played with Brady at Michigan. The Glazers have seats to sell. Do the math.
The Cardinals need to sort out their running back situation. Kenyan Drake was great last year, but he’s a free agent. David Johnson wasn’t great, but the team is contractually married to him. So figuring out how to work that will be a big step, as will potential additions to an improving, but still in-need, offensive line.
See what I said about the Bucs? Same goes for the Chargers. They need a quarterback. But if it’s Brady, they’d need to prove to him that they can protect him adequately—and they’re working on that. The trade for five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner was a start, but it also opened a hole at left tackle (with Russell Okung going to Carolina in the deal). So pair that one with the quarterback need. And don’t rule out the idea that a rookie could come in if the Brady pursuit fails, or even that the team could tread water for a year with a promising 2021 draft class on the horizon.
The Chiefs will looking to work on their own free agents, and that starts with figuring out what to do with Sammy Watkins, a good player who hasn’t quite played to the bar set by his three-year, $48 million contract. KC already has a replacement on hand, in 2019 rookie Mecole Hardman, so it’s hard to see Watkins coming back unless he takes a pay cut. But I was told Sunday that the Chiefs are working hard to keep him.
The Colts have a ton to spend, but that’s been the case the past few years as well, and GM Chris Ballard has proven an expert working the middle of the market (defensive lineman Denico Autry is a great example). And since the Colts don’t have too many crying needs, they have the flexibility to be similarly patient this time around and position themselves to augment at the quarterback position, with Philip Rivers, Nick Foles and Marcus Mariota all carrying strong ties to their coaching staff.
Really, the Cowboys’ offseason will boil down to the Dak Prescott negotiation, and what happens with Amari Cooper. Dallas would love to hold on to Byron Jones, but that seems unlikely given what it’ll cost to keep the other two. It’s important to remember too that the issues that Dallas is facing are really a result of the good work they’ve done in team-building. Too many guys to play is a pretty good problem to have.
The Dolphins have a ton of cap flexibility and endless draft capital. So while this will continue to be a slow build for GM Chris Grier, it’d hardly be shocking to see Miami do something splashy with its offensive line, given the need to make up for the loss of Laremy Tunsil last summer—and the need to protect the quarterback they may draft next month.
It’s not hard to figure where the Eagles’ focus will be: Corner and receiver are high on the list. And it’s not hard to see an in-division target, Dallas’s Byron Jones, shaping up as an ideal answer at one of the two positions. (It’s also not crazy to think GM Howie Roseman could re-invest some of the money he’s saving in letting Jason Peters go in the offensive line.)
The Falcons’ cap situation basically puts the focus on the draft for the team’s front office. It also makes keeping TE Austin Hooper and LB De’Vondre Campbell—two mid-round gems from the 2016 draft class —a very challenging proposition.
The Giants need difference-makers on defense, period. The versatility of Patriots LBs Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy makes them prime candidates to be first pieces for Joe Judge’s program and DC Patrick Graham’s unit.
The Jaguars’ retooling is well underway, with Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye out of there, Yannick Ngakuoue trying to follow them to the exit, and questions lingering all through the roster. One thing coach Doug Marrone is sure to ask for, based on the kind of team he wants to have, is tight ends. And not just tight ends, but tight ends who can block and catch. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Jags signed someone like Hooper and drafted one in April.
As we wrote last week, the Jets’ offensive line could be completely turned over. The smart money throughout has had the team trying to shore up the interior (maybe with someone like New England’s Joe Thuney or Detroit’s Graham Glasgow) in free agency and making a play for a long-term tackle in the draft.
The interior of the Lions’ defensive line is lingering as a question. They cut Snacks Harrison, and Mike Daniels and A’Shawn Robinson are free agents, leaving a lot up in the air. The market, too, is fairly rich with good pluggers at those positions, with Pittsburgh’s Javon Hargrave and Houston’s D.J. Reader among those expected to make eight figures annually on new deals with new teams.
We’ve discussed this a few times: The Packers, under still-newish GM Brian Gutekunst, have the roster in really good working order, to where they don’t need to press needs. But it does look like they’ll have opportunity to flip Jimmy Graham and Blake Martinez for upgrades, with Hooper at tight end and Cory Littleton or Kwiatkoski at linebacker representing an opportunity to do that.
Look for the Panthers to go after tone-setters who will fit Matt Rhule wants. And it may start with trying to hold on Carolina staple Mario Addison.
