As March winds down, Peter King, Jenny Vrentas, Emily Kaplan and Andy Benoit discuss hot topics from around the NFL
Peter King: Welcome to The MMQB Roundtable. Andy Benoit joins us from Boise, Emily Kaplan from New York City, Jenny Vrentas from the air, on her way to doing a story, and me from New York. Robert Klemko is on the road at a pro day and cannot be with us. So here goes. And hey everyone: Emily is moving! When is the move, Emily, and what is the Chicago story? Why Chicago?
Emily Kaplan: I’m moving on Thursday. Just trying to fill The MMQB’s void there after Mr. Klemko left.
King: Let’s talk draft. Andy, we’ll start with you. Tell me a factoid or two about the players you have seen. Who have you liked out there among the college prospects, and why?
Andy Benoit: The guys I have studied closely so far are the guys we’re doing for our Film Room series over the next month: Jared Goff, Reggie Ragland, Bama NT Jarran Reed and Clemson DEs Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson. I have enjoyed the college-to-pro scouting venture much more than I expected… watching a guy’s game six or seven times and then going through it with him, what stands out most is how knowledgeable they are. All of them. They always have an explanation for why they did what they did on a certain play. Even on the negative plays have some sort of reasonable explanation. Goff was very impressive, not surprisingly given he’s a QB. Ragland probably next most, which also isn’t surprising given he’s essentially the QB of the defense.
King: Let me ask two things about Goff: (1) What’s your gut feeling about when he might be ready to play in an NFL game? And (2) What NFL teams in need of a quarterback would he fit with?
Benoit: I think he can be ready at some point during his rookie season, depending on which team takes him. The 49ers projection makes a lot of sense, not so much because of the home hometown factor (it doesn’t hurt, but it’s hardly relevant) but more because Chip Kelly’s system has a lot of similarities to Cal’s system. But really, Goff’s best traits are the classic ones: arm strength (good), accuracy (great) and, just as importantly, poise and nuanced movement in the pocket. If you have the pocket poise, theoretically, you can play in pretty much any NFL system.
King: What is it you like about the match between him and Chip Kelly?
Benoit: Kelly’s scheme is much, much simpler than people realize. Because it operates so fast and out of different formations, it creates an illusion of complexity. But really, it’s probably the simplest offense in the NFL. A QB’s decisiveness is the most important trait. Goff is very decisive, pre and post-snap.
King: Andy and Emily and Jenny: Do you think Colin Kaepernick is a Niner when the seasons starts?
Kaplan: I do. I think as much as Chip Kelly might be intrigued by Blaine Gabbert, he (and general manager Trent Baalke) are not comfortable going with Gabbert and some rookie as the only quarterbacks on the roster.
Benoit: Yes, because of a fact that (amazingly) people did not pay enough attention to: His salary guarantee date of April 1. He has had surgeries and wasn’t healthy. (And by the way, it’s no accident that Kaepernick had multiple surgeries this offseason… many in the business feel his camp knew they would put the Niners in a bind by doing this. It was a very smart move.) So he’ll be hard to get rid of, and I don’t think another team will want him at his current price. I also think that if Kaepernick is a 49er this year, then Blaine Gabbert will be Chip Kelly’s starting quarterback.
King: You know what’s interesting? Last week, being at the league meeting, I kept hearing, essentially, from Niner people: Are you crazy? How can we get rid of Kaepernick unless we get a great offer? We can’t do that. We can’t go into camp with Gabbert and an untested rookie.
Jenny Vrentas: My impression was that the 49ers were more interested in moving on from Kaepernick before they hired Kelly. I think there are bridges to be mended on both sides, because the team felt like the locker room responded better in many ways to Gabbert. But Kelly knows his offense works best with a quarterback like Kaepernick, so once Kelly was hired, I believe the San Francisco brass was more keen on keeping Kaepernick.
King: Exactly, Jenny.
Kaplan: I have a gut feeling Goff is going to land with the Cowboys at No. 4. Peter, the other day when you asked Jerry Jones about his succession plan, he assured he would leave on his own terms. I’d like to think he’s invested more thought into a succession plan for Tony Romo. I would not be surprised if the Cowboys snag a QB here. For the reasons Andy listed above, Goff would fit well in Dallas. Plus, he has poise to thrive in that market. Goff could sit a year or two under Romo in a redshirt scenario—a plan so many teams try to commit to (ahem, Blake Bortles and the Jaguars) but end up having to relent on because of circumstance. However, if the oft-fragile Romo gets injured next season, Dallas won’t be stuck with the nightmarish situation that plagued its 2015 season.
