Jon Gruden can’t hide his excitement for Tuesday, when he’ll get back out on an NFL (practice) field as a coach for the first time in nine years. He’s open about the fact that he and his Raider staff will innovate and throw curve balls at the players in the three days they’ll have them out there.
But that’s where it ends. Nope, Gruden won’t share more than that. Unless, of course, he’s so fired up that he can’t help but keep talking about it.
“We’re not gonna get into all the things we’ll do,” Gruden said, laughing, over the phone on Wednesday. “But it’ll be a lot different than any minicamp these guys have been in. It’s going to be a lot of reps—might not be full-speed reps—but we’re certainly going to emphasize teaching our system and bringing them together and teaching them how we want to practice.
“And we’ll try to establish which drills we’re going to use, and have our players become familiarized with their coaches. And that’s the big part of first two days. And really, it’s a test to see what they’ve learned in these meetings the first few weeks.”
Picture a guy grinning feverishly and coming out of his shoes over the phone—I swear I could actually see that—and you’ll understand my biggest takeaway from my conversation with Gruden. It’s hard to see how he stayed away from all of this for almost a decade.
And so on Tuesday, will Gruden be like a kid coming down the stairs on Christmas morning? Yup, like a kid coming down the stairs on Christmas morning.
“Probably so,” he affirms. “I don’t think you’ll meet any coaches that don’t like the classroom, that don’t like being on the field, and we put a lot of time into how we’re going to do this minicamp. It’s not going to be a normal minicamp like people have.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to dive into all the rumblings on Tom Brady’s future; look at a player who isn’t working out for teams and why; explain the Saquon Barkley dilemma; kick the tires on Miami’s approach to this year’s quarterback class; and check in with Case Keenum and what the next week will be like for him waiting to see if the Broncos draft another player at his position.
But we’ll start with Gruden getting ready to get back to work on the green grass of an NFL lawn. It’s a good time to check in, as he puts Week 2 of the Raiders’ offseason program in the books, and is getting his players ready to take their first significant step forward of the spring. Here are five things I took away from my time talking with a coach who is so glad to be back on a sideline:
1. It was interesting to hear what he takes from nine years of being able to see the NFL for 30,000 feet. As he sees it, the rules restricting the access coaches have to players made the importance of one of his hires paramount. “It starts downstairs in the strength and conditioning area,” he said. “We hired [ex-combine prep coach] Tom Shaw to run that department. That position has evolved into one of the most important positions in your organization, because they spend so much time with these players. So I really feel great about bringing in Tom Shaw. The strength, the speed, the quickness, the mental toughness, it all starts there. The camaraderie of the football team starts down there. So the weights, the exercises, the drills that we’re doing are as good as anywhere in football.”
2. Gruden is well aware of how things have changed in his time away, as has the way kids come up, but doesn’t see the type of guy he’s looking to put on his roster as being radically different than it was all those years ago. “Everybody says it’s different. I got three sons that are these guys’ ages,” Gruden says. “I got a 24-year-old, I got a 21-year-old, I got an 18-year-old, so I got a pretty good handle on the youth of America today. And look, I don’t think young people have changed, I think circumstances have changed. There’s a lot more for them. There’s a lot more social media, there’s a lot of different rules and regulations than we had nine, 10 years ago when I was coaching. But the real football players that walk in these doors, they’re here to play football, they want to work, they expect organization, they want discipline, they want to win. At least that’s the kind of young man we’re bringing in.”
3. That outlines the kind of players the Raiders will be looking for next weekend, and were looking for in free agency. “Obviously, talent is what we’re looking for,” he said. “You can’t play in pro football without talent. But we’ve had three team meetings, they haven’t been very long team meetings, short and to the point. The message has been on effort, it doesn’t take any talent to do the best you can, we’re putting a premium on effort, something each guy can control. Secondly, you gotta know what to do. You have to be able to play multiple positions today, we don’t have a lot of guys active on game day and we like to attack different ways. So you gotta have the effort, you gotta know what to do, and finally, you have to really be a team player. You have to support one another, work together, all for the Silver and Black, man.” So when you hear, say, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, connected to the Raiders, you’ll know why.