Of course, so much will hinge on the Patriots’ move at quarterback. If Brady’s back, it’ll likely be under the condition that they bring in some help for him, and New England’s already been active in looking at receivers and tight ends on the trade market (guys like Tampa’s Cam Brate could be in play). If Brady’s not back, my guess would be that Bill Belichick will try to change the team’s QB economics, which would mean bringing in a budget option (Mariota? Dalton on a pay cut?) to compete with Jarrett Stidham.
Obviously, there’s been buzz around the Raiders’ activity at quarterback. I’d expect them to have a foot in the Brady sweepstakes and potentially take a look at creating another option behind Derek Carr. And maybe they’d be another team to swipe the Titans’ model and get a reclamation project like Jameis Winston.
On paper, it looks like the Rams, with a top-heavy cap situation, would be relatively quiet, and work on extensions for players like Jalen Ramsey. But they usually aren’t. So stay tuned.
The Ravens’ offseason is already off to a roaring start with the addition of Calais Campbell, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions to answer. And the most obvious one is what to do with franchise-tagged pass-rusher Matthew Judon, whose range of potential endings go from signing a long-term deal in Baltimore to getting traded away.
The Saints stand to lose Vonn Bell and David Onyemata, two key pieces of their 2016 draft class, and that means maintaining the roster’s middle class will be a priority. Having to pick and choose who to keep is a champagne problem, of course, but one that will continue to fester with the team’s 2017 draft class (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Williams) now eligible to do long-term deals.
The Seahawks’ first focus will be holding on to their own—and they have some big fish to catch in that regard. Both Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed are up. And while Clowney has durability questions and Reed isn’t coming off his best year (and served a suspension during it), both will likely command big paydays, testing how far Seattle’s willing to go to keep them. Based on how they value pass-rushers? I’d bet they’ll go pretty far.
With the defense on the rise, the Steelers go into this offseason freed up to keep their usual low-profile on the veteran market with plans to strike in the draft. Edge rusher Bud Dupree’s situation is the most pressing matter here, and there’s a good chance he gets franchised today. What will be tricky will be finding the right numbers for a long-term deal, given that those would eventually be the floor for a deal with T.J. Watt.
Corner has been an issue for the Texans for a while, and corner is front-and-center for the Texans this March. Johnathan Joseph and the team acknowledged he’ll depart next week, Bradley Roby is being re-signed, and Vernon Hargreaves is a free agent. And the team will have to make a decision on Gareon Conley’s fifth-year option. So there are a lot of moving parts here.
The Titans moved a big piece out of the way on Sunday with the deal for Tannehill. What’s next? Well, that deal puts Derrick Henry on a collision course with the franchise tag, and there’s the likelihood that Conklin is going to get paid through the nose somewhere else, too. And Logan Ryan leaving would leave a void in the Tennessee secondary.
The Vikings’ first step at corner was taken with the release of Xavier Rhodes. And more attrition could be coming with Trae Waynes a free agent. The position is, to be sure, important in Mike Zimmer’s defense. The cap space here is tight. So how Minnesota’s creative brass attacks this void should be interesting.
Washington’s new staff has already telegraphed its desire at tight end, having brought in veteran Greg Olsen for a visit and cut Jordan Reed. Olsen, of course, gave Ron Rivera stability at the position for entirety of his time at Carolina, so it’d make sense that he’d want some in D.C., too. Hooper is a possibility. And Washington also has to figure out what to do with Trent Williams, whom they won’t give away.
1. The SkyJudge is alive. In the mess of news this week, the rules proposal allowing for a “booth umpire” may have been lost in the mix. But it’s significant. I had someone involved take me through it, and it’s more or less exactly what the coaches at last year’s annual meeting wanted when they asked for what the AAF instituted during that league’s short existence. The coaches’ subcommittee and competition committee have been discussing the idea for months, and the former made a presentation for the latter at the combine in Indy. The idea is to have an “umpire” as the eighth member of the crew, reporting to the referee. His goal will be to give the whole crew the advantage we all get at home: being able to see the game in crystal clear HD from a ton of different angles. The hope is that it’ll help with in-game credibility and the pace of play (the booth umpire won’t have the power to stop the game), while eliminating a lot of unnecessary challenges. I know the argument against it will be the need to find qualified guys to fill those roles. But, come on … that can be done. Credit to the Ravens and Chargers for advancing the idea, and here’s hoping the rest of the league listens to it, whether that happens over conference call at the end of this month or at the next league meeting in May.