King: Interesting, Emily. For some reason, I don’t see him going to Dallas. Jerry has so much faith in Romo that it’s hard to see him picking a quarterback when he thinks Romo can give him three or four more years. But on the other hand, Jerry is convinced this is the last time he’ll have a top-five pick in forever, so maybe he just says, let’s bite the bullet, pick a quarterback and we’ll see what happens.
Moving on … The draft is four weeks from Thursday. Gut feeling of the top three picks from each of you: (1) Tennessee, (2) Cleveland, (3) San Diego.
King: My top three: Laremy Tunsil, T, Ole Miss; Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State; Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. In that order.
Vrentas: Tunsil. Goff. And a QB-needy team trades into San Diego’s No. 3 spot for Wentz.
King: I like that. Like it a lot. Tom Telesco, the Chargers GM, would love to pick up an extra 2. San Diego needs bodies, quality bodies.
Benoit: I know nothing about Tunsil, but every single mock draft I’ve seen has him going No. 1. So I suppose I’ll get on board with that. Tennessee’s O-line could use the help, certainly. And if you upgrade at LT, you upgrade at RT because 2014 first-rounder Taylor Lewan would probably move there. Cleveland takes Wentz (and Wentz should pull an Elway/Eli and refuse to play for them), and San Diego with Bosa makes sense because of the Chargers running a flexible 3-4, where Bosa, I imagine, would fit on the edge. I like Jenny’s idea of a QB-needy team trading to that spot, though.
Kaplan: Tennessee goes with Tunsil. First-year general manager Jon Robinson goes the risk-averse route, committing to a smart philosophy: Don’t do anything to jeopardize Marcus Mariota’s development. Cleveland picks Wentz. San Diego picks Jalen Ramsey. I think there’s a chance the Chargers go Bosa because of his fit in the 3-4 system, or even Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner, who might not be as talented as Bosa but has been generating a lot of buzz for his work ethic and dynamic athleticism. Definitely a defensive player here.
King: Jalen Ramsey seems the hot button guy for the top of the draft, which is surprising to me because, though he’s 6-1 and very athletic, he doesn’t have the speed you’d want in a shutdown corner and may project to free safety.
Well, let’s move on to two other topics of the day. No. 1: Can Hue Jackson rescue Robert Griffin III and make him an above-average NFL starter?
Vrentas: Here’s what Hue Jackson is very good at: Understanding the kind of coaching each individual player needs. With Andy Dalton, for example, that was building his confidence and stoking a stronger leadership fire. Griffin needs a similar prescription. Now, Griffin has a lot of physical questions, too, but the mental side is a major hurdle he’ll have to clear. Jackson is already invested in him, and he considers him “his guy” just a few days after signing him. He does that for all his players, and I think that’s why he has a reputation for being good with quarterbacks. You can question Griffin’s decision to go to Cleveland, because they will almost certainly draft a quarterback high. But I understand why Cleveland brought him in, and the reason is that they feel that Jackson has as good a chance of anyone to get the best out of him.
Kaplan: I think the pressure is more on Griffin than Jackson. In RG3’s magical rookie season, the Shanahans designed one of the most drastic overall scheme adjustments the NFL has ever seen. It eased the transition for Griffin and surprised a lot of NFL defenses, but wasn’t sustainable. When the Shanahans left, Griffin was asked to adapt to a more traditional NFL offense. His flaws were exposed in Jay Gruden’s system—and also, he was injured. Here’s the catch: Gruden’s offense is very similar to Jackson’s. So as much as Jackson’s leadership is pivotal, Griffin’s potential as an NFL starting QB will be determined by how well Griffin can integrate into the Browns offense, and the locker room.
Benoit: I think there’s close to zero chance that Jackson “rescues” Griffin. If Jay Gruden’s system couldn’t do it for Griffin, no one’s can. The concerns about Griffin on film and behind the scenes are legitimate. Getting Griffin was about the last thing the downtrodden Browns needed.
King: Tell us what you really think, Andy.
Honestly, when I talked to Jackson over the weekend, he was clear that the acquisition of Griffin would have nothing to do with their draft plans. I expect them to take a quarterback among their first two picks—either Wentz or Goff high, or Connor Cook or one of the others with their high second-round pick.
Also curious: Did you see what John Harbaugh of the Ravens told me at the league meetings? He said someone’s got to stick up for what a great game football is, and it’s getting attacked quite a bit, and he’s happy to be the one to do it. (More eloquently than that, of course.) I said in my Monday column that Roger Goodell should name him President of Football. So… what do you think? With football under attack as much as it is, should people who love the game—Harbaugh, for instance—defend it emotionally the way he did? Does it matter? Is football running scared about the future?
