Anthony Lynn will tell you he doesn’t know much about the 2018 Chargers yet. And so long as you understand that, he’ll concede that he did like what he saw when he looked out his office window during the first week of the team’s offseason program in mid-April.
Last year the players had to acclimate to an ’80s-style series of 200-, 300- and 400-yard gassers that strength coaches John Lott and Jonathan Brooks put them through, at Lynn’s direction. It was unconventional for this era, as well as raw and taxing. This year? Those same players just did them.
“The neat thing is it was so much smoother, watching the first week of offseason training, Phase I,” Lynn said from that office on Wednesday. “When guys came back, they knew exactly what to expect, and exactly what to do. Last year there was a lot of explaining why. You’re dealing with millennials now—they want to know why, they ask questions, they have Google; this year there was none of that. These guys, they fell in line. They knew what to expect.”
Accordingly, a lot is expected of these Chargers in 2018. The longstanding franchise quarterback is still in place, with a raft of young talent around him—and that’s even after accounting for tight end Hunter Henry’s torn ACL. L.A.’s second team won six of its last seven to finish the 2017 season. Two of its divisional rivals are going through transition at quarterback, and the other has a new head coach. And, as Lynn indicated, continuity is a benefit.
It’s pretty different from last year, to be sure, when Lynn was new and the team was moving and the season started 0-4. So yes, the Chargers are one of those teams in ’18—the kind that was pretty impressive the year before, and won’t sneak up on anyone.
And they’re dealing with high expectations for the first time in a while. Lots of people think the Chargers are going to be pretty good, even if Lynn doesn’t quite get why. And he knows all his players must be hearing it.
“That’s scary,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know why everybody wants to crown us all of the sudden. I had someone in here say we have the second most talented roster in the league. I mean, really? Why would you think that? I know he was being nice, but that’s not even realistic, to say we have the second most talented roster when you look around the league. … We like our team, we really do. But right now, who in the hell doesn’t like their team? Everyone likes their team right now.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll explain how the players are building a war chest for a potential 2021 work stoppage, tell you why Dak Prescott is better off without Dez Bryant, detail the difficulty in doing a Le’Veon Bell deal, show you the good thing Von Miller is doing, point you to a patron saint of the scouting community and much more.
But after all the controversy of the last week, I figured we’d have some fun here and start with some football, and the Chargers, and other teams or individuals like them—living in a new world of expectations in 2018. The crosstown Rams are in that same boat, and as you might remember we talked to Sean McVay about it a couple months back. And there are others, too, dealing with a new reality.
For Lynn, handling expectations is a balancing act. On one hand, he loves what the team did at the end of the year, coming together around the program they’d worked all year to build and against the natural adversity facing a relocating team. Obviously he’d be ecstatic if that unity carried over through 2018. On the other hand, he wants his players to start from zero—which is what those gassers represented.
“I don’t know if you recreate what you had last year—I think once you get that buy-in, and you can keep a nucleus of guys together, that becomes their standard, their expectation,” Lynn said. “And anybody new we bring on to this team, they get them caught up quickly—this is how we do things, this is what we’re about. And you just keep reemphasizing it.”
So in certain ways the Chargers are building just like they did last year, when Lynn was new and all the players were learning. In other ways Lynn will tell you they’re ahead of where they were. “I’ve been really impressed with the detail and the focus, guys doing their job. The attendance has been outstanding, so you can see that. You can’t see the results right now, but you can see the intent.”
And then there are the expectations from the outside. No matter how incredulous the coach might be about offseason perceptions of the Chargers, they exist and they’re not unjustified. The offense brings back an improved line, No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen and 1,000-yard rusher Melvin Gordon; and the defense has a chance to be really good behind edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, with corner Jason Verrett coming back from injury to join true No. 1 Casey Hayward in the secondary, and rookie safety Derwin James added to the mix.
