- New York showed the world what it thought about its veteran leader when it passed on a QB in the draft, and the new head coach led the charge
- Other sections include: Lamar Jackson’s turning point; early word on 2019 quarterback class; impact of Matt Ryan contract, and much more
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Pat Shurmur’s not a fan of the term “buy in.” It implies a reluctance on the part of the buyer, which is why the new Giants coach wants his staff, in their first months here, to establish something the players can believe in, rather than trying to get some half-hearted signing off on what’s happening.
So to use Shurmur’s term, in doing what he and GM Dave Gettleman did two weeks ago at the draft, they implicitly showed the football world they believe in Eli Manning.
I don’t think the Giants were out on the 2018 quarterback class. My sense has been that they liked USC’s Sam Darnold quite a bit, and weren’t totally opposed to the idea of using the second overall pick on the position. They had their shot at it, just like they did in 2004, when the franchise took its big swing in moving up to get Manning.
But there was a player there they loved: Saquon Barkley. And the freedom the Giants felt to take him, and pass on that shot, shows the rest of us there’s a lot of truth in what the Giants have been saying for most of the offseason: This remains Eli’s team. If there was doubt? Fair to say, it likely would’ve manifested April 26.
“I don’t know what [taking Barkley] means for Eli,” Shurmur said from his office Tuesday. “What it means for us organizationally is we picked the guy we thought was the best player in the draft. I believe in Eli. Again, ‘vote of confidence,’ that goes into the ‘buy in’ category for me. You take whatever you want from that. What I know is that Eli is going to be the very best Eli he can be, and we believe in him.
“The other thing I’ve learned about quarterbacks that’s super important—as long as they’re your quarterback, even if you have stretches where you’re angry with them, they need to know you believe in them. Eli needs to feel that we believe in him, because we do.”
The Giants have done more than told the world that now; they’ve shown it. And that sets up an interesting couple years for a proud franchise looking to rebound.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to look back at how the fifth first-round quarterback found a way to sneak into the Top 32 picks; look ahead at a fairly barren landscape of 2019 draft-eligible quarterbacks; examine how the Mark Ingram suspension impacts a Saints team that seems ready for a run; investigate the Browns’ decision with the fourth pick; and calculate the impact of Matt Ryan’s contract.
But we’ll start here with a franchise that was at a legitimate crossroads heading into the offseason, armed with the second overall pick, and staring at a landscape that juxtaposed a solid quarterback class against a generational running back talent.
On one hand, Gettleman and Shurmur could use their pick on the quarterback, buy some time for a rebuild, and push their window to build out. It would be like the Packers did in drafting Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre in 2005. On the other, they could give the 37-year-old franchise QB a teammate who could help extend his career in the way Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley ignited the careers of Dak Prescott and Jared Goff.
They chose what was behind Door No. 2, which means it’s go time for everyone.
“When you have a quarterback that’s won as much as Eli, that played through a year like last year, the way to get him back to where he needs to be, we need to block them better, and then the best friend for the quarterback is the running back, where you turn around, hand the ball off and gain yards,” Shurmur said. “It all goes hand in hand. Play action’s way more believable. You can actually run a bootleg naked with a guy like Eli.
“And then when you choose to drop back and throw, everything’s not always on his plate. So it all goes hand in hand.”
But first, Shurmur had to believe in Manning. During our talk, he detailed a few reasons why he does…
• The passion for the game has gone nowhere. NFL players nearing retirement usually don’t call it quits because they’re sick of Sunday. They get tired of Monday to Saturday. And so what Shurmur noticed when he first took the job in January really resonated, because Manning looked like he was as far away from that as a guy his age could be.
“Even though we weren’t allowed to talk football, Eli was here every day,” Shurmur said. “I mean, he was here every day, working out through that dead period of winter where players tend to disappear. He was here. Davis Webb was on his hip, trying to learn. They were, like anyone would, trying to glean information from the past, connect dots even though we couldn’t talk football, and working out, training, watching our tape as much as they could without me guiding them through it.
“You just knew he was a pro, the way he was handling himself. That was number one for me. Wow, this guy cares. At a time of year when some players may not be looking after themselves so well, he was taking great care of himself.”
• There were good signs at the end of last year. Shurmur broke down all 16 games and found hope in the Giants’ 34-29 loss to the Eagles on Dec. 17. At that point, Manning had been benched, then reinstated, and was playing behind a shot line and without Odell Beckham or Brandon Marshall. And yet, Manning held the Giants in the game, throwing for 434 yards and three touchdowns.
