NFLPA president Eric Winston shares an idealistic view of how the leader of the NFL should operate. Plus a positive takeaway from the Tom Brady suspension, two veteran backs to watch at training camp and much more

By Albert Breer
July 21, 2016

When Roger Goodell took charge as commissioner right before the 2006 season, Eric Winston was entering the league as a rookie right tackle for the Texans. Winston admits now his idea back then of what a commissioner should be was a little naïve.

The NFLPA president can laugh about that a decade later.

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“Most [rookies think] the commissioner is this independent body and is autonomous from anything else,” Winston said Wednesday afternoon. “Guys have thought that for a long time. You just assume that’s the way it is—that he does a little bit of everything, growing the game, making sure things are taken care of.

“Then you realize that’s really not the case. At the end of the day, he’s the owners’ representative and that’s really it.”

Over the past few weeks, the NFLPA’s powerbrokers (past and present) have made a concerted effort to avoid the topic of Goodell’s 10th anniversary as commissioner. Their feeling: What’s needed to be said has been said. And there isn’t much desire to take part in any sort of celebration of Goodell’s term.

But it is Goodell Week here at The MMQB. And so before we get to the future of franchise tags, the Jets defensive line, Jimmy Garoppolo, the Rams’ return to Los Angeles, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz and more, I thought we’d see if a union leader would talk about not what Goodell has been, but what a commissioner should be.

As it turns out, Winston knows exactly what he'd be looking for.

Eric Winston has served as NFLPA president since being elected to the position in March 2014.
David J. Phillip/AP

“You’d think a commissioner, just from a union standpoint, would be worried about things like worker safety, and forcing labor and management together,” Winston said. “Find things that don’t divide us, keep us going on the right path, make sure our problems don’t fester, that’s what guys look for.”

Five years ago, Winston was exposed to the truth. And so his naïvete died right there in the bargaining room, when he saw the 2011 lockout become positioned as much a DeMaurice Smith vs. Goodell fight as it was players vs. owners.

“You kinda assume he’s gonna be the referee,” Winston said. “You then realize he’s just there aiding the owners.”

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It’s pretty simple to see why it is that way — That’s who pays the commissioner.

Goodell was appointed a decade ago in large part because of the vision and acumen for making those guys more money he’d shown in captaining NFL Ventures. Under Goodell, the NFL has become a $13 billion business, and it’s still growing. That’s a big reason why Goodell’s bosses have no problem dropping tens of millions of dollars into his bank account each year.

That ability to grow the game has indeed evolved into a central part of Goodell’s job, and Winston sees no problem there.

Ideally, commissioner would be an autonomous position where he can say whatever to whomever. He should be able to back owners off, and back players off. It should be a consensus builder.

“A lot of commissioners in different leagues have grown their games, and that’s not a bad thing,” Winston said. “We’re all in it together financially. Every player should be part of the growth of the game, too. I think the game’s grown significantly, and that’s good for players, management, everyone. Growth is not a bad word—guys get paid more, the benefits are better, and that’s all good.”

Winston also agrees with the idea the commissioner should be involved in discipline. “We never said he shouldn’t,” he said. “The union has always said that we’re not opposed to discipline. But were you seeing cases go to trial, go federal court before this? You didn’t see that, because there was a good process in place.”

The NFLPA president even thinks it’s fine that the job description varies from commissioner to commissioner, based on the individual’s strengths and personality. But Winston believes there are a few things that should be non-negotiable. He mentioned ensuring player safety, at least to the extent a commissioner can in a fundamentally violent game. He emphasized that being a bridge builder between workers and management should be another. And Winston again is in agreement that integrity of the game is still important.

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Winston also knows now what he didn’t know all those years ago—that creating unity between all involved in professional football is easier to visualize than it is to achieve.

“It’s not Roger. It’d be that way with anyone,” Winston said. “Ideally it’d be an autonomous position where he can say whatever to whomever. He should be able to back owners off, and back players off. That’s always been my view, that it should be a consensus builder … a guy who is worried about doing the right thing, not anything else. That’s hard. It’s idealistic. It’s not the way the world works.”

* * *

The Patriots are hoping to protect Jimmy Garoppolo better than this when he starts regular season games in September.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

FOUR DOWNS

1. The future of franchise tags. Every year around this time, the grousing about the franchise tags starts, around the same time that eyes fix on the gaudy new contracts being thrown around in NBA free agency. No, there aren’t franchise tags in basketball. Yes, it clears the way for player movement. But there is a mechanism in hoops that, as a practical matter, serves the same purpose as the NFL’s tags, and that’s the concept of the max contract. In both sports, these restrictions essentially set a ceiling on how much players can make by limiting the super elite. In the NFL, when the best are negotiating new deals in the years before existing contracts expire, the cost of tags sets the framework. In the NBA, it’s a hard ceiling. In the case of both, the beneficiaries are the players on the next tier down. Where max contracts limited Kevin Durant earlier this month, they cleared the room for guys like Memphis’ Mike Conley and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan to reach into the $30 million per range. And where franchise tags hindered Von Miller’s earning power, the rising price and/or logistics of them allowed for new Giant Olivier Vernon and new Jaguar Malik Jackson to hit the market and cash in at near the level Miller did.  What would happen if there weren’t these restraints in place to limit the top of the market? Well, in basketball, absent max contracts and considering the value of a Durant or a LeBron James, it’s fair to wonder if the biggest stars would reach into the $50 million a year range. In football, if there were no tags and, say, a 27-year-old Andrew Luck were to hit the market in March 2017? He’d get a lot more than the $25 million a year he’s due on his new deal, that’s for sure. And in both cases, that would leave less for the second tier.