4. While he’s studied where the game has gone in his time away, his top priority in building his offense (and the defense) hasn’t changed. “Our offense was a lot different in 2002 when I went to Tampa than it was in Oakland because the personnel was different,” Gruden said. “Obviously what you do is going to be dependent on what you have. We’re going to try to do what our players can do, what they’re best at, and we’re gonna try to address areas that’ll allow us to try other things. We’re gonna have a lot of stuff, there’s no question about that. Derek Carr has an unlimited talent, I think, to execute a lot of different plays, from different formations, different personnel groupings—different plays for different people. And who we play will also have a lot to do with how we attack. We’re in the process of trying to get a power running game going, we’re in the process of trying to open formations with multiple receivers, we’re going to be able to use different tempos. We have a long way to go because our roster is not set. We haven’t made one draft pick.”
5. He’s inheriting a team that I’ve heard, bluntly, may have needed a little bit of a kick in the ass last year. So I see his assessment of the first six sessions as significant here. “I’m not allowed to be on the field—not allowed to be on the field with these players watching them—but I hear from our strength coaches,” Gruden says. “I know what our attendance is, every man except for Khalil and hopefully we get him here soon. The work ethic is outstanding, the meetings have been fun, they’ve been really good. I really enjoy working with Derek Carr, I spend a lot of time with him and the offense when I’m allowed. So there are signs of encouragement. We’re really anxious to get them on the field for this minicamp to see how much they’ve learned.”
The anxiousness of what’s directly in front of Gruden shines here. This is the stuff—with a whistle around his neck and a visor on his head—he really missed.
“I love being out on the field helping guys getting better, and I’m looking forward to working against (defensive coordinator) Paul Guenther honestly,” Gruden said. “I’m looking forward to competing. You love to go out there and pose different problems for the defense to work on. You look forward to competing. You look forward to teaching. You look forward to motivating your team. You look forward to being with the guys, man.
“Being back on the grass with a group of guys that have a lot in common, that’s what I missed the most, being on a team. Being back in Oakland is special, and I have a strong responsibility. And I know I have an uphill battle, a lot of people probably doubting me but I’m gonna do the best I can to do it.”
Talking with Gruden was a pretty good reminder, too, that it should be a blast for the rest of us to watch it.
FIRST AND 10
1. Coaching connections matter this time of year, and so the close relationships ex-UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, now a Rams assistant, has with Jets OC Jeremy Bates and Dolphins coach Adam Gase are important. For better or worse, Bates and Gase are getting the goods on Josh Rosen.
2. I believe UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport will go somewhere between picks 10 and 16, and has the potential to make that look way too low. One college scouting director who’s been studying him for a couple years told me Davenport played at 240 pounds in 2016, and 265 pounds in ’17, while adding “he’s still coming” weight-wise. Some believe he has a higher ceiling than Bradley Chubb.
3. One of the strongest player/team connections I’ve heard over the past two weeks has linked Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds to the 49ers. Which probably means it’s not happening. Edmunds, athletically, could easily slide into the KJ Wright role in San Francisco’s Seattle-style defense, and he fits the bill personality-wise, too, after what just went down with Reuben Foster. “They need to go safe,” said one rival exec. “And this kid is buttoned up, a great kid who’d be a very good pick for them.”
4. Based on what other teams believe, Arizona seems unlikely to make a big swing into the top three or four picks for a quarterback, but may well get into the fray if one it likes starts to slide into the lower reaches of the top 10.
5. Something I didn’t expect to hear: More than one team prefers Maryland’s DJ Moore to Alabama’s Calvin Ridley. I still believe Ridley will be the first receiver to go. (Dallas makes sense because they have an immediate need and he’s pro-ready.) It’s just not unanimous that he should be.
6. Just to remind you that these guys are still football fans, some of the high-end evaluators I spoke to had legit fun studying Louisville’s Lamar Jackson on tape. One AFC GM said the other day, “Every game I’ve seen him play, he’s been the best player on the field.” An NFC exec added, “He’s really, really fun to watch.” We’d concur, even if there’s widespread (and fair) questions over how his game translates to the NFL long-term.
7. Speaking of Jackson, the Titans met with him privately just after his pro day at Louisville, and before he met with the Chargers that afternoon. My sense is that Tennessee was doing its due diligence. But with Blaine Gabbert as the primary backup, Tennessee certainly could be looking another option behind Marcus Mariota in the draft, and getting that one right (maybe it’s a middle-round pick) is important given Mariota’s history of getting banged up.
