• Some early guesswork on how the top of the first round might go. Plus thoughts on the new pro football league, and mailbag topics including the importance of draft picks, Nate Solder’s value and more
By Peter King
March 21, 2018

Some quick opinions, starting with a couple thoughts on the top of the draft:

• A lot can happen in 36 days. The draft is five weeks and one day away, and it’s still too early to have any solid opinion on the precise order of players. But—and this is purely based on team needs and how the general managers involved see this draft—it’s not too early to guess wildly. I’d go USC quarterback Sam Darnold to Cleveland at one; he can use much of the season, or all, to sit and learn because the Browns aren’t going anywhere this year. I’d go with a Giants’ trade at two to Buffalo for a slew of picks, with the Bills taking strong-armed Josh Allen of Wyoming. Jim Kelly II. At three, I’ll give the Jets Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. A guess, based on Mayfield being able to handle the crap that goes along with the back pages and the pressure of being in greater New York. At four, my guess is the Giants trading about 70 percent of what they got in the Buffalo deal to move back up with Cleveland. GM Dave Gettleman should take UCLA passer Josh Rosen, and he might. But I’ll bet in this scenario he picks generational running back Saquon Barkley, to give the Giants their best backfield weapon since Frank Gifford. So here comes five. And I think GM John Elway thinks hard, thinks of Rosen, and gets the You cannot pass on Bradley Chubb here because we’ll have the best pass-rush in football for the next five years talk from his staff. So, five weeks from the draft (and it will change nine times until then) give me, 1 through 5, Darnold, Allen, Mayfield, Barkley and Chubb.

• Everyone’s talking about Buffalo moving up, but what about Miami? Let’s say the Dolphins love Baker Mayfield, which is apparently the case. Let’s say the Dolphins are uncomfortable counting on Ryan Tannehill for the long term, in large part because he’s missed 19 straight games with injuries, and the Dolphins know they can’t sit at 11 with their scheduled pick because the four good quarterbacks will likely be gone. And let’s say the Colts, with the sixth overall pick, would be comfortable moving down to Miami’s pick at 11, Indy figuring if it can pick up another second-round pick at least, it would be worth it. (Really, the Colts are not just comfortable doing this. They want to do this.) So let’s slot Rosen to Miami with the sixth pick, and now all the primo quarterbacks are gone. And the Colts have turned the third overall pick at the start of March into the 11th—and added four second-round picks in the process. Five prime prospects instead of one excellent one. GM Chris Ballard would love that trade.

Now back to reality.

• I hope Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian are backed by people with deep pockets. Startup pro football leagues in the past 47 years are 0-for-a-jillion. Mostly it’s because the leagues don’t have real financial backing, or because the TV contracts are lacking. Or both. The Alliance of American Football, led by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol (son of longtime TV executive Dick Ebersol) and Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian, was announced on Tuesday, with plans to begin play with eight teams next February. The AAF will scowl at comparisons to the XFL, but the reality is that 18 years ago the weirdo XFL planned a league with eight teams beginning play a week after the Super Bowl with a network TV deal and strange rules designed to make football more fun than the staid NFL. The AAF will begin play a week after the Super Bowl next February, with games on CBS, featuring eight teams and rules designed to make the game faster. More to come on this, but I would say that I do not dismiss it out of hand, because of the names “Polian” and “Ebersol” involved in its founding. Smart people, with a love of football. They would not be involved in a fly-by-night operation. But I’d feel better about its future if it had a third name like “Zuckerberg” or “Buffett” attached.

• Interesting agenda at the league meetings. The NFL gathers in Orlando on Sunday for the annual league meetings, and most eyes will be on the emphasis on simplifying what a catch is. I’ll report on that in my Monday column. But the NFL will also consider four interesting rules changes. Though I think none are likely to pass, we’ll see if one or more of them picks up momentum in Florida.

One: The Niners, Cards and Chargers are proposing that West Coast teams have no more than three 10 a.m. body-clock games on their schedules; in other words, when Pacific Time teams travel to the Eastern or Central time zones, they’d only be allowed three games starting at 10 a.m. PT.

Two: Washington is sponsoring a proposal subjecting personal fouls to replay review.

Three: The Chargers are proposing that roughing-the-passer and defenseless-player penalties be subject to replay review. (So many teams hate the delays of replays as it is, and I don’t see either of these winning.)

Four: The Jets have proposed something the NFL needs to do, and soon—though I doubt it passes now; there’s just not enough enthusiasm for it. The Jets proposed a maximum 15-yard penalty for defensive pass interference, instead of the current spot-foul rule. It’s ridiculous that hand-fighting 40 yards downfield can result in a field-tilting penalty.

All four of these initiatives require 24 of 32 teams to vote yes.

Inside Kirk Cousins’ Fast Free Agency: Parental Jerseys, Silent Auctions and a Match Made in Minnesota

Now for your mail this week...