“It came down to the last score,” Shurmur said. “It’s not one thing, it’s Eli over the course of time, and it’s gotten solidified now getting a chance to work with him. … I saw a guy that could still throw the ball. I could tell he was still operating the offense pretty well. I saw that he had command of the offense, and I saw all the elements you see when things don’t go well.
“There were drops, missed blocks, I think everyone had their mistakes. Things tend to get magnified. But just as a player, you could see he could still drop back and throw the ball as well as anybody.”
• Getting to know the Mannings, and what Eli’s made of. Really, this started with a trip last July to the Manning Passing Academy where Shurmur’s son Kyle, the starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, was competing. The elder Shurmur, then a Vikings assistant, met Peyton and Eli and remembers the day as “terrific. And who knew then where we’d be six months later?”
It was a little thing, but in ways confirmed what Shurmur had seen coaching against Eli.
“I thought I knew him from playing against him, having such great respect for him,” Shurmur said. “He always found a way to play well against teams I was on. I have great respect for guys who’ve taken their teams to the Super Bowl and won them, really that’s what they’re measured by as quarterbacks. And he’s done it. Twice. Not a lot of people can say that. So I felt like I knew him.”
• Confidence in his own ability. Since Shurmur’s first shot at being a head coach, he’s worked with a diverse set of quarterbacks—Mike Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford in Philly, then Teddy Bridgewater, Bradford again and Case Keenum in Minnesota. And through the experience, he was able to make his offense work for different guys in different ways. So that’s the plan here.
“If you have a quarterback that’s as dedicated, and studies as much as Eli has, that’s the way it’s smart to function, because we’ll go out and run a few plays that he’s somewhat familiar with, and he can add something to it,” Shurmur said. “Or he can say, ‘I’ve never really done this much, so it’s gonna take me a little longer, and that’s his way of saying [he doesn’t like it]. And then you’re constantly communicating.
“So when we get to Sunday in the fall, we’re doing the things that fit for us. Part of it also is who is he throwing to? What are the things that Sterling Shepard does well? What are the things that Evan Engram does well? Odell [Beckham] does everything well, though there are some things he does better than others. So you try to fit that.”
To those on the outside, rolling with Manning might look like a little bit of a gamble. And so the obvious question I had for Shurmur related to age. Did he see it watching Eli?
“No, I didn’t see the age,” Shurmur said. “There’s no substitute for experience and he’s got it. So no, the age doesn’t bother me.”
It was, of course, easy to say that all along. The Giants showed us they mean it a few weeks ago. And based on Shurmur’s work over the past few years in getting the most out of a variety of different quarterbacks, that simple act should carry weight.
“My belief in Eli is in being a pro coach that’s competed against him,” Shurmur said. “And then you wanna touch the paint to see if it’s wet. And my experience with him to this point tells me he still has a chance to play at a very high level.”
So it’s up to you whether you want to buy it or not. Leaving Shurmur’s office Tuesday, I had one main takeaway: He believes it.
FIRST AND 10
1. Smart by the Raiders to limit their draft picks (other than seventh-rounder Marcell Ateman) to individual work at rookie minicamp last weekend, in an effort to preserve their health. Most of those guys aren’t in great football shape at this point. They all basically trained for a track meet ahead of the combine, pro days and private workouts, and then traveled around for visits after that and just before the draft. Pushing them now can be risky. We’ve seen injuries (Dante Fowler three years ago comes to mind) in these settings before.
2. The Dolphins were trailblazers in that, by the way. Last year, to save the toll on the bodies of draft picks and college free agents worn down by the process, they held meetings and walkthroughs in lieu of practices during the time they were allotted for a rookie minicamp. As of this writing, the plan was for Miami to do the same this weekend.
3. One thing I kept hearing in the wake of Baker Mayfield’s meteoric rise was wide-spread respect for the job that Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley did in building the offense last year. And it’s in the way plays compliment each other, how Riley creates completions for the quarterback, and how he mixed tempo and aggressively attacks the defense. Maybe it all wouldn’t translate perfectly to the NFL. But I’ll say that I expect—as we get to the dead part of the football calendar when you see a lot of idea sharing going on—pro coaches will be calling Riley to talk ball.
4. The Vikings really went into the draft looking to address two areas. One was corner, and they did that in taking UCF corner Mike Hughes with the 30th overall pick. The other was offensive line. And so the athleticism that second-rounder Brian O’Neill showed at rookie minicamp was encouraging to a staff looking for some competition in camp at those positions come summer.