8. JT Barrett might not be good enough physically to be an NFL quarterback, but he’s interviewed very well. One coach told me it was among the best he’s done. And if you want to know what teams want here, this particular club was most impressed with Barrett’s answer when he was asked what he was most proud of in college: “Being elected a three-time captain at Ohio State.”
9. We know Ron Wolf’s DNA lives in Cleveland, with protégé John Dorsey in charge and son Eliot Wolf second-in-command. And so someone told me to look up the elder’s record on drafting running backs high while he was Packers GM, which I did. The result: Only two backs taken in the Top 100 picks over those 10 seasons, and one was fullback William Henderson. And remember, Dorsey got last year’s rushing champ in the third round for the Chiefs. This person reminded me Dorsey’s a stickler for Wolf principles, and one was that you never take a running back in the Top 10. So it’d say something about Saquon Barkley if Dorsey took him at 4—and we’ll have more on that a little further down in the column.
10. Good news/bad news on the draft class in general. Good news: There’s depth that will lead to better-than-usual quality into the fourth round. Bad news: This group isn’t stocked with blue-chippers. There’s a cliff somewhere in the teens that has plenty of teams looking at picks in the 20s as de facto second-rounders. One NFL exec explained it like this: “(Picks) 20 and 55 may wind up being the same. The guy in the last third of the first round, you might be paying a first-round premium on him and he’s no different than the guy at 35 to 40. And those guys in the last third of first round, top half of the second, they’re the same not only in ability but value of their role in the game.” This dynamic also could make it a little harder for Buffalo, which has the 22nd pick, to trade up.
1. Patriots’ drama continues. So where are we on Tom Brady? On Wednesday morning, as you all know by now, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the quarterback hasn’t told the Patriots’ brass that he’s in for 2018 yet, something that has been discussed locally (NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran has been on top of it) for a few weeks now. And based on the people I’ve talked to, I don’t think this is a non-issue for the team, though I was told on Wednesday by someone there that no one is “waiting around on some big announcement.” So the easiest thing to do is lay out what I know.
First, the Patriots have done their homework on quarterbacks in the draft. (A couple teams I talked to had heard Washington State’s Luke Falk was a non-first round player to watch with them.) That should be expected, since Jimmy Garoppolo’s gone, and with him went any semblance of a succession plan. Second, from what I’ve heard, Brady has made an effort to unplug this offseason. That doesn’t mean he’s straying from his diet or his training, but the focus has been less on football than in the past. A smoking gun? The trip he made to Qatar, which was to benefit his charity, was planned well in advance, and the return flight was scheduled for, and went out Monday night. That was the first day of the team’s offseason program, and it’s fair to say that he probably wouldn’t have set his plans that way in the recent past (at least since he moved his home base from Los Angeles to suburban Boston), particularly considering the optics coming out of the tumultuous season the Patriots did. Also, he brought filmmaker Gotham Chopra, but not trainer Alex Guerrero on the trip, and focused his time there on his family.
Now, the questions will be what Brady does when Phase II of the program starts April 30. That’s when on-field work begins. For now, there’s uncertainty in the air, and the breadcrumbs that Brady himself left at the end of Tom vs. Time documentary and on social media during the Qatar trip. And we do have this, the last thing he said in the series that Chopra produced: “It’s a big commitment. I’m sitting here three days after the year getting my Achilles worked on, and my thumb, and you go, ‘What are we doing this for? Who are we doing this for? Why are we doing this?’ You gotta have answers to those questions, and they have to be with a lot of conviction. When you lose your conviction, you probably should be doing something else.”
That is significantly different than what we’ve heard for years—that he wants to play into his mid-40s. And he could shut all this talk down very easily. That he hasn’t is notable too.
2. To work out or not work out. This time of year, you hear plenty of stories from the scouting trail on how different prospects are handling their pre-draft process. And this nugget caught my attention: The Bucs wanted to work out star Florida State safety Derwin James after the Seminoles’ pro day on March 20, and James turned them down. Afterward, I’d heard the kid was willing but was instructed not to, and that was interesting to me because Tampa Bay, picking seventh, has been the team I’ve heard (maybe along with the Chargers and Seattle) connected to him most. So why’d he do it?