The first two emails address my point about how poorly the Giants drafted from 2008 to 2013; certainly, some of those 45 picks in six drafts should have become the backbone of the current team. In 2017, players drafted between 2008 and 2013 would have been fifth- to 10th-year vets. As I reported, the Giants have one of those left, edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.

You wrote: “[Justin] Pugh’s defection means that only one of Reese’s 45 picks in the six drafts from 2008 to 2013 is still on the team.’’ No doubt this is a poor performance, but I would love some context. What’s an average performance? Who has the most? Is there a threshold that defines a perennial contender from a perennial also-ran? And why was Reese so bad at his selections?  Did he have a blind eye in favor of or against certain types? I would love to read the equivalent of an autopsy on this period that explained what went wrong and why.​
—Jamie M.

Great email, Jamie. Thanks for writing it, and for prodding us into some deep think. Mark Mravic of The MMQB looked at the drafting records of last season’s playoff teams to see how they compared to the Giants’ draft record. So here are the number of 2008-13 draft picks per team who were on the roster on the final eight of the playoffs this past season:

New England, 9
Pittsburgh, 8
Philadelphia, 8
Atlanta, 8
Los Angeles Rams, 7
Minnesota, 5
New Orleans, 5
Jacksonville, 0
Average: 6.25 per team.

What does this say? It says Jacksonville looks like the exception to the deep-into-the-playoffs rule, and there is a reason why. The Jaguars imported so many players in big-ticket free agency—Malik Jackson, A.J. Bouye, Paul Posluszny, Calais Campbell—who played big roles in the Jags’ fun to the final four in 2017. The other seven teams have big players and role players from years five through 10 who were important to the team in 2017, and in most cases continue to be. As for Reese and the Giants, it’s interesting to see that he has not gotten another job since the Giants let him go. I’ve not heard any reason why, but usually a GM’s draft record is his résumé. And Reese’s draft record in his later years was pretty rough.

Bradley Chubb Strikes a Balance Between Serious and Fun

I checked the Cowboys and over the same time, and they have seven players remaining: Dez Bryant (2010), Sean Lee (2010), Tyron Smith (2011), James Hanna (2012), Tyrone Crawford (2012), Travis Frederick (2013) and Terreance Williams (2013).

Even if Bryant is gone this fall (and he might be), if Lee is healthy, three of the eight most important players on the Cowboys—Lee, Smith, Frederick—remain. That’s big.

Long-time reader of MMQB, but this is the first time I have sent a comment on something you have written. As a lifelong Pats fan, watching Nate Solder leave hurts a lot—great guy and good solid left tackle. But there is no way the Pats could justify making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the game. The Giants overpaid because they had the cap space and needed to make a splash. That is not the way the Pats operate. The Pats will be fine on offense. They always are. Line coach Dante Scarnecchia will coach up someone, and they will make it work. The Pats need to spend their limited resources on the D. Solder is not Joe Thomas. The Giants were desperate and acted that way, and the Pats made a solid business decision.​
—Dave M.

You could be right, David. And Bill Belichick is very astute at placing value on potential free agents, so I’m not saying I’ll be right when we look back on this in, say, three years. But I would make these points about the 29-year-old New England left tackle:

• In the Patriots’ final 16 games this year—13 regular-season, three playoff games—Solder played 1,114 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He allowed one sack.

• In the Super Bowl, the Patriots left Solder on an island for 70 of 75 snaps against Philadelphia’s pre-eminent defensive line. PFF had Solder surrendering three quarterback pressures, zero sacks and zero hits. I had him for one hit (on a Derek Barnett rush), because I was watching Solder in the Super Bowl. But either way, he clearly kept Tom Brady clean in the biggest game of the year.

• The $15.5-million-per-year price tag for Solder is big. I am not saying it’s smart, or justified. But in perspective, it’s not much different from the highest-paid tackles in football. In 2015, Trent Williams of Washington signed for an average of $13.6 million per year; the cap was $143.3 million that year. So his average salary was 9.5 percent of the cap in 2015. This year, the cap is $177.2 million. Solder’s $15.5 million average this year is 8.7 percent of the cap. He’s not a bargain, but he’s not a thief either.

You might think Solder isn’t as good as Williams when both are healthy, and overall I would agree with that. But Solder is an above-average left tackle, and the quarterback will be 41 in August. On average over the life of his deal, Solder will be in his early 30s, and he’ll take up an average of about 7.5 percent of the Patriots’ cap.

The question, to me, is not whether Solder is worth 8.7 percent of the New England cap this year. It’s the replacement cost. Will a player at a quarter of the cost be a smart investment if he gets Brady sacked 12 times?

Would you agree that Kirk Cousins got a top-level contract but that he is not an elite quarterback?​
—Gary G., Wausau, Wis. 

I don’t know. I don’t think he’s a top-five quarterback. But he’s top-12, and the Vikings didn’t think Case Keenum was. If I had to guess where they belong, I’d say Cousins is 11 and Keenum 22.

I don’t understand when Kirk Cousins is suddenly considered to be a good quarterback. Can you help me understand where all of this is coming from?​
—Jon W.

