Two summers ago, you never heard of Sam Darnold or Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson were more of a college-football curiosities than anything else.
But the football world had been introduced to its next phenom: Josh Rosen.
That July, Darnold was coming off redshirt years at USC and Louisville and Allen off a medical redshirt first year at Wyoming; and while Mayfield started at Oklahoma in 2015, and Jackson flashed at Louisville as a freshman, neither was viewed yet in an NFL context. At the time, I was texting with UCLA coach Jim Mora, who didn’t balk at the hoopla engulfing his reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Rosen was that good. Mora wasn’t afraid to say it.
“His potential is unlimited,” Mora said back then. “He would have been the first QB taken in the draft this year. There’s no question about his ability, only experience and, at this point, maturity. He’s special. And he is smart, a leader, and very well respected by his teammates. He works hard and gets it. Just needs to continue to grow and not think he’s arrived.”
Plenty of people are saying the 2018 class doesn’t have a Carson Wentz or Jared Goff in it. And so this should give you important context. There was a time when all the same scouts thought Rosen (then 19) was better than both of them, and a player worth waiting for if a team had a quarterback need. A year later, Darnold and Allen were right there with him as the 2018 QB hype train left the station.
Now? Things are different. The top 2018 draft quarterbacks all had questions to answer going into the 2017 season, and many of those remain as they arrive in Indianapolis for the combine. So yes, there could be a Wentz or a Goff, and maybe more than one of them in the group. The potential everyone saw remains. But so do the questions.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll delve into: the mindset of the Jaguars on Blake Bortles; where the Chiefs’ heads were on Marcus Peters; the price in 2018 of a veteran quarterback; the future of Rob Gronkowski; and themes on the 2018 draft class.
We’ll start, though, with the quarterbacks, and how far each guy has to go. The interesting thing about this group is the distance each needs to travel as players and people (with the exception of Mayfield as a player) hasn’t changed much since the NFL world was buzzing about the quarterbacks six months ago.
So those guys arrived here Wednesday, and they won’t yet be able to answer the questions that have followed them for the better part of a half-year (or longer). But they can give teams some level of confidence that a corner-turning could be coming in specific areas. Let's dive in...
• Sam Darnold, USC: You could argue there are more doubts about Darnold now than there were coming out of his starry redshirt freshman season. But the feel I’ve gotten is that no one’s done enough to pass him as the leader in the clubhouse to be the first quarterback taken. And because he’s so clean from an intangible standpoint, there’s a belief he’ll be able to manage and work past his problems.
“To me, it’s the turnover issue,” said one AFC GM, referencing Darnold’s 13 picks and 9 lost fumbles in 2017. “The mental, the character, he’s clean. It’s decision-making and the turnovers that cause you to pause. … He’s a naturally instinctive football player. Doesn’t have dominant arm talent, but he’s good enough there. … And he does have command, and a short-term memory.
“I like how he responds to turnovers, he bounces right back.”
From a physical standpoint, Darnold’s windup delivery scares some teams, as does a belief that small hands (and short arms) are the reason why he fumbles.
• Josh Rosen, UCLA: Rosen has a lot of qualities that can’t be taught. He’s got a big arm, a classic delivery, and all the accuracy and feel you’d want. Plus, he’s very intelligent. If only that was the whole story.
“Can he be a team guy?” said one NFC personnel exec. “And the medical, he’s taken a lot of shots. But the bigger question is can he lead? Can he fit into a locker room? He’s considered aloof ... so he has to prove he’s a leader of men, he has to get people to buy in. … There’s no question about his talent. If you could combine Darnold’s intangibles with Rosen’s ability, you’d really have something.”
Generally, NFL teams will tell you that interviews and medicals are easily the most important pieces to the evaluation puzzle to be had in Indy. That’s especially true with Rosen. How he comes off to coaches and GMs will matter, as will what comes back from the docs after they poke and prod his thin-ish frame.
• Josh Allen, Wyoming. The above NFC exec said Allen has, “the strongest arm to come out since Cam (Newton).” And while Allen had the shoulder/collarbone problems that led to his 2015 redshirt, having the frame of a defensive end has most scouts believing he’ll hold up OK physically in the pros. Which brings us to the problem: Allen’s production hasn’t come close to matching his talent.