I was told James and his agents made the decision after his strong effort at the combine. They believed he’d shown teams, on the field, what they needed to see. And that’s a decision I’ve heard a couple other kids projected inside the Top 15 or so picks have made as well. And I think it’s probably smart, because I’m hearing—from coaches—that workouts in particular, and prospects’ schedules in general, have gotten way out of control. It’s in part a product of the combine being moved back a week, which has crunched the time between pro days and the draft, and forced players to fit meetings and workouts with teams into a smaller window.
Potential first-round LB Leighton Vander Esch had 11 team visits in a 14-day span that wrapped Wednesday. Another first-round prospect, Florida DT Taven Bryan, had eight workouts, followed by 12 team visits in a 16-day span, and then had three more requests for workouts after that. And the result here is obvious. Guys get worn down to nothing.
“I worked out a guy who was dead because he got smoked by the team that worked him out two days before,” said one assistant coach from an NFC team. “I had some questions about his toughness coming in, but I had to give him a pass on the whole thing. And it’s on the coaches for doing that.”
I’ve heard that, in some cases, the workouts can last over an hour, and are used as tests of players’ football character, like a boot camp would. So guys get tired, and they’re physically being asked to do different things from place to place, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wisconsin CB Nick Nelson is tearing his meniscus while working out for the Lions, or NC State DT Kentavius Street is tearing his ACL working out for the Giants. It’s simply gotten to be too much—and at period time where the players are responsible for their own medical insurance, and are left holding the bag if an injury kills their draft value. And that’s without getting to the kind of shape these guys will report to their teams in come May.
The solution? One I heard was to curb private workouts all together, under the premise that pro days and combine are enough. Another was to set a number, and make teams do workouts jointly (some already have), as a max number of workouts and Top 30 visits teams can do. What’s certain is that something should change here.
3. Another bumper crop of running backs calls Barkley’s value into question. Let’s get this out of the way first—I love Saquon Barkley as a player, and the NFL does too. “We haven’t seen someone like Saquon in years,” said one NFC exec this week. “He’s not as powerful as Zeke [Elliott] was, but he has better vision, he’s smoother, and what sets him apart is the guy he is. He’s a compete individual, the coaches love him, he’s a stud. The hands, the elusiveness, the vision, the feet, I’m just telling you if he goes 4, 5, 6, everyone’s going to say, how’d he fall there?”
And yet, I think there’s a chance Barkley will slip there (not exactly a precipitous fall, I know), because there’s a very real, and fair question to ask: Do you really have to spend that kind of capital at that position? This year’s running back class isn’t quite as good as last year’s historic crop, but it’s not far off, with LSU’s Derrius Guice and USC’s Ronald Jones in the first-round conversation behind Barkley, and Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny heading the rest of a very deep group.
So let’s take Cleveland as an example, and assume the Browns take a quarterback at 1. Would you rather have Barkley at 4 and, say, Sam Hubbard at 33, or Bradley Chubb at 4 and Guice at 33? I think most evaluators would tell you Guice would approximate Barkley’s production better than Hubbard would Chubb’s, and that underscores how much harder it is to find a pass-rusher to build around than it is a workhorse back. Along those lines, no one would call Leonard Fournette, taken fourth by the Jaguars last year, a bust. But Dalvin Cook (41st overall), Joe Mixon (48) Alvin Kamara (67) and Kareem Hunt (86) were pretty damn good too. Which is why it’s important not just to look at how good players is, it’s also vital to consider how hard it is to find another like him. And this of course isn’t any fault of Barkley’s. But it’s absolutely worth thinking about before you say one of the teams in the Top 5 have to take him.
4. Fish out of water? The Dolphins have done their homework on this year’s quarterbacks. Both Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Wyoming’s Josh Allen have visited Miami’s facility, and the team has been connected, through the rumor mill, to UCLA’s Josh Rosen as well. So what gives? Well, Adam Gase is going into his third year, and if there’s going to be a time to see if he and football czar Mike Tannenbaum can get more out of the position than they’ve gotten from Ryan Tannehill, it almost has to be now.