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2. Jets punt on d-line decision time. During the early parts of this offseason, the implication of the Jets’ slow movement on franchised defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson was clear—they were choosing the slightly-younger, more athletic Sheldon Richardson over him. And New York may well do that in the long run. GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles just don’t have to yet. Yes, Wilkerson’s five-year, $86 million deal bests the average per year on those signed by J.J. Watt (whose contract Wilkerson was out to beat) two years ago and Fletcher Cox (the most recent monster d-line deal) last month. But take down the window dressing, and you’ll find a two-year deal with an option set for March 2018. Wilkerson gets $37 million between now and then, which is better than the total of two tags ($34.5 million.). The Jets get cap relief, and control over the player well into the future. And so the Wilkerson/Richardson decision is pushed to the point when a call on that option (and tagging or re-signing Richardson) is at hand. At that point, the Jets will also have to decide on the fifth-year option of Leonard Williams, the first draft pick of the Maccagnan era. In the time being, they’ll have the most talented young defensive interior in football. Next up: Settling the quarterback decision, with the next checkpoint in the Ryan Fitzpatrick saga coming July 27, when players report to camp.

3. Rams on the move. I spent some time in L.A. this week, and there’s nothing like getting in a car there to figure out how far apart everything feels. Which is one big reason why the about-to-be-rechristened Rams are doing all they can to touch different parts of the city in the three years leading up to their second L.A. launch, when Stan Kroenke’s Inglewood palace opens. As one senior Rams official explained it to me, the concept between now and then is to give the whole region ownership of the team. So they’ll have camp near their old Anaheim home in Orange County at UC-Irvine, some 80 miles away from the Agoura Hills business office and under-construction Thousand Oaks football facility, which sit north of the city. And, of course, they’ll play their home game as the Coliseum, smack in between those outposts. As of right now, the stadium is still being worked on to get NFL-ready, mainly in the areas of security and technology (coach-to-QB communication, instant replay, etc.) The Rams have hit their ceiling of 70,000 season tickets (that number had to be limited to guarantee each holder would be able to buy in Inglewood), and plan to use the normal USC configuration of just over 81,000 seats, with the possibility of expanding to 91,000 by opening some obstructed view seats for more in-demand games like the opener against ex-Trojans coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. When you add up everything, there’s no doubt the franchise has a nomadic 30 months ahead of it.

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4. Patriots plan for Tom Brady suspension. So now we know, barring injury, that it will be Jimmy Garoppolo in Weeks 1-4. What even the New England coaches don’t really know is how his progress over the past two years will stand up in a regular-season setting. But after asking around this week, most of what you hear from those on the outside matches the positivity coming out of Foxboro on the 2014 second-round pick. He’s not Tom Brady, but the Patriots won’t ask him to be. And Garoppolo has shown potential to be good enough in the short term. “He’s looked sharp when he’s had the opportunity,” said one NFC personnel exec who got a long look at him. “I also really liked him during the draft, so some of that was ‘leftover’ evaluation. … Strong arm, quick arm, accurate, can move in the pocket, mobile, all the things you like to see in a young developmental QB.” An AFC exec who’s studied him agreed, saying, “He progressed every week. He gets it out quickly when he sees it, has upside, and they will tailor things for him. The question for him is the same for every unproven quarterback, and especially spread guys, and that is how they’ll stand in versus the rush on Sundays.” And a rival defensive coach added that as he sees it, “He looks good, he can move in the pocket, strong arm. … Maybe they give him a little less to do at the line, less options, but the plays will be the same.” So while the Patriots certainly wouldn’t ask for what they’ve gone through the past 18 months, there’s an upshot here, especially if the young guy can prove these evaluators correct. They get a four-game look at Garoppolo, and so will the rest of the league. If he plays well, he could become a 2017 trade chip, and by then the Patriots will have a better idea of what they have in 2016 third-round pick Jacoby Brissett. Also, there’s a decent chance Brady comes back in Week 5 with just a little bit of an edge.

* * *

Tyrann Mathieu could find himself in contract negotiations soon as he heads into the final season of his rookie contract.
Norm Hall/Getty Images

THREE CHECKDOWNS

1. The idea of Kirk Cousins getting what Andrew Luck did sounds silly now. In a year? Well, new contracts for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Derek Carr in Oakland (they’re eligible for deals after the regular season) could change the complexion of what $22 million or $23 million per for a quarterback means. And that’s the risk the Redskins are taking here, with a player who will cost nearly $24 million to tag in March.