“He’s as physically gifted as they come,” said an AFC college scouting director. “And the question is accuracy. He’s big. He’s strong. He has a really strong arm, and he’s plenty athletic. But he’s not as natural as a progression (passing) guy, and his accuracy’s not as good as the others.”
Some chalk up a piece of that to a talent drain at Wyoming in 2017, and a strong week at the Senior Bowl was at least encouraging. But doubts do remain. “Was the completion percentage a product of his environment or both that and his ability?” the AFC GM said. “He’ll have to answer for that. And reading and reacting to defenses, he has to convince teams he can do it.”
• Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma.The Heisman winner’s talent was on display in Mobile. So too were his personality quirks. And those turned off some teams, who are accustomed to seeing most players put on their best face for the draft process, Mayfield remained the edgy kid he was in Norman, with what scout called an “I am what I am” attitude. Some teams will like that. Others will not.
And Mayfield hates the comparison, but as our NFC exec said, “He’s gotta prove he’s not Johnny Manziel.” Now, there is a flip side here. Mayfield was dealing with a family issue during the week in Mobile, so he has the chance to get a mulligan if he interviews well this week. And Mayfield’s work ethic is beyond reproach, and his coaches and teammates love him.
As for on the field, the questions really revolve around his ability to win from the pocket, which he did during his final season at Oklahoma, and whether an NFL team will have to make scheme adjustments for him. There’s little question that, among the guys in this group, Mayfield did the most to boost his stock last season.
It’s still early, but there’s a good likelihood that all four guys go within the first 15 picks.
From there, there’s a dropoff. The biggest questions on Louisville’s Lamar Jackson revolve around his ability to adapt to a pro offense (or whether a team will adapt to him), his frame, and perception that he pushes the ball, and is more thrower than passer. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, meanwhile, is battling the idea that he’s a product of Mike Gundy’s high-flying system.
This class doesn’t have any can’t-miss, Andrew Luck-type prospects. But it has more guys brimming with potential than most quarterback classes do, which means these unfinished products could wind up making up a pretty good crop a few years down the line, like the Goff/Wentz class.
“They’re all coming out young, except for Baker,” said an AFC personnel exec. “And they all have major questions off tape. And you’re gonna have to project the answers to those questions. There’s nobody there that doesn’t have questions—Rosen’s injury history, Darnold’s decision making, Allen’s completion percentage. Those are things to nitpick. This is when we start looking at holes instead of positives.
“And then, in a month, we’ll all come back to the positives.”
There are plenty of those, to be sure. And there’s just as much that teams will have to get past.
FIRST AND 10
1. Browns coach Hue Jackson’s declaration Wednesday that he’d like Josh Gordon to be in Cleveland “for a long time” should turn some heads. It’s a marked change in the wait-and-see messaging on Gordon we’ve heard come out of Berea in recent years, and reflects increased hope that the uber-talented receiver has made major strides off the field.
2. While we’re there, for the same reason the Browns stuck with Gordon, it made sense hearing Steelers GM Kevin Colbert say he’s not looking to deal troubled wideout Martavis Bryant. Pittsburgh has been through a lot with Bryant and it certainly doesn’t want to sell low and see some other team reap the benefits of any sort of growth on the cheap.
3. Broncos GM John Elway lent some clarity Wednesday on the team’s plan with its 30-somethings, saying he expects to keep receivers DemaryiusThomas and Emmanuel Sanders, while leaving open the possibility they’ll move on from Aqib Talib. One reason why? Denver has a replacement in waiting at corner, in former first-round pick Bradley Roby, and lacks such depth at receiver.
4. New Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio that there will be “tweaks” to the team’s approach in pursuing veteran players, and it’s worth listening. Yes, he’s succeeding the ultra-conversative Ted Thompson. But Seattle’s John Schneider, Cleveland’s John Dorsey and Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie also came up under Thompson, and each has proven to be more aggressive than their mentor.