5. Over in Baltimore, I asked one staffer what stuck out in minicamp. And his response was simple: “Lamar’s speed. Wow.” We’ll have more on how Lamar Jackson became a Raven in a minute.
6. Speaking of the 32nd overall pick, one nugget I picked up over the past week was that the Eagles would’ve considered SMU receiver Courtland Sutton there, among others, had they not found a trade partner. Sutton went eight picks later, to Denver, and Philly wound up with Dallas Goedert at 49 instead (the Ravens and Eagles also swapped 4s as part of the deal). Not a bad outcome for the champs.
7. Rob Gronkowski’s contract situation was in the news again this week, and I’ll reiterate something I said a couple weeks ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if the player and team are waiting until May 24 to push something over the proverbial goal line. That’s the one-year anniversary of Gronk’s last restructure, and after that date the rules loosen considerably on the hoops the sides have to jump through to give the All-Pro a raise.
8. The Jets were pretty pleased with how Sam Darnold practiced on Sunday.
9. And this’ll be a shameless plug for my old high-school buddy (and former Williams College WR) Colin Vataha and his venture “Your Call Football”. It’s live football with teams coached by ex-Packers coach Mike Sherman and ex-Steeler fullback Merrill Hoge. You get to call the plays through your phone, and compete for cash as two teams go at it. And there’s pretty decent talent out there too, with four players having already been plucked away to try out at NFL rookie minicamps. Just download the app and sign up. The second game is tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET. I bet you’ll find the concept interesting, and it’s something I think the NFL could use for the Pro Bowl down the line.
10. I was happy to hear from the people on the ground there that fifth-round pick Maurice Hurst, who plummeted on draft day because of a heart condition that was detected at the combine, flashed athletically in that limited work. He has a chance to be a great value for the Raiders, getting him where they got him.
1. The turning point for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. Any team considering drafting Lamar Jackson had to have a plan for him. The Ravens, who dealt up to get him with the final pick of the first round, were no exception. Baltimore, in fact, did plenty of work in that regard, and it was that planning that led to a real milestone in the vetting process, which set the stage for what happened on that Thursday night in Texas.
As the team started its final set of draft meetings, head coach John Harbaugh affirmed to GM Ozzie Newsome, assistant GM Eric DeCosta and the scouting side that his staff indeed had a plan that would work for both incumbent Joe Flacco and, should they be in position to take him April 26, Jackson. And that was necessary—at some point, the scouts were going to need to have the coach basically say, “We can win with him.” Harbaugh was willing to say it, which was the result of a plan he worked on with offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg, senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach James Urban. And key to it all was experience.
Morhinweg and Urban were offensive coordinator and QBs coach, respectively, for the Eagles in 2010, when the team turned the page on the Donovan McNabb Era, with the intention of building an offense around 2007 second-round pick Kevin Kolb. That plan didn’t even make it through the opener – Kolb suffered a concussion against the Packers in Week 1, and Mike Vick stepped in and lit up the league in the weeks to follow. In the process, Morhinweg and Urban were able to pivot and push forward with adjustments that highlighted Vick’s otherworldly talents. Two years later, Roman pulled off a similar trick when an Alex Smith concussion led to the revelation of Colin Kaepernick’s potential out of a retrofitted pistol offense. So for these coaches, there was a blueprint should the opportunity to get Jackson come along. When it did, suffice it to say, the staff was excited to get to work on modernizing the scheme in a way that, they hope, will benefit both Flacco and Jackson.
What will that look like in 2018? I think a fair example is right back in Philly, where Harbaugh’s roots are. Doug Peterson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo built a system to highlight Carson Wentz’s athletic gifts, getting him playing fast by threatening the defense with his ability to run. And that offense, stocked with run-pass-options and movement, worked all the same for Nick Foles, pulling the veteran journeyman out of a mid-career funk and into a championship. Point being, it’s not easy, but it can be done.
2. Way too early talk about the 2019 quarterback class. There was always pressure on the four teams that took QBs in the Top 10 to get one this year, since each of them passed on the position high in the 2017 draft. (The Browns took Myles Garrett at 1, and traded out of the spot that became Deshaun Watson; Jets took Jamal Adams at 6; Bills dealt out of the spot that became Pat Mahomes; Cardinals sat at 13, and watched both the Chiefs and Texans jump ahead of them to get their guys of the future.) And here’s what turned up the temperature another notch: There really was no guarantee going there’d be a viable first-round prospect next year. So where each of those teams could look at Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen and Josh Allen at this time last year, and say to themselves, We’ll be okay, they couldn’t do the same this time around.