In his three full seasons since becoming Washington’s regular starter in 2015, among quarterbacks who started 30 games or more, Cousins is third in accuracy (67.0 percent), fourth in passing yards (13,176) and yards per attempt (7.80), sixth in passer rating (97.5), eighth in TD passes (81). In every one of those categories, he’s been better than Ben Roethlisberger. Cousins is 29. He hit the market at the perfect time.

First, we know that mock drafts are mostly guesswork. However, most mock drafts seem to concur that the Giants are not looking for a quarterback. Am I the only one who thinks this is insane? They have the No. 2 pick and a 37-year-old veteran who is clearly no longer in his prime with Eli Manning. By not taking a quarterback, it seems they will simply improve enough to be picking in the middle of the first round in a couple of years when they are absolutely desperate for a top QB. This is crazy, right?​
—Ryan H., Orlando

This is crazy. Right.

Why did Sam Darnold elevate to the consensus number one pick by not throwing in Indy? He seemed to have a poor season under pressure at USC and now he runs from it at the combine?​
—Roger C.  

Throwing or not throwing at the combine is absolutely meaningless. Scouts or GMs might be ticked off about it and hint dire things about it (“He’s not a competitor”), but as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I’ve never in 34 years covering the NFL heard a GM or coach, after the draft, say, We passed on [whoever] because he didn’t work out at the combine. I agree he raised some issues in his final USC season with a middling performance. But this is a draft with different opinions on all the top four quarterbacks. Teams will judge Darnold on the time they spent with him, on his improvement since the end of the season, and on what they see on tape from his USC seasons.

I believe Peter has mentioned the fabled Jimmy Johnson Draft Trade Value Chart at least two weeks in a row. That chart was created 20 years before the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011. Wouldn't the new wage scale radically alter the point value of each pick? Part of me thinks it's inconceivable that the rookie wage scale didn't force a total overhaul of the point values on the chart. Or, is the chart based purely on assumptions of the player's value on the field, totally divorced from the dollar value of his contract?​
—Dave C., Albany, N.Y.

Good question. The biggest thing is not necessarily the wage scale in itself, but the fact that NFL can retain the rights of first-rounders for five years. For many teams, that means that the 30th, 31st and 32nd overall picks take on added value, because teams can choose to add the fifth year to the rookie contract if they want. I only use the chart because there has to be some way to compare trades, even if the value is flawed compared to when the chart was invented almost 30 years ago.

I am a regular reader of your column and love the podcast. What I particularly like is your behind-the-scenes and nuanced take on what is going on in sports and the world. I understand you dislike President Trump’s actions (they are almost impossible to defend), and it is your right to opine on his behavior. However, Trump did not fire Andrew McCabe, and it has been widely reported that the firing was recommended by an inspector general. Since the report is not public at this point, it is not known exactly why he was fired, but it was reported that it related to leaks and his lying about making them. It is unfortunate that you have been falling into what I see as the trap of looking for confirming evidence from recent events. I am no Trump supporter but also wonder what you mean by “Are we planning on waking up soon?” What exactly are you suggesting we do? He was elected and is our president, like it or not. All anyone can do is to vote him out of office in 2020.​
—Todd E., Philadelphia

Thanks for your kind words, Todd. Much appreciated. We can agree to disagree on this one. I guess I’d ask this question: If, during the Barack Obama administration, attorney general Eric Holder fired someone in government whom Obama hated, would we say, Obama didn’t fire him! Be fair! I don’t think so. It would be seen as the attorney general carrying out the will of the president. In this case, what made it worse was the vindictiveness of Trump firing McCabe so he wouldn’t get his career pension. That’s just about the smallest thing I can imagine.

I have enjoyed your column very much over the years, and it’s always been a must read for me. That’s why I was surprised and disappointed to see your “Story of the Week” is an O.J. Simpson interview by Tim Graham...  really?? It was a self-serving interview by a DOUBLE MURDERER still trying to rehab his image. Who cares what this murderer thinks about the anthem protests, CTE, fantasy football or anything else for that matter. Since you enjoyed John Brennan’s tweet so much I’ll use a portion of it here and say O.J. Simpson needs to be relegated to the “dustbin of history.” Bad job by you Peter.​
—Tom, Phoenix

Tom, just because you don’t want to hear from Simpson doesn’t mean the rest of the world doesn’t have interest in what he says and thinks. You don’t have to like it, and you can ignore it. But it’s interesting to me, and probably to a lot of people.

Appreciate your column every week, and I know there is so much to cover, even during the “offseason,” but I just wish those outside of NOLA who read your great work knew how important this man has been to the Saints and our city. Thankfully, Zach is now a true local and plans to stay in New Orleans following retirement. He’s one of the real good guys in pro sports.
—Jim Y., New Orleans

You make a great point. Strief and Danny Woodhead deserve our respect and a nod of thanks for their careers. You’ll read some good stuff later this week on Woodhead. I appreciate you taking the time to write and call my attention to Strief.

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