The Chargers finished last year with a flourish that was indicative of their potential. So while Lynn will tout the Chiefs’ addition of Sammy Watkins (“an Olympic sprinter to go with the Olympic sprinter they already have”), the Broncos’ addition of Bradley Chubb (“they already have one of the best defensive players in the league”) and the Raiders’ hiring of Jon Gruden (“he’s gonna do a hell of a job”), he also isn’t blind to what the rest of us are looking at.
But he also knows that feeding into those perceptions does no good. He recalled when he was coaching in Dallas, and the Cowboys ripped off a few wins in a row, and his old boss, Bill Parcells, responded by putting mousetraps in all the players’ lockers. The idea here’s the same.
“That’s kind of the same message we’ve been giving our team: Don’t take the cheese,” Lynn said. “Thing is, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. These expectations, I understand we finished the season pretty strong, but we were still 9-7. We’re not content or happy about being 9-7. We don’t want to be that team. We want to be a lot better than that team.”
And so, as Lynn continues, “The biggest expectations they’re gonna hear are the ones they get right here in this building, from their coaches, from myself, from people in this organization. It’s nice to get a pat on the back from your friends, your relatives, all that. But their expectations won’t be any higher than ours in this building.”
Here are a few more teams and players who suddenly have to live up to a bar they were responsible, at least in part, for setting awfully high.
THE RAMS: It was a while before everyone recognized what Sean McVay was in the midst of doing last fall. Flying under the radar is not a possibility this year. Not only do the Rams have the reigning Offensive and Defensive Players of the year, and a promising young quarterback, they also had a splashy offseason, with Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooks among the big-ticket acquisitions. And their $4 billion football palace is taking shape. Now comes the hard part.
DOUG PEDERSON: It’s hard to fathom now, but last year at this time there were murmurs about whether defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was the Eagles’ coach-in-waiting. Since then, Pederson has established himself as one of the game’s most creative coaches, and is riding a rep as a riverboat gambler to boot. With old OC Frank Reich and QBs coach John DeFilippo gone, Philly needs to him to be as good as he was in ’17.
JAGUARS DEFENSE: We remember the breakthrough. We know the talent. But what might slip under the radar with Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell and company: They did get lit up a couple times down the stretch. They allowed 44 points at San Francisco in December and 42 at Pittsburgh in that divisional round playoff win. Then Tom Brady torched them in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game. This group has the ability to be the best in football, and it was No. 2 last year. But such blips won’t be viewed the same.
DESHAUN WATSON: I think we’re all excited to see him play, and the NFL Films clip that got out there this week won’t temper expectations. He was great (103.0 passer rating, 1,699 passing yards, 269 rushing yards) in his seven games last year. But we’ve seen in the past where the challenge changes for young quarterbacks once a book is built on them. It’s easy to forget now that Carson Wentz faded late in his rookie year. It’s not impossible that Watson goes through similar growing pains.
ALVIN KAMARA AND MARSHON LATTIMORE: And this goes for the entire Saints sophomore class. Kamara broke 700 yards rushing and receiving last year, and Mark Ingram won’t be there to share the load in September. Lattimore was Defensive Rookie of the Year. Both, as well as safety Marcus Williams (remember how it ended) and tackle Ryan Ramczyk, are now part of the team’s foundation. And given the move up to draft pass rusher Marcus Davenport, and Drew Brees’ age, this is clearly a franchise operating with urgency. There’s little margin for error in New Orleans.
PATRICK MAHOMES: Some of the throws Mahomes made in practice last year became a the stuff of urban legend around the K.C. facility, and he validated all that hope with a dynamite debut in Week 17 against the Broncos. Is it fair to put so much stock into just that? Probably not. But when your team deals up 15 spots to get you, then trades away a quarterback who got the team to the playoffs four times in five years, much will be expected. We’ll see how quickly he turns potential into performance.