“Not right now, there isn’t one (that would go first round as it stands),” said one AFC college scouting director. “The kids at Auburn (Jarrett Stidham), Missouri (Drew Lock) and NC State (Ryan Finley), by the end of it, could work their way into the conversation. But on the surface, based on current performance, it’d be a no. Now, if they ascend, which they should, those three guys have a chance to get there.” You can throw Oregon’s Justin Herbert into the mix of guys who’d be Day 2 or Day 3 guys, but have a chance to change that in the fall.
So what questions do they have to answer? There are questions about Finley as a teammate and his personality. Lock’s completion percentage raises concerns about his accuracy, and there are questions about Herbert’s toughness. Stidham, meanwhile, may not quite look the part like the others, and comes from a fairly simple offense that doesn’t project great to the NFL. And there are other names that have been floating around too, which only underscores how wide open and uncertain things are with next year’s class.
It’s rare, too, for it to be like this. You had the three aforementioned going into last year, Watson the year before that, Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch going into the 2015 college season, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota going into 2014, and Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater going into 2013—all were guys who were looked at way ahead of time as first-round prospects and actually making it there. Last time it was this wide open would’ve been the 2012 college season, when USC’s Matt Barkley and West Virginia’s Geno Smith were the highest profile guys, and EJ Manuel would end up as the only 2013 first-round QB. So it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out.
3. Saints lose Ingram … What’s the fallout? The easy thing to say in the wake of the news of Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension is that, by the end of 2017, he wasn’t even the best back on his own team. And that’s probably true. Rookie Alvin Kamara emerged as a more dangerous and versatile weapon. But in a way, Kamara’s growth was enabled by Ingram, who shouldered the load in picking up tough yards inside, short yardage and on the goal line.
My sense is the Saints would lean towards leaving Kamara in that versatile role, against the temptation to use him more. Kamara’s never been a workhorse, and as one scout put it, is better used “as a sniper rifle than a machine gun.” The numbers from 2017 illustrate that. According to Football Outsiders data, Ingram played 571 snaps (55.0 percent) on offense last year, while Kamara was on the field for 464 (44.7 percent). On top of that, when they were on the field together, the coaches were free to use Kamara as a matchup guy, which created all kinds of problems for defenses. And while Kamara had 201 touches on offense, just 120 of them were on the ground. Of Ingram’s 288 touches, 230 came via handoff.
Ideally, New Orleans would like to have a mudder emerge from the pack to get the offense through the first month of the season. (Trey Edmunds, older brother of 2018 first-rounders Tremaine and Terrell, will get a look.) We’ll see if that happens.
4. What did the Browns see in Ward over Chubb? On the morning of the draft, I wrote this: “And if you want a dark horse, Cleveland loves Ohio State CB Denzel Ward too.” That was right after I said that I thought the pick was probably going to be Bradley Chubb, by the way. So even if I was hearing it, I didn’t quite believe that GM John Dorsey—a big measureables guy in the draft over the years—would pick a 5'10", 183-pound corner over a 6'4", 269-pound pass rusher. So I figured I’d do a little digging, and I was able to come up three distinguishing factors (you’ll like the last one) between the two players, with one club source saying Cleveland “loved both.”
First, the feeling was that Ward possessed upside that Chubb simply didn’t. This year was Ward’s first as a full-time starter at OSU (he played behind 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley in 2016, and ’16 first-rounder Eli Apple, Conley and others in ’15), and he ascended through the season, which was key. And while the NFL universally loved Chubb, he was never athletically seen like Myles Garrett was last year or Jadeveon Clowney was four years ago, part of why Ward was given a better shot to be truly elite at his position.
Second, after jettisoning Joe Haden last summer, the Browns were left without a former first-rounder at a premium position, and it showed. Meanwhile, they already had Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah on the edge. To be clear, this wasn’t pushing a need, but need can be a tiebreaker when things are close.
And third, when Ward came on his visit, he appealed to the staff by talking about his Northeast Ohio roots, and the coaches came away thinking Ward wanted to be in Cleveland and embraced the idea of being part of a turnaround, which fit into the culture change Dorsey has been pushing.
