Career Breaks, Hard Knocks and NFL Position Battles
1) I think it’s awesome that ESPN has tapped Beth Mowins to become the first woman in 30 years to handle play-by-play duties for a regular-season NFL game. That’s not to say gender discrimination in sports is what it once was. Most current athletes and coaches grew up in a world were they have always been interviewed by women reporters. I often tell journalism students that I don’t find much gender discrimination in the locker room because many people are used to a woman’s presence there. And yet, let’s not forget this: the more women there are in high-profile roles, the more normalized it will be to general public. So let’s celebrate Mowins. Let’s also recognize other women out there doing it, like Kate Scott in the Bay Area who last year did play-by-play on KNBR 680 Radio for the 49ers’ first two preseason games.
2) On Albert Breer’s podcast, I joked that the kicking competition between Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk would be the most interesting storyline in the upcoming season of HBO’s Hard Knocks—by far. I still think that’s mostly true, but I neglected another intriguing development in Tampa Bay: the return of Doug Martin. It feels like it’s been a while since Martin burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2012. He struggled mightily last year, registering 2.9 yards per carry. Martin left the team with one game remaining to serve a four-game PED suspension and check into a drug-treatment facility. That suspension will spill into 2017. The front office apparently feels comfortable in the strides Martin has made, because the team didn’t draft a running back in the first round (though they did pick up Jeremy McNichols in the fifth). I’m curious to track Martin’s rejoining the team as he tries to reclaim his career, and how candid he will be about what he went through off the field.
3) The Packers are among the league’s best at identifying and promoting undrafted talent. In each of Ted Thompson’s 12 seasons as general manager, at least one undrafted free agent has made the season-opening 53-man roster. Last year, 17 undrafted players saw snaps. If you’re looking for a guy to break through in 2017, I’d keep an eye on linebacker/fullback Cody Heiman, out of Division II Washburn. I profiled him in the College Column earlier this season. He’s from a tiny Kansas town (Baileyville, population: 181) and played eight-man football through high school. Heiman was first noticed by longtime Bears trainer Russ Riederer, who now lives in Kansas. “I had Brian Urlacher at the Bears,” Riederer told me. “I’m not saying Cody is Brian Urlacher, because he’s one of the special lifetime players you get to coach, but he’s not that far off.”
4) Let’s delve into a little college ball, shall we? Let the Josh Allen/Sam Darnold/Josh Rosen hype train begin. Allen (Wyoming) will inevitably be tagged the “Next Carson Wentz.” A fellow late bloomer, Allen has the size (6’ 5”, 216 pounds) arm strength and mobility NFL teams covet. USC’s Darnold was the hottest college quarterback in the second half of the 2016 season; scouts like his leadership. Rosen was a highly touted high school prospect who should rebound after playing only six games in 2016 (shoulder surgery). It’s shaping up to be a big quarterback draft in 2018, but remember: it’s only May. At this time last year, I think might have written: “Miami’s Brad Kaaya and DeShaun Watson are the two quarterbacks poised to be the first quarterback drafted in 2017.” A lot can change in 11 months.
5) I think I like a lot of what the Saints did this offseason, but I wonder if they’ll regret not being more active in securing a pass-rusher. New Orleans has missed the playoffs for three-straight years and is trying to squeeze one last run out of 38-year-old Drew Brees. The team had obvious needs on all levels of defense, and while they upgraded the secondary (No. 11 pick Marshon Lattimore, second-round safety Marcus Wiliams) and addressed the linebacking corps (free agents A.J. Klein and Manti T’eo, plus trading up in the third round for Alvin Kamara) the Saints didn’t find a true edge presence to pair with Cam Jordan. The only defensive end they drafted, Trey Hendrickson out of Florida Atlantic, could be a gem, but the Saints need more. They saw the division rival Falcons trade up to snag one of their targets, Takkarist McKinley. New Orleans could have benefited from doing something similar.
6) The fact that Patrick Mahomes, less than a month after being drafted by the Chiefs, was robbed at gunpoint is harrowing. I think it reminds me of a story The MMQB ran last summer by then-Jaguars safety Earl Wolff, who was robbed, slashed, taken at gunpoint with an AK-47 and held captive for several hours by a group of men who abandoned him on a deserted road with his arms and legs bound by zip ties. I remember talking to Wolff last summer and he wanted to share this message: “I want people to know this can happen to anyone.”
7) If you’re looking for this year’s sleeper rookie running back—the 2017 version of Jordan Howard—I think you should look no further than Samaje Perine in Washington. You might know Perine as the other Oklahoma running back (not Joe Mixon) but it was Perine who broke Billy Sims’s longstanding Sooners’ record by finishing his college career with 4,122 rushing yards. I wouldn’t be shocked if he, rather than Rob Kelly, is the starting running back for the Redskins in Week 1.
8) I think everyone is talking about the rookie quarterback battles, but I’m interested in a few running back battles involving rookies. Besides Perine in Washington, here are two high-profile running back situations I’ll be tracking: Dalvin Cook (versus free-agent addition Latavius Murray) in Minnesota and Joe Mixon (versus in Jeremy Hill, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons, and Giovanni Bernard, coming off a torn ACL), in Cincinnati.
9) I find it interesting that Willie Colon said that Ben Roethlisberger seriously considered retiring. In an interview with PFT Talk, the former Steelers offensive lineman said he sat down with the 35-year-old quarterback, who talked about walking away because of health concerns. I think the Steelers are well aware that Roethlisberger’s window is closing and were prepared to take a quarterback high if needed. I’m glad they took Joshua Dobbs in the fourth rounds. If Dobbs gets a year or two under the tutelage of Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh could have a seamless succession plan.
10) I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an NFL coach or personnel man who supports the league rule that prohibits rookies from fully participating in offseason programs until their school’s spring academic calendar is complete. Many find it outdated. But I think reform on that issue is unlikely; we’ve been hearing the same gripes for years.
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