So much for the dead week before the draft when most of us writers used the calm waters to do really crucial work, like mock drafts and polishing off draft positional series. Thanks to the Panthers, Eagles, Browns, Rams and Titans, the fun started early and ended (for now) with a bomb when Carolina dropped All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman and made him a free agent. Some thoughts on the week of crazy action:
• And people say quarterbacks get all the press…the Norman move was a fairly big shock when you consider how good he's been for the last season and a half. He was one of the few rocks in a Panthers secondary that had so many holes late last season that they were bringing in players off the street (Cortland Finnegan, Robert McClain) to plug them. But once the smoke cleared and the realization hit that the Panthers and Norman weren’t even close to seeing eye-to-eye on a contract extension, the options were limited when Norman’s agent couldn’t find a trade partner. Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman is old school. He believes in building a team from close to the ball on outward. Remember that Norman was a happy accident, a former fifth-round pick who slowly built himself into a great player. Also keep in mind that Norman will turn 29 in December. All that adds up to Gettleman taking the almost $14 million from Norman’s tag and allocating those resources to other areas that Gettleman views as more important to building a championship team. The Norman decision is just another example of Gettleman being who he's been since Day 1 on the job. And so far, that's been working out pretty well.
The Panthers, considering the way they won big with a secondary that was half AARP and Island of Misfit Toys (with Norman the exception), are one of those teams that believes it’s the scheme coupled with a stout front seven that will continue to take them places. Gettleman said as much during his press conference on Thursday. “Big men allow you to compete, and I'm a firm believer in it … it makes people in the backend better. Trust me, it does,” he said. “I've been blessed. I've been with teams that have had big-time fronts, and I've seen the value of that. I'm an open book. There's no magic here. There's no pixie dust."
That’s understandable, but when you’re looking at playing Drew Brees, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans twice a year, the Panthers might receive some second-guessing on this move. That being said, when you look at all the bold moves Gettleman has made with the Panthers since joining in 2013, and how they've continued to ascend as a team, he should get a fairly lengthy leash on this one. An abbreviated list: he kept Ron Rivera as coach (most new GMs would not), convinced several key players (including center Ryan Kalil, tight end Greg Olsen, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Jordan Gross) to take less money or restructure their contracts, released receiver Steve Smith and then Williams last year.
I'm actually surprised more teams haven’t taken this approach with players and the franchise tag, or at least threatened to use it. I can remember the Eagles removing the tag twice (Jeremiah Trotter, Corey Simon) in the past, but that’s about it (the Patriots traded franchised players Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones). Conventional wisdom holds that the player is in the driver’s seat once he gets the tag since the big-money contract becomes guaranteed as soon as he signs it and because of the July 15 deadline to get an extension done (usually lowering the cap hit for the team). That’s all well and good until someone pulls the rug out from under you and you’re looking for a new home (like Norman is now) when two-thirds of the league’s salary cap has already been spent. Now the Panthers can threaten to remove the tag on players in coming years, encouraging them to strike a reasonable deal or find somewhere else to play.
Don't cry for Norman, though. There are still six teams (not including the now-flush Panthers at over $30 million) with at least $22 million in cap space, including two (49ers, Jaguars) with over $50 million available. He may have played in a scheme that was mostly zone, but Norman can play in any scheme, zone or man. He’s that good (the only negative is his age). It would make sense for the 49ers and Jaguars to get into a bidding war, though San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke would likely only go so far with his bid. The Dolphins, Rams and Bears should be in the mix as well.
• And now, back to your regularly scheduled major draft news: To recap, the Eagles traded their first-, third- and fourth-picks this year; a 2017 first-round pick; and a 2018 second-round selection to the Browns for the No. 2 overall pick and a 2017 fourth-rounder. That’s a lot of capital to move up six spots in a draft for one of two quarterbacks who are not locks of the Andrew Luck ilk, and who really should sit for an entire season before starting. And yet, I really like this deal for both teams.
Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta will obviously be trying to reboot the Browns for the 3,368,789th time under the ownership of Jimmy Haslam, as they’ve hoarded draft picks and let most of their free agents sign elsewhere. This could be the worst QB draft since 2011, when after Cam Newton, there was a run of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder in the first 12 picks. And if Carson Wentz or Jared Goff ended up on the Browns this year, they'd be starting out on a glorified expansion team, and wouldn't have much of a chance of turning into anything more than a Locker, Gabbert, Ponder or David Carr. Get busy living, or get busy dying. The Browns are trying to do the former by getting a bunch of picks and starting the rebuild.