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2. Rehabbing Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu is headed into a contract year and, torn ACL or not, the team’s plan has been to reward him. It’d be smart to do it now. Per Pro Football Focus, Mathieu played 68 percent of his snaps at corner in 2015, setting up a scenario where—if a deal can’t be done now—he’d have an argument to get the corner tag (which was $13.95 million this year and will be more next year) over the safety tag ($10.81 million in 2016). And that could set up a fight that can be avoided by reaching a middle ground now.

3. It makes sense that plenty of headlines were splashed around when the Eagles said they might make Carson Wentz a game-day inactive in 2016. Remember, 24 of the 26 quarterbacks drafted in the first round in the past 10 classes (2006-15) started at least one game as a rookie. But that doesn’t mean Wentz won’t get work. As I understand it, Philly’s plan is to start camp by splitting the reps evenly between the three quarterbacks, before eventually skewing towards the starter (likely Sam Bradford) as the opener draws closer.

* * *

After eight seasons in Chicago, Matt Forte steps into the spotlight for the Jets this fall.
Dan Cappellazzo/AP Images for New Era Cap

TWO VETERANS TO WATCH AS CAMP OPENS

1. Jets RB Matt Forte. Thirty is a dirty number for backs, and Forte reached the wrong side of it last December. But there is some feeling among those who have scouted Forte that he’s got something left for his new team, after eight years as a Bear. “Still one of the most complete backs in the league,” texted one pro scouting director. “He’s never been overly explosive, twitchy or fast, but that’s where he lost a step. I think he still has another good year of production in him with the weapons the Jets have. Still could be an 1,100-yard rusher with 40-50 catches, and could get more receptions if the Jets tight ends don’t step up.” Asked if Forte represents an upgrade over the departed Chris Ivory, the scouting director responded, “He’s a more complete back than Ivory but doesn’t run as hard or as strong, and won’t have the same short-yardage production.” All of this, of course, is worth accounting for since the Jets still aren’t sure who will be their starting quarterback.

2. Dolphins RB Arian Foster. Foster’s been linked to Miami for weeks, and this signing certainly makes sense as a dice roll after the team struck out on trying to poach Denver’s C.J. Anderson in the spring. But it’s best to keep expectations in check, and not just because Foster has missed 23 games the past three years due to injury. There’s a reason the Texans swapped him out for the younger Lamar Miller in the offseason. “[Foster] has size, he’s an instinctive runner, has vision, he’s savvy, has had to add to his pass catch value. He can run routes out of the backfield so you can play him on on third down and he still gives you the inside run,” said one personnel exec. “But he’s losing his outside burst, has lost overall speed and outside run range. And injuries are mounting.” Complicating things, Miami’s young guys at the position (Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake) also have lengthy medical files. So the question becomes, among the three, which ones can stay healthy. And the next question for Foster, if he can avoid getting banged up, is whether he’s got much left.

* * *

EXTRA POINT

The indictment of former Baylor defensive lineman Shawn Oakman on a sexual assault charge highlights the issues that NFL teams have had in Waco over the past few years in getting solid information on troubled players.

There have always been stops on the scouting trail where it’s more difficult for evaluators to get the truth. Joe Paterno Era Penn State was one. Rutgers was like that, when Greg Schiano was in charge (though Schiano, to his credit, has evolved philosophically since then). Last year, Michigan State’s limited practice and player access led to questions about Connor Cook multiplying.

And then, there’s Baylor.

“It’s easy to get general information there,” said one area scout assigned to the school. “But it’s hard to get specifics or the truth.”

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Two recent examples explain the problem.

In 2012, when Josh Gordon made himself eligible for the supplemental draft after getting tossed from both Baylor and Utah, Cleveland ran into roadblock after roadblock trying to research the embattled receiver’s background. As one Browns decision-maker described it, “It was hard to get information, and it was hard to trust information. They told us things that just weren’t true.”

So the Browns took a leap of faith. And paid for it.

Months earlier, the Redskins had picked Robert Griffin III second overall in the April draft. And while his problems weren’t as deep, it was just as clear to those who worked the area that the shiny image they were being presented was hiding flaws that needed to be addressed, something Mike Shanahan actually stressed to Washington’s upper management before the trigger was pulled.

Now, there are two sides to this argument. Coaches who do hold back information can plead loyalty to the players they’ve worked with for 3-5 years, and there is honor to that. But eventually, it does wind up hurting guys who are doing the right thing.

Oakman obviously wasn’t one of those. By the time he finished at Baylor, the warning signs were everywhere. The scouts had reason not to trust him or the program by then.

But others slipped through. And even though things likely will change with the Baylor football program being overhauled, the issues again show the complexities teams face in mining the collegiate level for talent.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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