2. The Jaguars’ deconstruction continues. Consider this: In March of 2017, Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye signed deals worth a combined $28.5 million per year. Those two, the big, splashy addition following the hire of EVP Tom Coughlin, wound up being key cogs in the defense that carried the Jaguars to the AFC title game that year. Things have come undone in the two seasons since, so Coughlin was dismissed in January. And just as Campbell and Bouye arrived on the same day, they’ll depart on the same day, with their trades set to become official on Wednesday. Bouye goes to Denver for a fourth-round pick, Campbell to Baltimore for a fifth-round pick. Two things to note here. First, this, again, signals the club’s continued distancing from the Coughlin Era, with firings of Coughlin-aligned people like OC John DeFilippo and personnel exec Chris Polian. Second, that great defense? Two years later, Campbell, Bouye, Ramsey, Marcel Dareus, Dante Fowler and quite possibly Yannick Ngakoue will all be gone. That’s staggering. And it sure looks like there’s a long build ahead for the Jags.
3. Don’t underestimate the Colts’ signing of Anthony Castonzo. Andrew Luck’s retirement may have thrown a wrench into the rebuilding effort of Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard, but he and his staff have put in a ton of good work. Maybe the most impressive thing Ballard has done is turn the offensive line from a long-held weak point into one of its biggest strengths in a single offseason, with the addition of guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith. The unit has become very much the personality of the team Frank Reich is leading. The uncertainty around Castonzo’s future coming out of 2019 threatened to compromise that, in part because it’s pretty tough to find a premium left tackle. So the two-year, $33 million agreement reached Sunday to keep the 10th-year pro in Indy (he’s actually one of two links left to the Peyton Manning era, with Adam Vinatieri being the other) doesn’t just solidify the current state of the position, it also buys Ballard and Co. time to find his successor. Which is huge.
4. The Patriots keep core players. We’re all hyper focused on what happens with Tom Brady, as we should be going into free agency. But there’s a window into how Bill Belichick thinks in who he rewarded on Sunday, when he got safety Devin McCourty to agree to a two-year, $23 million deal and special teamer Matt Slater to commit to a two-year, $5.3 million deal. Both those guys were free and would’ve had suitors, but they didn’t even make it to tampering period. And that’s because they put value in playing for the Patriots, and the Patriots valued both of them enough to do deals early. McCourty’s the captain and field general of the defense, and Slater is the same for special teams. My guess would be the message sent with the paydays these two guys landed would be heard loud and clear in that locker room.
5. Stadiums in peril? One overlooked question from the last week: What happens with the stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas? Both are multi-billion dollar projects, and both are slated to be completed in early summer. So both have some wiggle room before they’d miss a real game. That said, given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, there’s certainly a chance that construction could be slowed or halted at either site. And if construction stops, based on what’s happening across the country, chances are it wouldn’t start up again for a while. That would create a potentially awkward situation for any of the three teams that will inhabit these two buildings.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1.The scene at the Big East tournament on Thursday, after all the other conferences had called off their tournaments, with St. John’s/Creighton tipping in an empty Madison Square Garden, was as creepy and weird as it gets. Almost as weird as calling the game at halftime.
2. I’ll give the NCAA credit where it’s due. They did the right thing in giving athletes who are losing their senior seasons to this situation the opportunity to come back for another year.
3. I don’t know how it’ll work with scholarship limits. Maybe those kids don’t count against the total? But, again, it’s the absolutely right thing to do.
4. Dana White is absolutely out of his mind. You’ll see what a Corona Tough Guy is in a second, in Best of the NFL Internet. White is one. (Not a compliment.)
5. Rudy Gobert was being a jackass. You don’t get a lifetime sentence for that. He’s turned that negative into a positive, trying to implore people to take this virus seriously. He’s also another NBA player (joining guys like Zion Williamson) to pay arena workers’ wages during the break in action, which is noble as it gets.
6. Rick Pitino is back. God Bless America.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Not only that, but the second fifth-rounder, the one used to get Campbell, was acquired for Kaare Vedvik. Which mean the Ravens got a dominant defensive lineman for a kicker—a kicker who didn’t even stick with the Vikings.
Pretty interesting point from the Broncos kicker, right?
Here’s executive committee member Sam Acho with more for players on the deal.
Fair criticism from Odell Beckham on the non-voting players.
Mullet intact, per Mike Gundy’s son.
I always saw that Shaq as more of a tackle or tight end prospect.
This is great from Andrew Luck’s dad/the XFL commissioner.
That’s pretty good too.
As promised, Kyle Brandt’s spot-on description of Corona Tough Guy.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Take care of yourself and those around you this week. Listen to doctors. Respect science. Be serious about what the authorities are telling you to do. Look out for the elderly.
And remember, together, we all can get through this.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.