Pats Get Stronger, Beckham Is a Story, and the Meaning of ‘Voluntary’
1. I think Brandin Cooks looks as impressive as can be early on for the Patriots, and that’s a scary prospect for the rest of the NFL. Why was Cooks so attractive to New England? He the rare receiver who combines the kind of route-running the Patriots demand out of the position with an ability to hit a home run every snap. New England didn’t have that element last year, and the Patriots also didn’t have Rob Gronkowski in the playoffs, and they still scored 104 points over three postseason games. If you put it together, the Pats add Gronkowski, Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to the offensive arsenal while losing LeGarrett Blount and Martellus Bennett. Oh, and at least at this point, Tom Brady looks pretty far in front of Jimmy Garoppolo, which is to say he doesn’t look like a guy on the doorstep of 40. All of that is to say that after winning a fifth title, you can see net gains made by New England, at least on offense.
2. I think I’ve said what I’m going to say on Odell Beckham—If you’re denying that this is a story, you have your head in the clouds. This is one of the league’s biggest stars and most polarizing figures, playing in New York, deciding not to show up for the bulk of the off-season program coming off a playoff stinker—six days after his game-week hijinks in Miami—in the first year he’s eligible for a new deal. And that’s without even getting into the on-field fighting with Josh Norman, and the entire Bills roster before that. To pretend that Beckham didn’t make this bed for himself is to apologize for him. He wants a new contract, and I’ll never begrudge a professional football player for holding a hard line to get what he can while he’s still physically able to get it. In the NFL, it’s incumbent on players to do that. Just, again, don’t try to tell me this isn’t a story. Everything Beckham does is a story, and his leveraging to cash in would be one in November and December and January all the same as it is in June. Maybe he gets paid over the next couple months and has a monster year, and that would probably mean all of this is forgotten then. That doesn’t mean it’s not newsworthy now.
3. While we’re there, I think I’m sick of the word “voluntary.” So I’d tell you that people use that word this time of year to cover for star players—who are generally the only ones who have the power to skip out on voluntary workouts. Guys down the line can’t afford to miss the work or get on the wrong side of coaches who’ll take everything into account in making roster decisions at the end of August. (It’s not supposed to be that way, of course, but that is just reality.) There are some vets who have earned the right to do things their way. And sometimes those guys will decide to work with trainers off-site. That’s almost never a big deal. Example: Giants DE Olivier Vernon stayed in Miami through April and May because he believes he gets better work there than he would in non-contact drills in Jersey. It’s been communicated and managed, and that’s why no one bothers to talk about it. The ones that are stories are when guys decide to stay away to make a point, and it’s in those cases where we here the word “voluntary” as a crutch. And no, those guys aren’t going outside their rights to make those points. As I said, if you’re a pro football player, and it helps you get paid while you can, you probably should do it. But let’s stop pretending that the world’s being asked of them. Teams can only have players for nine weeks from the end of the seasons to the end of July. So I guess I’m just really not sure what people are getting at when they overuse that word to minimize a de facto holdout.
4. OK, so here’s one holdout I think is smart—that of Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. The last three years, Donald played in an aggressive scheme that made the most of his ability to wreak havoc as a 3-technique tackle. As I understand it, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips doesn’t plan to change much in how Donald is deployed. In certain respects he’ll use Donald like he used J.J. Watt in Houston. But it’s hard to imagine Donald’s stock being much higher than it is right now, and because he is a different player (as a lighter, shorter interior defensive lineman at 6'1", 285), it’s not impossible to see where there might be a bit of an adjustment. And if the Rams, in a year of transition, are playing from behind a bunch, and teams are running at them, that won’t help either. So it makes sense for Donald to do all he can to get paid now. I think it’ll happen. As we said a few weeks back, the question is really whether his new deal will be in the Ndamukong Suh/Von Miller category (about $19 million per year) or closer to what Fletcher Cox and Mo Wilkerson got (about $17 million per). Worth noting that Suh, Miller and Wilkerson all played out their rookie deals, while Cox got his extension going into his option year. Donald has this year, plus his 2018 option season, left on his rookie contract.
5. And here’s an under-the-radar holdout that I think was worth a shot: Braden Albert’s. The vet was dealt to Jacksonville for Julius Thomas in March. He has two years left on the free-agent contract he signed with the Dolphins three years ago, and is due $8.9 million this year and $9.6 million next year. None of that is guaranteed, those numbers are now under market for a left tackle, and the Jags badly needed him at the time of the trade. Albert turns 33 in November, and so finding a way to get what he could out of his situation was smart, even if it didn’t work. The Jags drafted Cam Robinson in the second round in April, so the need’s not the same as it was, and Albert has reported to minicamp.