Benoit: I think it’s wise for someone in football to take a proactive approach like Harbaugh did. Because yes, piling on football has become almost politically correct, which means at some point, defending football might become politically incorrect. And that’s how a sport dies. Something I think the NFL needs to also consider: with fewer and fewer parents allowing their kids to play football, the national pool of talent is going to decline (that’s inevitable). This is a great time to keep expanding the game overseas because you can expand the pool of players that way. Kids in America are playing less football, but kids in Europe, and especially China, are playing more. The game can be on the rise over there. 20 or 30 years from now, international players could become the norm in the NFL. And that would more than offset the inevitable decline in the game’s participants in the states.
Kaplan: Keith Van Valkenberg of ESPN wrote a compelling column about Harbaugh in wake of Tray Walker’s death. He wrote, in a time where the professional game increasingly operates as ruthless business, Harbaugh operates less like a CEO and more like the patriarch of a large family. As the league straddles its inherent violence with a heightened awareness on health and safety, ambassadors like Harbaugh are important reminders of why we all fell in love with the game. That said, defenders of football must be adaptable. I was disgusted by a handful of NFL leaders blindly dismissing links to CTE as well as CTE research. For football to survive the next 50 years, and not be marginalized or suffer the same fate as boxing, we must balance our emotional investment (Harbaugh) with a willingness to adjust.
Vrentas: I think what you’re seeing from people inside the sport is that they don’t want football to be painted with a single brushstroke, as the world’s most dangerous game. Football is king in the U.S., and the flip side of that is that it largely bears the brunt of the head-injury crisis. And for many reasons, that’s understandable, given the game’s popularity and the frequency of head contact. Of course, contact sports also include hockey, boxing, soccer, wrestling, rugby, basketball, etc. People like Harbaugh are trying to change the narrative and point out all the reasons why people should play the game, which are valid as well. Like anything else, you just want to get to the point—and we are not there yet, nor really are we that close to being there—that the relative risks of all these different sports are fully understood, so parents and kids can make informed decisions. I understood Harbaugh’s passion, and I think he went about it in a good way. The comment I didn’t like was Bruce Arians saying parents who don’t let their kids play the sport “are fools.” We should respect both sides of the decision to play or not to play.
King: I am still waiting for someone to ask the people who police MMA if they’re concerned about the long-term effects of blows to the head in that sport.
Benoit: I know! And can you believe that nobody talks about how harmful boxing is? When the Mayweather-Pacquio fight went on, you didn’t hear anybody say, “hey, by the way, people are paying a collective eight or nine figures to watch two guys walk into a confined area with the objective to inflict brain damage on the other person.” At least with football, the objective is not to hurt the opponent. I can’t believe boxing (and MMA) aren’t in discussion for being outlawed.
King: As we close today, I want one opinion from all of us. One opinion, two sentences max. My opinion: The Los Angeles Rams have been very good at collecting high draft choices, going back to the RG3 trade in 2012, and now they have to do the opposite. The Rams have to trade into the top five—mortgage the future—to get Wentz or Goff, and my pick for them would be Wentz.
Benoit: I agree with your opinion, Peter. Full-heartedly agree, in fact. If forced to come up with one of my own, I’d say it’s imperative the Cowboys draft Wentz or Goff if they fall to No. 4 for the reasons Emily and you touched on earlier. Very rarely do potential franchise QBs show up for younger, well-set teams that happen to have a breaking down 35-year-old quarterback.
Kaplan: I am perplexed by criticism of Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who reportedly blamed his decline in production on James Franklin. The pre-draft interview process has become a ridiculous paradox: we sigh if prospects are coached up by agents to say all the right things, then criticize them if they reveal even an ounce of bare honesty.
Vrentas: Back to the health and safety issue, there’s been a lot of discussion over the past two weeks about what a “link” is between football and CTE. This is where we are: The condition has not been found in the brains of people who haven't experienced multiple blows to the head of some nature. That is a link. But it also doesn't mean we know what causes CTE, because there are still so many unknown factors: How many blows over what period of time lead to this condition? Are there other factors, like genetics, as is the case with Alzheimer's? And how does the pathology that is seen upon autopsy manifest in clinical symptoms when the person is living? To put it in context, only a few hundred brains with CTE have been analyzed, and generally those brains are being analyzed after death because the person had signs of some kind of neurodegenerative disorder while alive. So that shows clearly that we are on the front end of understanding this. That’s not so much of an opinion as a statement—and oops, it was more than two sentences—but I think it’s something important to emphasize given the discussion over the past few weeks.
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