Tannehill has zero guaranteed money left on the four-year extension he signed in 2015, and he’ll turn 30 in July. He’s worked his tail off to get back on the field, and the staff thought he was poised for a huge year before he tore his ACL last summer, but there’s still uncertainty ahead. And his contract is affordable for the next three years—he’s due $17.5 million this year, $18.75 million next year, and $19.52 million in 2020—making it fairly easy to budget a first-round rookie’s deal at the position alongside Tannehill’s. On top of that, Gase’s personality is considered the best match for Rosen, and his coaching creativity could help unlock Mayfield’s considerable talent, so you could argue Miami as a very solid landing spot for either guy.
Will it happen? My sense is that if there’s one quarterback most likely to slip into the neighborhood where Miami’s pick is, at 11, it’s probably Rosen, and I’m not sure the Dolphins would deal up for any of them. So it’s far from a sure thing that Miami takes one there. But it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Case Keenum knows nothing in the NFL is permanent, and so he won’t be blindsided if the Broncos take a quarterback in the first round a week from now, and less than two months after giving him a two-year, $36 million deal to come to Denver.
“I’ve been through that before,” Keenum said over the phone Tuesday, during Day 2 of his new team’s offseason program.
That was a reference to his time in Los Angeles when the Rams traded up for Jared Goff a few weeks after naming him the starter for 2016. Jeff Fisher and Co. followed through on that promise with Keenum under center in Week 1, but once Goff was drafted, Keenum knew his time was short.
This is a little different because of the money. But there’s a lesson there, too, and that one’s simple: Time is short for most veteran QBs. It certainly could be for former first-round picks like Ryan Tannehill, now in Miami, and Blake Bortles, in Jacksonville, the same way it is for Keenum, a former college free agent who fought his way through six NFL seasons to get to the point where a team would invest in him.
Keenum, to his credit, understands that. So would it worry him that the Broncos might turn in a card that has Baker Mayfield’s name scrawled on it in a week?
“No,” Keenum answers. “I’ve been competing my whole life, man. Competition’s made me better. I embrace that.”
So if Denver takes Quenton Nelson or Denzel Ward or trades out of 5—all possibilities—then great. And if John Elway pulls the trigger on a new triggerman? That would just make Keenum like Sam Bradford in Philly two years ago, or Mike Glennon in Chicago last year, and so he won’t be caught off-guard like those guys were when it became clear that they’d have more company in the quarterback room.
The good news here is Keenum’s in a better spot than he’s ever been. At this time last year, he was assured of nothing in Minnesota, set to play on a one-year, $2 million deal with Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater as teammates. “Last year, when free agency started, my phone wasn’t ringing,” Keenum recalled. Truth is, outside of that one year in L.A., that’s been Keenum’s NFL reality.
And that makes this different. On Monday, he arrived at the Broncos’ facility and, right out of the box, Keenum could look forward to advantages he’s never had.
“It’s going to be nice to go talk to receivers, about how they want it, and how I want it, and getting those things on the same page, instead of just going to receivers and asking how they want it, and then saying, ‘OK, let me go ask so-and-so how they want it,” Keenum says. “For me, it’s so great to be on that level with receivers, that connection with those guys.”
“I can form that chemistry during the offseason, and not just in a game week during the season where it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re starting this week.’ Having months to do that, and hopefully years, I think that’ll really solidify the relationships and chemistry.”
What we know is that the Broncos will give Keenum a legit chance to prove that 2017 was more about maturation than catching lightning in a bottle.
To that end, his focus, for now, is on learning the language of coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense, which has elements of other NFL offenses he’s learned, so he can hit the ground running when the Broncos hit the field for the first time during Phase II, and be ready for OTAs during Phase III of the program. And, like Keenum said, he’ll build relationships with guys like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
April 26 will come and go while all that’s happening, and between now and then Keenum has no plan to get in Elway’s ear about what will happen, nor has he asked about it.
“I really haven’t,” Keenum said. “That’s not part of my job description or my mindset. That’s those guys, and they’re doing the best job they can to put the best team on the field, and get us as many weapons as they can. And for me, it’s just doing my job to move the ball down the field. I know whoever they bring in, I trust they’ll make this team better.”
Which is what Keenum is trying to do, regardless.