6. I think it’s great news that Tom Brady’s dad, Tom Sr., delivered to my buddy Chris Gasper at the Boston Globe: Wife Galynn concluded her cancer treatments two months ago and is healthy enough now to be out and about playing golf and tennis. Her condition weighed heavy on the family for all of 2016, and a result of her battle was that the parents didn’t get to see their son play in person (a rarity for them) through the first 18 games of Tom Jr.’s season. And even their ability to attend the 19th game was dicey—it wasn’t until Wednesday of Super Bowl week that Galynn got clearance from her doctors in San Francisco to travel to Houston to see the Patriots win their fifth title. “She lives and dies with everyone of her children, whether it’s in a football game or anything else,” Tom Sr. told me in the aftermath of the championship. “And she was very thankful, very thankful … Yeah, just very thankful that this played out. There were a lot of times in the game when this was highly in doubt. … It was pretty awesome. It was pretty darn awesome.”
7. I’ll be in New Orleans today, and I think the Saints player I’ll be keeping an eye on but you might not be yet is rookie safety Marcus Williams. The second-round pick was a good enough centerfielder at Utah that the Falcons were mulling drafting him at the bottom of Round 1, if their efforts to trade up for a pass-rusher had been unsuccessful – and making him Dan Quinn’s new Earl Thomas. And the Saints knew what they were getting in that sense when they took him. What’s surprised them to this point is his versatility, which is huge in a Dennis Allen defense that favors safeties who can be interchangeable. The Saints are encouraged, early on, that Williams will be able to play in the box and cover out of the slot, as well. And if all of that carries into the season, he could have the same sort of impact that the team is expecting from first-round corner Marshon Lattimore.
8. I think it’s pretty remarkable that the Falcons and Mike Vick were able to come together on Monday and give closure to what was a messy divorce a decade ago. All you have to do is talk to the people who were there in 2007 to know how bad things got for Atlanta. From owner Arthur Blank’s trust being broken (Vick lied to his face when asked about the dog-fighting in Virginia), to the dog-fighting ring being exposed, to the firing of Jim Mora after the coach openly pined for the University of Washington job, to successor Bobby Petrino bolting for Arkansas with three games left in his first season as coach, it was a pretty bleak period in the history of that team. And after it was over, Vick’s popularity in Atlanta (even after the scandal) was something that incoming GM Thomas Dimitroff had to consider before drafting Matt Ryan third overall—with the question being whether it was right to throw a rookie quarterback into that cauldron. Now, it’s certainly impressive how Vick has turned his life around in the time since, but it would be understandable if the Falcons didn’t want to honor him given all that history. Good on them for being able to move past it, which should allow them now to acknowledge all the good and bad of Vick’s six seasons as a Falcon.
9. I think Jeremy Maclin has plenty left, and is a nice pickup for the Ravens. And good for him that he landed in a good spot despite some pretty bad timing. Know this: The Chiefs didn’t whack Maclin because he can’t play anymore. He may not have been the player he was when he was signed to a five-year, $55 million deal two years ago, but he had tread left on the tire. The problem for the Chiefs was their cap situation (they need room just to ink their rookies), and OTAs gave them a chance to look at the depth on the roster—and where they’d have flexibility to move on from a pricey vet. Kansas City already had two young players, in Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley, who’ve been productive, and the emergence of DeMarcus Robinson served as the green light for John Dorsey and Andy Reid to push the eject button on the $10 million in cash that Maclin was owed for 2017. Now, Maclin won’t make up the money he’s lost in Baltimore, but he gets to reunite with a familiar face, in coordinator Marty Morhinweg, and Joe Flacco’s skill set should help to maximize Maclin’s down-the-field ability in a way that Alex Smith and company probably couldn’t.
10. My highly educated NBA take: I think Kevin Durant’s title still feels a little hollow. And if that doesn’t bother him, more power to him. Maybe that’s on me, but this feels like a shortcut. It’s worth repeating: Durant and the Oklahoma Thunder had a 3-1 lead on the Warriors last year and blew it. Durant signed with the Warriors a little over a month later. To me, that’d be like Michael Jordan signing with the Pistons after losing to them in the conference finals in 1989 or ’90, or LeBron James going to the Celtics in 2010 after they bounced him from the playoffs and ended his first run in Cleveland. The formation of superteams in the NBA is one thing. Joining up with the team that’s literally standing right in your way feels like something else entirely. And it affects the way I look at Durant’s first championship. To me it was a shortcut he didn’t need to take. Doesn’t mean he’s not a Hall-of-Famer, and it doesn’t diminish what the Warriors brass was able to accomplish—amassing flexibility through home-grown talent and creative team building. But it’s just not the same as it has been when other NBA uber-stars broke through to win a title.
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