5. The Vikings’ free-agent quarterbacks could be viable backup options for those who strike out on Kirk Cousins. I believe Minnesota would consider having Teddy Bridgewater back as its starter if it doesn’t land Cousins. And my sense is that Denver will eye Case Keenum if Cousins goes elsewhere.
6. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is nearing the one-month mark in his work with gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux in California. And so while it doesn’t seem like a big deal when Frank Reich says he’s “checked every box”, since Luck isn’t throwing yet, I think it is significant that the program he’s on out there continues to move forward.
7. Expect Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry to be shopped this week, and don’t be surprised if the return isn’t great. The $16 million tender that’s attached to him will make it very difficult for anyone to negotiate a long-term deal with him. Because he’s a slot and not an outside receiver means most teams will value him as a one-year rental for the time being.
8. The Jets’ release of MoWilkerson is no surprise. And given word that’s out there, he’ll have to prove to some team that his fire for football still burns and that he won’t be a negative presence in the locker room.
9. The contractual waiting game between under-contract quarterbacks in the spring should be interesting. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and BenRoethlisberger will likely wait to see what Drew Brees and Cousins get, and then the agents for those three could wind up in a staring contest—with all three waiting for the others to do their deal.
10. Matt Forte won’t make it to the Hall of Fame, but the ex-Bear and Jet should be remembered as one of the backs that pushed the position forward as a big back versatile enough to come close to 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving. We’ll have more later in the column on where the position’s going, but know this: Forte played a role in getting it there.
1. Bortles’ deal in context. My main takeaway from the Blake Bortles’ contract is the Jaguars remain deep in like with their 2014 first-round pick, but this isn’t love. A big part of this call for Jacksonville was the belief that, beyond Kirk Cousins, there wasn’t an obvious veteran upgrade out there for them, they have some big contracts to do soon with their young guys, and they aren’t drafting high enough to count on getting a rookie who can play right away. So given the circumstances, the decision, according to one team source, came down to the idea that “it’s better to stay where we are than deal with a lot of uncertainty.”
That isn’t to say Jacksonville doesn’t like the way Bortles went in 2017. He again proved himself to be very tough and durable, and it was clear to everyone (just look at what Malik Jackson said in January after the win over Pittsburgh) that Bortles had the respect of the locker room. On top of the that, with some help from coordinator Nate Hackett, Bortles’ accuracy improved over the course of the year, his game-management and decision-making got better, and the ball was coming out quicker. And while he’s always been able to move, he was moving in 2017 with a purpose.
And so all that (plus the wrist surgery, which would’ve made his injury guarantee for 2018 tricky) bought Bortles another year to prove he’s worth continuing to build around. The deal reflects that, too. The Jags had him on a fifth-year option at $19.05 million for 2018. So the new contract, as a practical matter, gives him a $950,000 raise for this year, with his take home at $20 million. That figure is fully guaranteed at signing, as is $6.5 million of the $16 million on the books for 2019. The total guarantee ($26.5 million) is what the 2018 exclusive franchise tag number was before Jimmy Garoppolo did his deal in San Francisco. And there is offset language in the contract, meaning that if he’s cut and signs somewhere else next year, every dollar his new team gives him comes off the $6.5 million that the Jags owe him. That makes this a one-year deal worth between $20 million and $26.5 million, with a $16 million option for next year, and an $18 million option for next year. So Jacksonville can cut bait after 2018 or, if Bortles progresses, keep him at $18 million per – which makes him the 17th highest paid quarterback in football, before factoring in Cousins or any of the other free agents set to get new deals in a couple weeks. That’s not a bad setup for the Jags, and while it does mean they won’t be spending big on the veteran market, I don’t believe it’ll stop them from drafting another quarterback.
As for Bortles, he gets money that I’d bet no one else was going to give him, along with a shot to take another step forward in his development in a familiar setting. I’m not a huge fan of saying deals are win-win. But this one seems to be.
2. The quarterback market to come. Presuming the Saints and Drew Brees find common ground, the big domino that’ll need to fall in what’s an unusually intriguing quarterback market is the obvious one: Where’s Kirk Cousins going? Obviously, money will be a factor, as will his chance to win. But I wouldn’t underrate his feel for each situation.
