• Coaches and executives around the NFL explain why the deal was a no-brainer for John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to make
  • Other notes include: how the Cowboys will cope without Zeke Elliott; why the Dolphins dealt Jay Ajayi; and much more
By Albert Breer
November 02, 2017

High winds and slick Massachusetts roads led to a black car taking Jimmy Garoppolo to the airport, and his future, to slide off the road, before he could even board his flight. A few hours later, Tuesday’s trip was delayed again, this time by a refueling somewhere in South Dakota. And if that wasn’t enough, Garoppolo then realized he hadn’t packed for the cold weather he stepped into during that emergency stopover.

This isn’t how anyone draws up his first day as a franchise quarterback. But that’s okay, because Garoppolo eventually got there—and joked about it with his new co-workers—knowing the rest of all this craziness has the promise to be just about perfect. So go ahead and take the leap: The Niners won this trade.

Yeah, it’s crazy to say an 0-8 team with a first-year coach and first-year GM got over on the five-time champion Patriots and their resident Greatest of All-Timer Bill Belichick. But the Patriots were stuck and the Niners recognized it and swooped to swipe a distressed asset, one that may well be a franchise changer. And if you don’t believe me, I have some takes on the deal from around the league to show you.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll explain the Cowboys’ plan for Ezekiel Elliott’s absence; examine the strides the Eagles have watched Carson Wentz make; discuss roster purging by the Dolphins and Bills; delve into what Seattle’s deal for Duane Brown signifies; and much more.

We start, though, with the biggest story of the week. That’s the Garoppolo trade, which is so much more than just some run-of-the-mill deal for someone’s backup quarterback.

After three and a half seasons as mostly a backup in New England, Jimmy Garoppolo will get his shot at becoming a true starting quarterback in San Francisco.
Getty Images

On the Patriots’ side, it’s simple. This is the team buying stock in Brady playing at a high level as a quadragenarian. It pulls the plug on the first succession plan that New England has put in place since Brady became starter in 2001, and clouds, once again, where the franchise will be post-Brady.

For the Niners, the beauty here is that it’s actually more complex than that. If this works, the John Lynch/Kyle Shanahan braintrust got its quarterback for what will likely be the 33rd or 34th or 35th pick in the draft. If it doesn’t, then the Niners only gave up a little more than the Browns did for DeShone Kizer, and that means they still could make up for it by getting Kirk Cousins or drafting Sam Darnold.

In essence, they’ve taken a big swing at a franchise quarterback, and now get a half-season to evaluate whether or not they got that one right without sacrificing their flexibility at the position. They’ll get to see Garoppolo lead and work and react to teaching in their own environment the way they wouldn’t be able to with a potential draft pick or free agent before signing off their future to him.

“We didn’t bring Jimmy here to save our season,” Shanahan told the press in Santa Clara. “We brought Jimmy here to improve this organization and we’re going to figure out the best way for him and the best way for our team how we go about that. Just having him in the building and being able to work with him every day really helps us a lot and know a lot about him.”

Jimmy Garoppolo Trade: Questions and Answers on Most Shocking Deal of NFL Season

But don’t just listen to me on this one—hear the unanimous response that I got in polling personnel men and coaches when I asked if the Niners were as clear a winner in the deal to them as they were to me.

• AFC defensive coach: “Absolutely. A lot of people think [Garoppolo] can be a top 10 starter for the next 10 years. To me, that’s what he was. I’m shocked they let him go. He’s got all the physical tools, he can make the throws, he’s athletic. … And he goes to Arizona (in 2016), in a hostile environment, against a good team, and he beat them soundly. And you could see the poise. He played like he’d been playing for a long time, not like it was his first start. And I think he’s gonna do very well in that (Niners) system.”

• NFC personnel exec: “No question. To me, you see people spending money and draft collateral on guys who have never played a game, and this guy has played, and been in a great system, and he’s young enough. That puts them way ahead, as opposed to risking an investment on a college guy. And if he’s not the guy, you only spent a second-round pick on him, instead of throwing a high 1 out there. … In the right system, and that system is the right system, he’s a good athlete, with a good enough arm, and he’s smart enough to be a successful quarterback. To what level? That depends on what’s around him. … His limitations, can you put the team on his back? Is he that guy? No one knows at this point. Can he win games by himself? If he can, that’s not a second-round pick. If you get that for a second round pick, then you’re way ahead—I mean, way, way, way ahead—of the game.”