CASE KEENUM: Denver gambled that Keenum’s 2017 breakthrough might be the front of end a Rich Gannon-type mid-career flourish, and doubled down on that wager by not taking a quarterback with the fifth overall pick. Yes, his deal is only for two years, at $36 million. But if this doesn’t work out, and either Josh Allen or Josh Rosen does in Buffalo or Arizona, that’s what this offseason will be remembered for in Denver.
KIRK COUSINS: This is pretty self-explanatory. In 2015, Cousins was the new guy on the scene and made the playoffs. The last two years he was seen largely as a victim in the deconstruction of that Washington team, as major figures like Sean McVay, Scot McCloughan, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon departed. Now in Minnesota, Cousins got paid and gets a loaded team around him, as well as a hot young OC (John DeFilippo) to work with. This year will be plainly about results.
DEMARCUS LAWRENCE: I wanted to include a defensive player on this list, and no one fits better than the Dallas pass rusher who exploded for 14.5 sacks last year. He’s been franchise-tagged, and will make $17.143 million this fall with a chance to really cash in on a 2019 market for defensive players that should be rearranged by new deals for Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack. Oh, and the Cowboys need him to be good, and he won’t sneak up on anyone this time around.
TONY ROMO. Yes, that makes five quarterbacks. And yes, this makes one broadcaster who was innovative and new and amazing last fall. What does Rom-stradamus have cooked for an encore? As is the case with what’s to come with all the guys on this list, I can’t wait to find out.
1. Cardinals QB Josh Rosen has impressed his coaches early—coming as advertised with his ability to digest and apply the information he’s being given on the practice field. And he looks comfortable and poised in his surroundings as an NFL player. Sam Bradford’s looked good early on too, so summer should be interesting in the desert.
2. If you’re looking for an area where the reigning champions could be better than they were in 2017, the secondary is one. Second-year CB Sidney Jones has turned heads early on in OTAs, showing the ability that had him pegged as a top-20 pick before he tore his Achilles ahead of the 2017 draft. And young journeyman De’Vante Bausby’s been a bit of a revelation at corner too, making for good competition at that spot ahead of training camp.
3. We’ve heard a lot about the road back from injury for Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt. Whitney Mercilus is another one to keep an eye on. Expectations are high for him based on how he looks coming off a torn pec. Mercilus, Watt and Tyrann Mathieu are defensive pieces Houston didn’t have last year, and it’s fair for all of us to expect something close to what the defense was in 2016.
4. We’re going to have more on the Cowboys in a bit, but this pretty amazing fact was passed along to me: There are now only three 30-somethings on Dallas’ roster, and two of them (kicker Dan Bailey and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur) are specialists. The third? Linebacker Sean Lee, who turns 32 in July.
5. Why would owners be careful of Donald Trump? It’s pretty simple: Trump has shown an ability to galvanize his base against people. That’s where the NFL believes he has the direct ability to affect their bottom line, at the level of both corporate sponsorship and the individual fan.
6. Two names to watch from Jets OTAs: Teddy Bridgewater you know, and it’s true that the ex-Viking has looked great, with the caveat being that the team won’t truly know what it has in him, based on the nature of his injury, until he gets hit. The other name, Chad Hansen, you might not know, but the hope is that he can play a Pierre Garçon-type of role in Jeremy Bates’ offense.
7. The truth of the 49ers’ handling of the Reuben Foster matter: His talent bought him time. In April 2017, San Francisco moved swiftly in cutting middling corner Tremaine Brock from its roster. Domestic-violence charges filed at the time were later dropped, and the league cleared Brock completely in January. By then the Seahawks had signed him, then traded him to the Vikings. Conversely (and, as it appears, rightfully), the Niners stuck it out with Foster.