As we detailed last summer, Cousins got to see, close up, how a teammate got the franchise quarterback treatment, having come into the league with Robert Griffin III as part of the Redskins’ 2012 draft class. For a couple months last spring, Cousins started to feel that love, then the team leaked details of the failed negotiation to get a deal down, then the team traded for Alex Smith, and now Cousins is looking for a new home. Based on all that I’ve heard over the last year, and more recently than that, I wouldn’t overlook a team’s ability to make Cousins believe that he’s the guy for them going forward, and the role offensive coaches like Jeremy Bates (Jets), John DeFilippo (Vikings) and Bill Musgrave (Broncos) play in that. Remember, it was ex-Washington coordinators Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay who built that kind of connection with Cousins in the past.
As for the landmarks that Cousins, and maybe another quarterback or two, could approach, let’s dive into those numbers to provide context on what will be important come March 14 and going forward on new deals for Cousins, Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and other guys who’ll be in line for raises. So here are some contractual Top 5s:
• First year: Matthew Stafford $51.0M, Joe Flacco $44.06M, Andrew Luck $44.05M, Jimmy Garoppolo $42.60M, Aaron Rodgers $40.00M;
• Through 2 years: Stafford $67.51M, Garoppolo $61.20M, Luck $57.01M, Philip Rivers $54.01M, Ben Roethlisberger $53.00M;
• Through 3 years: Stafford $87.01M, Garoppolo $86.40M, Luck $75.01M, Rivers $68.01M, Derek Carr $67.68M;
• Guarantees: Stafford $92.00M, Luck $87.00M, Garoppolo $74.10M, Carr $70.20M, Rivers/Eli Manning $65.00M.
3. Chiefs letting Peters walk.Social media seems to have decided that the Rams stole an all-pro corner from the Chiefs at a measly price. And as always, you should be careful with what you read on social media. There are reasons Marcus Peters went 18th overall in the 2015 draft, despite being a consensus Top 10 talent, and those aren’t much different than the reasons he was available this month. You know some of those. There was Peters tossing a penalty flag into the stands against the Jets in December. There was the subsequent suspension. And there was a very public sideline confrontation with a coach that called to mind the fight with a Washington coach that got Peters thrown off his college team in 2014.
The bottom line: the Chiefs lost confidence in Peters’ ability to fix his behavioral issues and amend his reputation as a high-maintenance star. It also went well beyond just what the public saw. “There’s more to a regular season than just game day,” said one source. “Lots of stuff goes on Monday through Saturday and that’s stuff that only the people within those walls see. You saw the two other guys who used to be in those walls (and how they reacted to his availability).” Those two guys: Browns GM John Dorsey and Colts GM Chris Ballard. Neither showed much interest at all when their former lieutenant, Chiefs GM Brett Veach, called, and those two were atop the team’s scouting operation when Peters was drafted and for his first two years in the league. So as good as Peters is, and he’s got the ability to be great, he’s got a ton of baggage.
I can say that believing that he went to the absolute right place. Rams coach Sean McVay has the ability to connect with players, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a knack for managing big personalities, and so if there was of list of places that Peters should be able to get his house in order, Los Angeles would be near the top of it. That makes it worth the gamble of a 2019 second-round pick, and swap of later-round picks this year (a 4 going to KC; and a 6 going back to LA). But even if that dice roll pays off for the Rams, it’s understandable why the Chiefs felt the need to move on.
4. As the Gronk turns.My buddy Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is expected to play in 2018. And if that holds, I think the next question is: Under what conditions? There’s a lot for both the player and the team to unspool here.
Gronkowski is due close to $8 million in 2018 and close to $9 million in 2019, which puts him near the top of the market for his position. But his deal’s $9 million average is outdistanced in 2018 by 20 receivers and a pair of tight ends, and that’s without accounting for whatever happens on the free-agent market later this month. The Patriots gave him a bump last year. Do they give him another one? Then, there’s the matter of his health. He took longer to get going last summer, and worked with Tom Brady’s guru, Alex Guerrero, extensively since. Things, of course, weren’t perfect between Guerrero and the Patriots last year, and that adds another layer to how Gronkowski has been able to operate outside the normal lines (joint statements put out by his family and the team are one example) set by the team in injury management.