• NFC personnel exec: “Someone would’ve given them a first in a different spot. But the Patriots knew they were running out of time, and had no leverage, would’ve had to tag him. …  He can be a top 10 quarterback in the league. If Cleveland’s offering a 2 and a 3 for AJ McCarron, who’s clearly not as good as Garoppolo, then he’s worth a 1 plus something. And Garoppolo is a perfect fit in the Shanahan offense, he can move around, run boots, play action, timing and rhythm patterns, and he’s got good feet, so he can beat you in and outside the pocket. … I’m not talking (Drew) Brees, (Ben) Roethlisberger, Brady, (Peyton) Manning, but the level right below that. That Kirk Cousins level, a better-than-average starter.  He doesn’t have a cannon, he’s a short-to-intermediate passer, and he’s not the biggest guy in the world. But he has vision, the feet to make plays outside the pocket. … Perfect for Kyle and a lot of similarities to Cousins.”

• AFC personnel exec:I believe it’s a win-win. For the Pats, right now, if the season ended today, that’s pick 33, top of the second round. Theoretically, it might be a first-round player. Two, the first pick of second round has a great seller’s market, you can trade down, or trade up into the bottom of the first, it’s a great position to buy or sell from and get value. (Day 1 of the) draft ends, people restack and get eager. The third thing, if Jimmy walked, you get a comp pick, but no higher than a third, and this gives them a much higher slot. And the Niners are in position to have a quarterback in the building that can be their starter for a long time, and now they’ve positioned themselves in first round, with the first pick or the second pick, to trade down, sell and pick up multiple picks from teams looking to come up. …. I think he’s a starter. I like his release, he’s an instinctive guy, with starter traits. He’s smart, he gets rid of it. He doesn’t have a power arm, but he has a good enough arm with a good amount of accuracy. I just don’t where his long-term ceiling is. … (But) they get to evaluate him on the their terms.”

So ideally for the Niners, Garoppolo emerges as a star and the team, already armed with four picks in the first three rounds and more than $100 million on the 2018 cap to spend, can flip a top-five pick to a rival team looking for a quarterback. Worst case, San Francisco is using that pick to take one for itself.

The Most Significant Trade Deadline in NFL History

Either way, as these evaluators said, there’s lots of upside here and minimal downside for the Niners. So John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan should take a bow for their patience, and for getting Garoppolo for so little. And sure, there’s probably some real disappointment in the return inside New England’s building, and some lingering concern about starting over in developing a young quarterback.

But it could be worse. Tom Brady, after all, is still their starter.

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Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins is set to become a free agent following the end of the 2017 season.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

1. The Garoppolo trade wasn’t great news for Kirk Cousins, especially since Jared Goff’s play has taken the Rams as a potential 2018 destination off the table. That means both Cousins’ ex-coordinators—Shanahan in San Francisco and Sean McVay in Los Angeles—are highly unlikely to pursue him. That said, Cousins’ value is still unique to the market, since he’s both experienced enough to be the answer for a win-now team like Jacksonville, and young enough for a team that’s a year or two away, like the Jets, to build around.

2. The Panthers’ decision to deal off Kelvin Benjamin was an idea that came up on the fly—Buffalo initiated the discussion. But once the Carolina brass started to think on it, and weigh their need to get faster, it made sense. Over the first half of the season, the Panthers have seen a ton of press against Benjamin and Devin Funchess, supersized receivers drafted to give Cam Newton big targets down the field on broken plays. It’s led to sacks and turnovers, and the realization that they needed a spark like the move from crafty veteran Jason Avant to speedy rookie Philly Brown gave them in 2014. Funchess will now move to his natural position, the X, and the swift Curtis Samuel and Kaelin Clay will get more snaps, as will Damiere Byrd, who’s run a 4.29, when he comes off IR.

3. As for the Bills side of this, I’ll say that the relationship between the GMs—Brandon Beane and Marty Hurney worked together for over a decade in Carolina—helped facilitate the transaction, because Beane could trust what the Panthers were telling him. Despite all the hubbub over his weight, Benjamin has stayed within a four-pound range (242-246) since the beginning of training camp, and was a good soldier otherwise this year for Carolina.

