THE REGULAR SEASON, 2017 — We made it! After surviving the grueling final test of the football (sort of) that’s rolled out in the fourth full week of preseason games, the regular season is just five days away.
And while there’s still some tweaking and churning to come, NFL teams yesterday took the last big step in shaping the rosters with the annual cutdown to 53—this year, without the previous step of going from 90 players to 75. Need someone to sort it out for you? Pull up a chair.
1. I think I wouldn’t read too much into Indianapolis acquiring Jacoby Brissett from the Patriots. The fact is, the Colts are going to take their time getting Andrew Luck healthy—GM Chris Ballard has told me repeatedly that this is about fixing his throwing shoulder for the next decade, not for Week 1 of the 2017 season. And should Luck sit for an extended period, it’d be hard to get Brissett ready to start over Scott Tolzien early in that stretch. But I would say after an uneven preseason, Indy recognizes that they need better depth at quarterback behind Luck, and Brissett gives them a chance to develop that at an affordable rate with three years left on his rookie deal.
2. I think the Patriots’ acquisition of Phillip Dorsett is fascinating because he likely projects to play in the slot in New England, and he’s vastly different than the crafty types—like Troy Brown, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman—that the Patriots have used in that spot over the years. Dorsett (who had 33 receptions for 528 yards and two touchdowns in Indianapolis last season) becomes the third Patriot to average at least 15.0 yards per catch last year (he tallied 16.0 yards per), joining Chris Hogan (17.9) and Brandin Cooks (15.0), which illustrates the easy speed and quickness he brings to the table. One question I’ve received is whether he could help on punt returns with Edelman down—maybe, but my understanding is that the Colts didn’t view him as a returner the last two years.
3. After a talk with my boss, I realized I kind of made an assumption I shouldn’t have in writing what I did on Friday—I forgot to mention what Brock Osweiler is as a player. While making the point that he helped himself by being far more coachable and a better teammate than anyone expected him to be in Cleveland, thus restoring a piece of his reputation, I sort of figured everyone knew that he wasn’t any good in the games, which is why he was cut. That’s my mistake. So really, my point was that he went from toxic to just not very good.
4. As it turns out, that was good enough to get him a return engagement in Denver as a stand-in backup while Paxton Lynch nurses a badly bruised throwing shoulder for the first month or so of the season. The Broncos get him for the veteran minimum (the Browns will pay the difference in the $16 million guaranteed he’s owed). He played for Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as a rookie in that system for first three years of his career. And to the point I previously made, because he was a better guy in Cleveland than Hue Jackson and his staff expected, the Broncos worry less about putting him around their young quarterbacks.
5. One more on the Broncos—the release of veteran T.J. Ward means Denver goes into the season missing two key cogs from last year’s defense (DeMarcus Ware being the other) and the Super Bowl 50 defense. It also means there are just six starters left from the latter, three in the front seven and three in the secondary. And look, I understand that the Broncos like Justin Simmons’s upside at the position, and the potential of Will Parks and Jamal Carter. But you have to wonder if Denver loses its identity a little bit here. I spoke with two opposing AFC West coaches last night, and their feeling was that Ward still brings physicality and savvy to the table, but has become a bit of a liability in coverage. Which means Tampa—the Buccaneers signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal overnight—is getting a guy who’ll need a managed role, but certainly has something left in the tank.
6. To count the Browns’ draft pick surplus going into Saturday—they’ve got an first-rounder from Houston from the Deshaun Watson draft-day trade, an extra second-rounder from Houston as part of the Osweiler deal, a third second-rounder from Philadelphia as part of the Carson Wentz deal, an extra fifth-rounder from the Chiefs as part of the Cam Erving deal and an extra sixth-rounder from the Steelers’ trade for Justin Gilbert. So it makes sense that they flipped that sixth-round pick back to Pittsburgh on Saturday for a flyer on the talented, but oft-injured and shaky-handed Sammie Coates. With the roster improving, it’s pretty unlikely all those picks, and all the slotted picks, would make the 2018 Browns.
7. I think the trades of Erving and Dorsett, and the one that sent Laken Tomlinson from Detroit to San Francisco for a fifth-rounder underscore two things: First, that the first round of the 2015 draft—all three guys were a part of it—was pretty hit-or-miss after you get past Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota with the first two picks. And second, the failures of Erving and Tomlinson (2015 second-round pick Ty Sambrailo was dealt for peanuts too) show again the trouble NFL teams are having identifying and developing offensive linemen these days.
8. Now that Le’Veon Bell reported to Steelers camp, there’s one big-name veteran left to report—Rams DL Aaron Donald. The problem? As I understand it, Donald wants to be the highest paid defensive player in football, and that’s not a crazy request. The real question here is what kind of giveback do the Rams get for doing the deal now? He has the final year of his rookie deal, which will cost the team $1.802 million; his option year, at a rate of $6.892 million; plus they could franchise him at (probably) around $15 million (the 2017 DT number is $13.387 million) in 2019. That’s a three-year outlay of just under $24 million. Von Miller, who played out his rookie deal, got $61 million over the first three years of his 2016 Denver blockbuster. Ndamukong Suh, who also finished out his first contract, will $60 million over his first three years in Miami. So the disconnect here isn’t hard to get.
9. If you’re into legal minutiae, or just wondering if Ezekiel Elliott is going to play in Week 1, the three key words: Temporary restraining order. If a Texas court grants Elliott one, the door is open to kick the can down the road into 2018. He needs to prove two things to get it. First, he has to show he’ll suffer irreparable harm by serving the suspension. Second, he has to display he’ll have a reasonable chance of winning in court.
10. If that’s it for Cardinals RB Chris Johnson, he made it a lot longer than most of us thought he would. While most folks thought he was cooked at the end in Tennessee, he came back average better than four yards per carry in 2014 for the Jets and ’15 for a very good Arizona team. Based on the miles on his legs, and his 2013 downturn, it’s impressive that he was even in a camp this summer.