Will the Browns be right about this one? I know Denver, which liked Ward too, was ecstatic that Chubb dropped to them, and others were surprised. So time will tell. But what’s clear, to me, is that this wasn’t a fly-by-night decision by the Cleveland brass.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
You’ve heard this one before: The most recent franchise quarterback to get paid will be the highest paid player in league history, almost invariably.
The last time you could say that the new king of the financial hill legitimately was the best player was five years ago, when the Packers struck a five-year, $110 million extension with Aaron Rodgers, who stayed on top for almost three years.
And that’s not a slight against Matt Ryan, who took the mantle in signing a five-year, $150 million deal late last week, or anyone else. It’s almost always worth it. If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you have to be almost perfect everywhere else. If you do have one, it’s a good bet your GM and coach are sleeping better at night.
“It gives you massive peace of mind,” GM Thomas Dimitroff said over his cell, coming home from work Wednesday night. “To know that (position) is taken care of, and for us with a guy that’s not just an adept quarterback, but a guy who carries himself as we’d ideally want him to, it’s huge. He’s very smart and open-minded in taking on new challenges, new setups, new offensive coordinators, all of that.
“It’s very settling for me.”
You have to consider where the Falcons were when they took Ryan—coming out of the Vick/dog-fighting situation, and looking to replace a wildly popular icon—to understand the scope of what Ryan has meant to the franchise.
“When we picked him back in ’08, our feelings were we had to have a quarterback that could help us move in the right direction, coming off everything that went wrong with Vick,” the GM continued. “And we felt like you could build around Matt Ryan, not thinking about him being around for three or four contracts, into his 30s. But it had to be a player like that, a player with his makeup on and off the field.
“It was a big, big deal looking back on that now. That was an important pick, at an important time in Atlanta.”
Safe to say, they’re happy with the investment. As for what it means for everyone else, the raw numbers—because, again, they always go up—aren’t that big a deal.
Flacco ($22.1M average per year) topped Rodgers in March 2016. Four months later, Andrew Luck ($24.6M) beat out Flacco. Last June, Oakland’s Derek Carr ($25M) eclipsed Luck. Two months after that, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford ($27M) got past him. San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M) edged Stafford in January, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins ($28M) dethroned Garoppolo in March, and now we have Ryan at the top.
Rodgers will probably be next, and then someone else, and so on.
So while Ryan hit the milestone of being first to get to $30 million annually—and QBs got there before any other player got to $20 million—this is more a continuation of a trend that underscores the importance of the position in pro football than anything else.
But there is still significance. After talking to a couple people on the cap side of the business, my feeling is Ryan’s contract has three elements to it that are worth paying attention.
First, Cousins broke ground by getting a fully guaranteed three-year deal in March. Ryan didn’t pull that off. But he did get his first three years fully guaranteed, and he’s due a total of $94.5 million over that time. Which establishes the standard now for other top quarterbacks. He also did it with a year left on his deal, which you can look at as the tradeoff for having non-guaranteed years on the back end.
Either way, if you’re Rodgers or Tom Brady now, it feels like three fully guaranteed years would be a baseline ask in negotiations.
Second, Ryan had guarantees that, as a practical matter, are full going into a fourth year, which is pretty much unprecedented for a veteran deal. He’s due $23 million in 2021, and $5.5 million of that becomes fully guaranteed next March (bringing the total guarantee to $100 million).
Why is that important? Because typically big-ticket long-term deals are really just two or three-year contracts with team options at the end that only work to create a ceiling on what the player can make, while the team maintains control. This one is closer to a true four-year deal with two options, which is a breakthrough for players.
Third, there’s no offset language on the guarantees. That’s something that Stafford got last summer, too, and another quarterback landing those terms will move them closer to becoming the standard. In essence, it allows the player to double dip if he’s cut, and makes letting a player go hurt a bit more for a team, from a cash standpoint.
Ultimately, all of that is good news for players looking to inch closer to getting fully guaranteed deals. The other three major sports in the country have nothing in their CBAs prohibiting or requiring fully guarantee contracts. They got there through individual negotiations, which is how NFL players would have to make it there.
And I don’t think they will. Rosters are too big, and players outside of the top tier are too replaceable for teams to go that far, which is evidenced in the way coaches and GMs churn players in-season. But they can get closer to it with their biggest stars.
In that regard, Ryan’s new deal had plenty of good news tucked away in its details. And big picture, of course, getting to contract No. 3 with a franchise quarterback is great news for the entire Falcons franchise.
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