For such a special talent, how far will a team go when it normally despises making concessions for players? The flip side of this is the spot Gronkowski’s in, which is another example of how far players have come in being able to make the kinds of decisions Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis did a few years ago. There are three factors here that show the progress made. One, players are making enough money and being responsible enough fiscally to have the freedom to walk away early. Two, players have more information on how playing more football can affect their quality of life down the line. And three, guys are planning for life after football at an earlier age, which makes the idea of walking away less daunting. All three conditions applied to Willis and Johnson. All three conditions apply to Gronkowski. And so we’ll see now if his fervor to play, and the team’s fervor to keep him will line up in the coming weeks.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Last week, we told you that a running back, Saquon Barkley, was one of the two best players in the 2018 draft class. This week, we’ll tell you the guys behind him aren’t too shabby.
And therein is the lesson of the week: A position marginalized completely at the beginning of this decade is undergoing a major resurgence.
Why? Well, the NFL can’t control how the talent in college football is cultivated for the pro level. The proliferation of spread offenses initially dialed back a notch the importance of the tailback. It’s evolved since, making the athletes lining up at the position more versatile as they’ve become more involved in the passing game.
The result is the new prototype: the 230-pound three-down back. Think Todd Gurley. Think Ezekiel Elliott. Think Joe Mixon. Think Barkley. And think about the depth. Last year’s class of backs was historic in quality, and the 2018 group is pretty close to being as good.
“There’ll always be plenty of those body types that fit the position, and the passing game helped them put their athleticism on display,” said one college scouting director. “You see it this year. It’s a pretty good class. If you look at the boards (last year to this year), it’s probably similar. Last year, (Christian) McCaffrey was the No. 2, and I’m not sure there’s a clear cut No. 2 this year.
“But the top back (Barkley) could challenge to be the top back in any year. Last year, Kareem Hunt went in the third round. This year, you’re gonna get good backs into the third round, guys that can be your lead back. So it’s not far off.”
After Barkley, USC’s Ronald Jones, LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, Miami’s Mark Walton and Oregon’s Royce Freeman are all considered capable of growing into lead backs in the NFL, which means teams will be able to fill a need there into the final day of the draft. And that’s not the way it was a few years ago.
With the combine getting going, here are five other things that stick out to evaluators about the 2018 class.
• Offensive line rebound.It’s still more difficult to scout linemen than it used to be, but this year’s group is miles better than last year’s mess. There are a few first-round quality tackles (Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown, Texas’ Connor Williams, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey), but the real strength is at guard and center, where players like Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson and Ohio State’s Bill Price have All-Pro potential.
• The year of the linebacker. Off-ball linebackers have to be awfully good to go in the first round, and as many as four could make it there this year. Virginia Tech’s 19-year-old freak Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith are both in the Top 10 conversation, and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch have a good shot at going before the first night of the draft is over.
• Fewer receivers in play. Because so many athletes gravitate to the position, depth has been great at receiver over the last few years, and that makes this year an anomaly. The class isn’t particularly deep, nor is it great at the top. SMU’s Courtland Sutton may have No. 1 receiver potential but has a ways to go to get there, and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk are talented, but may fit better in the NFL as complementary pieces, rather than lead dogs.
• Depth at corner. Our Conor Orr detailed the reasons why there are more defensive backs this year than normal—a record 70 were invited to the combine—and that’s on the heels of a fantastic class last year fronted by defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore. The 2018 group may not be quite as good off the top, but Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver could be stars.
• Pass-rushers at a premium. You’ll hear a lot about NC State’s Bradley Chubb and UTSA’s Marcus Davenport over the next couple months. Neither is a Jadeveon Clowney or a Myles Garrett, but both figure to benefit from the dearth of talent behind them. As one NFC personnel chief said, “There’s not many special guys. There are kids with traits, but it’s more the undersized 3-4 outside linebacker and designated pass rusher types.” Translation: If you want a premier edge rusher this year, you better be picking high.
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