8. It’s interesting to see the Ravens follow the Falcons’ lead from last year and cut prices on concessions as a way of trying to attract people to the stadium. Baltimore’s attendance suffered last year, really for the first time since the franchise moved from Cleveland in 1996, so it makes sense for the team to move aggressively. A 12-ounce domestic beer for $5 sounds like something out of the neighborhood bar down the street from the stadium. Which makes sense, since more than ever fans are exercising their non-stadium options for watching games.
9. Its was intriguing to see Marcus Peters talking about practicing against the “up-tempo” Rams offense during OTAs, which would indicate that Sean McVay is looking at the idea of giving Jared Goff more control over the operation. While Goff was gradually afforded additional responsibility last year, weaponizing tempo would represent another step in that direction.
10. I, for one, have never had a burner Twitter account. But I do know more than a few coaches who are anonymously on Twitter as a method of news-gathering and keeping track of their players’ activity. And in this day and age, I’d say it’s smart for any coach to do that. What Sixers president Bryan Colangelo was allegedly doing, of course, is something else entirely.
PLAYERS UNION LOADING UP THE WAR CHEST. Over the last eight days, since the NFL put its new anthem policy in place, there have been discussions on social media of players banding together to fight one thing or another. In trying to ascertain how credible any of it was, I dug up an interesting nugget. The players are actually preparing for a brewing fight. What will that fight be for? Themselves.
What few people know—and I didn’t until this week—is that players actually come close to breaking even on their union dues. The annual dues, which come directly out of their checks, will run them $18,000 (it’s 3.75% of the rookie minimum, which is $480,000 this year) in 2018. On the flip side, as part of the union, the players enter into a Group Licensing Agreement (GLA), and each player gets $16,200 per year from that. So their dues are partially covered by their images and likenesses being used in things like the Madden video game and trading cards.
Until now, at least.
At the union’s meetings in March 2017, they voted to withhold the GLA money from every player’s paycheck starting this year, to prepare for a potential work stoppage in 2021, so each guy who’s still in the league then will have a sort of rainy-day fund waiting for him. If a new CBA is struck before then, the money will be released. But this is at least one example of the NFLPA going further in on the kind of efforts it made in 2009 and ’10, ahead of the 2011 lockout. The advantage the owners had over the players then was a bet that the players—given the lack of guaranteed contracts and overall job security in the NFL—would never sacrifice paychecks to leverage a better deal out of the owners.
That’s a bet NFL owners had made before, and profited from before, and it’s no mistake that the union pushed the last dispute just far enough to where it would bleed into the season. If the union is going to get a better deal this time around, it needs to find a way to make the threat of games being canceled real—which is much harder to do in football than it is in basketball or baseball, because players’ careers are shorter, they make less money on average, and there are a lot more of them. This seems like a step in that direction. And if there’s any fight that NFL players are likely to unify over (and history says even this will be tough), it’s absolutely this one.
COWBOYS THINK DAK COULD BE BETTER WITHOUT DEZ. I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan how Dallas is sending Dak Prescott up a creek without Dez Bryant, and so it’s been interesting to hear that the buzz coming out of that building reflects the opposite. There’s a belief that this could unlock Prescott’s strength, which is to play the position like a point guard does—seeing the field, and throwing to the open guy, unburdened by the feeling of having to keep Bryant engaged.
It was, of course, one thing when Bryant was drawing coverage away from other receivers. By the end of last year, that wasn’t happening anymore, compounding the problem. Now the idea is that Prescott will be able to play the position more efficiently, with a more balanced group that, admittedly, doesn’t have a weapon that will make a defensive coordinator stay up on Saturday night. Cole Beasley had his problems last year, but his work in the spring has the team optimistic about a rebound season. Free-agent additions Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns complement each other well—the former’s speed playing off the latter’s size. Big, raw Noah Brown is back for his second year. And veteran Terrance Williams will be in the mix when he’s healthy (he’s also dealing with a DUI case).