As for Philadelphia, if Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson handle this the right way, (which will be very tough considering the impatience of Eagles fans and media, what they gave up, and the sensitivity that owner Jeffrey Lurie and Roseman have to the noise), then I love this deal for them. You’re not going anywhere in this league without a long-term quarterback. The Eagles don’t have one, not with the unreliable Sam Bradford, nor with the unproven Chase Daniel. The most significant quote Roseman gave after the trade was this: “Let me be clear, Sam Bradford is our starting quarterback. We told Sam that. We intend to support him and the moves we made this offseason we believe will give us a chance to compete this season.”
If the Rams take Jared Goff at No. 1, and Carson Wentz is there for the Eagles at No. 2, he is the absolute perfect selection. I love almost everything about Wentz. He’s got the arm, the size, the smarts, the competitive hunger and the rest of the intangibles to be a very good starting quarterback in this league (and better than Goff in the long run). But listen up: All of that about Wentz will only happen, and I mean ONLY, if the Eagles sit him for at least a year. Bradford's presence makes that an option.
During Roseman's year in solitary confinement, walking the Earth, as Lurie’s driver, or whatever the heck he did when Chip Kelly took over, the GM seems to have returned refreshed and with a better mindset. He has methodically made the Eagles better this off-season with a series of smart moves. Hopefully Roseman also realized (as I have) that you can no longer play these college quarterbacks as rookies (unless they’re Luck). Teams have to get back to sitting their quarterbacks, no matter where they’re drafted, for at least an entire season to develop them mentally and physically to the point where they can handle an NFL offense.
Wentz needs to polish his footwork. And yes, while he’s smart and ran a pro-style offense at North Dakota State, his on-field processing didn’t quite match up. It wasn’t as fast as it should have been, especially at that level. And Wentz is going to need to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. In Philadelphia, Wentz will have some great teachers in Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. The Eagles should let Bradford and Daniel play this season, develop Wentz in the shadows and hopefully Wentz is ready for next season when the Eagles can flip Bradford to another quarterback-needy team and recoup some of those picks. That’s the ideal. That’s the way it needs to be done now, and Roseman was whistling sweet nothings in my ear on that front.
“We saw that with Doug being here with Donovan [McNabb],” he said. “You saw that in Green Bay [with Aaron Rodgers]. You saw that in San Diego with Philip Rivers. You certainly saw that in New England with Tom Brady...These are young guys and the NFL is a big jump from any level.” Stay the course, Howie.
• Like the Browns (but not as badly), the Titans are building under general manager Jon Robinson and don’t need a quarterback, so acquiring four picks in the top 76 this year, and a first- and a third-round pick next year was exactly what Tennessee needed. Of course, it only matters if Robinson hits on his picks.
• As I mentioned, I like Wentz more than Goff, but the Cal quarterback is the better pick for the Rams right now because he has more experience and his ability to operate under pressure is needed for a player who will obviously start right away for a competitive team. I still think Goff would benefit from sitting this season after operating the simplified Bear-Raid offense (and also because he reminds me of Alex Smith in his San Francisco days), but that’s unlikely to happen given the Rams’ desperation for a quarterback and the move to Los Angeles.
• One thing that didn’t sit right with me in Peter King’s behind-the-scenes story on the deal was this part: “At one point,” [Titans GM] Robinson said, “I told Les [Snead] that the other part of the number one pick is as soon as we’re out, our logo is off and your logo is up, you control the top of the draft, there’s a marketing and branding impact, you’re in the pole position, you’ve got great stuff for ‘Hard Knocks’ [the Rams are the NFL’s chosen team for the NFL Films/HBO series this summer], and we’re out. To me there was some value in that. You get two weeks of branding and marketing.”
Now, that’s Robinson telling the tale, and maybe Snead and Fisher disregarded it. That’s a possibility. But I doubt it. I can very much see Snead, Fisher, executive vice president Kevin Demoff and owner Stan Kroenke being enticed by that “branding.” It wasn’t a major factor, but it probably added some juice for them considering they’re trying to make a splash in Los Angeles. To me, that shouldn’t be any type of factor at all. Branding leading up to the draft? Who cares? The only branding that will matter is whether or not Goff is branded a winner or a bust.