4. Bengals QB AJ McCarron’s chance to finish out the final year of his rookie contract as a starter has gone by the boards now, and that’s a shame, because he and Browns coach Hue Jackson have a great rapport—Jackson was a major advocate of McCarron prior to the 2014 draft. And McCarron has more experience playing for Jackson than any quarterback on Cleveland’s roster.

5. The line you should pay attention to in Browns EVP Sashi Brown’s statement on Josh Gordon’s conditional reinstatement: “Josh will be in our building in the coming days and we look forward to having him back and sitting with him to discuss his future with our team.”

What Can Josh Gordon Do For The Browns Three Years Later?

6. Monday was the first night where you couldn’t point anywhere but at the quarterback to explain the Broncos’ problems, and Vance Joseph’s decision to pull Trevor Siemian makes sense. Still, this really isn’t about Siemian or even Brock Osweiler. It’s about Paxton Lynch’s failure to this point—and yes, he’s hurt now—to win the job outright. And that’s highlighted, again, by Joseph saying Wednesday that job is Osweiler’s as long as he “plays well.”

7. The Rams come off their bye with a trip to the Meadowlands on Sunday. The “1” in the 4-1 run they’re on may have done more to instill confidence than the “4” has. Why? Well, the Rams have beaten the Seahawks in the past, but often there were fluky elements to those games. On Oct. 8, it was the opposite. They may have lost, but they felt like they took it to big, bad Seattle. And two convincing wins followed.

8. Should be interesting to see what kind of adjustments the Packers made offensively to accommodate Brett Hundley coming out of their bye. If you want examples of what can be done, we’ve seen the Texans effectively adjust to Deshaun Watson, and new Rams coach Sean McVay do certain things to make his offense work for Jared Goff.

9. Smart of the Patriots to do a three-year deal with Brian Hoyer. That basically buys them flexibility not to force a draft pick on a quarterback if they don’t want to in 2018 or ’19. I’d still expect them to strongly consider taking one, though, after trading Garoppolo and 2016 third-rounder Jacoby Brissett over the past two months.

10. So why did the Jaguars move on Marcell Dareus? The presence of head coach Doug Marrone and assistant defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich—Dareus had his best seasons in Buffalo with those two was a factor. But a bigger one was that the Jags front, which has been a nightmare for opposing offenses, needed a run stuffer and another layer of depth, and Dareus gives them that.

The Cowboys expect veteran backup Alfred Morris to step up as the team’s starting running back.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1. What the Cowboys will do without Zeke. Because the situation is fluid—and has been for months—it has to be mentioned that the Second Circuit could grant Ezekiel Elliott an injunction before this weekend, and he could, hypothetically, still not miss a game. But the likelihood is that he will, and that means the makeup of the Cowboys team will change to some degree. How much depends on how the backs in his place perform.

For right now, the expectation internally is that Alfred Morris will be the lead back, with Darren McFadden platooning on run downs, and Rod Smith playing a role on passing downs. The real difference, as the Dallas staff sees it, will come from a game management standpoint. For all Elliott’s strengths, the coaches see his efficiency as a runner. “If you run on first down,” one staffer says, “you’re almost guaranteed 3-4 yards.”

To translate, that means that the coaches, for the last year-and-a-half, could pretty much pull a lever and create 2nd-and-6. For a young quarterback like Dak Prescott, that’s enormous, because it limits a defense’s ability to be creative in pressuring him and keeps them off-balance in general. For a play-caller, it means having an open playbook on a down-to-down basis, without having to worry about getting into third-and-manageable or out of third-and-long nearly as much. And yes, the offensive line is still intact, and the backs remaining are hardly incompetent. But pending appeal, this is a loss for sure.

From Staubach to Dak: An Oral History of the Cowboys’ Quarterbacks

2. Miami isn’t broken but … The Dolphins’ move to dump Jay Ajayi to the Eagles has more than one layer to it. One part was the question of how long his knees will hold up—a bone-on-bone knee condition was a big reason why he fell to the fifth round in 2015. Next year will be a contract year for Ajayi, and Miami was pretty certain it’d be moving on from him after that anyway, so this just moves up the date of that impending divorce. But they still could’ve gotten something out of him now, because while he’s only averaged 3.4 yards per carry this year, he has talent, and so that calls the timing of the move into question.