The best group in the NFL this is not, and tight end is in even more flux than the receiver spot. But again, if the Cowboys are asking Prescott to be more distributor than anything else, with a strong run game and improved defense as the team’s foundation, he’s shown he’s capable. In fact, in the three games he’s played without Bryant—in his fourth, fifth and sixth starts as a pro—he was just fine. The team went 3-0 over that stretch, and Prescott completed 59 of 83 passes for 719 yards, six touchdowns and one pick. In those games, by the way, Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on 66 carries (6.5 average) and caught seven passes for 73 yards. So there’s no question that the face of the Dallas offense, with Bryant and Jason Witten gone, is changing. But so long as the offensive line stays healthy, change here might not be all bad.
THE DIFFICULTY OF DOING A BELL DEAL. Maybe there’s a deal to be done for Le’Veon Bell between now and July 15. I just wouldn’t count on it, no matter how public he gets (this week he rapped it) in the drive for a new deal. And the reason why is simple: It will be difficult for the Steelers to create a better option for him than what’s right in front of him now. As it stands, there are three ways this can go for Bell, over a two-offseason period: (1) He takes home his $14.544 million in 2018 and hits free agency next year; (2) he’s transition tagged next year—that tag would cost Pittsburgh $17.453 million in 2019—and that adds up to a minimum two-year take of close to $32 million, and allows for Bell to test the market (with the Steelers retain matching rights); or (3) he’s franchised next year, a tag that would come at the quarterback number (it was $23.189 million last year), and would lead to a two-year take that could close in on $40 million.
Because of the price associated, it seems unlikely either tag happens. So if we’re working from that assumption, you have to basically create a better two-year situation for him than $14.455 million now, and a crack at the open market in 2019. And that’s with the knowledge that he turned down an offer that had $30 million over its first two years last July, when his tag number was more than $2 million lower than it is right now. And with the knowledge that, while he’s just 26, he has 1,310 NFL carries and 1,635 NFL touches (in regular season and postseason) on his legs. And with the knowledge that the highest-paid back currently on a long-term deal is making $8.25 million per. And with the knowledge that Rams star Todd Gurley could do a deal between now and the start of free agency. And … well, you get the picture. This is complicated, more so than it was last year, which will make any sort of agreement a challenge for both sides.
PASS-RUSHER SUMMIT IS WORTH DUPLICATING ELSEWHERE. One of the things you’ve seen from quarterbacks for decades is how they view each other as part of a fraternity—and that’s something that I know has helped younger guys as they’ve come into the league. You won’t always see it with players who are competing for the same spot (like, say, AJ McCarron and Josh Allen will be this summer), but it does happen with guys who aren’t teammates. And so it’s cool to see what Von Miller is doing at his position, in putting together the pass-rusher summit last year, and reprising it this year.
Miller told the Denver media that this year’s event will be in Branson, Mo., and that he hopes to bring new teammate Bradley Chubb along for the ride. “It’s a great space where we can talk about knowledge and share knowledge,” Miller told reporters. “It’s the only place where you can do that and get Khalil Mack and Vic Beasley in the same spot, other than the Pro Bowl, and talk about pass rush and what it takes to be a great pass rusher from a young guy’s point of view.” I think it’s a real cool way for a veteran like Miller (hard to believe this will be his eighth year) to pay it forward to the next generation of players. And it certainly wouldn’t be bad to see this become a trend at other positions.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
I put together a Future GMs List near the end of each season, and this year an interesting name came across my desk: ex-Browns GM Phil Savage. At the time, he was in the midst of a sixth draft cycle as executive director of the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. He certainly wasn’t like most candidates who make the cut.
But the point this advocate of his was making was actually pretty sound. Being a GM, the logic went, is about much more than picking players. It’s about running an entire operation, and Savage had done that at a high level in putting together the sport’s premier college all-star game for more than a half-decade. When Savage and I talked on Tuesday night, three weeks after he made the decision to leave his Senior Bowl post after six years, I didn’t bring this story up to him. But I thought about it when we talked about how the position compared to his four years as GM of the Browns, from 2005 to ’08.