It’s clear Adam Gase felt like his team needed a jolt, which isn’t an unusual feeling for an offensive-minded coach who’s had to endure two shutouts in a month. And to send it, it’d take more than whacking someone at the bottom of the roster. And Ajayi may not have been off the reservation, but he was pretty familiar with its outskirts. During the team’s furious second-half comeback against the Jets 11 days ago, coaches noticed that Ajayi was pouting on the sidelines. This wasn’t new, either. He’d grown a rep within the building of being selfish, which partly stemmed from how his 2016 season started. That summer, ahead of his second NFL season, Ajayi carried himself as if he’d arrived, and as such showed his displeasure in having to play in the final preseason game, a game in which he fumbled his carry and had a bad drop soon after. Gase came down on him, leaving him home when the team went to Seattle for Week 1, and Ajayi responded with a 1,272-yard season.

But the lingering feeling Ajayi was a “me” guy didn’t dissipate when things went sideways this year. That made him an easy piece for Miami to use to get its point across. Will it work? We’ll see. I can also say the Eagles are excited. They know there’s talent there, and their feeling is the right environment should help Ajayi.

3. Buffalo keeps chipping away. So in the past three months, the Bills have traded away their most talented receiver (Sammy Watkins), corner (Ronald Darby) and perhaps player (Marcell Dareus). And coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have done it in the name of culture. The truth is, anyone could trade talented players. What separates Buffalo from some others here is the response from the remaining players. These kinds of moves don’t always go over well in the locker room. And yet, here the Bills are at 5-2. Buffalo’s 34-14 win over the Raiders came two days after Dareus was dealt to Jacksonville for a measly sixth-round pick that can become a fifth-rounder.

So how this is happening? “By bringing is the right type of players, and through good leadership from him and from players,” said one Bills vet, over text. “Making it so you understand that if you’re not accountable daily, then you’ll be on your way out. There’s a few that come to mind quickly.”

This player wouldn’t name names, but it’s clear who he was talking about, and just as clear that the results are, in part, a result of the organization being in lockstep on these more difficult calls. Having discussed that with McDermott, I know it’s something he clearly feels strongly about, and his actions show that. “Where we are, the numbers are higher, because we’re new, and we’re adding to the roster, and taking away from the roster,” he said to me a few weeks back. “It’s a little more of a constant, constant, constant focus on the standard. Because if you don’t, that culture’s gonna grow up around you in the form of weeds; If you don’t manage the culture, develop the culture on a daily basis, it’s going to grow around you whether you like it or not.”

There’s little question the Bills aren’t letting that happen.

4. Duane Brown-to-Seattle signals more than one thing. Yes, the Seahawks have needed a left tackle forever, but there are a couple other things that we’ve figured for a while that were confirmed here. First, GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are very much in win-now mode. The team has traded its second-round picks in the next two drafts (2018 for Sheldon Richardson; 2019 for Brown), and this year’s third-rounder (for Brown), which tells you it is living for the now, the same way trades in the past for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham did. And given the age of the defensive core, that makes sense. Michael Bennett’s 31, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman are 29, Earl Thomas and KJ Wright are 28, and Bobby Wagner is 27, so for those guys, the time is now.

The second part of this is an acknowledgement of where the NFL is from an offensive line standpoint in 2017—demand is high and supply is low. Drafting one in the first round is no longer as safe as it once was (though this year’s class should be markedly better than last year’s), and average free agents get paid (see: Matt Kalil, Riley Reiff, etc.). The Seahawks have examples of that on their roster, given the ups and downs of former first-rounder Germain Ifedi and the paycheck of now-injured import guard, and former second overall pick Luke Joeckel.  So the value of a player of Brown’s caliber at left tackle may never have been higher because of the scarcity of great ones. And all signs are that he still has it.

“I think he’ll stabilize that offensive line,” said one rival pro scouting director. “He’s been one of the more underrated guys in the game, and he’ll bring a veteran leadership and presence, which is good given all the young guys they have. … And from the one game I saw him play, you really couldn’t tell that he missed camp and the start of the season. He still looks good.” And since Brown is only 32, you can certainly envision a scenario where he’s the guy protecting Russell Wilson’s blind side for more than just the balance of this season.

Carson Wentz has earned praise from his coaches for making the correct pre-snap reads.
Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been gradual, like anything else in pro football, but the steps Carson Wentz takes just seem to stride longer than those of most young quarterbacks. And to illustrate that, on Wednesday night, Eagles coach Doug Pederson took me through two plays that show exactly how, for all the physical ability that Wentz brings, he’s got the same sort of Wow factor on the mental side.

The first came on New Year’s Day, and the last game of Wentz’s rookie year.

“I’d called a run, and he got us into a better run,” Pederson said. “It was in our game plan, but the amazing thing was it was something that we didn’t really practice. Even though the play was in, it wasn’t tied into that particular huddle call. Dallas showed a look, and we were able to get to a better run and we were successful on the play. … Positive run in the red zone, got us from a bad play to a better play.”

And the second was subtly, but importantly different. With Philly holding a 24-17 lead and the ball in the fourth quarter against Washington two Mondays ago, Wentz took the offense from a merely good play call to the exact right one.

“Down in the red zone, I called a particular pass route, and he’d seen a coverage and it was a coverage we’d seen and studied that the Redskins did,” Pederson said. “And he saw it at the line of scrimmage, and he actually audibled and got us into the right play for that coverage. And it was a touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor.”

Hey St. Louis—the Rams Are Pretty Good. Do You Care?

So our Lesson of the Week could be the lesson for any week, but is relevant now because of the trade of Garoppolo and the massive trickle-down effect it might have. That is: If you get the quarterback question right, like the Eagles have, whatever you paid doesn’t matter.

“You gotta have that quarterback on your roster, a guy you can trust and you can do a lot of things with. And then, you just build around him,” said Pederson, and you can almost hear him beaming through the phone. “It’s been fun.”

But the process of getting Wentz wasn’t easy—or cheap. Before EVP Howie Roseman and Pederson even honed in on Wentz in early 2016, they re-signed Sam Bradford at $18 million per, and gave Kansas City’s Chase Daniel a deal that was groundbreaking financially for a backup. Because that preceded two trades up the draft board to get Wentz, the Eagles took heat for what some believed was a scattershot approach.

Philly knew what it was doing. And no one talks about Bradford or Daniel anymore.

The guy they’ll take into Sunday’s showdown with Denver is now the envy of most NFL teams, and it happened because the Eagles prioritized the position and invested everything into it. That included, too, the research that revealed Wentz to be the kind of guy that we’re all seeing now, and that those two plays above showed him to be.

The coaches are seeing it in Wentz’s knowledge of the offense. It’s also showing up in his mechanics—he’s learned to set his target line with his feet better this year, and as a result his accuracy has taken a big jump. And it’s there, too, with his leadership and ownership of the team.

“You’re the quarterback and face of the franchise, he embraces that, and guys just gravitate towards him,” Pederson said. “And he leads not just by example, but vocally on the field. Even guys like Jason Peters, they have a lot of respect for him, just because of the way he prepares and what they’re seeing on the football field, how he interacts with them. Leadership comes naturally with him, it’s not forced.

“You saw it when he was in college, you saw it when you spoke to him at the combine. And you knew that was a natural, innate ability within him.”

Pederson says that the next set of improvements that he and the staff are expecting will come in how Wentz plays the situational game.

That’ll mean playing smart based on field position and clock. It’ll mean taking what Pederson calls a “touchdown-to-checkdown” mentality, and learning better when the smart play is the easier one. And it’ll mean being efficient with hot reads when the blitz is coming. Evidence shows that the stuff we’re talking about here will come around pretty quickly.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine from a second-year player, that he’s that far ahead mentally with the game,” Pederson said. “And listen, he’s learning every single week. There are situations that come up, whether he sees it on the field or maybe he makes a mistake, he’s gonna learn from it and he’s gonna process that and he’s gonna bank that. And next time, he’s in that situation, he’s gonna make the play.”

Those little things will come. The big things, as the Eagles see it, already have. As a result, they have the one big thing that any franchise needs, and you can’t put a price tag on that.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

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

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