“I’ve said it a number of times, I wish I could’ve been executive director here [at the Senior Bowl] before I got my GM chance,” Savage said. “I’d be much more prepared today than I was 13 years ago, back in 2005, because the idea that it’s not just a scouting job, is real here. There are a lot of levers to pull, and I saw it as the greatest ambassadorial job in football.
“You’re working with all 32 clubs, hundreds of schools, all the media, the agent community—it’s every aspect of the sport. There was a learning curve to being a GM. And if I’d done this job before that, it would have helped. I feel like I’m a much more well-rounded football man now.”
As much as he says he got out of the Senior Bowl job, what you hear from teams is they felt like they won the bargain. So that’s it for this week: The NFL will miss Savage and the work he did in Mobile, and, as such, ex-Seahawks and Patriots scout Jim Nagy has some big shoes to fill when he takes over next month.
Savage helped secure Reese’s as a title sponsor in one of his first acts in 2013, and did a second deal with the company just a few months back. He also grew the Senior Bowl’s exposure, to the point where both ESPN and NFL Network were broadcasting practices in 2016 and 600 media members were credentialed last year. And to do it in his hometown, Savage says, was “really special.”
But when we talked the other night, Savage spoke about where his heart is, and where it’s been since then-Cleveland coach Bill Belichick suggested he move over to the scouting side—while he was assigned pre-draft work in early 1994—after spending the 1993 season as a low-level assistant coach with Cleveland. A lot of the satisfaction he got from running the Senior Bowl was in finding the same kinds of players he spent 19 years trying to find for NFL teams.
“As great as it is to get the brand-name players, a Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen, we’d try to have one small school player in each position group,” Savage said. “So it’d be 10-15 of them, and this year it was up to 20 small school players getting a chance to compete. And for the scouts, it was a huge way to comparison shop. I love that part of it.”
This year, it was guys like Humboldt State OT Alex Cappa (third round, Bucs) and Fort Hays State DL Nathan Shepard (third round, Jets), just as it was Bucs center/guard Ali Marpet, out of Division III Hobart in 2015.
And then there were others who used the Senior Bowl as a launching point. Pitt DL Aaron Donald was dominant in Mobile in 2014, and that helped alleviate concerns over his size that had some wondering if he was worthy of a first-round pick. Two years later North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz burst on the scene during Senior Bowl week. Last year the experience did so much to help Temple LB Hasaan Reddick’s stock that Reddick’s dad called Savage after he was drafted 13th overall to thank him.
Building those rosters takes scouting, and Savage and his staff did plenty of that. He estimates he personally would see 40 to 45 college teams live and make 20 to 25 school visits each fall, working around his job as the color guy on the Alabama radio network. He and his staff would go to conference media days too, to network with players and coaches. A lot of this, in fact, mirrors how scouts for teams do their jobs.
All of that has been satisfying for Savage, as has been his ability to open doors for young people in the scouting world. Savage’s last act will be hosting the Senior Bowl’s scout school, which he launched five years ago and annually brings in 20 to 24 participants. From that pool there are more than 25 alums working either for NFL scouting departments or in recruiting for major colleges.
Savage will miss these parts of the job, of course, but he felt this was the time to move on, because much of the work was starting to repeat itself and he wanted a new challenge. And while he wouldn’t divulge what’s next for him (he said he does plan to keep calling Alabama games), I asked if he wanted to go back to working for an NFL team and he didn’t rule it out. As for what’s next for the Senior Bowl, Savage did have a little advice for Nagy.
“I would say just be nimble, and know that there’s always another player out there,” Savage said. “You’re gonna get turned down some. And the door has been shut on us plenty. But in a lot of those cases, a door opens for another player, and he winds up being a better pro.”
Finding those guys is why this one has been so valuable to so many scouts over the last six years.
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